Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Evan Harris accuses Alan Johnson of a "litany of errors" over Professor Nutt dismissal comments

Dr Evan Harris, the Lib Dem MP and science spokesperson has written a letter to Alan Johnson the Home Secretary drawing his attention to a number of factual inaccuracies in the statements Mr Johnson made to the House of Commons last Monday in the debate about his dismissal of Professor Nutt.

Dr Harris charges Mr Johnson with a "litany of errors" and states it is essential that he returns to the chamber to correct them.

I think it is very important that he does. Mr Johnson was able to deflect a number of the criticisms against him with his statement and responses last week but with all the errors that Dr Harris has highlighted it throws a very different light on it and suggests a beleaguered minister grasping at anything to try and defend his decision. Indeed as Dr Harris points out, some of the Home Secretary's comments would even be actionable had they not been said under parliamentary privilege as they are a slur on Professor Nutt's reputation.

Mr Johnson must return to the House in order to address these errors. Parliamentary privilege comes at a high price, that the statements and responses given must be as accurate as possible. It would seem the Home Secretary has not met this standard.

(Thanks to Paul on Liberal Burblings and Politics Home for drawing my attention to this story)

Dr Harris' letter is reproduced below:

Rt Hon Alan Johnson

Home Secretary

Home Office

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:

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


David Evershed said...

This is the first real test of rhe Speaker. Will he require Alan Johnson to come to the Commons on Monday to answer the points raised by Evan Harris.

Lying to the Commons is a serious offence.

MJD said...

I am not optimistic. Dr Harris, like Prof Nutt, is basing this argument on evidence. This government does not appear to 'do' evidence!

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

New Labour Minister in disingenuous, self-serving lie shocker!!!!

Whatever next!

Dippyness. said...

Not a hope in hell of an apology from anyone in this Gov.
Truth is of little interest to them. It was the headlines in the rags they were interested in. Looking tough on drugs.

hyena said...

thanks for posting. though it's rather depressing.