Evan Harris calls for inquiry into five breaches of Government’s own code of practice within five days of publishing them.
While I respect the evidence-based conclusions of the ACMD regarding the dangers of Mephedrone, I remain extremely concerned at the way in which the Government – and the Home Office in particular – has acted in its treatment of the ACMD’s advice. Please see my letter to the Science Minister, Lord Drayson, copied below.
Dept of Business Innovation and Skills
1 Victoria Street
5th April 2010
I am writing to you to urge you to launch an inquiry into the Home Office’s breach of the new Principles of Scientific Advice on the Treatment of Scientific advice.
Following the sacking of David Nutt, on 10th November the Home Secretary and ACMD reached a temporary holding agreement which they issued as joint statement available of the ACMD website which covered issues to do with the proper consideration of scientific advice. In particular, this said that:
- The Home Secretary would continue to give careful consideration to all ACMD reports;
- The ACMD would publish its advice concurrent with its presentation to the Home Secretary.
The Home Office gave assurance that it would give appropriate consideration of the advice before issuing its response.
This joint statement was superseded by the new Principles which, as you pointed out to the House of Commons S&T Select Committee, apply across all Government departments. In any event what took place was a breach of the joint statement also.
The Principles say:
The Principles apply to Ministers and Government departments, all members of Scientific Advisory Committees and Councils (the membership of which often includes statisticians, social researchers and lay members) and other independent scientific and engineering advice to Government.
- Government should respect and value the academic freedom, professional status and expertise of its independent scientific advisers.
- Scientific advisers should be free from political interference with their work.
- Scientific advisers are free to communicate publicly their advice to Government, subject to normal confidentiality restrictions, including when it appears to be inconsistent with Government policy.
- Scientific advisers have the right to engage with the media and public independently of the Government and should seek independent media advice on substantive pieces of work.
- The timing of the publication of independent scientific advice is a matter for the advisory body but should be discussed with the Government beforehand.
- Government should not prejudge the advice of independent advisers, nor should it criticise advice or reject it before its publication.
- The timing of the Government’s response to scientific advice should demonstrably allow for proper consideration of that advice.
You will be well aware of the strength of feeling in the scientific community about the new Principles. Many are still not happy with key parts of the Principles, particularly those referring to “trust”, but there was at least general support for the above undertakings given on consideration of advice. If these Principles are to command any authority or integrity then they must be strongly adhered to and breaches of them should be investigated seriously.
I believe that the Principles have been breached in at least five separate ways.
1) “The timing of the publication of independent scientific advice is a matter for the advisory body”
The ACMD were not allowed time to consider the matter carefully. Dr Les King, an expert chemist, was the chair of the cathinones working group. He resigned on the day Professor Nutt was sacked and was not replaced for 5 months. More data would have been available if the ACMD had been able to wait for:
- the latest statistics from the British Crime Survey
- the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) evidence gathering and evaluation process;
- the results of inquests and toxicology screens
These are not just incidental matters but crucial to a rational judgement of harms.
2) “Government should not prejudge the advice of independent advisers”
The Government made it clear in advance that it wanted a ban on mephedrone long before the ACMD reported.
3) “The timing of the Government’s response to scientific advice should demonstrably allow for proper consideration of that advice.”
The Government made its response to the main recommendation without demonstrably allowing for proper consideration of that advice. In fact the Government made its announcement without even seeing the report, and the report was not published until 3 days later. No one in the media or Parliament could see the report when the Government made their announcement and how its sections on alleged deaths, if not flatly contradicting ministerial statements, at least made significant caveats to the assertions of up to 25 mephedrone deaths.
The Home Secretary did not even act on the basis of a manuscript copy or draft report. He demanded a verbal briefing from the Chair on the day that the ACMD was meeting. No one else could hear the briefing to know what it said.
4) “Scientific advisers should be free from political interference with their work.”
The Home Secretary required the Chairman of the ACMD to leave the meeting while the report was being discussed and dash across London in a cab to brief him in time for a press conference prior not only to the publication of the report but to the agreement of the report. The source for this is Eric Carlin who said on the BBC
“I am extremely unhappy with the process to review mephedrone this week. We had papers which were tabled and we were expected to be making a decision with recommendations to go to Home Secretary by 3.30pm in the afternoon. These were papers I hadn’t seen before and actually the chair went off to meet with the Home Secretary before we had even discussed the whole set of papers.”
Mr Carlin’s resignation letter says
Indeed, there was no time for questions on the [second] report due to the haste with which we were being pushed to make a decision about classifying Mephedrone; this so that the Chair could come to meet with you later in the day and you could do a round of press announcements.
Re-Mephedrone; we had little or no discussion about how our recommendation to classify this drug would be likely to impact on young people’s behaviour. Our decision was unduly based on media and political pressure. The report was tabled to the whole Council for the first time on Monday; the Chair came to brief you before the whole Council had even discussed all of the report. In fact, I still haven’t seen the final version.
5) “Scientific advisers have the right to engage with the media and public independently of the Government and should seek independent media advice on substantive pieces of work.”
The ACMD were offered the services of the Science Media Centre but the SMC were told that the Home Office would be handling all the media. This is a clear breach. There is no reason why the ACMD could not have published their report on Thursday with a press conference then, and have the Government respond after Easter.
The whole point of the Principles was to protect the independence of advisory committees like the ACMD and ensure that the Government properly considered the advice. But the Home Secretary has once again waded in and pre-empted not just scientific advice but the legal requirement of the Misuse of Drugs Act.
The ACMD, formerly a Committee packed with independent experts and top scientists, has been neutered and is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Home Office. This is bad news for the quality of policy advice and therefore bad news for the public.
At the Science and Technology Committee’s “Science Question Time” on 24th March I asked you whether the Principles would be embedded in the Ministerial Code. You said that “after the General Election… it is certainly our intention that that should be done”. I would appreciate it if you could confirm that this is still your intention, and additionally how any breaches of the Principles by Ministers would be dealt with in advance of their incorporation into the Ministerial Code.
Finally please let me know how this complaint will be dealt with and what inquiry is under way to investigate these serious breaches.
Dr Evan Harris MP
Liberal Democrat Science Spokesman
 Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, March 2010, “Consideration of the cathinones”, pp 19-20