Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday 30 October 2009

Why has Alan Johnson sacked Professor David Nutt?

The news has broken this afternoon that the Home Secretary Alan Johnson has sacked Professor David Nutt, the head of its own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Johnson's statement on this says:

I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to advise me as Chair of the ACMD.
I would therefore ask you to step down from the Council with immediate effect.

Mark Easton, the BBC's home editor has the exchange of letters between Johnson and Professor Nutt detailed on his blog here.

As I blogged yesterday on the Left Foot Forward blog, Professor Nutt had questioned the government's decision to reclassify cannabis from class C to class B and had made comments that the government was not listening to evidence.

Back in February, Professor Nutt was criticised by then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith when he stated that taking ecstacy is no more dangerous than riding a horse as I blogged about at the time. She had demanded that he apologise. The thing is that everything that Professor Nutt has said on this subject throughout his entire tenure has been backed up by evidence. The government's decisions seem to be largely based on what they think the tabloid newspapers will like.

Yesterday I asked if Alan Johnson would listen to Professor Nutt's advice. Far from listening to him, he has sacked him. David Nutt is an expert on drugs and their effects. Rather than listen to what he has to say based on painstaking research and evidence, the government would rather try and shut him up.

I very much hope he does not shut up. I hope he uses the freedom to speak he now has to denounce the government's approach in the strongest possible terms.

It is telling that the government seems unwilling to put anyone forward to defend this decision. Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News has just tweeted the following tweets:

Alan Johnson, and rest of Home Office, so far refusing to do interviews tonight to explain their sacking of David Nutt

Johnson's letter accuses Nutt of undermining public understanding of govt messages on drugs

Bizarre - nobody will come on to defend Alan Johnson. They all prefer to issue statements that can't be questioned.....

I think that sums up the government's cowardice.

The blogosphere is already reacting to this story:
  • Duncan Stott has suggested that the ACMD should all resign in protest.
  • Mark Pack, co-editor of Lib Dem Voice is also asking why Professor Nutt was sacked. Mark makes an excellent point that essentially what the Home Secretary is saying is that he wants only people who agree with government's pre-determined position to advise them. This makes a nonsense of any claim to be basing policy on the evidence.
  • Alex Wilcock has done an excellent post entitled "Considering the Evidence Means You Must Consider Your Position".

And these are just the posts I have noticed in the last 10 minutes as I have hurriedly thrown this post together (I have guests downstairs!).

I am sure I will come back to this story again over the weekend as the implications sink in but for now I will just leave this thought. Perhaps something like this has been necessary in order for the public to start to see government drugs policy for what it is. They are not interested in evidence, just political posturing. It's time this was fully exposed and this sacking is an opportunity to do this.


Alex said...

Mark, here's a link to the original paper that he made the ecstasy/horse riding comments:

(It's open access).

Note that he didn't actually say that "taking ecstacy is no more dangerous than riding a horse" as far as I can tell, instead what he was saying was that the risks associated with drugs like ecstasy are not proportionate to government policy or what's said in the media, and that the risks aren't put in their proper context by associating the risks with more everyday risks like horse riding.

The worst part of Johnson's letter was this:

"When you wrote previously around the relative harms of drugs comparing ectasy with the risks of horse riding my predecessor made clear that it is not the job of the Chair of the Government's advisory Council to comment or initiate a public debate on the policy framework for drugs."

Please tell me why the head of the Misuse of Drugs Advisory Council can't comment on drugs?

Kalvis Jansons said...

A very good post!

Brian E. said...

Simple, Advisers are supposed to give you the advice you want and give authority to your actions - "I did it on the best possible advice".
It was the same with Ed Balls and a recent report on school starting ages from a respected university - "I don't want to know so lets rubbish the report".
That was why the man was sacked!

Unknown said...

I have seen the outcome of people on cannabis and with alchohol in Oldham on a Friday night. I would much prefer a group of people on grass, than on alchohol. The differene in violence from the former (none) to the extreme (latter) is without doubt disturbing.
a caveat ..the govermnet can't tax cannabis. I rest my case

Kelly-Marie Blundell said...

Given that Jackie Smith effctively threw a fit about Proffessor Nut on yesterday's QT, I was none the less surprised to see they had managed to get rid of him so quickly. The accusations being bandied about miss the point that Quangos and "advisory bodies" are merely additional wage earners for people to publish whatever the government wants. I cannot agree with Proffessor Nut's comments on drug use (when did it become *misuse* by the way? Surely any indulgence of ecstasy and heroin is a misuse?!)

I admit I was disappointed with Lembit Opik's rather weak argument on decriminalisation of drugs. I completely support the policies on drug management the Liberal Democrats put forward, but I have to say if you are going to go onto national television and make an outrageously contentious comment, you ought to have the facts, figures and arguments to back you up.

Mark Wadsworth said...

We know perfectly well. It's because Nutt wouldn't toe the tabloid line and went round blurting out actual facts.

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

Johnson (an ex postie btw) says "I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy".

All is clear if one recalls these are the words of a New Labour minister and so substitues "policy" for "government spin and lie".

In that context, Johnson had no choice - but then neither did Nutt for why would be wish to be associated with such people?

Anonymous said...

I've just posted a petition on the number 10 website, asking the Prime Minister to make the Home Secretary apologise to all the parents of children killed by horse riding.

We'll just have to see whether they publish it.

Ian Ellis

JonoPrice said...

Kelly-Marie Blundell said...
I cannot agree with Proffessor Nut's comments on drug use

But this is exactly Alan Johnson's problem as well. There is nothing to disagree with - Prof Nutt is stating observable fact (or at least what appears to be fact given the available evidence). You might not like the implications of those facts, but you cannot say "I don't like those facts, I'll have my own, thanks"

Anthony Burns said...

This reminds me painfully of the US Republican treatment of "scientific advisers" in the global warming controversy: namely to discredit and dismiss those who gave sound independent advice, and to play up the credentials of second-raters who nevertheless told the politicians what they wanted to hear ...

That term "scientific adviser" invariably brings me back to the early 1970s and John Pertwee in Doctor Who. How little those stories apparently reflected political reality ... Clearly, the Doctor should have just spent every episode fervently supporting the government policy on alien threats, either denying their existence or supporting their extermination (as opposed to heroically standing up for truth and justice, and suchlike inconvenient virtues that lead to summary dismissals in real life).

The real mystery is why Alan Johnson assumed such a blatantly Machiavellian move would raise confidence in a goverment that is already doing rather poorly in the personal integrity stakes ...

sanbikinoraion said...

The no10 petition is here for those who want to sign it: