11 March 2004
First Voice - ConsultationDr Richard North
A very large rat crossed my desk the other week. Not that it looked like a rat, of course; in fact, in the form of a pristine white bundle of paper, it could not have looked less like a rat. But it was nevertheless a rat. What gave it away was the smell or, to be more precise the title. It was a consultation document on an EU directive.
Quite what the subject was, or which Department of State it was from, I now forget, but that is exactly the point. So many "consultation documents" pass my desk that it is very hard to remember what any of them are about. We are saturated in consultation documents on every subject under the sun.
Idly searching the internet search engine - the admirable and indispensable google - I keyed in the word "consultation" and added for good measure "EU and pressed the button. In a mere 0.24 seconds, according to the header on the results page, there were 1,790,000 entries, an indication of how far this new disease of "consultationitis" has spread.
Selecting at random from the entries, had you been so inclined, you could have read "the second part of an ongoing consultation process with the public and industry on the implementation of the EU Greenhouse Gas Emissions Allowance Trading Directive", organised by the DTI, although we were only given eight weeks to submit our views.
Failing that you could have communed directly with the EU on its "newly published Environment and Health strategy", or trimmed your sails and spoken to Defra on "the proposed EU Directive on community measures for the control of foot-and-mouth disease". If you found that boring, there was always the "Public Consultation on Market Definition and Analysis Regulations", or you could even have taken part in an entertaining discussion of the transposition of EU Directive 2002/21/EC on a common regulatory framework for electronic communications networks and services.
For light relief, you could have entered the consultation section of the web site on the EU White Paper on Youth, which cheerily announced that "We're interested in YOUR opinions", offering an invitation to "Have your say" by completing the questionnaire online.
For those of a more serious bent, there was the EU Consultation Document on "the Future Development of The European Union Education, Training and Youth Programmes after 2006" or even the European Commission's consultation on working time, with a view to revising the EU's working time directive. And there was even - I kid you not - a consultation on the EU's consultation Directive, tempered only by another tranche of consultation on the draft EU directive on "Unfair Commercial Practices".
Writ large throughout these dire exercises, however, is a single word, a word loathsome in its enormity, the dreadful and dire "stakeholder". In order to consult with our masters, we are no longer people, nor individuals, nor even citizens or subjects. We are all stakeholders now. Tempted or cajoled by what has now become a mighty industry, occupying thousands of hours and the combined efforts of a whole new army of "consultees", we enter the consultation process with this new-formed identity and offer up our views to the almighty in much the same way that our ancestors used to offer gifts to the gods.
So why am I against all this? The simple answer is that it is a con, a huge, gigantic Juggernaut of a con. They are not really after your views and opinions. The issues have been long decided. Once our government in Brussels has issued its directives and regulations, we have absolutely no say in the matter. Our job is to listen and obey. The whole consultation process is a charade.
In fact, the only value of the process is to give you the impression of "participation" - another of those dreadful buzzwords - and to neutralise subsequent complaints. "Ah, but we consulted you", they say, when you realised quite how badly you have been stitched up.
What they are really after, therefore, is not sentient human beings, but the FSB - not our own revered organisation but a collection of "Feeble Stakeholders Bleating". Some highly irresponsible people claim not to be able to discern the difference between the two FSBs, but they should be consigned to outer darkness - at least until I have been paid for this article. The stakeholders are the new elite.
Actually, I got wise to this some time ago when I worked for a small trade association representing egg producers. After carefully crafting umpteen detailed and lengthy reports, after careful consultation with our own members, we began to realise that what we said made not one whit of difference. In the end, we produced a printed response letter, which stated that we disagreed with the proposals and wished for them to be scrapped. That made not one whit of difference either, but we felt slightly better and it saved a great deal of time.
The worst of it, however, has only dawned on me recently, and that is why I detected the pungent aroma of four-legged vermin. The consultation process is not only useless; it is also a negation of our democracy. We are not a "participatory democracy" as the EU would have it, but a representative democracy. The people to whom we should express our views, and who in turn should express them for us, are our Members of Parliament in Westminster.
By consulting with us directly, the Eurocrats and their fellow travellers in the UK are in fact by-passing our elected representatives, making them marginal players. Small wonder we are losing faith in the political process. Our MPs have been consigned to the role of bit-players while the great EU consultation Juggernaut rolls on.
For my own part I have had enough. The only "stakeholder" I now recognise comes at the end of a Count Dracula film. And I will no longer attend consultation meetings as I cannot guarantee that I could resist the temptation to bring with me a long, sharpened piece of wood to plunge into the heart of the first person who uses the dreaded "S-word". You have been warned.