Some have suggested the changes will hamstring the opportunities for food businesses to input into policy changes at a time when the food industry is facing a series of challenges, not least food security, labelling, dwindling natural resources and huge tonnages of food waste.
Others have welcomed the chance to “improve the current system”.
The announcement by Oliver Letwin, policy minister, regarding consultations was one of several made before the summer recess.
Most concerning for some, was a move to more flexible timings over consultations – currently there is a default 12-week period. In future, consultations will also be “digital by default”, said Letwin in a written statement.
The statement read: “The new approach to consultation is based on making the type and scale of engagement proportional to the potential impacts of the proposal … this will mean that departments will follow a range of timescales rather than defaulting to a 12-week period, particularly where extensive engagement has occurred before.
“The aim is to replace potentially unproductive process with real engagement with those who are affected. In some cases there will be earlier consultation so groups can shape policy earlier in the process,” it added.
FDF communications director Terry Jones welcomed the announcement and the government’s “commitment to improving the current consultation process and to real engagement with industry at an early stage of policy development. Government now needs to deliver.
“Too often in the past consultations have been too late, or appeared to be about ticking a box rather than a genuine attempt to hear our views and work together in partnership,” he added.
Others claimed the changes would severely impede food businesses’ ability to contribute to policy development and comment on government plans.
“What we’re facing is an incredibly arbitrary system,” said Chris Whitehouse, md of Westminster-based public affairs agency the Whitehouse Consultancy.
“And, to put it bluntly, if the government now decides to review any area of policy or put any decision out to consultation, the food industry can no longer have confidence that they will be given the time, or even the opportunity to make their views heard. This has the potential to affect every level of production, distribution and retail.”
Whitehouse warned that the “retrograde” announcement could result in no consultation taking place on some initiatives, or consultations lasting as little as two weeks – limiting or even preventing opportunities for business and consumer groups to engage on key policy decisions.
He added: “Make no mistake, this is a real step backwards and the government’s decision to impose these new rules unilaterally and without consultation should send a shiver down the spine of anyone with a interest in public policy formulation. Announcing this on the day Parliament rose for a long summer recess lasting several months was extraordinarily cynical.”