Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
24 FEBRUARY 2010
Q1 Chairman: We are moving swiftly and
seamlessly on to our second session this morning and welcome again
Lord Drayson, the Minister for Science.
Lord Drayson: It
is a pleasure to still be here Chairman.
Q2 Chairman: It is very nice to see
you again, and Professor John Beddington the Government's Chief
Scientific Adviser. Thank you both very much indeed. Clearly there
was significant fallout from the problems surrounding Professor
David Nutt and while as a Committee we are concerned about that,
the focus of our attention this morning is not about Professor
David Nutt per se but about the principles for scientific advisory
committees and, indeed, the way in which they inter-relate with
ministers. I wonder if I could ask you first Professor Beddington,
why do we actually need a set of principles? In your view why
are they so important?
Professor Beddington: First of
all, thank you for your kind remarks, Chairman, it is nice to
be here again. The issue really is that by and large there are
a lot of scientific advisory committees and councils that advise
government and, as I have said to the media, in my experience
there has only been one of those committees which has presented
problems, that was the ACMD; I have had no concerns expressed
to me by chairs of other committees. To that extent it is a reasonable
question, do we really need something, and the answer is that
we probably do. The concerns that were raised over the ACMD and
the circumstances surrounding Professor Nutt moving aside as chairman
Q3 Dr Harris: Being sacked.
Professor Beddington: sorry,
being sacked, I am getting too Parliamentary, am I not, forgive
me, the dismissal of Professor Nutt, to be unequivocal. The letter
that was sent to the Prime Minister under Martin Rees's signature
indicated concerns from a large number of very serious and respected
academics and, therefore, it became imperative that the Government
addressed that, and I was very strongly in support that we should
address that issue. In terms of the principles that were proposed,
they did contain a whole series of issues which were focused primarily
on the responsibility of Government rather than the responsibility
of the committee so in the wider discussions that we have held
subsequent to receiving that document we have posed questions
not just about the responsibility of Government but the responsibility
of members of the committees and indeed chairs of the committees.
The first version that we produced, which came out before Christmas
under Paul's authority, did not refer to the responsibilities
of chairs in particular but indicated that that was going to be
work in progress, and the plan is that when we move forward with
the new principles we have been actually having discussions specifically
about what is different between the responsibilities of a chair
and the responsibilities of members.
Q4 Chairman: You want to identify
principles clearly to apply to ministers and indeed to advisory
committees and their chairs, that is what we will end up with.
Professor Beddington: That is
what we are aiming to do, yes.
Q5 Mr Boswell: A kind of corporate
Professor Beddington: Yes, I suppose
so. Paul, do you want to comment on that?
Lord Drayson: Yes, I would describe
it as that and to have it as simply set out as possible such that
there is no doubt on both sides what the rules of engagement are
that have to be adhered to by both.
Q6 Chairman: You believe that the
rules should apply equally to ministers as well as to members
of the scientific committees and the chairmen?
Lord Drayson: Yes, and I believe
that it would be helpful for the principles to be enshrined in
the ministerial code.
Q7 Chairman: I wanted to come on
to that because, clearly, unless they are in the ministerial code
they really will not work, will they, ministers will not take
any notice of them?
Lord Drayson: I would hope that
ministers would take notice of something which is so important
and I certainly get a sense from, for example, chairing the Government's
Cabinet Sub-Committee for Science of the recognition of importance,
but there is no doubt that having a section in the ministerial
code which covers this area would add additional weight, and therefore
there is real value for that and I hope that is something which
Q8 Chairman: When you sat with Gus
O'Donnell or whoever stood over you with a stick for you to sign
the ministerial code, clearly that was gone through, I understand,
point by point so that as a minister you actually understood the
importance of the ministerial code. If there is an element in
that which simply says reference to the principles which apply
to the relationship with the chair and the members of the scientific
committee that would cement that, there would be no going back
for a minister at that point. How successful do you think you
are going to be?
Lord Drayson: The process by which
the ministerial code is updated is one which takes place after
the general election. My understanding of the process is that
there would be a new ministerial code which is the responsibility
of the Prime Minister with the support of the Cabinet Office.
Both John and I have made the strong case that this is something
we believe when the ministerial code is updated, which it is going
to be anyway at that point, this should be incorporated within
Q9 Chairman: Do you know if there
is a buy-in from official Opposition spokespersons to that?
Lord Drayson: No I do not, Chairman.
Q10 Chairman: Do you. Professor Beddington?
Professor Beddington: I have no
Q11 Chairman: Have you not asked
Professor Beddington: The relationship
between civil servants and the Opposition is that I have to be
asked by the Opposition spokespeople to meet with them and then
I have to clear that with Gus O'Donnell who says "Yes, of
course you should meet with them". We have to go through
that procedure, that is the official procedure. I have not been
asked about this in the meeting although I did meet the shadow
Q12 Chairman: It would be very sad
if we lost the impetus on this, would it not?
Lord Drayson: Chairman, I would
have doubts as to whether or not I would be successful in that
conversation because the official opposition spokesman has gone
on record as saying, in a public meeting, that he believes that
ministers should have the ability to sack advisers for any reason,
even if they just do not like them.
Q13 Dr Harris: Can I thank you both
for your engagement with this issue; it is important and your
engagement is very welcome. Professor Beddington, did Professor
Nutt breach CoPSAC and, if so, which provision of CoPSAC do you
think he breached, if you do think he breached it prior to his
Professor Beddington: I have not
examined the activities of Professor Nutt in that context at all.
Q14 Chairman: I do not really want
you to answer that, I do not want you to go back into the Professor
Professor Beddington: I have already
indicated I was not consulted, I was away, so I am not prepared
to comment on that.
Q15 Dr Harris: I think I am allowed
to ask this question, unless the rules of Parliament have changed,
and I just read what the clerks have written just to make absolutely
clear to the Chairman that this is allowed. Under the set of principles
that you are set to put forward or under any of the past drafts
would Professor Nutt have been sacked?
Professor Beddington: I would
not be able to answer that question because I have not examined
it, but what I would be prepared to say is that under the principles
that we put forward just before Christmasand I believe
both Paul and I intend that the revised version will contain itwhat
it would actually say is that in the event of the breakdown of
a relationship between a minister and their advisers, either a
chairman or a member of the Committee, in a serious case the minister
would consult with his Chief Scientific Adviser and in a particularly
serious case with myself and the Science Minister. In that situation,
therefore, what I would be expecting to occurand if, as
it were, we had another rerun of that affairI would expect
the minister concerned to actually first talk to his Chief Scientific
Adviser and then if it was felt to be serious enough to talk to
me. We would then examine the issues, we would look at what are
the principles, whether in fact an individual had breached those
principles, and I would provide advice to the minister on that
Q16 Dr Harris: That is very helpful.
If a minister said that they had lost confidence in an adviser
but could not point to any breach of the code of practice (whatever
it says) or any other breach, but just a loss of confidence perhaps
because the advice they were getting was not advice they were
happy with or it caused them embarrassment in the media, your
advice might be that is not a sufficient basis to require them
to resign or to sack them.
Professor Beddington: It would
be quite clear that we would need to be examining on what basis
the proposal had been taken to actually dismiss this scientific
adviser. I would not consider the fact that that scientific adviser
had provided advice that the minister did not agree with to be
grounds for dismissal. What I would say though, however, is if
there is some issue in which trust in some sense has been genuinely
undermined, that would have to be examined on a case-by-case basis.
I could not prejudge that in all circumstances.
Q17 Dr Harris: We will come back
to trust in later questions and I do not want to pre-empt that
because that is part of the specifics. There is a general point
here. Politicians are under a lot of pressure and scientists are
not used to dealing with politicians, so there is an understandable
suspicion, and that would apply to politicians of any party and
perhaps in any department, but particularly media-sensitive departments.
You can therefore understand that there would be a concern that
if there does not appear to be any specific rule of law, natural
justice, where they clearly know what the rules are, what the
appropriate behaviour is, but there is something that is more
random or nebulous, they might be unlikely to act as a generally
unpaid adviser just for the pleasure of them running the risk
of being traduced in Parliament and being publicly sacked when
they cannot see that they have breached a rule.
Professor Beddington: I have already
made the point that there has been only one such occasion where
I have faced that problem in the last two years. I would also
make the point that even following Professor Nutt's dismissal
recruitment into various science advisory committees has continued
at a high level. Professor Gaskell gave evidence to this Committee
about that at a previous session. I was talking to the chair of
the Defence Science Advisory Council, Sir Peter Knight, about
that when I met with the science advisory chairs on the 22nd and,
again, nobody is observing that that is a concern.
Q18 Dr Harris: I have seen a letter
from 40 senior scientists to you and Lord Drayson and it is a
fair interpretation of that to say that there would be concern
if whatever comes out of this process involves having to comply
with something that is nebulous or subjective by a minister, because
that means that they cannot behave in a way that gives them certaintylike
they do in their academic life with contracts of employmentthat
they will not be subject to sanction. Do you accept that would
be a concern if there is something in the principles, like loss
of confidence, which is subjective, let alone trust, which is
subjective, that is not pinned down clearly?
Professor Beddington: What I would
seek to address here is that if there is something that is really
nebulous and cannot be quantified in an objective way then that
is going to be a case for a discussion between the minister and
Dr Harris: That is your subjective
view then, is it not? I am asking a broader question, that if
it is anyone's subjective view it does not give them the certainty.
Chairman: Let Professor Beddington answer
Q19 Dr Harris: I want him to answer
the question I asked, not a question I did not ask. Whether it
is yours or the minister's subjective view that there has been
a loss of trust or something has been done that loses trust, my
question is do you think scientists will be concerned to take
on roles where they cannot clearly see a clearly defined set of
rules that they must obey but there may be a subjective judgment,
Professor Beddington: I understand
your question and I was trying to answer it. The issue here is
to do with differential perspectives and if you have a situation
where we are focusing on trust, it is appropriate to have something
which indicates that the trust between both the minister and his/her
advisers and the members of the committee in the minister is important,
and that should be part of the principles. If you then focus on
saying is a lack of trust or an undermining of trust going to
be a concern I would like to say what is the evidence that that
trust has been undermined, what are the actions that have been
taken that have undermined that trust, and if the answer to that
is "none" the advice I would give is there is no basis
for dismissal. I do not think this is purely capricious, I think
there is an evidence base which would be accepted by reasonable
people in terms of what constitutes an undermining of trust, either
by the minister to members of the committee or the other way round.