Professor David Nutt

Following the sacking of Professor David Nutt by the Home Secretary, Chris Huhne (Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary) and I, who both opposed the sacking, tabled an urgent question in the House to the Home Secretary. Mysteriously (since he agrees with the Home Secretary) the urgent question was awarded to Chris Grayling the Tory Shadow minister. Nevertheless the resultant statement and Q & A is instructive as to the level of scientific and rational debate in Parliament.

I was amazed to hear what the Home Secretary said, under privilege, in parliament about a distinguished scientist and sent Alan Johnson the letter below demanding a retraction and apology.

I will post the reply I get when it comes in.

Rt Hon Alan Johnson
Home Secretary
Home Office

Dear Alan,

I am writing to raise with you several issues where you misled the House of Commons during the Urgent Question on the Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs on Monday 2nd November. The points you made are of such seriousness to the professional and public standing of Professor David Nutt that you should now correct yourself in the chamber and apologise for misleading the House, and I would be grateful if you would confirm to me as soon as possible that you intend to do so at the earliest opportunity. I am copying this letter to Mr Speaker and to Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat shadow Home Secretary.

1. You stated in the chamber: “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.

This is incorrect. A peer-reviewed journal – the Journal of Psychopharmacology – published the article (not Professor Nutt). It was in January 2009, not February as you stated. Professor Nutt wrote and submitted the article the previous year. It was reviewed prior to publication by two expert reviewers. Neither at the time of writing, nor at the date of publication of the article, was Professor Nutt aware of the Government’s position on the classification of ecstasy since the ACMD had not even published its report let alone received the Government’s response. Furthermore the content of the article was discussed with the ACMD secretariat (though he was not required by the Code of Practice to do so) and was discussed and approved in a conversation with Professor Nutt by Paul Wiles the Departmental Chief Science Advisor.

2. You stated in the chamber: “On Thursday 29th 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”.

This is incorrect, as Richard Garside, Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London has made clear. Professor Nutt delivered his lecture at King’s on 14th July 2009 to an audience of 150 people with no media. This was published by the CCJS on 29th October. As you know, there is no requirement on an independent scientific adviser to give prior notification of academic work to the ACMD secretariat in the Home Office in either the general or the ACMD code of practice. Nevertheless, Professor Nutt had indeed informed the secretariat of the paper and received feedback. Prof Nutt even discussed it with Paul Wiles, the Home Office Departmental Chief Scientific Adviser. In fact the Home Office publicised it in advance on their website here:

http://www.crimereduction.homeoffice.gov.uk/events/show_event.htm?event_id=170&view_type=list&current_page=1&monthID=0&yearID=0

The official flyer for the event described Prof Nutt as Professor David Nutt, Edmond J Safra Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology and Head of the Department of Neuropsychopharmacology and Molecular Imaging at Imperial College London. It was only the Home Office advert that also described him as Chair of the ACMD.

Prof Nutt would not, of course, be banned from accusing Jacqui Smith of “distorting and devaluing scientific research” under the ACMD code of practice , but he did not. There are no references to Ms Smith in his lecture and only 3 to the “former Home Secretary” which are factual. The reference to “distorting” and “devaluing” in the lecture clearly refers to the use of the precautionary principle.

3. You stated that the former Home Secretary – Jacqui Smith- had protested to Professor Nutt concerning the comparison in the Journal of Psychopharmacology article of the risks of ecstasy with the risks of horse-riding. You then went on: “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”.

This is incorrect. There was no evidence at the time or now that any of those events involved a breach of the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees or the ACMD by Prof Nutt, and this is reinforced by the fact that neither Home Secretary in either of their letters to him has made this allegation, and nor did you raise it in your recent and only meeting with Prof Nutt. Yet if this allegation were made outside the House, it would be actionable given the slur on Professor Nutt’s reputation.

4. You stated: “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—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.

Professor Nutt is not a full-time Government or Departmental Chief Science Adviser within the civil service, but an unpaid part-time adviser paid as an academic. You confuse the two roles. Nor has Prof Nutt campaigned against Government policy. One academic paper and one lecture in one’s area of expertise do not constitute a campaign, especially as both the paper and the lecture were notified to the ACMD secretariat and beyond in the Home Office and the content discussed and approved.

5. You stated: “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.

This is incorrect. As we saw above, the King’s College event was four months ago not last week. Professor Robin Murray was not there.

You will see from the litany of errors in your remarks that it is now essential that you return to the chamber to correct them. I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Evan Harris

Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon

Following the sacking (link to Mark Easton Blog) of Professor David Nutt (link) by the Home Secretary, Chris Huhne (Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary) and I who both opposed the sacking tabled an urgent question in the House to the Home Secretary. Mysteriously (since he agrees with the Home Secretary) the urgent question was awarded to Chris Grayling the Tory Shadow minister. Nevertheless the resultant statement (link to Hansard) and Q & A is instructive as to the level of scientific and rational debate in Parliament.
I was amazed to hear what the Home Secretary said, under privelege, in parliament about a distinguished scientist and sent Alan Johnson the letter below demanding a retraction and apology.
I will post the reply i get when it comes in.
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36 Responses to “Professor David Nutt”

  1. Colin Says:

    Good bloody work! I must admit I didn’t think that MPs were allowed to be so sensible, straightforward and honest.

  2. Richard Says:

    Dammit, why does my house have to be in Oxford East?

  3. spotfire Says:

    Great letter, will look forward to the reply!

  4. Tom Ward Says:

    Richard, at least you’re house isn’t in the Witney constituency…

    Excellent work Dr Harris!

  5. Simon Says:

    Excellent work. This is a great example of the kind of honesty and clear thinking I wish all MPs were capable of.

  6. tacitus Says:

    An excellent investigation and deconstruction. Thank you.

  7. Dominic Curtis Says:

    Thank you, and please don’t let him off the hook for this.

  8. Alchemipedia Says:

    Clear logic and careful fact checking.

    You do the medical profession, yourself and your father (I believe a retired medical professor) proud.

  9. Dan Harvey Says:

    Well said Dr. Harris. Governments choosing which scientists to slur is a dangerous road.

  10. Paul Sagar Says:

    Excellent stuff.

    Chances of a reply? Or a correction?

    Pfff…

  11. Colin Says:

    Mark Henderson of The Times has Johnson’s Reply

    http://timesonline.typepad.com/science/2009/11/the-david-nutt-affair-did-alan-johnsons-statement-mislead-the-house-of-commons.html

  12. Shaun Chamberlin Says:

    Excellent work. Do keep chasing this up.

  13. fluffy_mike Says:

    Christ! This was written by an MP?

    and there’s not even a picture of you on the masthead – I think you’re in the wrong game, make ;-)

  14. fluffy_mike Says:

    “mate” [oops]

  15. Jamougha Says:

    I do hope you post more often.

  16. Anthony Garrett Says:

    At this rate the LibDems will be single-handedly rescuing politics from the sorry state it has achieved in the public eye.

    I watched the broadcast of the Home Secretary’s statement in the chamber and a more cosy piece of scripted theatre played out between government and “opposition” would be hard to find.

  17. Prateek Buch Says:

    Good to see you’re working hard to have the Home Secretary held to account Evan, have been following this debacle with interest and I’m sure you’ll want to respond to Mr. Johnson’s reply in due course…!

    @ Anthony Garrett: agree, on both points :-)

  18. mark Says:

    Impressive anatomy of managerial pomposity

  19. Graham Binns (gmb) 's status on Tuesday, 10-Nov-09 09:36:10 UTC - Identi.ca Says:

    [...] Professor David Nutt « Dr Evan Harris MP a few seconds ago from seesmic [...]

  20. simon Says:

    Fantastic.. why do these guys never win elections, they really should :)

  21. Will Daniels Says:

    Always nice to see the occasional sane, fair and honest voice in politics. I don’t expect it will make any difference, but I commend you for trying! :D

  22. Kenny Says:

    Well done, excellent stuff. I dearly wish there were more politicians as capable and willing to challenge the shoddy use of science in politics.

  23. Nutt Sacking: Johnson responds – and is still wrong « Dr Evan Harris MP Says:

    [...] Dr Evan Harris MP Lib Dems, Science, Human Rights, Free Speech, Equality. « Professor David Nutt [...]

  24. Perspix Says:

    Dr Harris, I’ve been a non-aligned Conservative supporter for 30 years. It’s politicians like you that are persuading me to switch my support to the LibDems.

  25. Steve Jones Says:

    Having been thoroughly depressed by reading Peter Oborne’s book, “The Triumph of the Political Class” and, especially, the sections on the undermining of the independence of British institutions and populist media manipulation, can I say how wonderfully refreshing it is to see an independent-minded MP holding the Home Secretary to account for his apparent disinformation.

    This particular tactic of Alan Johnson’s would appear to be straight out of the instruction book on how to misrepresent and undermine independent-minded advisors who happen to not be “on message”. Of course, this particular example is mild compared to what happened in the build-up to the Iraq war, but unless something is done to support the independence of British institutions we are on a slippery slope.

    It’s a lesson that some politicians need to learn – the winning of a general election and an absolute majority (especially when it’s won despite being much less than half the populr vote) does not mean that instruments of state, advisory bodies and the like owe unquestioning loyalty to the party of power at the time.

  26. Alan Johnson – straight answers? « further adventures in… Says:

    [...] The letter can be found here  : http://drevanharrismp.wordpress.com/2009/11/09/professor-david-nutt/ [...]

  27. Nick Rawle Says:

    @Simon: it beats me. I’ve always voted for LibDems, and as I grew up in Dr Harris’s constituency, I have in the past voted for him.

    I’m very pleased that there appear to be some intelligent, thoughtful and honest members of parliament. I was beginning to suspect that self-interest and personal gain were the only motives left for entering the House…

  28. Dan Says:

    Is there some special requirement that Home Secretaries have totalitarian tendencies? It seems like every one of them for years has been set on interfering in people’s lives, telling them what to do. How long until they push the need for a camera in every home?

  29. Evan Harris’s blog on #nuttsacking Says:

    [...] A fisking of Alan Johnson’s speech in Parliament I was amazed to hear what the Home Secretary said, under privilege, in parliament about a distinguished scientist and sent Alan Johnson the letter below demanding a retraction and apology. [...]

  30. Chris White Says:

    Brilliant! A double-barrel shotgun blast of FACT.

  31. robert Says:

    In answer 1- Alan Johnson side steps the point made by Evan that AJ had made misleading allegations to the house.

    Nutt actually performed the lecture in July the year before.
    therefor AJ must have had his facts wrong even at the time of sacking. who needs ANY facts when you want your message to get across???

    This is where Alan gets it so very wrong.” I completely refute the fact that erring on the side of caution to protect the health of our young people in anyway devalues or distorts the evidence – we make decisions in the full confidence that they will protect the public.”

    Their tactic of altering an advised ranking against the evidence certainly does distort and does devalue the evidence.

    The government claimed to be erring on the side of caution, but now there was a study done to check what they were erring about.
    thus there is indeed now information to suggest that the precautionary principle was not needed as a reason this time. the government was advised as such, not just by nutt but that was the finding overall from the whole council.
    the government claimed that skunk would increase cannabis related mental illness. brown claimed it was lethal???? nutt knows what the term lethal actually means and nutt knows cannabis does not kill or result in overdose, nutt knew that skunk was around for ten years and since the time cannabis was downgraded to class C and in that time it did not result in an increase in cannabis related mental illness. this is because the advisory council checked the statistics to see if skunk was a major threat as the government was claiming/erring.

    So after this advice, Johnson now claims that the government will not be risking the young people. now we all know there is some risk, but drugs are supposed to be ranked due to harm and risk of harm and so drug classification SHOULD NOT be used to send extra messages.
    If the governement wants to do it correctly
    they need to KEEP MESSAGES out of drug harm ranking and penalty and class it appropriately and if they are not happy with the science and the other feids that came to the advise they can maybe take measures to send their extra messages out TO the YOUNG PEOPLE that they do not want young people using the drug and that if the people have health problems they can come and seek help as opposed to getting the CLASS B PENALTY.

    NUTT was not sacked for undermining the government. the government were undermining the science and the devaluing the evidence and the whole drug harm classification system by trying to have a “need for messages” become part of the criteria for drug harm rank.

  32. jw Says:

    this government is a joke , the public want an open discussion and there,s nothing , we want input , stop telling us whats best for us brown and johnson and ask us what we think ,, infact forget that, just give us our vote so we can elect a party that will listen to the public rather than tell us “”what the public want is “”” what we want is you to sling your hook if your not going to listen FACT,,,,
    keep up the good work Dr Harris

  33. News in Links « Standing above the fog Says:

    [...] Evan Harris, (the Lib Dem MP for Oxford West) covers this in his blog, systematically taking apart the sacking and then Alan Johnson’s response to [...]

  34. Corey Biby Says:

    Well I really appreciate this thread but I learned most of my thing off the video professor CDs (yeah that dork that you see on TV lol.) Check it our if you’re interested as this is where I learned.

  35. They Blog For You » Nutt Sacking: Johnson responds – and is still wrong Says:

    [...] Sacking: Johnson responds – and is still wrong The Home Secretary has now responded to my letter. It is set out below, interwoven with my original letter, and accompanied by comments from me, [...]

  36. New duty on scientists to be trusted by politicians is unacceptable « Dr Evan Harris MP Says:

    [...] of Practice governed the activities of advisers. Under these new principles another incident like the sacking of Professor David Nutt by the Home Secretary, which was criticised at the time by the Science Minister, will be entirely [...]

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