by RAY FLEMING l TONY Blair's promise, made at this week's Labour Party Confererence, to hold public consultations on future major policy proposals sounded fine in principle but lacked detail on implementation. It was, presumably, intended as an acknowledgement that his government has unwisely tried to push through proposals such as foundation hospitals and university top-up fees that were not included in the Labour Party's manifesto at the last election and on which no official consultative document, such as a green paper, has been issued. So, how will the government consult with the public in the future? Mr Blair talked a lot about taking more trouble “to explain why we think our proposals are right for the country” - but, although welcome, this would not necessarily amount to an open form of consultation in which the public might be able to persuade the government that its ideas might not work. As it happens the government has recently completed one of the most comprehensive public consultations ever to take place in Britain - the so-called national debate on genetically modified crops and food. This was held at open meetings in several major cities, organised by an independent body funded by government. It was arranged to test public opinion after the government's generally favourable attitude to commercial GM planting had been strongly opposed in several quarters. The outcome of the debate, published last week is almost wholly negative towards the government's position. Percentages in the 80s and 90s of those consulted took the view that GM technology was risky in various important ways and unecessary and should be banned. The report is now lying on ministers' desks. The way they react will provide an interesting pointer to how useful the consultations promised by Mr Blair will be.

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