Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 85-99)



  Q85 Chairman: May I welcome our witness this morning, Professor Sir David King. It is very good of you to come and talk to us. We are not a committee concerned with science but with the administration of public affairs. We are looking, as you know, at the honours system amongst our different inquiries at the moment. You have probably worked out for yourself the line of connection which brings you before us. We had an interesting session a week or so ago with Professor Blakemore, who of course figured in the leak of the honours committee's work, and that is just part of the story that we would like to involve you in, but then to go more widely because you are yourself directly involved in the science and technology sub-committee that feeds in, as I understand it, to the main honours committee, so we thought we would have a chance in one area, science and technology, to try to find out how this system works at the moment. And, of course, if you have any ideas on how it might work better we would be interested in those too. If I have described it accurately, lest you feel you are here under false pretences, that is what I think we are going to ask you about. Is there anything you would like to say by way of introduction?

  Professor Sir David King: First of all, following your introduction, I ought to clarify that as Head of the Office of Science and Technology I do chair a committee within the Office of Science and Technology which looks at a potential honours list but, in terms of the science and technology committee to which you refer, as you know, Chairman, the membership of that committee is not divulged.

  Q86 Chairman: So if I ask you if you are on it, you are not going to tell me.

  Professor Sir David King: No.

  Q87 Chairman: This is going to be interesting!

  Professor Sir David King: I thought I should clarify that right at the beginning.

  Q88 Chairman: Absolutely. That is extremely helpful! As long as I start my questions by saying "If you were on such a committee . . ." we will be all right, will we?

  Professor Sir David King: Yes.

  Q89 Chairman: Excellent. Let's do it that way. Let's get Blakemore out of the way if we may. Who wrote this note about Blakemore?

  Professor Sir David King: If I cannot divulge that I was on the committee, I do not see how I can answer who wrote that minute. But I imagine the minute was written by the secretary to the committee and I also imagine that the minute has not been back to the committee to verify its contents.

  Q90 Chairman: I am only repeating, I think, what you have just told me: A secretary of the relevant subject committee would have the kind of latitude to write this kind of thing about individuals?

  Professor Sir David King: That is a good question. I suspect the reasoning behind the secretary's writing up the minutes would be that there is a higher committee, I believe, that considers the various committees, including the views of the science and technology committee, and that committee could hardly proceed if they did not have some written views from the lower committee. That must be the purpose.

  Q91 Chairman: I am confused about this.

  Professor Sir David King: I will try to help you.

  Q92 Chairman: We are talking conceptually, I know, rather than accurately, but, if I may read the offending leak quotation so that we can get our minds around it, "The (science and technology expert) committee were unlike to recommend [Blakemore] for his scientific work, particularly in view of his controversial work on vivisection. He has now moved to the MRC, however, and it was possible his reputation would be improved. We should look at him again when he has had a little longer at the MRC." Presumably, this was the main committee . . . Well, I think we can say there is a main committee, because we have been given papers, so you do not have to be too coy with us.

  Professor Sir David King: No, it is only a question of the membership—and I think for good reason—that the membership is not divulged.

  Q93 Chairman: Yes. This was a leak from the main honours committee, into which the different subject committees feed, was it not?

  Professor Sir David King: I believe that the leaked minute is a minute from the S&T committee that went to the main committee.

  Q94 Chairman: I see.

  Professor Sir David King: That is what I believe.

  Q95 Chairman: So, although it came out of the main committee, it was reproducing what had been said in the S&T committee.

  Professor Sir David King: It was reproducing what it is claimed was being said on the S&T committee. If I could address immediately the question of Blakemore's vivisection activity because I think this is central to what you are driving at. I can only express my own view, but my view is well known in terms of the animal rights extremist activities. I am absolutely delighted that Brian Cass was given an award, an award which came after he was attacked by the animal rights extremists. I think the response of the Government in that case to a brave man who continued working in the face of very difficult circumstances was absolutely right. My colleague David Sainsbury and I have worked very, very hard to maintain the existence of Huntingdon Life Sciences in the UK as a viable entity. I have worked hard, as Anne Campbell knows, to keep the neurosciences laboratory, which was due to be built in Cambridge, as a live issue, and I am really dreadfully sorry that the long delay, four years' delay, has meant that unfortunately the project is not any longer as viable as it once was. I do sit on a committee, that is chaired by the Home Secretary, looking into what actions should be taken to deal with animal rights extremists. So, coming to Colin Blakemore, I admire Colin Blakemore unreservedly, not only for his outstanding scientific work on the functioning of the brain but also for his courage in standing up to this very small bunch of extremists. I do believe we are talking about 20 or 30 individuals who are acting against the democratic interests of the country, who are acting against a nation which has decided to tighten up its laws and its regulations on animal experiments to the extent that we have the best regulated system in the world and are still battling against this. I believe that Colin was courageous to stand up and speak on that issue.

  Q96 Chairman: Thank you for that. I do not want us to go too wide because we do not need to take a view on vivisection.

  Professor Sir David King: The point of my saying that is that I would be very surprised if anyone on that S&T committee expressed a view differently from what I have said to you.

  Q97 Chairman: That is what we are interested in. That makes it even more perplexing, does it not, because if we have had you the Chief Scientific Adviser heaping this paean of praise on Colin Blakemore, and if we have had the science minister Lord Sainsbury doing something likewise, why on earth do we get this statement that they are "unlikely to recommend him for his scientific work"—so they are saying that his scientific work is not good enough—and then they add "particularly in view of his controversial work on vivisection". That word "particularly" is a bit of a giveaway there, is it not? It is not just the controversy about vivisection; it is that he is not up to it anyway and particularly because of his work on vivisection.

  Professor Sir David King: That phrase is a complete nonsense.

  Q98 Chairman: Indeed. That is why we are trying to get behind it.

  Professor Sir David King: You asked me the question: Where did the phrase come from? I believe the secretary wrote it down. I cannot believe that the committee expressed that view.

  Q99 Chairman: He just made it up?

  Professor Sir David King: He or she.

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