Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 241 - 259)



  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 Sir Michael Rawlinsl: 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 Downing Street and others—

  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% 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 Morocco!

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Prepared 23 July 2009