So here we are. Seven civil servants meeting to discuss the fire safety fate of the entire nation's furniture; that and which industries will save millions of pounds in the process and which will lose millions.
Have we been trained to make such decisions? Not a chance. My immediate boss, John Lord, came to BIS recently from the Department for the Environment. He hasn't even been trained to be a manager, not since BIS cut the training budget. His boss, Barbara Middlemiss, senior civil servant, came here just a few months ago from the Department for Work and Pensions. She's a vicar's wife, well-educated but has not displayed much understanding of how the big bad business world works so far, it has to be said.
There are two BIS analysts present but their job is to stare meaningfully at their laptop screens and say nothing unless asked to.
Then there's our BIS lawyer, Sarah Hargreaves, young, intelligent but with an almost constant slight trembling of fear in her aura. She's sitting next to Nicole who has been assigned to me in order to learn more about policy. The fact that she is far more savvy and thoughtful than my bosses does not bode well.
Nevertheless, I start the meeting feeling optimistic. We are here to discuss next steps, following the close of the consultation on the new match test. We had 113 returns from a wide range of stakeholders, which is a lot but not unexpected, given the potential consequences of the changes. As I'd predicted to John and Barbara most of these would be positive, but there would also be a number of negative responses.
The negative responses were from organisations with a beef against the new test, essentially. This of course included the chemical industry, who would be the big losers with the huge reductions in flame retardant use that the new test would bring. FIRA, predictably, also objected, despite the fact they had provided the test results for the consultation document that proved the new test would work. A few weeks after this meeting, someone from one of the biggest UK furniture manufacturers - who was also a test expert - will tell me that the main reason FIRA don't like the new test is because they "Didn't think of it." This is probably very true. FIRA's reputation as such rests on it being seen as the leader in furniture technology and all the various laws that apply to manufacturing it. Yet their attempt to provide BIS with an alternative match test, a year or so before, was technically hopeless and unworkable. Whereas Intertek's was inspired, effective and scientifically sound. And of course Intertek is one of FIRA's biggest competitors in the testing market, FIRA also being a test company.
Many of the negative responses to the consultation had simply cut and pasted FIRA's response into the form, along with the same spelling mistakes.
"The main point," I say to the team, "is that there is not a single piece of evidence to support the negative responses. All they're saying is 'No, we don't like it'." I conclude with, "So, we're clear to proceed." I mean that we're clear to proceed with our implementation plan which is predicated on the very tight deadline the Department has given us. Ministers are keen to announce the savings the new test will bring to industry but they want to do it before this current government ends, which is only about six months away. I've checked with our Better Regulation unit and we don't need to go back to our Minister, Jo Swinson, for further approval, provided the consultation returns have not raised any serious points. And they haven't.
But what comes next strikes ice into my heart.
John says, "I don't know. I'm a risk-averse civil servant. I think we need to go back to the Minister first and let her know there have been quite a few objections, and suggest a way of dealing with them."
My instinct knows this is potentially disastrous. Later, I'll have a better idea of what exactly is going on here which is that essentially, someone has been got at.
Now I repeat what Better Regulation said to me, which is that no consultation can expect 100% acceptance; there will always be losers and therefore always be objectors.
But Barbara says, "I think we should go back to the Minister. Suggest we proceed with the new test as planned but tell her that we will in the meantime mitigate the naysayers."
Oh no. Here it is: the classic civil servant's reflex action to compromise.
"Sorry, Barbara," I say, "but I'm not sure how we mitigate objections that have no foundation to them."
She doesn't like this, waves her hand in irritation; says, "There are always things you can do to show people that you're listening to their concerns and taking them seriously. We need to show that we're dealing with all stakeholders' points."
Reasonable as this sounds on the surface it is of course nonsense. Changes to law almost always create winners and losers, and you can't please both. Besides, in this case, winners and losers are somewhat irrelevant anyway, given that we have a public safety test that is seriously failing and needs to put right pronto.
"What concerns?" I say. "The only concerns that have been expressed are to do with not wanting to lose money or to cover dodgy industry practices."
Now I've probably gone too far because Barbara ignores me, addresses John instead. In the event, it's decided that I will write another submission to Jo Swinson, mainly saying that we still want to proceed as planned but . . .
And it's that 'but', I know, that is going to be a nightmare. Ministers do not like to receive submissions that equivocate. They like clear advice and solid suggestions, and they want it all in two pages max.
And it is a nightmare. I draft a nice short, two-page submission, albeit biased towards the truth (something I will learn is not welcome very often by BIS managers). I explain to Swinson that the consultation raised no valid objections, and I say (reluctantly) that we'll look at ways to bring the negative people on board.
Then Barbara and John get their hands on it and turn it into eleven pages of "Yes, but . . . ", "No, but . . . ", "On the other hand, Minister . . . "
With heavy heart I send the submission electronically to Private Office. Soon after, I get a phone call from Swinson's PA, Tara Bennett. She'd tried Barbara and John but they aren't around - following the protocol of starting with the senior civil servants and working down the grades, even when the lower grade in this case is the expert. She's telling me that the Minister wants to discuss the submission Right Now so I'm needed.
She also says something very disturbing: "Someone from your team came up here earlier to say we'd be getting a submission on the Furniture Regulations but that it isn't likely the suggested changes will be going ahead anyway."
'Someone' can only be Barbara or John. Apart from the sheer betrayal of this action, it also of course makes it even less likely that Swinson will be able to make a clear decision to proceed.
When I see her, Swinson is not happy and I can't say I blame her. She asks me, somewhat rhetorically, what she's supposed to do with an eleven-page submission. She also says - and I can't disagree - that the submission is confusing. "I don't know what you're asking me do to do," she says.
I say something that Bennett will report back inaccurately but which was probably still unwise anyway. "The submission has my name on it," I say, "but I don't personally agree with everything in it. I believe the new test is ready to go and doesn't need any more work done on it."
This is the main suggestion that Barbara and John put in the submission: that we'll do more work on the test to mitigate the doubters. My argument is that no more work is needed; it's all been done. They should know - and John certainly does - that Steve Owen has by far the most brilliant mind in the testing world, and that the new test is technically bullet-proof. And in any case, more work will greatly threaten the timetable.
The meeting does not end smoothly. Swinson, not unreasonably, wants another submission. I will get it in the neck from my managers for suggesting the team is divided, and they will insist we find 'more work' to do in order to justify their decision not to immediately proceed.
When I meet Barbara later, to talk all this through, I tell her what Tara told me, about one of the team sabotaging the project before Swinson had even read the submission.
"It wasn't me," she says. And I believe her.