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Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs

Volume 498: debated on Monday 2 November 2009

(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if he will make a statement about the dismissal of the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

There is no question but that, since its establishment in 1971, the independent and expert advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been invaluable to the successive Governments whom it has served. Later today the House will consider imposing greater controls on the party drug GBL, BZP and synthetic cannabinoids, all in accordance with advice from the council.

Of the 21 recommendations that the council made in its report “Cannabis: Classification and Public Health”, published in April 2008, the Home Office accepted 20 and rejected one, on classification. Of the 13 recommendations made in its report on ecstasy in February 2009, the Home Office accepted 11 and rejected two—one on classification and the other on the recommendation to explore a national scheme to enable drug testing of ecstasy tablets and powders for people’s personal use.

I asked Professor Nutt to resign as my principal drugs adviser, not because of the work of the council but because of his failure to recognise that, as chair of ACMD, his role is to advise rather than to criticise Government policy on drugs. In February, while awaiting publication of the Government’s position on the classification of ecstasy, of which he was already aware, Professor Nutt published an article and addressed the media on the appropriateness or otherwise of the Government’s policy framework, expressing a view that horse riding was more dangerous than ecstasy.

On Thursday 29 October Professor Nutt chose, without prior notification to my Department, to initiate a debate on drugs policy in the national media, returning to the February decisions and accusing my predecessor of distorting and devaluing scientific research. As a result, I have lost confidence in Professor Nutt’s ability to be my principal adviser on drugs. I stress again that his dismissal is not a reflection on the work of the committee. I have since been in contact with the ACMD and have agreed to meet them shortly.

There is no doubt in my mind that the advice of independent scientific advisers is essential to substantial aspects of the Government’s work. I had the privilege of working with Professor Sir Liam Donaldson and Professor John Beddington during my time as Secretary of State for Health, and with Professor Sir David King when I was at the Department of Trade and Industry. The role of such advisers is to provide independent advice to Government based on the advisers’ professional, scientific expertise. The role of Government is to consider that advice carefully, along with all other relevant factors, and for this House to endorse or reject those decisions where appropriate.

Let me start by reiterating my view that the Home Secretary’s decision on Friday regarding Professor Nutt’s future was the right one. Independent scientific advice is important, but those who take on formal roles with the Government have to be extremely cautious about the things that they say. Professor Nutt’s comments earlier this year, comparing the risks of ecstasy with those of horse riding, were particularly ill judged. The issues that the council deals with are highly sensitive, and there are very divergent opinions out there, so there is a clear responsibility to act cautiously, and be mindful of the fact that messages given by official advisers can and will influence the behaviour of the public.

However, I find it very surprising that, after the issue arose for the first time, last February, inadequate efforts appear to have been made to sort out how to deal with the sensitivities surrounding the council’s work. There also appears to have been a complete breakdown of confidence between the Home Secretary and his advisers.

How on earth has the Home Secretary managed to get himself into a position where he is having such an unseemly row with several leading scientists? Surely the Home Office did not do enough on the issues that emerged last February, after Professor Nutt’s controversial comments, to ensure that the situation could not arise again. Did the Home Secretary personally meet Professor Nutt to try to ensure that the problems were not repeated? If so, what went wrong?

The Home Secretary today mentioned an inquiry that was set up three weeks ago into the transparency and communication of the council’s advice. Why did the Home Office wait nine months to set up such an inquiry after the issue first arose, and will the remit of that inquiry now change after what has happened? Finally, has he received from other members of the council any indications that they too intend to resign?

I think I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support—although actually, I am not sure whether to or not. He asked a number of questions. First, in February, my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), wrote to Professor Nutt and made clear her dissatisfaction. Indeed, she expressed it to this House in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, who is not in his place at the moment. She made it clear that she found Professor Nutt’s behaviour unacceptable and did not expect it to happen again. In relation to the latest event, that behaviour has happened again. Professor Nutt is a man whom I respect, and he is very learned in his field, but, much to my regret, he published a paper without any notification to my Department, contrary to the code of practice under which he was appointed.

Yes, it is true, and the hon. Gentleman should wait his turn before interfering.

The situation to which I just referred was a re-run of February, and I lost confidence. I did not have a meeting with Professor Nutt. I have had meetings with him, but on that occasion, what needed to be done—my conveying my loss of confidence in him—needed to be done very quickly.

There is no inquiry into the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; there is a Cabinet Office review of all non-departmental Government bodies. It used to be called the quinquennial review, and the current inquiry is happening just as a matter of course. It is not at all associated with these developments.

Both the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) have missed the point. The hon. Gentleman is at risk, indeed, of becoming the Home Secretary’s Mini-Me, because today he again insisted that the only difference between them was that he thought Professor Nutt should have been sacked sooner. The Government do not want evidence, and the official Opposition want even less evidence even more quickly.

The Government rely on objective, impartial and unpaid advice from leading experts on everything from nuclear safety to mad cow disease, and the comments to which the right hon. Gentleman and hon. Gentleman object were in no way contrary to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs code of practice or the general code of practice for advisory committees. The Home Secretary signally failed to give us chapter and verse on that or to mention it in the letter that he sent to Professor Nutt.

Professor Nutt’s specialism is the relative harm of drugs, and his so-called campaigning vehicles were the peer-reviewed Journal of Psychopharmacology and a lecture at King’s college London. If scientists advising the Government are not allowed to write in learned journals and lecture at universities, does the Home Secretary agree that very few will be prepared to accept such absurd restrictions?

Why did the Home Secretary fail to consult the Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Drayson, before blundering into this area and imperilling independent scientific advice across the Government? Will he apologise to Professor Nutt and set up the advisory council on a clearly independent basis to ensure that he does not recruit an army of nodding yes-men? Will Ministers now agree to a code of practice to stop themselves being ludicrously thin-skinned if they foolishly choose policy options that are not supported by the scientific evidence?

Piety and pomposity in equal measure. The Government, and I in particular, have listened to scientific advice. We took through the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, and there was an awful lot of science in that. We respect the views of scientists, and we have respected the views of scientists in every aspect of Government policy. Our principal advisers—whether Sir David King, John Beddington, Sir Liam Donaldson or Professor Nutt—have to be clear that when they are appointed to such a crucial and privileged job—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Home Secretary. I must say to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) that he is unduly overexcited this afternoon—uncharacteristically so. He has had his say—[Interruption.] Order. I do not need any help from hon. Members on the Government Back Benches. The hon. Gentleman has had his say with force, and he now needs to listen to the response from the Home Secretary.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

When such esteemed professionals take on such a job, they have the Government’s ear. They have a very important role in influencing the Government, and they must exercise it with care and caution. It would be quite wrong for advisers to undermine the Government as well as advise them.

There is absolutely no question about Professor Nutt’s right to express his views. He has a view on relative harms, which I do not share; he has a view on ecstasy, which I do not share; he has a view on cannabis, which I and the majority of the House do not share. We are not talking about his right to express those views—he can do that. What he cannot do is confuse his role as a Government adviser, and confuse it in the public mind by continually criticising the Government’s framework, agreed by this Parliament, on tackling drugs. That is quite wrong. Sir David King did not do that when he recommended nuclear new build and the Government at that time did not agree to it. Sir Liam Donaldson has not done it on numerous occasions, including most recently when he proposed the introduction of unit pricing for alcohol; his proposal was produced, and it was public knowledge and transparent, but he did not go out and campaign against the Government for having refused to accept his policy.

My final point is about what Professor Nutt did last week at King’s college; incidentally, he was opposed by Professor Robin Murray, the head of psychiatric research, who takes a completely different view. What Professor Nutt did there was to criticise my predecessor, criticise the Prime Minister, criticise the Government and undermine the whole framework of Government policy. That was wrong, and as a result I have lost confidence in his ability to advise me.

Order. Lots of Members wish to take part in this urgent question and very little time is available. As usual, I am looking for single, short supplementary questions without preamble—and, of course, for brief replies.

If my right hon. Friend had taken Professor Nutt’s advice and lowered the categorisation of cannabis, and if as a result more young people had started to use it, would not that have been irresponsible?

Yes, I think it would have been. That is why my predecessor decided not to take that advice and why that decision has been endorsed by this Parliament.

As the Home Secretary comes under attack, will he remind himself that it was Churchill who said that scientists should be on tap and not on top?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of that; I will bear it in mind in the doubtless happy days ahead.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Professor Nutt does not hold a universal scientific view of the impact of cannabis or of ecstasy?

Yes, of course. I just quoted Professor Robin Murray, who believes—I think it is absolutely irrefutable—that the incidence of schizophrenia among the cannabis-smoking population is much higher than among the rest of the population. The causal link is increasingly clear and will, I am sure, become well established in a very short time.

May I give unequivocal support not only to the Home Secretary’s decision but to the reasoning behind it? He is obviously familiar with Professor Robin Murray’s comments, which imply that the ACMD did not do a very good job in surveying the evidence previously. I know that the Home Secretary will want to be diplomatic to the council now, but will he please ensure that he also takes evidence from others when he makes his decisions in future?

The ACMD has done a good job, but of course it is the politicians’ job to take into account a whole range of other views, not just the views of the scientific community but the views of—[Interruption.]

“Bogus views”, says a Liberal Democrat Member. [Interruption.] I was going to say the views of Parliament and the views of the public—if those are considered to be bogus, then I beg to differ.

As a Member with a scientific background, I would be the first to say that science must inform the decisions that it can inform. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that many parts of complex decisions cannot be measured or tested scientifically and may require a more subjective judgment that Ministers have to apply? Will he write to other scientific advisers in the Department to make them aware of that distinction?

I will reflect very carefully on the points that my hon. Friend has made. It is important to recognise, however, that we have an issue with one particular scientific adviser, and that in no way reflects on any of the other many advisers that we have from the scientific community. I would not like this to be classified as a more general problem than it actually is.

Is the Home Secretary satisfied that this episode does not risk putting off other experts from acting as independent Government advisers?

I sincerely hope that it does not, once it has been explained exactly why this episode has occurred and a contrast is drawn with all the reams of other scientific information that we receive. We must be very clear that this is not about the advice that was given by Professor Nutt or anybody else; it is about the way in which Professor Nutt conducted himself in his very important position as the chief Government adviser on drugs.

Recently I went with the police in Sheffield to observe a raid on a property where cannabis was being grown. The local people were relieved that that had happened and that that activity was to be stopped. Is it not important, in formulating policy, that the Government take account of the wider implications of drugs?

The simple answer is yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we cannot possibly be expected to accept every single recommendation from every advisory body. The important point is that we treat those recommendations seriously, and respect that advice, not whether we reject them.

Was it made clear in Professor Nutt’s employment documents, in the code of conduct or in writing that he was not permitted to speak on these issues in the public domain?

No, it was not. He is entitled to speak on these issues in the public domain provided he is very clear that when he is speaking personally he is not speaking for the advisory council—that was certainly a pertinent point in his actions last week—and that if he is publishing any documents that in any way relate to the Government framework we get first sight of them, and that did not happen. There are a number of measures; one cannot lay out every single dot and comma of how a relationship should work. All I would say is that since 1971 this particular council, and its chairs, has worked very well for successive Governments, but the situation broke down on this occasion.

Does this saga not indicate that what we need in this country is a straightforward and honest debate about whether the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, now almost 40 years old, and the A, B and C classification that is wrapped up in it are fit for purpose in this century? Please can we have a debate on drugs policy? It is a long time since we did so in the House.

I disagree with my hon. Friend in that I do not believe this episode suggests that there should be a review of the 1971 Act. There may or may not be other reasons why an Act that is almost 40 years old needs review, but this episode should be seen in its context of one individual Government adviser acting in a way that I believe undermined the Government rather than supported them in their work.

If a scientist is appointed a Government adviser but then told that what he says is dependent on the Government’s policy, how can he be an independent scientist when advising the Government?

I did not say that, but I can say what Government advisers should not do. Once a decision has been made on their recommendations, that is it; they should get on with being the Government’s adviser, not continually return to that decision and seek to undermine the Government’s framework. That is quite wrong, and Sir David King, who was an eminent chief scientific adviser to the Government, said as much on Friday evening in reference to this case. A calmer, more rational view, which may be impossible from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), will suggest that we are in no way attacking science or scientists. We are dealing with one particular case.

It seems to me that Professor Nutt has been campaigning for the normalisation or deregulation of recreational drugs. Does the Home Secretary agree that membership of the advisory council should be subject to a strict register of members’ interests and a strict ethical code on conflicts of interest, particularly financial links to the pharmaceutical industry, so that scientific independence is demonstrated?

We have a code and it has stood the test of time. Perhaps we should look at it again because it is getting frayed at the edges after so long, but it has stood us in good stead and I would interfere with it reluctantly. I really do not think this incident suggests that the code of practice, how the advisory council does its work or how the Government receive scientific advice are wrong. It is about how one particular individual takes on their responsibilities and, in this case, has failed to keep the confidence of the Minister involved.

The Government’s chief scientific adviser is Professor John Beddington, who in February criticised the former Home Secretary for the way in which she treated Professor Nutt. Did the Home Secretary discuss the sacking of Professor Nutt with John Beddington before carrying out that act this weekend?

I did not discuss it with anybody. It was my decision; he was my adviser and I decided that he had lost my confidence by his actions. It is my confidence that he has to keep, and nobody else’s, so I took the action that I am perfectly entitled to take as Home Secretary. I have huge respect for John Beddington, who I believe is abroad at the moment on his work, and I will obviously talk to him on this and other occasions.

Does the Home Secretary agree that although he is entirely entitled to have any adviser whom he chooses and has confidence in, the problem is that the wider public do not get a great deal of independent scientific advice? This kind of incident can weaken the credibility of independent bodies.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend. The public get a lot of views and comments from all over the place. One can think of various debates, most recently those on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. There is no absence of views from scientists. It is important to be clear that when someone is the chair of an advisory committee to the Government, their views must not be confused with those of the Government and the public must be clear about their role in that advisory capacity. That is the problem, not a lack of information on the various views in the scientific community.

Can the Secretary of State tell me what I am supposed to say to my constituents following this unedifying spat? He will know that young people in particular are very sensitive to mixed and inconsistent messages on drugs issues. God knows what they are thinking of this chaos. When will the schoolboy squabbling end and the proper adult debate on drugs begin?

I would tell them what the leading Scottish drugs expert said this morning. Professor McKeganey, director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow university, who is the adviser on drugs to the Scottish National party Government in Scotland, said that while it is Professor Nutt’s right as an academic to state his views on drug risks,

“it is not his right to publicly undermine the decisions taken in relation to those drugs by ministers”.

Tell them that—it is perfect!