Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 20 November 2009

Professor David Nutt's account of events regarding #NuttSack

Correspondence has been released between various protagonists in the saga of the sacking three weeks ago of Professor David Nutt from his position as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

One of the letters is from Professor Nutt to the Science and Technology Select Committee outlining the sequence of events from his perspective. As Evan Harris has already made clear in a very detailed blogpost here the sequence of events and the behaviour of Professor Nutt was in accordance with the rules and regulations he was working under. You can read Professor Nutt's letter for yourself here to see what you think of his comments on this.

Two things struck me about the letter. The first is in one of the things that Jacqui Smith said to him when she called him to discuss the "esctasy and horses" comments he had made:

9th Feb 2009 – I received a phone call from the Home Sec in my out patient clinic, criticising the ‘equasy’ paper and stating that her office had received multiple complaints about the article from parents whose children had been harmed by ecstasy. She claimed it was not logical to compare the harms of an illegal drug with those of a legal activity. I explained that for a drug to be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 there had to be some threshold of harms exceeded so it seemed reasonable to explore what this threshold might be by examining other harmful activities. She did not accept the value of this approach and demanded that I apologised to the parents. I explained that I had not intended to offend anyone and was simply trying to put some balance into the drug harms debate. However, under the pressure of a phone call from the Home Secretary in the middle of my clinical working time, I apologised, through her, to any families that were upset by the article. She also asked if I was a “legaliser” and I replied that I was not and had repeatedly made statements to this effect in public.

This last comment seems almost sinister to me. Is it illegitimate for scientists, having looked through all the evidence to conclude that drugs should be legalised (and regulated)? It is far from an uncommon conclusion for people to draw once they have studied this subject for a while.

It actually seems almost McCarthy-like for this question to be asked. The implication seems to be that is he was a "legaliser" then there would be no way that he could advise the government. If the government is so sure of its case, surely they should welcome robust debate with people who may wish to challenge them? Not that this is what Professor Nutt was doing of course, he was simply presenting the evidence as we know.

The other thing that leapt out at me is the last thing that Professor Nutt says in his letter:

Relevant aspects of the code of practice defining my roles are

representing the ACMD to the public or the media as arranged by the secretariat
acting in the public interest

sharing in the general responsibility to consider the wider context in which their
expertise is employed;

acting with a presumption of openness

I my view my actions in relation to the Eve Saville lecture and the subsequent
reactions of the media and the government have been fully within this remit. Indeed
one could take the view, as I have, that many of them are required by it.

I also refer you to the Seven principles of public life one of which is:


Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and
actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict
information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.

Professor Nutt is right here. He did what was expected of him given his responsibilities. In my view drawing the committee's attention to the "Openness" principle is spot on. He followed that principle exactly.

The problem of course is that despite all the words the government spews out about wanting to be "open", when it comes to drugs policy they are not interested. They just want to close down the debate for fear of the tabloid headlines that could come their way if they are seen to do anything that goes against being seen to be "tough on drugs". So this is a situation where their supposed principles clash with what they actually wanted to do, i.e. ignore the evidence but not be straight with the public about why they are doing so because it would show up their lack of an evidence based approach and also their political cowardice.


Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

I was with you (and Nutt) until the "Openness" principle. Surely no-one is expected to actually believe it, to use it as a guide to action? What planet do such people come from that do?

Even accepting a staggering degree of naivety about the normal ways of the world, there can be no excuse in Nutt’s case for failing to appreciate he was working for New Labour ministers whose habitual repudiation of truth and decency cannot be unnoticed even by the most myopic. Nutt and his like should recall to mind the old saying, “He who sups with the devil needs a long spoon”.

thom said...

@Cardinal Richelieu's mole

Nutt wasn't working for New Labour ministers. He was not a salaried civil servant, but an independent academic chairing an independent government committee that had a duty (in law) to give independent scientific advice.

Note that at least one government minister (Draycott) was openly, but rather diplomatically, critical of Johnson (and by implication Smith).

The weird thing is that all Johnson needed to do was say that he had disregarded the evidence and independent advice for pragmatic reasons and he would have received rave reviews from the Tory press (which is basically all of it). The only explanation I can think of is either that he was arrogant enough to think that his assessment of the scientific evidence was correct and Nutt (and just about everyone else) wrong or that he is paranoid and genuinely thinks Nutt was conspiring against him.