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Government Scientists

Volume 714: debated on Monday 2 November 2009

Private Notice Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that members of government scientific advisory committees can freely communicate to the Government and the public their conclusions about scientific evidence.

My Lords, the Government Office for Science has a published code of practice for science advisory committees. This lays out how committees should communicate their advice and working practices and concludes that, as a minimum, committees should publish a programme of work, meeting agendas, minutes, final advice and an annual report.

My Lords, I am sure that everyone will agree that Ministers must finally decide policy. However, has this episode not destroyed the claim that policy would be based on evidence? Does not the dismissal of Professor Nutt suggest that advice, on the whole, should be kept private, and that the findings about the influence of alcohol as compared with cannabis should not be communicated to the public domain—not in front of the children? What can the Government do to reassure the scientific community and to counteract the rather dispiriting message which they have given its members that they may not contradict government policy, and that if they do they will be sacked?

My Lords, that is a total misreading of the situation. The issue is not about what the advice was. The Government, at the end of the day, cannot delegate to any advisory committee the decisions that belong to the Secretary of State and to this Parliament. It is and has been the case in the past that some committee advisers have resigned and subsequently disagreed with government policy; that is one issue. It is quite a different issue to make a statement effectively arguing that the decision of the Secretary of State whom you advise is totally wrong, while continuing in office and continuing to campaign against the Government you are advising. The issue is not about scientific advice on this occasion. It is about the role of the person, the code of conduct and how he continued a campaign that is not within the code and is not within what I would expect of advisers. The day that Ministers are no longer responsible for making decisions and Parliament is no longer responsible for ratifying those decisions, we are in the hands of non-elected democracies—democratic in the sense only of science and not in the wider world.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that Ministers must take into account not just expert advice but wider issues of public policy when making decisions? Advisers should respect that. However, this episode raises a question about the future status of the drug advisory panel. How will the Government restore trust between the panel and Ministers?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right that, at the end of the day, the decision belongs to Ministers. If there are consistent, cavalier rejections by a Minister of recommendations by a committee, one might ask what the point of the committee is. However, they are not consistently rejected. On cannabis, out of 21 recommendations only one was not accepted. On ecstasy, of 13 recommendations, 11 were accepted and only two were not. The Home Secretary agreed a structured programme with the ACMD, covering illegal high poly-drug use, early warning mechanisms and cognitive enhancers. Basically, the science has been taken on board where the science makes sense. Where the wider political judgments come in, we had to take account of everything from law enforcement to public opinion. The buck stops with the Secretary of State.

Does my noble friend agree that, in these complex and vexatious areas, we are still best guided by the view that distinguished advisers should advise and be listened to, but it is accountable Ministers who must decide?

I am sure my noble friend is correct. If, for example, every recommendation irrespective of whether it was in the wider interest were accepted by Ministers on almost every subject, you would find the country at large wondering what the point of Ministers was. They would wonder, “What is the point of Members of Parliament? What is the point of Parliament? Why not have a series of expert opinions?”. Expert opinion is valid. Science is valid. We are not arguing here about the science. We are arguing about the responsibility of Ministers in the final analysis, and I totally agree with my noble friend.

My Lords, the matters which this Question addresses have focused on an academic lecture given at King’s College, London, in July and the publication of a report of that lecture. Had the Home Secretary expected to vet in advance the contents of that lecture? If not, what is the ground for protest now? Was Professor Nutt’s mistake to express the views which he held, or to be heard doing so?

Professor Nutt’s enthusiasm and commitment to the views that he holds went beyond that of someone advising a democratically elected Minister. It went to the point of pursuing—

I am sorry, but I am going to insist on the view; other Members may disagree. It went beyond that point, to the point of campaigning for his view. He is perfectly entitled to do so, but not as an adviser to the Government.

Does the Minister accept that the classification of drugs is a matter of science? Is a particular drug more or less dangerous to the public than another drug? The matter for politics is surely what kind of punishments should be meted out for drugs at different levels of dangerousness. This has been the confusion. It is not acceptable, in my view, for politicians to override scientists on a matter of science. It is also not right for scientists to overrule politicians on matters of politics.

The good news is that the noble Baroness is right on both counts. However, she misses the point slightly; we have a combination of the two. Those with the knowledge will advise; but classification, the use of the drugs, how it is perceived in local communities and how it is experienced by law enforcement officers on the streets of Carlisle, where I live, come down to a political judgment. There is no gainsaying that.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the results of the decision may well be that the Government attract only those scientists who, to quote Sir Humphrey, are “one of us”? What implications does that have for the recruitment of scientists to government advisory bodies?

My Lords, I gave evidence in terms of the number of times that Ministers in the Home Office have rejected advice from this committee. I have to say that, as someone who was the general-secretary of a trade union for some 40,000 scientists, I never felt that I was in the company of those who would kow-tow to government or anyone else. Defence of their science was their priority. They are proud of it, and I am rightly proud of them. That does not override ministerial responsibility and the responsibility of Parliament.

My Lords, do a majority of Members of this House or the other House take a different view from that of the Government and public opinion on this important policy strategy?

In our democracy, we have elected Members of the other place and Members here with great expertise in science and almost all aspects of British life so that they can combine their experiences, to help arrive at the democratic decisions that the public support because they are confident in them. This decision was reached from a combination of the science, perception and law and order, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made the right decision.

No one disagrees with the proposition that it is scientists who advise and Ministers who decide. Having been a Minister with scientists, I entirely accept that. However, I spent the morning studying the code of practice for scientists and scientific advisory committees and I cannot find a single paragraph that could be relied on to justify the sacking of Professor Nutt. Is it not time that that code was revised? The complaint has been made that Professor Nutt does not know why he was sacked. There is nothing in the code about it at all.

One suspects that there might have been something about that in the letter that the Secretary of State wrote to Professor Nutt on Friday of last week. On the major point, I agree that scientific advice is important. Political analysis is important. Civil service advice is important. We cannot isolate these into single compartments and claim that we do not like the decision when a Minister chooses to take some advice and reject other advice. Therefore, I am absolutely clear that it remains a decision for Ministers and Parliament, and Professor Nutt is now clear and free to express whatever opinions he wants. However, he will not be able to do that successfully in his own defence, or in the defence of the Government, while being chief adviser to them and at the same time campaigning against government policy.