Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)


1 MARCH 2006

  Q140  Chairman: It is more likely if the Daily Mail wants it?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Not the Daily Mail, sir!

  Q141  Dr Harris: What is your relationship with the media and indeed other opposition politicians? I use the term other opposition politicians because clearly statements are made and demands are called for which influence ministers by these groups, and indeed opposition politicians, without the benefit of a formal relationship with you. Do you have any form of relationship with these groups so that you could let them know if some form of work is ongoing in particular spheres, particularly when they state something as fact which is not a fact? Do you do anything?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: No, to be honest.

  Q142  Dr Harris: Do you think you should?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Perhaps we should. Our role in the Act is to advise the secretaries of state, particularly the Home Secretary, but I think you are probably right, maybe we should talk more to parliamentarians and the opposition parties as well but we have not really done that in the past.

  Professor Nutt: We did a presentation, to MPs a couple of years ago, I think you were present.

  Q143  Dr Harris: The All-Party Group. If I am offered I pitch up but I think we are arguing for more than a meeting of an All-Party Group, to which I am sure you will be regularly invited. You just mentioned you did this thing on khat because of perceived public concern.

  Professor Nutt: It was not just that.

  Q144  Dr Harris: Did I mishear?

  Professor Nutt: There was unquestionably public concern which came to us through people working in drug services but also through the Department of Health, which I believe had some ongoing research looking at the potential risks of khat use in certain communities.

  Q145  Dr Harris: I do not know how you measure public concern. It is hard to measure. A good way is to talk to 2,000 people and ask them which of these they are most concerned about. Some form of large-scale survey is probably the best and only way. I do not know what you mean by public concern. Do you mean ministers saying we are concerned? Do you mean a newspaper headline?

  Professor Nutt: I think it would be fair to say that we do try to be evidence-based. A simple newspaper headline would not drive us to do a major piece of work.

  Q146  Dr Harris: Are you confident that what you have said was the basis of public concern about that particular substance was evidence-based or is that just your impression?

  Professor Nutt: The concern was raised, as I say, through a number of sources—health sources, drug addiction workers—and based on that, and in parallel with ongoing research by the Department of Health, we did our report. I do not really quite understand what you are getting at.

  Q147  Dr Harris: You said public concern and I am saying what is the evidence that there is broader public concern?

  Professor Nutt: I was not talking about the general public, I suppose, so maybe I misunderstood you.

  Q148  Chairman: You seem to be giving the impression—and I would not want the Committee to be unfair—that this is a very ad hoc sort of organisation, where there is a lack of transparency about where you get advice from. You have loose conversations with ministers which may or may not change policy. The Daily Mail, or some other organ, may exert undue influence. You may or may not have conversations with the Department for Education and Skills, even though drugs policy in schools is a massive issue. Are we being unfair here?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Grossly unfair, yes. The way issues like this come through will be multiple routes and finding out about, for example, khat, which is used by a very small group of people, there is not a way in which one can have a routine mechanism for flagging up issues. Yes, I had the conversation with the Home Secretary, but that is about the only thing I can think of that I have ever talked to him in that way. We publish reports which are fully referenced and fully detailed. The methylamphetamine report and the khat report are all fully detailed with the sources of the evidence and the evidence base. As for being influenced by the Daily Mail, you have only got to read the Daily Mail and read what they say about me and Professor Nutt to realise we are not influenced by them.

  Q149  Chairman: I am sure that will be reported tomorrow.

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I look forward to it.

  Q150  Dr Harris: I want to ask you about this ability to do proactive work. You have not done Ecstasy—I could phrase that better!

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I know what you mean, Dr Harris!

  Q151  Dr Harris: We are going to take ecstasy later in the question but the Runciman Report and these other reports stated clearly that they thought there was a case for reclassification, and indeed I think the Home Affairs Select Committee did as well. These were not trivial pieces of work. These were serious pieces of work, yet, remarkably, despite having the ability (although you have not been asked by the Government and in fact one might say because you have not been asked by the Government) and in the face of these reports, you have not done a report following that up. That gives the appearance, would you not agree, that if ministers are not keen on something then you are not going to do it, even if other august bodies, who do not take perhaps as rigorous approach as you, have done it. It just seems odd.

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Yes, ecstasy was placed into Class A in 1977. Since that time—

  Q152  Dr Harris: Without your being advised?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: 1977—that was when we were both medical students.

  Q153  Dr Harris: Without the ACMD being advised?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I do not know in 1977. I presume it was on the advice of the Council. I presume it would be then because the Act was already there. Since that time the amount of research on ecstasy is minute. There has hardly been any good scientific research at all on ecstasy. What has been done is a few animal studies and little bits of epidemiology on deaths which are very, very difficult to interpret and, frankly, if we keep on going back --- so there is no evidence base now to change the decision.

  Q154  Bob Spink: Leah Betts' parents might challenge your assertion that there is no evidence base.

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: There is no change in the evidence base; it is almost non-existent.

  Q155  Dr Harris: So the limiting factor is not resources? You have enough resources to do proactive reviews?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Absolutely.

  Q156  Dr Harris: My last area of questioning is you said that you had said to ministers that if they were minded to look at the way the classification system worked then the ACMD would support that. Does that mean the ACMD discussed that?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: We did discuss it very briefly at the end of our meeting on cannabis.

  Q157  Dr Harris: It is a bit peculiar because a lot of organisations do spend time thinking about it and in case they are asked by those who set their terms of reference, "It would be really good if the terms of reference could change . . . " they have a piece of work ready. Would you say that it is something that really ought to be done, that there ought to be serious consideration so that if someone says, "Shall we do this?" you can say, "Yes, and here is some work that we have done that would support the idea of a change from a rigid ABC"? Select committees do that. They are always looking at the way they work.

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Our terms of reference are independent of the classification system if you look at our terms of reference in the Act. This discussion came at the end of two days of very intense discussion on cannabis, and we had not actually discussed it previously and this was not a moment to start going into what might be, and anyway I think it is an issue that would be more appropriately done by Home Office officials and by government ministers and then followed by broad consultation. It was not appropriate at that stage, as I said, at the end of two days of very intense discussions to try and unpick it in any sense.

  Chairman: I am going to try and change direction a little bit because I am very conscious of the need to move on. Des?

  Q158  Dr Turner: Sir Michael, looking at the list of members of your Committee, there is quite an impressive breadth of expertise there and just about every stakeholder that I can think of that needs to be represented is there. Is this a function of your influence or is it decided by the Home Secretary? Who actually determines the membership?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: What happens now is that there is an advertisement to join, but I have also indicated that there are certain slots that we needed to have filled. We needed to have, for example, senior police officers. I was very keen on having a judge. I have been very anxious recently to have people with experience of teaching, particularly current, practical experience of teaching rather than, with great respect, directors of education, so real, actual working teachers. So I have influenced it and there has been no political suggestions at all as to the range of individuals. I have also been keen on trying to get a few younger people on it because most of us are my age or a bit younger, like Professor Nutt here, but we felt we needed some younger people who knew the culture and the environment rather better than fathers and grandfathers like me.

  Q159  Dr Turner: Clearly your influence is very strong in this. The only thing of course is that although your minimum membership is 20, it has expanded to 38 members. Is it in danger of getting cumbersome?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I would not want it to go any larger, but the breadth of expertise, knowledge and understanding is very important to the Council, and you will see from the membership that it includes very distinguished scientists who are Fellows of the Royal Society as well as people who have experience of looking after and helping individuals who misuse drugs, and their families, so it is a wide range, as you say.

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