Previous Section Index Home Page

T9. [296715] David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): The tragic death of Colonel Thorneloe brought back to our minds the scandalous shortfall in helicopters. Over the weekend, it became clear-the Secretary of State himself said-that the Government had had offers of helicopters. So it is clear that this involves a financial resource and therefore a political problem. It should have been answered by a Minister.
2 Nov 2009 : Column 575
Why did they put up Sir Jock Stirrup to answer the question? Will they continue to compound their strategic incompetence with political cowardice?

Mr. Ainsworth: The right hon. Gentleman should have watched the weekend television with a bit more care-my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces answered questions in this regard as well-and it is clear that we have offers of helicopters for supplies and logistics. What we do not have, and have not had, is an offer of helicopters of the kind of capability and with the defensive aids that would be necessary to ferry our troops around in a very dangerous theatre. That is the point, and the claims made over the weekend are not true.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): The Secretary of State has repeatedly and rightly said that many things have changed in Afghanistan since our original intervention in 2001. May I put it to him that one of the things that have changed is that Afghanistan is no longer a threat to this country? Al-Qaeda has moved elsewhere; it does not need caves in the Tora Bora mountains now, because it is able to operate from safe homes in four or five different countries, probably including Britain.

Mr. Ainsworth: But the only reason that they are not in Afghanistan is because our troops are there. If they were not there, the Afghan Government would not be capable of standing up on their own. They would fall. There is a high risk that the Taliban Government would be back, and those camps would therefore be welcomed back in Afghanistan and would resume the position of threat that they once held.

2 Nov 2009 : Column 576

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): The statement on helicopters last week suggested to the House that we are seriously looking at cutting expenditure-those were the reports in the press over the weekend-and that the MOD staff are not on top of the issue. I would like reassurances that those reports are nonsensical.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): The position on helicopters is clear. Let me say solemnly to the House, because this is an important matter, that no commander, no senior officer, has ever said to me in Afghanistan or here-that includes Sir Richard Dannatt, who I think has a certain credibility with those on the Opposition Benches-that there are insufficient helicopters in theatre to enable our troops to fulfil their mission, but all the commanders would like to have more. That is why we are supplying more. The House has already heard the figures for the past three years-an increase of 60 per cent. in helicopters and of more than 80 per cent. in helicopter hours available. On top of that, in the past year or so, we have refitted the Lynx helicopters with new engines-22 of those, which will be available next year-

Mr. Speaker: Order. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I think we have got the thrust of the message.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): In October 2007 the Government ranked the Ministry of Defence as the sixth most important Department. Last week it was revealed that it is now the 21st most important Department. Why on earth have the Government taken this action?

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: We have not. That is nonsense.

2 Nov 2009 : Column 577

Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs

3.31 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if he will make a statement about the dismissal of the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Alan Johnson): There is no question but that, since its establishment in 1971, the independent and expert advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been invaluable to the successive Governments whom it has served. Later today the House will consider imposing greater controls on the party drug GBL, BZP and synthetic cannabinoids, all in accordance with advice from the council.

Of the 21 recommendations that the council made in its report "Cannabis: Classification and Public Health", published in April 2008, the Home Office accepted 20 and rejected one, on classification. Of the 13 recommendations made in its report on ecstasy in February 2009, the Home Office accepted 11 and rejected two-one on classification and the other on the recommendation to explore a national scheme to enable drug testing of ecstasy tablets and powders for people's personal use.

I asked Professor Nutt to resign as my principal drugs adviser, not because of the work of the council but because of his failure to recognise that, as chair of ACMD, his role is to advise rather than to criticise Government policy on drugs. In February, while awaiting publication of the Government's position on the classification of ecstasy, of which he was already aware, Professor Nutt published an article and addressed the media on the appropriateness or otherwise of the Government's policy framework, expressing a view that horse riding was more dangerous than ecstasy.

On Thursday 29 October Professor Nutt chose, without prior notification to my Department, to initiate a debate on drugs policy in the national media, returning to the February decisions and accusing my predecessor of distorting and devaluing scientific research. As a result, I have lost confidence in Professor Nutt's ability to be my principal adviser on drugs. I stress again that his dismissal is not a reflection on the work of the committee. I have since been in contact with the ACMD and have agreed to meet them shortly.

There is no doubt in my mind that the advice of independent scientific advisers is essential to substantial aspects of the Government's work. I had the privilege of working with Professor Sir Liam Donaldson and Professor John Beddington during my time as Secretary of State for Health, and with Professor Sir David King when I was at the Department of Trade and Industry. The role of such advisers is to provide independent advice to Government based on the advisers' professional, scientific expertise. The role of Government is to consider that advice carefully, along with all other relevant factors, and for this House to endorse or reject those decisions where appropriate.

Chris Grayling: Let me start by reiterating my view that the Home Secretary's decision on Friday regarding Professor Nutt's future was the right one. Independent scientific advice is important, but those who take on
2 Nov 2009 : Column 578
formal roles with the Government have to be extremely cautious about the things that they say. Professor Nutt's comments earlier this year, comparing the risks of ecstasy with those of horse riding, were particularly ill judged. The issues that the council deals with are highly sensitive, and there are very divergent opinions out there, so there is a clear responsibility to act cautiously, and be mindful of the fact that messages given by official advisers can and will influence the behaviour of the public.

However, I find it very surprising that, after the issue arose for the first time, last February, inadequate efforts appear to have been made to sort out how to deal with the sensitivities surrounding the council's work. There also appears to have been a complete breakdown of confidence between the Home Secretary and his advisers.

How on earth has the Home Secretary managed to get himself into a position where he is having such an unseemly row with several leading scientists? Surely the Home Office did not do enough on the issues that emerged last February, after Professor Nutt's controversial comments, to ensure that the situation could not arise again. Did the Home Secretary personally meet Professor Nutt to try to ensure that the problems were not repeated? If so, what went wrong?

The Home Secretary today mentioned an inquiry that was set up three weeks ago into the transparency and communication of the council's advice. Why did the Home Office wait nine months to set up such an inquiry after the issue first arose, and will the remit of that inquiry now change after what has happened? Finally, has he received from other members of the council any indications that they too intend to resign?

Alan Johnson: I think I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support-although actually, I am not sure whether to or not. He asked a number of questions. First, in February, my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), wrote to Professor Nutt and made clear her dissatisfaction. Indeed, she expressed it to this House in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, who is not in his place at the moment. She made it clear that she found Professor Nutt's behaviour unacceptable and did not expect it to happen again. In relation to the latest event, that behaviour has happened again. Professor Nutt is a man whom I respect, and he is very learned in his field, but, much to my regret, he published a paper without any notification to my Department, contrary to the code of practice under which he was appointed.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): It is not true.

Alan Johnson: Yes, it is true, and the hon. Gentleman should wait his turn before interfering.

The situation to which I just referred was a re-run of February, and I lost confidence. I did not have a meeting with Professor Nutt. I have had meetings with him, but on that occasion, what needed to be done-my conveying my loss of confidence in him-needed to be done very quickly.

There is no inquiry into the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; there is a Cabinet Office review of all non-departmental Government bodies. It used to be called the quinquennial review, and the current inquiry is happening just as a matter of course. It is not at all associated with these developments.

2 Nov 2009 : Column 579

Chris Huhne: Both the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) have missed the point. The hon. Gentleman is at risk, indeed, of becoming the Home Secretary's Mini-Me, because today he again insisted that the only difference between them was that he thought Professor Nutt should have been sacked sooner. The Government do not want evidence, and the official Opposition want even less evidence even more quickly.

The Government rely on objective, impartial and unpaid advice from leading experts on everything from nuclear safety to mad cow disease, and the comments to which the right hon. Gentleman and hon. Gentleman object were in no way contrary to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs code of practice or the general code of practice for advisory committees. The Home Secretary signally failed to give us chapter and verse on that or to mention it in the letter that he sent to Professor Nutt.

Professor Nutt's specialism is the relative harm of drugs, and his so-called campaigning vehicles were the peer-reviewed Journal of Psychopharmacology and a lecture at King's college London. If scientists advising the Government are not allowed to write in learned journals and lecture at universities, does the Home Secretary agree that very few will be prepared to accept such absurd restrictions?

Why did the Home Secretary fail to consult the Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Drayson, before blundering into this area and imperilling independent scientific advice across the Government? Will he apologise to Professor Nutt and set up the advisory council on a clearly independent basis to ensure that he does not recruit an army of nodding yes-men? Will Ministers now agree to a code of practice to stop themselves being ludicrously thin-skinned if they foolishly choose policy options that are not supported by the scientific evidence?

Alan Johnson: Piety and pomposity in equal measure. The Government, and I in particular, have listened to scientific advice. We took through the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, and there was an awful lot of science in that. We respect the views of scientists, and we have respected the views of scientists in every aspect of Government policy. Our principal advisers-whether Sir David King, John Beddington, Sir Liam Donaldson or Professor Nutt-have to be clear that when they are appointed to such a crucial and privileged job- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I apologise for interrupting the Home Secretary. I must say to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) that he is unduly overexcited this afternoon-uncharacteristically so. He has had his say- [Interruption.] Order. I do not need any help from hon. Members on the Government Back Benches. The hon. Gentleman has had his say with force, and he now needs to listen to the response from the Home Secretary.

Alan Johnson: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

When such esteemed professionals take on such a job, they have the Government's ear. They have a very important role in influencing the Government, and they must exercise it with care and caution. It would be quite wrong for advisers to undermine the Government as well as advise them.

2 Nov 2009 : Column 580

There is absolutely no question about Professor Nutt's right to express his views. He has a view on relative harms, which I do not share; he has a view on ecstasy, which I do not share; he has a view on cannabis, which I and the majority of the House do not share. We are not talking about his right to express those views-he can do that. What he cannot do is confuse his role as a Government adviser, and confuse it in the public mind by continually criticising the Government's framework, agreed by this Parliament, on tackling drugs. That is quite wrong. Sir David King did not do that when he recommended nuclear new build and the Government at that time did not agree to it. Sir Liam Donaldson has not done it on numerous occasions, including most recently when he proposed the introduction of unit pricing for alcohol; his proposal was produced, and it was public knowledge and transparent, but he did not go out and campaign against the Government for having refused to accept his policy.

My final point is about what Professor Nutt did last week at King's college; incidentally, he was opposed by Professor Robin Murray, the head of psychiatric research, who takes a completely different view. What Professor Nutt did there was to criticise my predecessor, criticise the Prime Minister, criticise the Government and undermine the whole framework of Government policy. That was wrong, and as a result I have lost confidence in his ability to advise me.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. Lots of Members wish to take part in this urgent question and very little time is available. As usual, I am looking for single, short supplementary questions without preamble-and, of course, for brief replies.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): If my right hon. Friend had taken Professor Nutt's advice and lowered the categorisation of cannabis, and if as a result more young people had started to use it, would not that have been irresponsible?

Alan Johnson: Yes, I think it would have been. That is why my predecessor decided not to take that advice and why that decision has been endorsed by this Parliament.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As the Home Secretary comes under attack, will he remind himself that it was Churchill who said that scientists should be on tap and not on top?

Alan Johnson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of that; I will bear it in mind in the doubtless happy days ahead.

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Professor Nutt does not hold a universal scientific view of the impact of cannabis or of ecstasy?

Alan Johnson: Yes, of course. I just quoted Professor Robin Murray, who believes-I think it is absolutely irrefutable-that the incidence of schizophrenia among the cannabis-smoking population is much higher than among the rest of the population. The causal link is increasingly clear and will, I am sure, become well established in a very short time.

2 Nov 2009 : Column 581

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): May I give unequivocal support not only to the Home Secretary's decision but to the reasoning behind it? He is obviously familiar with Professor Robin Murray's comments, which imply that the ACMD did not do a very good job in surveying the evidence previously. I know that the Home Secretary will want to be diplomatic to the council now, but will he please ensure that he also takes evidence from others when he makes his decisions in future?

Alan Johnson: The ACMD has done a good job, but of course it is the politicians' job to take into account a whole range of other views, not just the views of the scientific community but the views of- [ Interruption. ]

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Focus groups.

Alan Johnson: "Bogus views", says a Liberal Democrat Member. [Interruption.] I was going to say the views of Parliament and the views of the public-if those are considered to be bogus, then I beg to differ.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): As a Member with a scientific background, I would be the first to say that science must inform the decisions that it can inform. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that many parts of complex decisions cannot be measured or tested scientifically and may require a more subjective judgment that Ministers have to apply? Will he write to other scientific advisers in the Department to make them aware of that distinction?

Alan Johnson: I will reflect very carefully on the points that my hon. Friend has made. It is important to recognise, however, that we have an issue with one particular scientific adviser, and that in no way reflects on any of the other many advisers that we have from the scientific community. I would not like this to be classified as a more general problem than it actually is.

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): Is the Home Secretary satisfied that this episode does not risk putting off other experts from acting as independent Government advisers?

Alan Johnson: I sincerely hope that it does not, once it has been explained exactly why this episode has occurred and a contrast is drawn with all the reams of other scientific information that we receive. We must be very clear that this is not about the advice that was given by Professor Nutt or anybody else; it is about the way in which Professor Nutt conducted himself in his very important position as the chief Government adviser on drugs.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Recently I went with the police in Sheffield to observe a raid on a property where cannabis was being grown. The local people were relieved that that had happened and that that activity was to be stopped. Is it not important, in formulating policy, that the Government take account of the wider implications of drugs?

Next Section Index Home Page