The Government's review of the principles applying to the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 1-19)


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 governance.

  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 will happen.

  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 that.

  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 information.

  Q11  Chairman: Have you not asked them?

  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 Science Minister.

  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 dismissal.

  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 Nutt issue.

  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 Christmas—and I believe both Paul and I intend that the revised version will contain it—what 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 occur—and if, as it were, we had another rerun of that affair—I 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 basis.

  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 certainty—like they do in their academic life with contracts of employment—that 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 myself.

  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 the question.

  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, including yours?

  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.

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