Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1260-1279)|
MP AND MR
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 thatsubject
to the proper procedures of the House, because obviously it has
to go through the processit 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 drugbecause
it is not too prevalent in the UK yetwill 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 issueas 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 ACMDand this is one
of the reasons why the ACMD changed its advicethey 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
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 decisionsespecially
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 timeand 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 usethe 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 researchand
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 questionablewhat 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 saidand
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 Committeeas 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 issuesI 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
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 thisnot embedded within the department but in a cross-departmental
way. So we have both: embedded science and cross-departmental
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
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 makeand 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 importantfor example, on issues like immigrationand
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