Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report

5  Transparency


70. Transparency is crucial to building confidence in scientific advice and policy making. This is recognised in the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees published by the Office of Science and Innovation, which states:

"Committees should operate from a presumption of openness. The proceedings of the committee should be as open as is compatible with the requirements of confidentiality. […] The committee should maintain high levels of transparency during routine business."[140]

We have been impressed by the transparency and clarity of ACMD reports explaining the methodology and rationale underlying its recommendations on drug classification decisions. However, we received evidence to suggest that the Council was not complying with this guidance in other aspects of its operations. Transform Drug Policy Foundation, for example, told us: "The ACMD lacks transparency—Its deliberations are not open to the public, are unpublished and are unavailable for independent comment or scrutiny".[141]

71. The Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees explicitly states that committees should publish meeting agendas and minutes and, "unless there are particular reasons to the contrary", supporting papers, none of which the ACMD currently does.[142] We asked the Chairman, Sir Michael Rawlins, why the Council did not publish minutes of its meetings. He told us that "anyone who asks would get a version of it" but warned that "there is sometimes material in the minutes that we would need to remove because they are based on intelligence that would not be appropriate in the public domain".[143] When pressed, Sir Michael conceded that "it would not be a major issue" to remove this information since it only amounted to "a couple of lines, that is all".[144] The ACMD provided to us, at our request, copies of the minutes of meetings of the full Council, Technical Committee and methylamphetamine working group on a confidential basis. Having reviewed these documents, we do not accept that the majority of the Council's work requires the level of confidentiality currently being exercised. The ACMD should, in keeping with the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, routinely publish the agendas and minutes for its meetings, removing as necessary any particularly sensitive information.

72. In taking evidence on the terms of reference for the over-arching inquiry on the Government's handling of scientific advice, risk and evidence, we were struck by the extent to which the Food Standards Agency had placed transparency at the heart of its operations. We will address this topic more fully in the over-arching Report but were interested to know, in view of the fact that the Food Standards Agency routinely holds board meetings in public, whether the ACMD ever held open meetings to enable the public to observe its deliberations. The Council told us that it had not and again invoked the argument that to do so would cause "a particular problem for ACMD because it is sometimes provided with police or enforcement agency intelligence which cannot be disclosed to the public (at the present time)".[145] The Council further argued that "Although it might appear to be possible to exclude the public from those agenda items that include sensitive material of this nature, members might wish to raise such matters during the discussion of other agenda items".[146] According to the Council, "Failure to do so could place the Council at a serious disadvantage and impair the quality of its advice".[147] Holding open meetings where the public could witness the processes used by the ACMD in developing its recommendations could have enormous benefits in terms of strengthening public confidence in the scientific advisory process. We do not believe that the need for confidentiality in discussion of certain topics is an insurmountable obstacle to holding occasional, if not routine, meetings of this nature.

73. The measures that we have proposed here to improve the openness of the ACMD are not radical - they simply reflect best practice, as outlined in the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees. It is extremely disappointing that the Council has not taken any steps to increase the transparency of its operations and, moreover, that the Chairman displayed so little interest in improving the Council's approach in evidence to us. It is incumbent upon the Chairman to ensure that the ACMD follows the spirit of openness prescribed by the Code of Practice.

Home Office

74. Advice from the ACMD forms just one input to decisions about classification taken by Ministers. It is inevitable that in this sensitive and high profile policy area, these decisions will be susceptible to influence by factors such as media pressure and perceptions of public opinion, as well as harm. Martin Barnes, Chief Executive of DrugScope and member of the ACMD, emphasised the importance of "the political context, the way the media covers these issues and the fact that when we deal with the issue of drugs and drugs policy it is very difficult on almost any level to have an informed, objective, evidence based discussion".[148] He argued that "politicians are nervous about drugs policy; they are nervous about being seen to make changes", citing the example of the reclassification of cannabis: "in terms of the system overall it is not that big [a change], but that was not the way it was reacted to politically or in the media".[149]

75. In view of the political sensitivities associated with policy making on topics relating to drug abuse, it is particularly important that Government decision making processes are as transparent as possible. Parents Against Lethal Addictive Drugs argued that this was not happening at present: "There is no transparency concerning which types of scientific and non-scientific evidence have been considered relevant, how this has influenced policy making and how conflicting rights and responsibilities of stakeholders have been balanced during policy making".[150] As discussed in paragraph 81, the Home Office also has a tendency to see classification decisions as vehicles for 'sending signals' to the public. We acknowledge that in this sensitive policy area scientific advice is just one input to decision making, The Home Office should be more transparent about the various factors influencing its decisions.

The need for a systematic approach

76. We were also concerned by the evident lack of a systematic approach to determining when reviews of classifications were needed. As discussed in Chapter 4, we have been left with the impression that media responses have been influential in triggering at least one of the Home Secretary's referrals to the ACMD. It is perfectly reasonable for the Government to seek to take into account public opinion in determining its policy on classification, but in the absence of any research or empirical data on this subject, we can only assume that the Government is using the media response as a proxy. We tried to ask the Minister whether this was indeed the case, but did not find his response - "We are not driven by headlines; we are driven by what is best for the people that we seek to do our best for"—terribly illuminating.[151] If the Government wishes to take into account public opinion in making its decisions about classification it should adopt a more empirical approach to assessing it. The Government's current approach is opaque and leaves itself open to the interpretation that reviews are being launched as knee-jerk responses to media storms.

77. More generally, we have identified a pressing need for both the Home Office and ACMD to institute a more systematic approach to reviewing the classification of individual drugs. We recommend that the Home Office and ACMD draw up a list of criteria to be taken into account in determining whether a review of a particular drug is required. Ministers and the ACMD would still be free to exercise their judgement in deciding when reviews should be undertaken but would do so within a more transparent framework.

140   Office of Science and Technology, Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, December 2001, para 46 Back

141   Ev 65 Back

142   Office of Science and Technology, Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, December 2001, para 65 Back

143   Q 165 Back

144   Q 170 Back

145   Ev 108 Back

146   As above Back

147   As above Back

148   Q 439 Back

149   As above Back

150   Ev 60 Back

151   Q 1225 Back

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