Advice and Government - the sacking of Prof. David Nutt
2 November 2009, the Home Secretary Alan Johnson made a statement to the House on his
reasons for asking Professor Nutt to step down as Chair of the Advisory Council on the
Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). This action by the Home Secretary was totally unacceptable
and I wrote to Alan Johnson to express my conerns on 5 November. A copy of my letter is below.
On 10 November, the ACMD and the Home Office met and the next day published the results of
their meeting. The
BBC reported that the search for a new arrangement to improve the relationship between
ministers and scientific advisers appeared to have made headway. Although, those (like
myself) who had wanted an apology for the way Professor Nutt was treated remain
disappointed on that point.
The Home Secretary has now committed to write to the full Council setting out his
reasons if he decides to reject their advice in the future. If he rejects the
science again, this will at least oblige him to explain why.
A group of senior distinguished scientists has created a
succinct list of Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice. This
can be found on the Sense About Science website: http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/scienceadvice
Letter to Alan Johnson on the sacking of Prof. David Nutt
Rt Hon. Alan Johnson MP
Office, 2 Marsham Street
5 November 2009
Professor David Nutt
As I was unable to be in the House to hear your Statement on
Monday regarding the removal of Professor Nutt as Chair of the Advisory Council on the
Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), I wanted to write to you to express my concerns.
I have seen a copy of your letter sacking Professor Nutt on the
and I have read the Hansard
of Mondays debate.
During the debate on your Statement you infer that Prof. Nutt
was removed for not being clear when speaking personally at a lecture to Kings College (London)
that he was not speaking for the ACMD and for publishing documents relating to the
Government framework without giving the Home Office first sight of them. You also say it was unacceptable for him to
criticise Government Ministers and Government policy.
On the issue of speaking personally or on behalf of the ACMD, I
note from a report in the 3 November edition of the Financial
Times that Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at
King's College, who invited Prof. Nutt to give his lecture, stressed that:
"at no point did he make reference to his role
as chair of the ACMD, nor did he give the impression that he was speaking on behalf of the
Given this, on what basis are you arguing that it wasnt
clear that he was speaking personally? Surely
it would be a matter for the members of the ACMD to complain if they felt this was the
case (when in fact members of that Committee have resigned in protest at your action
against Prof. Nutt).
On the question of publishing documents, unless you want to stop
advisers expressing their views publicly, what are the reasons for the Government
insisting on first sight of material published on the subject areas advisers give advice
on? Can you clarify what the documents were
that Prof. Nutt published without first showing them to the Home Office and what action
your Department would have taken had you had first sight of the documents? Specifically would the Home Office have taken any
action to change the content of the documents in question?
In the House on 2 November you said that whilst Prof. Nutt
had the right to express his views he did not have the right to criticise the
Government and its drugs policy framework. Isnt
this putting restrictions on his right to express himself independently in his role as an
academic with expertise in this area? It seems
to me that this is different from campaigning against Government policy as you have
accused him of doing. If the Government wants
independent evidence-based scientific advice doesnt it have to face the consequences
if it ignores the advice given? Why
didnt you just defend your policy if you have confidence in it?
I should also be grateful for your response to the widespread
criticism that your decision has received from the scientific community and the concern
that you have jeopardised the relationship between independent scientific advisers and
Government. In particular, I noted the letter
in the 2 November edition of the Times from Ian
Stolerman, Emeritus Professor of Behavioural Pharmacology from the Institute of Psychiatry,
Kings College London:
All scientists who work without pay to advise
the Government must surely be considering their positions."
And no doubt you will have heard Professor Colin Blakemore,
former head of the Medical Research Council, on the Today programme and his comment that:
"This is not just an issue about drugs: the
Government depends very widely on advice from experts who give their time freely."
Critics of your decision are backed up by the recent
Government response to the Innovation, Science and
Skills Committee's Eighth Report of Session 200809,
published only a matter of days before the sacking of Prof Nutt, which states:
Government agrees that the independence of science advisers is critical. It was precisely
for this reason that the GCSA wrote to then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to express concern
over her criticism, in Parliament, of Professor Nutt (Chairman of ACMD) with regard to an
article he published in a peer-reviewed journal
I note that despite this official Government declaration of
concern over criticism by your predecessor of the ACMD Chair, on Monday, you referred to
Jacquis criticism of Prof. Nutt as if this somehow justified your own action against
him. Do you accept that your dismissal of
Prof. Nutt contradicts the Governments position as outlined in this recent Response
to the ISS Committee Report?
to the issue of the classification of cannabis itself, in 2007, before the announcement in
2008 that cannabis was to be reclassified back to class B, I tabled an Early Day Motion
about the dangers of cannabis use that I would like to bring to your attention (text
printed on the back of this letter). From this
you will see that, whilst I accept that there are hazards associated with cannabis use, as
does Prof. Nutt, this would not of itself justify the reclassification to class B, as
classification is about relative hazard
the very point of Prof. Nutts comments.
in the EDM, I also pointed out that the downgrading of cannabis to class C from class B in
2004 was actually associated with reduced cannabis
use by young people, as evidenced by the following table produced by your own Department
with information from British Crime Survey
As you of
course know, cannabis was reclassified from B to C with effect from January 2004 and
reclassified back to B in December 2008 with effect from January 2009. As you will note from the above statistics for this
period, the proportion of 16-24 year-old respondents declaring cannabis use in the
previous year fell from 25.3% in 2003/04 to 18% in 2007/08.
I was therefore very disappointed by your response to the question put to
you during the debate on your 2 November Statement by George Howarth:
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and
Sefton, East) (Lab): If my right hon. Friend had taken Professor Nutts 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?
Johnson: 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.
be interested to know why you did not base your answer on the statistical evidence on
cannabis usage rates amongst young people during the period when categorisation was
lowered. Were you unaware of the above data or
were you aware but misleading the House in your reply by your suggestion that it was
because more young people started using cannabis when it was classified downwards to class
C that Jacqui reclassified the drug upwards?
way, your failure to refer to your own published data on this particular question serves
to reinforce the point that Government is ignoring evidence on issues relating to drug
I should be grateful for your response to the points I have
raised in this letter.
LYNNE JONES MP
Early Day Motion:
12.11.2007 EDM 209
RESPONDING TO THE DANGERS OF
That this House supports the
mental health charity Rethink in its call for a public education campaign to convey the
dangers of cannabis use; offers this support in light of the recent review of research
published in the Lancet, which concludes that frequency of cannabis use increases the risk
of psychotic illness such as schizophrenia by up to 40 per cent.; calls for clarity on the
cannabis debate, particularly regarding the strength of skunk varieties of the drug;
believes that reclassifying cannabis will not in itself lead to a decrease in the number
of people who use it; notes that the proportion of young people using cannabis has
actually fallen since it was reclassified in January 2004 from 25.3 per cent. of 16 to 24
year olds in 2003-04 to 20.9 per cent. in 2006-07; and urges the Government to commit to
the development of a long-term awareness and information campaign with health promotion
rather than a change in the law as the main lever to reduce use, in addition to funding
research into the link between cannabis use and mental ill health.
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