House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
INNOVATION, UNIVERSITIES, SCIENCE AND SKILLS COMMITTEE
AT THE HEART OF GOVERNMENT POLICY
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
Members who receive this for the purpose of correcting questions addressed by them to witnesses are asked to send corrections to the Committee Assistant.
Prospective witnesses may receive this in preparation for any written or oral evidence they may in due course give to the Committee.
Transcribed by the Official Shorthand Writers to the Houses of Parliament:
W B Gurney & Sons LLP, Hope House,
Telephone Number: 020 7233 1935
Taken before the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee
Mr Phil Willis, in the Chair
Mr Tim Boswell
Dr Ian Gibson
Dr Evan Harris
Dr Brian Iddon
Witnesses: Professor Chris Gaskell, Chair, Defra Science Advisory Council, Dame Deirdre Hutton, Chair, Food Standards Agency, and Professor Sir Michael Rawlins, Former Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, gave evidence.
Chairman: Good morning. Could I welcome our three extremely distinguished witnesses to the inquiry this morning, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government, looking particularly at how the Government receives independent scientific advice to deal with its policy. We have before us Dame Deirdre Hutton, the Chairman of the Food Standards Agency - welcome to you Dame Deirdre, an old friend of the previous committee but I think the first time you have been before the new DIUSS Committee - Professor Chris Gaskell, the Chief of the Science Advisory Council for Defra - welcome to you again - and, by no means last, Sir Michael Rawlins, the former Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and current Chairman of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, but we are discussing principally your role as the former Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, to put that on the record, and I will rule out any other questions to you other than in that particular area. We have a number of people who wish to declare interests.
Mr Boswell: Chairman, I think, for completeness, I should declare my interest as a former minister at MAFF, as the precursor of Defra, and, indeed, before that as a special advisor to MAFF and, indeed, I am still a member of the old comrades association of that joint body.
Q241 Chairman: We will move on. The interest for the committee this morning is that we have three witnesses who come from different advisory organisations to the Government. We are trying to get a feel. I wonder if we could ask each of you, starting with you, Dame Deirdre, to give us a couple of minutes as to how you would describe your remit and who do you report to, very briefly.
Dame Deirdre Hutton: Thank you very much indeed, Chairman, and also thank you to the committee for inviting me. The remit of the Food Standards Agency is very broad. The legislation states it as the duty to protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food and otherwise protect the interests of consumers in relation to food. So it is a very, very broad remit that covers more or less anything that is in food that either is produced or eaten. We are an independent government department - we do not have a minister; instead we have a board and a chair who are appointed by Nolan rules -we operate in a completely open and transparent way and we are accountable to Parliament through, but not to, ministers at the Department of Health.
Q242 Chairman: In terms of reporting to Parliament, how does that happen other than your written reports? We clearly have your latest one before us.
Dame Deirdre Hutton: Largely, in formal terms, the written report is how that accountability is expressed to Parliament, although, clearly, appearing before select committees is also a very important part of that accountability, but in the broadest sense, I would say, from the fact that everything we do, every piece of research, every decision we make, is put into the public domain, that is another very important way of expressing that accountability.
Q243 Chairman: How often do you appear before select committees? Is it usually the Health Committee?
Dame Deirdre Hutton: Certainly the Health Committee, House of Lords committees as well - Science and Technology Committees, sometimes Defra - I appeared in front of the Efra Committee recently - not, however, a very great deal, but we are, of course, at your disposal when you wish to call us.
Q244 Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. Professor Gaskell.
Professor Gaskell: Thank you, and thank you, too, for the invitation to come. This is the first time, I think, Defra's SAC has been in front a select committee and I am glad of the opportunity. The council was created in 2004 and its function is to advise and challenge Defra, through the Chief Scientific Adviser, on the quality and appropriateness of the science base and the science evidence that Defra is using. We are independent; I do not think I would say fiercely independent. We are constructed and appointed under Nolan rules; we are all independent of Defra; we publish all our proceedings; all our recommendations and advice to the CSA (Chief Scientific Adviser) are put on the web. We hold one public meeting a year and we are there to be called to account whenever and by whomever is appropriate.
Q245 Chairman: Do you think you are an effective organisation?
Professor Gaskell: I think we are. It is an evolving system. The whole system of CSAs and SACs within government is evolving, and you will have had, or have access to, the advice from OST, for example, on codes of practice to the Science Advisory Council, and we contributed quite significantly, I think, to that because we had, in Defra, as much experience as anybody of this type of independent advice and challenge. We seek to look at our effectiveness in two ways. We actually have audited, and are due to so do again, but we did a couple of years ago audit the response of Defra to all our recommendations and look and see whether they were accepted, accepted in principle, which is sometimes a euphemism, or rejected.
Q246 Chairman: We know the feeling.
Professor Gaskell: You know the feeling. The vast majority were accepted, and we follow that up; we follow up how that has been put into place. So that is one way in which we judge our effectiveness; I think that is the major way in which we judge our effectiveness.
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I am here as the former Chairman of the ACMD, but I have been a member of the government Scientific Advisory Committee since 1979, so I bring quite a bit of experience, and I have the scars as a consequence. The ACMD, which I chaired for ten years, is set up under the Misuse of Drugs Act to advise the Home Secretary, and other government departments, on a broad range of matters related to substance misuse. It is a large council. Its members are now appointed under Nolan arrangements. In the old days they just emerged, but now it is done under Nolan arrangements, and over the last few years it has become much more open and transparent. Under my chairmanship, we started meeting in public, which we had not done before, and I think meeting in public is very important. The FSA took the lead in this when John Krebs was Chairman, right from the very beginning, and I learnt a lot from him about his experience and I introduced the same measures in both NICE and the ACMD.
Q247 Chairman: You report directly to the Home Secretary, do you?
Professor Gaskell: Yes.
Q248 Dr Gibson: I will ask Professor Gaskell and Professor Rawlins: how often do you appear on Radio 4?
Professor Gaskell: This week.
Q249 Dr Gibson: This week. Quite often?
Professor Gaskell: Sometimes, but not always as Chairman of the Defra SAC.
Q250 Dr Gibson: But you have been its Chairman.
Professor Gaskell: I have commented as Chairman.
Q251 Dr Gibson: And I know you have, Professor Rawlins.
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Yes, Boxing Day was my last appearance on Radio 4 on The Today Programme.
Q252 Dr Gibson: I ask that question because the follow up question is: when you go on Radio 4 do you make contact at all with any government department, civil servants? Does a minister phone you up and say, "Be careful or else"?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I have never had a minister phone me up before going on The Today Programme.
Q253 Dr Gibson: After?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: No, I cannot recall one after. Sometimes, of course, the whole thing is set up by the communications or press office of the Home Office or the Minister.
Q254 Dr Gibson: But are you aware when you go on Radio 4 that you
might be being listened to by
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Oh, yes.
Q255 Dr Gibson: ---and if you get it wrong, you will get hammered?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Of course.
Q256 Dr Gibson: You might even lose your job.
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Of course, yes.
Q257 Dr Gibson: You are not really independent in than sense, are you?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Well, anything we do we could get it wrong and get hammered. There is no question about that. The members and the Chairman can say the wrong thing and say such a dreadfully wrong thing in public that the Government and the electorate and people might lose confidence in you.
Q258 Dr Gibson: I only ask because the word "independent" slips out quite easily. Dame Deirdre did say in the definition that the board and chair were separate and independent. What I am trying to prove is that you are not exactly 100 per cent independent, you are part and parcel of a government machine?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I think the important bit to me for the independence is not the fact that the secretariat is provided by the Government, government money and all that sort of thing, it is really about being free to provide government with the views that you believe are the right ones based on the evidence before you.
Q259 Dr Gibson: Have you had any view suppressed by government, or anybody else, who said, "You must not say that. It is a danger to the nation"? Have MI5 ever been on to you, or MI6?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Not that I am aware of.
Dr Gibson: Is there a click when you pick your phone up?
Dr Harris: You have never been flown to
Q260 Mr Boswell: You did say carefully that you have never been rung by ministers, but are you given a line to take from time to time by senior officials when they are aware that you are going on the Today programme, or whatever?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I cannot remember actually. I cannot recall such a thing happening.
Q261 Mr Boswell: Certainly you would not be seeking advice?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: No.
Q262 Mr Boswell: You go with your own brief.
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Yes.
Q263 Mr Boswell: You would not be seeking to concert your advice with the official line before you went on it?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: No, I am much more anxious to give the line of the committee that I am chairing.
Q264 Chairman: Professor Gaskell.
Professor Gaskell: I think, while not in the same league of Radio 4 appearances as Sir Michael---
Dr Gibson: Your time will come!
Dr Harris: It is a new performance measure!
Q265 Chairman: After this appearance before the committee they will be after you all the time.
Professor Gaskell: Thank you very much. I will look forward to it. I did want to, I think, emphasise that we do genuinely feel independent. I think this an interesting point. You will find there is a difference from some other science advisory councils. We report to the Chief Science Adviser; we do not report to the Minister. Our advice to Defra is very clearly through him.
Q266 Dr Gibson: Through Bob Watson.
Professor Gaskell: Through Bob Watson and Howard Dalton before him. Indeed, it was Howard Dalton who was the prime mover in establishing the council in the first place, because he recognised that with the broad brief that the department has, for any one person to assume they had the scientific advice at their fingertips would have been inappropriate, and so he very specifically, and we have been very robust in this, decided that he needed independent advice and challenge, and if you talk to Bob Watson, as you may do, he places great emphasis on our capacity to challenge and to say things that may well be inconvenient. Science is occasionally inconvenient and it does not always provide the answers, and that is true in Defra.
Q267 Dr Harris: A couple of quick questions. Your SAC is different from the committee that exists at the Home Office, I think, where they have the chairs of all their advisory committees in a committee which I think they call their Scientific Advisers Committee, but that is different from your beast.
Professor Gaskell: It is different from our beast. Our beast is a committee of experts, it is not an expert committee, which I think is an interesting distinction. In other words, we are not put together to answer one specific set of questions around one specific area.
Q268 Dr Harris: So is their Home Office committee.
Professor Gaskell: Yes, but though we do much of our work through sub-groups which members may well chair, we do not come together as a group of chairs to form one overseeing committee, which you are saying is the model elsewhere, and I think Dame Deirdre may wish to comment on that in the context of the FSA as well. We come together as a group and are appointed under Nolan rules with the objective of providing broad experience.
Q269 Dr Harris: This Nolan appointment: you are still appointed, you are still nominated by a minister, are you not?
Professor Gaskell: No. We have just been through a process of renewing the committee as some members come to the end of their tenure, and it was put out to open advertisement and, with a member of the selection committee from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, myself and Bob Watson, we then interviewed people who applied through open advertisement.
Q270 Dr Gibson: So it takes three people to apply.
Professor Gaskell: No.
Q271 Dr Harris: Dame Deirdre, were you appointed in that way?
Dame Deirdre Hutton: I was. I replied to an advertisement, I filled in a form, I was interviewed twice and then the recommendation went to ministers, who agreed it.
Q272 Dr Harris: If someone like you is not renewed, is that Lord Nolan saying he does not think you have done a good job, or is it you not expressing an interest, or do the ministers say, "We want to re-advertise"?
Dame Deirdre Hutton: I have quite a strong view that it is a good idea for regulators, which I consider myself, only to do one turn because then it enhances your independence. If you are asking about my personal decision not to stand again, it was that I have been there four years and done most of the things I set out to do.
Chairman: I would really like to get back to Dr Gibson.
Q273 Dr Gibson: It used to be said by John Krebs that they did not have enough scientists in the FSA to begin with. That suggests that the original recruitment process did not identify the areas in a targeted way that were necessary to function at a 100 per cent level. They just took who came along and who was interested and applied in the early days of the FSA. I know it has changed. Is that true? They have gone through a process?
Dame Deirdre Hutton: We have certainly gone through a process, and I am assuming you are talking about the board here.
Q274 Dr Gibson: Yes.
Dame Deirdre Hutton: As Chairman I would look at the skill-set that we have on the board and decide what else we need. Out of 13 members at the moment we have five board members with a range of scientific backgrounds, so I think it is pretty well catered for, and within the staff itself, just under 50 per cent of our staff are scientists and 67 per cent of them have higher postgraduate qualifications.
Dr Gibson: What about lay people? How valuable are they? How necessary are they? Does it give credibility to your committee to have them? Do they function? Are they any good? Do they shut up all the time? Tell us your experiences.
Q275 Chairman: Can we have an answer from all of you, please, as well?
Dame Deirdre Hutton: We have lay people throughout the organisation and on the board, but if I start with the board, we absolutely have lay people. I regard them as extraordinarily important, because what we do in the agency is the risk assessment is provided by the scientists and we have a very robust scientific governance methodology for making sure that that is good independent science, but the role of the board is to do risk management, which is about blending that science together with the concerns of the public and various other issues like the economics. So the role of lay people is extraordinarily important in highlighting actually what the real issues are for the public in terms of their acceptance of risk, and we have lay people on each of the scientific advisory committees and the importance there is that they will help frame the questions that the scientists look at right at the beginning of the process. We try to blend those societal interests with science the whole way through the agency's operation.
Q276 Dr Gibson: Do they cut the scientists down to size, in your opinion?
Dame Deirdre Hutton: I do not think they cut the scientists down to size at all; I just I think they help them do a better job.
Q277 Chairman: Do they get paid, Dame Deirdre?
Dame Deirdre Hutton: Yes.
Q278 Chairman: Do lay members and the other members of the committee?
Dame Deirdre Hutton: I was about to say, yes, firmly, and I realise I am not quite sure. I think they are paid a daily allowance. Can I just have a minute? They get their expenses and an allowance, but are they paid a salary? No.
Q279 Chairman: Professor Gaskell, the same question.
Professor Gaskell: I will just pick up on that issue. All members are paid a daily rate, exactly the same, irrespective of the expertise they bring. We would regard lay members as bringing in expertise. The problem with the term "lay" is that it can be used pejoratively and it is not a pejorative term; it suggests another skill-set which is of value to the committee or council on which they sit. You might be interested to look at the evidence (and it is on the website under the Science Advisory Council) that we provided to the consideration of the review of the Code of Practice for SACS. We put together a number of paragraphs around our perspective of the role of lay membership. We feel they do have a role to play; they do bring a different perspective. I think the degree of importance that they have will, of course, vary with the type of committee. In our committee, as I said, which is a committee of experts, in many senses many of the people there are lay for 80/90 per cent of the time because it is the main issue of the day which somebody else has got the FRS in and they have not, so another perspective, but one could argue that that is, nonetheless, a scientifically trained perspective. What lay members often bring is a capacity to ask the awkward and inconvenient question and to bring another perspective. We have a number of social scientists on our Science Advisory Council and, of course, they will bring a different perspective from the natural scientist. So I think the term "lay" is encompassed by a range of inputs across the council, and we are very clear that we are expecting council members to contribute to the business of the council even when it is not their specialty area and in that sense act as a lay member.
Professor Sir Michael
Rawlins: The Advisory
Council on the Misuse of Drugs has a very broad membership, about 35 people,
ranging on the one hand from judges, very senior police officers to
pharmacologists, psychiatrists, psycho-pharmacologists, to social workers,
people with experience of delivering services to substance misusers in the
voluntary sector. So it is a very broad
group. It also has a technical
committee, which is chaired by the Professor of Pharmacology from
Q280 Dr Gibson: I have some experience of lots of committees and the ability to keep dissidents off them seems to be number two on the first agenda, because they can slow things down, they have absolutely ultra views in terms of the establishment's view about scientists. If we think about the Human Embryology Authority, there were people on there who you would describe as dissidents in terms of the forward movement of human embryology research, and so on, but they always resisted putting them on there, and that created in the public a kind of suspicion of the organisation. Would you put a dissident on your committee, or allow them to go forward, or encourage them so that you had that view up there in lights, in front of the public, and you would argue it out open openly, or would you, like happens in a lot of arenas, try and keep them off? Do you agree that that happens?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I think there is a temptation for it to happen because it is easier to chair, but on the other hand, you have the broad views of a range of interests, and the ACMD is a classic example of police officers on the one hand, very senior police officers, judges and people in voluntary organisations at the other extreme, and it is very important for all those views to be heard. What the ACMD has never done, and I think, on balance, it is right, it has never had substance misusers as members of the committee as service users, if you like. It has been suggested, but it has never done that, and I think that is probably right.
Q281 Dr Gibson: Chris?
Professor Gaskell: I think it is important to be open as a council, as I said earlier, to inconvenient views. We actually have debated this on the council. The trouble is one personalises this if one is not careful, but we do have members on the committee who make a point of being contrary in order to demonstrate the debate, and we have also had the debate about how we represent uncomfortable views across the spectrum of science to the Chief Scientific Adviser in the advice we give him, because it is inappropriate and improper to provide a modified and sanitised view of the scientific evidence. If there are strongly held but sometimes minority opposing views, they need to be taken into account as well as part of the advice you offer up. I like to think that we are robust and that we do not shy away from inconvenient truths or inconvenient views.
Q282 Mr Boswell: It is a bit like a Civil Service submission, is it, to a minister. It does say, this could be (a)---
Professor Gaskell: But you should know.
Q283 Mr Boswell: ---but you should know (b) and (c).
Professor Gaskell: Yes.
Q284 Chairman: You do not have any dissidents on the Food Standards Agency?
Dame Deirdre Hutton: We cover a broader range than embryology, for example, so it would be difficult to pinpoint the particular dissident that would be appropriate on the board, but I do, quite deliberately, as Chair, set out to make sure that I have people who are difficult, because actually it makes for a better debate and it challenges you and stops complacency. However, in any subject that we are dealing with which is current, you will almost certainly have working groups, or steering groups, or whatever it is, set up. We will always make a point of including "the opposition" on that, because it is much better on the whole to have that debate in-house and hear it and deal with it rather than to have people shouting over the barricades.
Q285 Mr Boswell: Can we go to the question about how you determine the topics you are looking at as independent advisory committees and who sets the terms of reference for them? Perhaps I will ask that question first. If you start with a clean piece of paper, how do you fill it? What topics do you select, who marks your card as to what you should go on, and so forth? I will perhaps start with Michael, if I may.
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: The issues come to the ACMD from mainly two sources. Ministers specifically ask specific questions, and that is quite right and proper, but also issues are raised through members, and they come from various sources. For example, the police may raise issues with us that are concerning them from their intelligence, and so on and so forth, and then we may use that as the starting point of a topic. It comes from a number of different sources but, broadly speaking, either from ministers or from the council members themselves.
Professor Gaskell: Defra SAC is interesting in that it is an evolving council with an evolving agenda, which I think is quite proper. When we were first established we were there, I think, to support as well as challenge, and perhaps the emphasis then was to support Howard Dalton as a relatively new breed of CSA coming in from outside, coming in from academia four days a week, carving out a niche with his own agenda. So, for example, we helped him look at issues like quality assurance of the science, how science moved through into policy - there were a number of issues there that we took on on his behalf - but the formal answer to the question is that the agenda is set for the council by a mixture of advice asked of us by the CSA (Chief Scientific Advisor). Bovine tuberculosis would be an example where we have offered him advice.
Q286 Mr Boswell: Just to be clear, because you were talking about your reporting into the CSA, you will not, as it were, get a ministerial fear that says, "You will look at this", you will get a CSA request that you should.
Professor Gaskell: We serve the CSA, and that is, I think, a point worth re-emphasising because it is not the model across the whole of government; but we will also set our own agenda and sometimes it will be a mixture of debate. For example, we have just done a significant piece of work on the use of social research, social science, within Defra. We were concerned, and we voiced these concerns, that Defra, in part, was seriously lacking in the evidence base around social science. Indeed, in some areas it was not even an intelligent customer, it did not even know what questions to ask, let alone how to use the evidence. So we forced that through and we have made a number of recommendations which, I think, have been very helpful to Defra. Recently an agenda that we are now picking up on is Defra's handling of data and its use of modelling. That is something that has emerged from the committee. We feel that we want to look at that and we have told the CSA that we are going to do it, and we will do it. Equally, I mentioned bovine TB, but in the past he has provided evidence for us around epidemic diseases in animals, around contingency planning, for example, and that has been a sort of symbiotic relationship of challenge and advice at the same time.
Q287 Chairman: In terms, for instance, of the development of Pirbright and the need to have Level Four facilities for large animals, was that something that you have looked at?
Professor Gaskell: We have looked at the way in which Defra has responded to the foot and mouth outbreaks, and we have challenged them in that context, and as part of our commentary on the management of the last outbreak, we talked tangentially about the need for there to be the strongest science base to inform the policy and the contingency plans. We have not been directly drawn into the debate between Defra and DIUS over the funding and the management of Pirbright and other science facilities around epidemic diseases.
Q288 Chairman: Is that not rather sad? Is that not something you should be doing?
Professor Gaskell: I have talked to the CSA off-line, as it were, about it, and I think there is a level of frustration, as there is quite widely, around the situation we find ourselves in, and I think it is not unlikely that the Science Advisory Council will be asking some questions of the CSA at its next meeting.
Q289 Chairman: Dame Deirdre.
Dame Deirdre Hutton: We are just in the process of drawing up our next strategic plan for 2010 to 2015, and one of the activities we have been engaged in, in terms of food safety (a hazard for the whole food chain), is to do a hazard analysis starting, effectively, with the pig and going to the sausage and working out where the difficulties are. If I give you one example, we have increasing levels of food-borne illness from campylobacter. If you look back up the food chain, you can start to see where that campylobacter emerges: it is a problem in poultry. So using that type of tool, we are trying to be very rigorous about, hence, where we put our resources going forward. So that is one approach. We have instituted a new scientific committee, which we call the General Advisory Committee on Science, which is chaired by Professor Colin Blakemore, and one of the functions of that committee is to do horizon scanning for us, both in the UK, but also in the science community around the world, to give us an indication of what might be important and we should look at. Our chief scientist does an annual research report on research. It is difficult to pin down one way in which you decide what to do, but there is quite a robust process for gathering in information and disseminating it. We currently have out for consultation our strategic plan for that 2010/2015 period, and I would be delighted to provide you with a copy of it if you would find that helpful.
Q290 Mr Boswell: I think it would be. Thank you. Probably in the interests of time, trying compress this a bit, can I try some shorthand on you and see your response? It seems to me from those three responses you are, in effect, moving from a responsive mode collectively, where you are reacting to ministerial or CSA requests, to one where you are striking out a little more on your own. Is that something you see as being proper and something you are resourced for? To put it another way, slightly following Ian's line of thought, rather than dealing with a dissident, if a minister was not happy with how it was going, would he make sure you had not got the resources to do the inquiry that you wanted to do? How do you feel about that?
Dame Deirdre Hutton: The first important point to make is we are funded directly from the Treasury, not through the Department of Health, which is a significant point. I would say that the Food Standards Agency has always been fairly proactive about the way in which it has chosen to do science. All that has happened, in a sense, is that we are getting better at the way we scope that out and the sources of information. It would be fair to say that the agency, as well as food safety, started working on nutrition some years ago, and that is a subject which has become of increasing interest to government. So, certainly in terms of our nutritional work going forward, we do co-operate with the Department of Health, because it would be very stupid if we were using public resources to do the same thing, but that is process of collaboration and making sure that our agendas are working alongside each other rather than being told what to do.
Professor Gaskell: I think you are right in the sense that, as I said, we were evolving and that we see our challenge role as very important, as, indeed, I have to say, does Bob Watson. He is constantly challenging us to challenge him, which is a good relationship to have. I do not think we would ever see ourselves moving away from the mode of advice as well. If CSA wants advice, then he should be able to ask for it and we should be able to provide it or provide a mechanism for providing him with independent advice, independent of the advice that he may be getting from within the department. So he can do a sort of, "Can you let me know that what I am hearing inside the department is kosher, that it does stand up to external scrutiny?" That, I think, is a very important facet for him. The issue about resources is interesting. We are resourced from within the department. There have been occasions where resource has been tight, but then the department has been under the financial cosh anyway. That is not a continuing problem. I also think that it is proper for us to emphasise, and I think Defra accepts that there is enlightened self-interest in this for them, that they have enlightened self-interest in there being a perception that their science is good. That may be in part because of a historical reputational baggage that they had, but certainly I think Defra gains considerable pleasure from the fact that on occasions its SAC is held up in government, and it has been by the OST in reports on science within Defra, as a model for useful work.
Q291 Mr Boswell: Sir Michael.
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: During the ten years I was Chairman of the ACMD there was never an occasion where we were precluded from doing something because of lack of resources.
Q292 Mr Boswell: That is very helpful. Thank you. I am just trying to wrap this bit up. I will ask two questions. One is evaluation of your impact. Do you mechanisms for doing that? The second one - perhaps it is related - is the question of open meetings. Do they add value to your consideration and, perhaps going on from that, have you thought or, indeed, have you embarked on e-consultation about something ahead of considering or invited people's submissions as to what you should be considering?
Dame Deirdre Hutton: In terms of evaluation, it happens to us in quite a number of ways. The agency is currently part of the Go Science Review and we are expecting that report fairly soon. We are also evaluated by the Better Regulation Executive in terms of our approach to regulation. We have also just had a report produced from Consumer Focus, called Rating Regulators. So there is quite a lot of evaluation that goes on to us. We are also very keen on self-evaluation and we do an awful lot of it. After every major food incident, for example, we have an evaluation of how we did that. Do you want me to go on to the second question?
Q293 Mr Boswell: If you can, quickly, yes.
Dame Deirdre Hutton: On open meetings, we are, I think, becoming increasingly transparent. For example, our board meetings are web-streamed and we find now that people are moving more to watching on the web than coming in person. We do constantly try to think of different and better ways in which we can do that. A further committee which we have established is an advisory committee on consumer engagement, which is composed of experts in that world, which is there particularly to tell us smarter and better ways of talking to consumers electronically, we have set up citizens' juries, et cetera. So we are always looking for new ways of communicating.
Professor Gaskell: In terms of impact, as I mentioned before, we have reviewed the percentage in crude terms of our recommendations that have been accepted, and we are comfortable with that. There are some that have not, and you might want to explore how we do or do not deal with that. There are other things where I think we have got a more subjective, though partly objective, interpretation or impact. For example, we looked at risk, we looked at Defra's assessment of risk within its business and our report was well received and led to the establishment of a Centre of Risk Excellence and Development with EPSRC. We were glad of that in two contexts: that was a centre for risk, as we had suggested, but also it was working between research councils and Defra, which is always to be applauded. We have it on our agenda later this year to more formally audit our effectiveness by getting in external agents to assess and then report back to us on our effectiveness. Social science: there is an increased number of social scientists in Defra; I think we have made an impact there. So I think we are making an impact, and that is something you can test through others as well. Open meetings: one of our four meetings each year is an open meeting. We have had considerable discussion about this. It is an open meeting in the context that the public are allowed to come and observe the meeting. There are also question and answer sessions at the end of the morning and at the end of the afternoon, but they do not partake of the business itself. They have worked well in terms of feedback. We have had very good feedback. We have had well over 100 people and every time we have had an open meeting we have had more people than the last time; so we are impressed by the uptake of that and the feedback. Our last open meeting, if I am very critical, I do not think went as well as it should. We have reviewed that and we will work out why, but we do hold those open meetings and we think they are valuable. We have not had any e-discussions. It does raise the question (and we have discussed this too) as to what is our role in Defra's promulgation of its science? We do not see ourselves as part of Defra's science PR machine; we see ourselves just advising and challenging. People can come and watch us do that to get confidence in what we are doing, we publish everything that we do on the Web, but we are not there as part of the science PR machine for Defra.
Q294 Mr Boswell: Before Sir Michael's response, perhaps I should say, I had the chance to come and sit in as a silent observer of a NICE meeting with a number of colleagues and found that very valuable and quite reassuring actually.
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: The Home Office has undertaken evaluations of the ACMD. That will be the sort of tri-tarts(?). Of course, the much more important thing is what has happened over the last, nearly 40 years since the ACMD was established. On one view you could say it has been a disaster because, by and large drug, drug consumption has risen very substantially over the past 40 years - of course, it might have been worse if it had not been there - but some things have changed and it is tempting to think it happened as a result of what the ACMD did. The consumption of cannabis fell 30 per cent after we made it Class C. You might think that is a perverse consequence, but actually there is quite a lot of evidence of social sciences that actually reducing the classification stakes made it much less attractive for young people. It is no longer cool to smoke cannabis because now it is only a Class C drug. It is perverse and it emphasises the dangers of thinking that the classification system sends out a message. Anyway, that is a bit of the by-the-by.
Q295 Chairman: I think we might come back to that.
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Open meetings have gone very well, and I think the Scientific Advisory Committee meetings ought to be held in the default position, they ought to be open, and there should be very special reasons why they should be closed. The ACMD has part-closed meetings, because ministers have asked that the decisions should be made in closed meetings so that they are provided to ministers before they get into the public domain. That is an argument you can have with ministers, but that was their request. The open meetings also have one other advantage in that it does allow you to use, as it were, the presence of the media to get messages across. For example, when we were discussing the use of anabolic steroids at the ACMD, I used that occasion very clearly so that the media could pick up the fact that anabolic steroids make the testes atrophy, produce male enlargement of the breasts. It is not all about getting a six-pack from anabolic steroids. I think one can use it that way too and so it has another advantage.
Q296 Dr Harris: Just a quickie to Professor Gaskell. You say you report to the departmental Chief Scientific Adviser. Let us say, for some reason, I am sure it would not happen in your case, you were traduced, attacked in the media unfairly and they called you a nutter, or something, because of your declared view on something, would you expect the departmental Chief Scientific Adviser to issue something, assuming he agreed, saying that he disagreed with the criticism and you were a good chap and he had confidence in you, or would you be not surprised if no-one said anything from the people who you reported to?
Professor Gaskell: I think, if that criticism arose as a result of a specific event, in other words an interview one had done or something one had written, it would depend on whether you had written that or said that in your role as Chair of Defra Science Advisory Council or whether, for example, as principle of the Royal Agricultural College, who are the people who pay my daily rate.
Q297 Dr Harris: If you were attacked by the press, wherever it had come from, in your role as a Defra independent adviser.
Professor Gaskell: I would not go bleating to the department saying, "I need your support here." I think in my role I may well be saying something that the CSA finds uncomfortable.
Q298 Dr Harris: I understand, but if you are attacked by the media unfairly, do you think science speaks volumes if no-one from the department to whom you report comes to your aid and says, "Actually we still have full confidence in Professor Gaskell even though The Daily Mail has had a go"?
Professor Gaskell: Oh, The Daily Mail. Yes; okay.
Q299 Dr Harris: When I said media, I did not mean Nature, I meant The Daily Mail, a non-peer reviewed paper?
Professor Gaskell: Yes, I think if the views that I was expressing were those that were being found useful and were being used and were in accord with the CSA's thinking, I think I would expect support, yes. I would not go desperately gasping for it, but, yes, I think one would expect, if it fitted in with the---
Q300 Dr Harris: If he did not like the advice you were giving, you would expect him not to support you?
Professor Gaskell: What I would expect him to say would be that the reason I have a Scientific Advisory Council is to offer me advice and be challenging, and I may not always find that advice palatable and convenient.
Dr Harris: Thank you.
Q301 Dr Iddon: Just occasionally you are going to give some advice to government which is uncomfortable to the Government and it will create tension between your committees and the Government. I wonder if each of you could give us an example of that. I think Sir Michael has already given us one example, which is very well-known, that of cannabis classification. Sir Michael, could you give us another example which is perhaps not so well know where your advice has been uncomfortable?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: During the period I was Chairman of the ACMD that was the only occasion when the Government actually rejected advice, as far as I recall. Since, of course it has been in relationship to ecstasy. Of course governments have perfectly the right to reject the advice of a scientific advisory committee, but I think when they do so they should explain why.
Q302 Dr Iddon: We are coming to that in a minute. I am just looking for the examples at the moment. Professor Gaskell.
Professor Gaskell: I think there is a difference between uncomfortable and unacceptable. For example, we gave them uncomfortable advice, I think, around their use of social science, but they took it on the chin and said, "Yes, you are right. We agree. We have got to do something about this", and we are following up how they are responding, but they accepted the uncomfortable advice. There have been some examples, I would have to say relatively minor, where they have not accepted what we have said, and they have been things that have been both scientific and also around the process. For example, we recommended that in order to protect the scientific reputation of the department, press releases should undergo some science scrutiny before they go out, and that was rejected on a workload basis. It has since been accepted because subsequent experience suggests that that probably was actually quite a good idea. We have also, for example, challenged them on the availability of data from the last foot and mouth outbreak, and the response that we have had we regard as unsatisfactory and we are pressing that. We say that we do not see the scientific validity, notwithstanding the fact that it is in EU regulations, for the three and ten kilometre exclusion zones around outbreaks of exotic diseases. That is uncomfortable. They are hearing what we say about that, but we will continue to press it. So we have a formal mechanism of requiring the CSA to respond to our recommendations within six months, and then we will follow up at a year to see whether the good words, or not, of six months have come into place. There are other examples I could give you.
Q303 Dr Gibson: Migratory birds: they get blamed for everything!
Dame Deirdre Hutton: I preface it by saying that we give advice to ministers in public, so it is known what our advice is. It is absolutely the prerogative of ministers not to accept that advice if they want to. I suppose in the early days of the agency - I give you two examples - there were some differences of opinion around GM foods and organically produced crops. More recently, we gave advice to the department on the fortification of bread flour with folic acid to prevent neurological defects, and the Chief Medical Officer took the view that he wanted to wait for further research. Those are a few examples.
Q304 Dr Iddon: I go back to Sir Michael now. When you have given this kind of advice which causes some excitement, do you get a chance to enter into dialogue with the Government and to ask them why they have rejected your advice? Is it a two-way process after the initial decision?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: No, not really. On that occasion not really, no. It was quite clear after a few days, well it was quite clear actually before we produced the report that the Government was going to reject the advice. The Prime Minister had said what he was going to do because he said it was the right thing to do.
Chairman: What is the point in having you then?
Q305 Dr Iddon: I was just going to ask. How did the members of your committee feel about that? They are giving their time without--
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Without any remuneration.
Dr Iddon: I felt the last time your advice was rejected that you might resign as Chairman.
Q306 Dr Gibson: You are not a quitter, are you, Michael?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: No, and I do not think resigning is the thing to do unless it is a really major point. On that occasion I think the Government should have explained much more clearly the basis. There was a suggestion that it was doing it because it would send out a signal, although we had made abundantly clear in the report that the classification system is not designed to be a signal, it is not legally supposed to be a signal, it has a totally different purpose and that it was the right thing to do, and I am afraid it was not the right thing to do.
Professor Gaskell: To back up the point made by Dame Deirdre, I think we accept on the Science Advisory Council that we are offering evidence that forms part of the total evidence base that goes towards policy and that on occasions there will be other issues that ministers have to take into account when making a decision on policy. Indeed, the policy-makers themselves may have a series of inputs in the advice they give to ministers. So while of course we would not wish to underplay the importance of core scientific evidence, I think scientists should not become so precious that they regard themselves as the only authorities in what is essentially a political policy decision at the end of the day.
Q307 Chairman: Would you agree with Sir Michael, because I think Sir Michael's comment was that if, in fact, the scientific evidence is being rejected in favour of some other decision, and we accept as a committee that ministers have every right to do that, they should make it clear what are the grounds on which it is being rejected?
Professor Gaskell: I think that is right, and as part of our process we require an explanation of why policy has not been provided. No, I think it is a key issue. As I said, I do not think scientists should be over precious in thinking that theirs is the only evidence. The other point I would make about science evidence (and this is something we have discussed): where it is particularly irritating is where policy, or the explanation of policy, is supported by the cherry-picking of science advice; in other words, only taking that science advice which supports your particular policy decision. I think if a policy decision runs against the science, it should be explained in the context of all the science evidence, not just the bit that may be convenient.
Dr Gibson: This seems to be the kind of
thing you settle before you take a job: "Sometimes, Prime Minister, I will find
something out which does not fit in with your view about the science in the
developing world as against the same science in
Dame Deirdre Hutton: I think the great protection for the agency lies in its transparency. Clearly, if we have put in the public domain that we believe a particular course of action is right and the Government wishes to do something different, generally speaking the Government will explain why, and I think that is entirely sensible of them to do so, not least because our reasoning is also in the public domain. I do not find it a problem if government decides to do something else, I would say they have a right to do so. I would be troubled, I suppose, if I felt they were doing it on an entirely erroneous basis, and I guess that there could be circumstances under which, probably not I, but my board would wish to discuss the nature of that.
Q308 Dr Harris: Briefly, to show my independence, may I just finish the question I was asking you. You said something interesting, Dame Deirdre, that in order better be independent you believe in one term. I was a bit confused. Does that mean that if you go for a second term you need government approval for that second term? Otherwise, how would it make difference? I do not disagree with you; I am just seeking to understand what the relevance of a second term is to independence.
Dame Deirdre Hutton: Can I just emphasise that that is a personal view, but I think that if any regulator or any other public appointee goes for a second term, yes, that second term, in my experience, has to be approved.
Q309 Dr Harris: By the Government?
Dame Deirdre Hutton: Yes; you do not automatically do a second term.
Q310 Dr Harris: While we have got you on the subject, one thing I noticed from your annual report was, although you are funded by the Treasury, you are funded by the Government, they cut the FSA's funding in real terms when the rest of health was not cut, in fact it was in increased.
Dame Deirdre Hutton: Yes.
Q311 Dr Harris: Did you ask why that was, whether it was a sign of disapproval, or was it just a random act?
Dame Deirdre Hutton: We had quite a lot of negotiation with the Treasury and, to be honest, we are a very small government department and not key in the Treasury's thinking about public spending, certainly in the terms we are thinking about it now. We certainly had negotiations with the Treasury, but I think also the position we took, and the position I felt quite strongly, was that the Food Standards Agency has been incredibly well funded from the beginning. We had reserves which we could usefully use and, since this was public money, it also would become us to run our organisation very efficiently and we felt we could absorb that.
Q312 Dr Harris: So it is not a question of your independence being undermined by the threat of a real-terms funding cut?
Dame Deirdre Hutton: No.
Q313 Dr Harris: Coming back to the line of questioning that Brian Iddon was asking, Sir Michael, when you were Chairman of the ACMD one of your senior medical academic members wrote an article for a journal that was published some months later when you were no longer Chair but he was, and he was attacked by the media, was not defended, as far as I know, by the Chief Scientific Adviser, the Home Office Scientific Advisory Committee made up of chairs, he was attacked also by the Minister in quite strong terms for the views he expressed in that paper. Do you think that might have an impact, if that happened, on the willingness of people (a) to serve on committees and (b) to give views, even as an academic, that might be criticised in strong terms by ministers?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: In some ways I do not think one can really compartmentalise one's life into academic and being a member of an advisory committee; I think it is all one great blur. On the particular issue, I never saw the article before it was published, but I would say this. Risk comparisons are widely made for all sorts of purposes. The ACMD does risk comparisons in shoe-horning substances into A, B and C. The public is often given risk comparisons: the numbers of people dying from tobacco consumption are equivalent to a jet airliner crashing once a week - this sort of thing - and the sort of thing that Professor Nutt was saying in that article is just one example of a widely-used technique of revealed preference, which is widely used in the social sciences to look at the public's approach to benefit and risk more generally, and all sorts of examples are used. I have not brought it with me, but there is a well-known book called Acceptable Risk, published in 1981, which tabulates the numbers of days of life lost over the years, including days of lives lost from cigarette smoking but also illegal substance misuse, so the principle is well established.
Q314 Dr Harris: I am going to explain this carefully because I do not want a generalisable answer. In this case, this man who published this article in a peer review journal, which you thought was a reasonable thing to publish, was phoned up in the middle of his out-patient clinic and told to apologise publicly and the fact that she asked him to do this, the Home Secretary, was then publicised, and MPs laid into him, and no-one came to his support from the department as far as I know. Given that that happened, do you think that someone who is an independent adviser might decide they are not going to run the risk of being an independent adviser if that is going to happen or them, or people will not volunteer if they feel they are either going to be constrained for self-preservation or they are going to be publicly traduced?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Yes, I think it depends on the circumstances. If David Nutt had written an article saying he thought that heroin and morphine should be legalised, then his position as Chairman of the ACMD would probably be impossible, whatever his personal views might have been. On this particular occasion I do not think it was appropriate for him to be criticised. What he did and the sort of comparisons he made were widely used in social sciences and everywhere right across the board. It was not an inappropriate thing to do and he was not trivialising---
Q315 Dr Harris: Tracey Brown, who spoke to us about science in an oral session earlier, said that she had heard that a number of scientists were now dubious about providing independent advice because they felt that if the Government disagreed with it they might have the same treatment. Is that a fair concern?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I think, if that was to happen, it would ill serve the country.
Q316 Dr Harris: Do you think there is a problem with advice being trimmed, any of you, because people are worried that if they do not give advice either that the Government agrees with or that the Government likes the style it is done in, they are going to hold back, and how consistent is that with the Philips' Report approach about the importance of ensuring that scientists are totally independent and do not have the pressure or the worry about having these things happen to them. We all have to live with The Daily Mail, but a phone call from the Home Secretary and then abuse in Parliament.
Dame Deirdre Hutton: I think our scientific advisory committees are reasonably insulated from government pressure because they report to the agency and to the agency's board, so I have no discomfort about worrying about whether they are feeling themselves deeply under pressure, and, as to the board, I would expect all my board members to be sufficiently robust to withstand pressure of the sort you describe.
Professor Gaskell: It has not been an issue for us, and I would agree, I would expect and hope and from the present membership know there is degree of robustness there, but we have not been challenged in that way. If we were and it did put people off, I think that would be a shame. We have just recruited, and had a large number of applications for, places on the Science Advisory Council. Whether there was a cohort of people who did not apply because they were nervous, I do not know, but that is not the impression we have got.
Sir Michael Rawlins: I think the members are sufficiently independent that they just would not stand for anything like that. I never tried to put it on them and I would not want to.
Dr Harris: He apologised for his academic article.
Q317 Dr Gibson: There is another view that we have not touched on, this independence thing has taken over the conversation, but is it not na´ve or arrogant of scientists to think they are independent of the political process? Perhaps they are not dependent on that pressure from Prime Ministers and being told what to do, but when they come into this job and take on the advisory role they are interacting in a social environment and they must know there is going to be political pressure at some level. Even within the same committee people have divergent views, and you have admitted that yourself, so they cannot be na´ve about this. It is silly to think of being independent outside this big world because you are part of it and when you take the job on you have to realise you have to swim with the current or swim against it.
Professor Gaskell: As with all the decisions we make there is undoubtedly an element of pragmatism and, therefore, while challenge is proper, unreasonable challenge is improper. Most of our committee, and the others can speak for their own, is drawn from academia. One can scoff at it but the element of academic freedom and the culture in which academics exist does give them a premise of independence and they are using that in their advice to Government leavened with pragmatism.
Dr Gibson: Until they are looking for a grant from a business!
Chairman: We will not move into that. We will leave that hovering in the air.
Q318 Graham Stringer: There is an alphabet soup of quangos and non-departmental public bodies and non-ministerial departments giving scientific advice to Government. Are there too many bodies giving advice to Government, not enough or is it a Goldilocks situation, it is just about right?
Professor Gaskell: In the context of Defra that is an interesting question and one we have just asked. At our next meeting we will be reviewing the alphabet soup of advisory bodies that are available to Defra and we will be looking at that. Against that, certainly for the Department with its history in MAFF, it was and is important for Defra to be seen to be using external advice and external advisory bodies and not, as it was sometimes criticised for, thinking it had all the answers and all the expertise needed within the Department.
Dame Deirdre Hutton: I sense no appetite in government departments for taking back the role of food safety. On the whole, I think they are very happy that it is done at arm's length. There are other smaller NDPBs, or whatever they are, that can be incorporated, and post the Hampton Review there was a degree of incorporation. For example, we took over the Wine Standards Board, which seemed entirely sensible.
Sir Michael Rawlins: I have never scoped the landscape, but I would hate to see a situation where we merged food and drugs like the Americans have into one massive bureaucracy.
Chairman: On that note, can we thank Dame Deirdre Hutton, Professor Chris Gaskell and Sir Michael Rawlins. Thank you very much indeed for your evidence this morning.