Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1260-1279)


14 JUNE 2006

  Q1260  Dr Iddon: My final question is this. Can you cite another example of where the Home Office have moved a drug around in the classification system merely to clarify the law, instead of looking at the harm?

  Mr Coaker: I may have to write to you on that one.

  Q1261  Bob Spink: Minister, will methylamphetamine be reclassified as a Class A drug today?

  Mr Coaker: The announcement that we are making from the Home Office today is that—subject to the proper procedures of the House, because obviously it has to go through the process—it is our intention to reclassify methylamphetamine from a B to an A.

  Q1262  Bob Spink: I congratulate you on that. I think that early action on this drug—because it is not too prevalent in the UK yet—will protect individuals and society. It shows that the system is working in this case, and a certain sensitivity towards this very harmful and dangerous drug. So I thank you for that. I am delighted with it. The ACMD said last week that they had made this recommendation to you based on, for instance, evidence from the police forces that the police had found an increasing number of laboratories manufacturing that drug. Is that so?

  Mr Coaker: Can I start by saying that I was at the debate a few weeks ago when the Honourable Member raised this whole issue—as a Whip at that time. I think it does show that Parliament listens. I would like to thank him for the comments that he made at the beginning. It just shows that sometimes these things can work. It is the case that, in the letter that we received from the ACMD—and this is one of the reasons why the ACMD changed its advice—they had become aware of a small number of illicit laboratories for synthesising this substance. It was a low number but, yes, that was one of the things.

  Q1263  Bob Spink: That shows the police actually initiating action within the ACMD, which is contrary to the other evidence that we have received from the Association of Chief Police Officers. I just wanted to get that on record. The ACMD have previously given evidence to us that increasing the classification of the drug would increase its kudos and therefore increase its use. That is why they were not considering that at an earlier time. I accept totally that people change views as situations change, and you change your decisions—especially a marginal decision, as it clearly was. Do you accept that there is this tension and that increasing the classification of a drug might increase its kudos and use?

  Mr Coaker: These are judgments, and very serious judgments, that are made. Bob himself thought that it was important that the drug was reclassified from B to A. Why was that? Because, listening to the points that he put, they are exactly the same as the points which the ACMD put. Although low use at the current time—and I think it is important to emphasise from this Committee that there is not an explosion of use at the present time, but there is low use—the potential for harm was there. That is why Bob, others, and the ACMD said that there was therefore a need to reclassify it to an A.

  Q1264  Bob Spink: Why did the ACMD announce this last week, and why did they choose the Guardian to announce it to?

  Mr Coaker: I cannot comment on how it got in the Guardian. I do not think that was chosen. We can speculate on why things happen. I will just leave that with the Honourable Member.

  Q1265  Bob Spink: It appeared on the front page of the Guardian.

  Mr Coaker: I know where it appeared. I am just saying that the route was not entirely clear to me.

  Q1266  Bob Spink: Do you think it appropriate that the ACMD should have its deliberations often in secret, and its advice to ministers often in secret, but selectively to release certain decisions to instruments like the Guardian, which they selected very carefully?

  Mr Coaker: We have a close relationship with the ACMD and that is based on trust. It is based on close co-operation. I have only been in the job, as you know, four or five weeks. I am trying to come to terms with that. I have every confidence in the ACMD, in the work that they do. How that appeared in the Guardian, I am not sure. I am not blaming anyone for it. All I am saying is that, at the end of the day, however it appeared, we are pleased to say that we accept the advice that the ACMD have given us.

  Q1267  Bob Spink: Does the Government intend to ask the ACMD to look at the classification of Ecstasy?

  Mr Coaker: We have no plans to do that, no, at the present time.

  Q1268  Bob Spink: Have you considered the evidence surrounding the classification of Ecstasy and the arguments for looking at reclassification?

  Mr Coaker: My understanding is that there was some research done ten years ago with respect to that, which showed that there were considerable harms out there. We also know that, if you turn it round, there is no research out there saying that it should be reclassified.

  Bob Spink: That is a very good answer. I am sure that Leah Betts' parents will be delighted to hear it.

  Q1269  Dr Harris: If you do not ask, you will never know. So if the Home Affairs Committee and the Runciman Report say there is a good case to move it from A to B, and if you are so confident that there is no research—and I have to say, given—

  Mr Coaker: As far as I am aware.

  Q1270  Dr Harris: . . . how much you know about the evidence base, or how much we all know about the evidence base as politicians, is questionable—what harm is there is asking the ACMD? Is this not just a case of "see no evil, hear no evil"? You do not want to ask something that you do not want to hear the answer to?

  Mr Coaker: Not at all. We have no plans to reclassify Ecstasy. As Brian said, we regard it as a dangerous drug, and it is something we want to make clear to people that we see as potentially harmful. Because I thought that this may come up, I looked at some of the figures in terms of deaths where Ecstasy was actually mentioned on the death certificate. There were 48 in 2004; 33 in 2003; 55 in 2002, and so on.

  Q1271  Dr Harris: Thousands in the case of heroin. Professor Blakemore said, " . . . on the basis of present evidence Ecstasy should not be a Class A drug. It is at the bottom of the scale of harm".

  Mr Coaker: That is not the Government's view. The Government's view is that it is a harmful drug and we do not want to see it reclassified.

  Q1272  Dr Harris: I know that you do not want to, but why do you not ask the ACMD to look at the evidence? They may reject the evidence.

  Mr Coaker: The ACMD may come forward and look at that but at the current time, so far as I am aware, there are no plans for them to do so.

  Q1273  Dr Turner: We can get off drugs now! I want to ask you both a much more general question. This Committee has in the past been critical of the Home Office for a lack of a scientific culture. That criticism has been mirrored by outside bodies. Do you think yourselves that the Home Office has sufficient expertise within it to be an intelligent customer for scientific and technological advice? If not, what are you doing to correct that?

  Mr Coaker: Yes, there are a lot of committees and bodies now which have been set up: people responsible for considering the scientific evidence that comes in. On a general point, however, can I say this? The whole point and purpose of the Select Committee system is to challenge the Government; it is to cause the Government to think. It has been a robust and interesting exchange of views that we have had here today. It would be arrogant for me, as a Home Office minister, to say that, whatever this Committee comes up with and makes as its recommendations, the Government would not need to go back and look to see whether it can learn from it. All I can say is that there are people responsible for evaluating the scientific evidence and research in the Home Office. Does that mean that we cannot learn from what the Committee may or may not say in its report? No, of course it does not. We will have to take that on board and listen to what is said—and we will do that.

  Joan Ryan: Could I add to that? In the light of previous criticism, to be fair to the Home Office, we have to acknowledge the work that has been done to improve the level of scientific work, advice, expertise and experience within the Home Office. That is why I talked earlier about the Home Office science and innovation strategy. I particularly refer to the Science Research Group, which brought together several scientific units dealing with issues that cut across the Home Office and which were previously spread across Home Office departments. I think that this has significantly strengthened the science expertise availability and advice within the Home Office. I think that the use and extent of scientific expertise have grown substantially. From my own experience of the past four and half weeks, I can tell the Committee—as you know, I have responsibility for Forensic Science, for the DNA database, for licensing animal experiments, as well as all the identity scheme management issues and the science involved in all of those issues—I have never been exposed to so much science in my life, since I was about 15. I am very impressed with the clarity, the standard, the research, their ability to communicate all of that and their willingness to do so, and the amount of briefing that I receive. So from that point of view, yes, I think that they have made big efforts within the department and, personally, I am impressed with the scientific support that I am receiving in my role.

  Q1274  Dr Turner: That is good to hear, though we are still in receipt of criticisms, and quite recent criticisms: notably, an academic who undertook research for the Home Office recently. To quote him, he said, "To participate in Home Office research is to endorse a biased agenda". Do you think that is fair?

  Mr Coaker: No.

  Q1275  Dr Turner: How do you protect research and evaluation from political pressures in the Home Office?

  Joan Ryan: How do we . . . ?

  Q1276  Dr Turner: Protect research and evaluation from political pressure? How do you stop evidence being selectively used to back whatever preconception you start with?

  Joan Ryan: We do not just use science internally; we do commission research and development that underpins policy development. I think that there will always be individuals who have a variety of views, for a variety of reasons. Overall, looking at the expertise both inside the Home Office and the expertise they commission for the R&D from outside the Home Office, I think that there is a good balance there and a degree of independence that is reassuring. I think that the co-ordination with other government departments through the Chief Scientific Adviser's committee is also a very good example of pulling together science and research across departments and looking at this—not embedded within the department but in a cross-departmental way. So we have both: embedded science and cross-departmental science.

  Q1277  Dr Turner: Do you agree that there is still a potential trap that, instead of doing what the Government professes to do, which is to make evidence-based policy, you can actually be doing evidence-informed policy, which is subtly different?

  Mr Coaker: The evidence will come up. There is an attempt, and a very serious attempt, by the Home Office to give scientific evidence much more focus within the department. Various groups have been set up, as Joan has just been saying; various attempts to give a greater strategic direction to all of that. Part of that is to inform and advise us about the best way forward with respect to the policies that we pursue. Inevitably, people will make judgments about policy decisions. That is what we all do all of the time. However, what we want is frank and open information on which we base the decisions, and an informed scientific base, where appropriate, to the decisions that we make—and that is what we are trying to do.

  Q1278  Dr Turner: How do you see the role of the departmental Chief Scientific Adviser? Has he made an impact on the department, and how do you interact with him?

  Joan Ryan: Yes, I have now met with him on a number of occasions. I think that there is an impact there. He has a dual role: that of an adviser and a manager. He has a clear remit to ensure improvement in quality standards; better evaluation of policies; improvement in internal skills by increased training and professional development. For the Home Office, that means he has a lead role in taking forward those reforms and bringing together the statistics, social and physical sciences. An example of that might be the DNA use, for instance. He is increasing the range of social science work, which we think is important—for example, on issues like immigration—and increasing science work across the Home Office portfolio beyond policing. So we need continually to monitor that that is having an impact, but I think that, in his role and the lead he is taking, he is taking things forward. It is very much in line with some of the comments that you have been making this morning about your concerns and previous criticisms.

  Q1279  Dr Turner: What do you see as the main benefit of having the Chief Scientific Adviser in the Home Office?

  Mr Coaker: Again, I think it goes back to the point that you made before: that we are trying to make informed policy decisions. Inevitably there will be judgments about that.

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