The David Nutt affair: did Alan Johnson's statement mislead the House of Commons?

By Synesthesiac · Nov 10, 2009 ·
  1. Synesthesiac
    The David Nutt affair: did Alan Johnson's statement mislead the House of Commons?

    As Alan Johnson meets the remaining members of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs tomorrow, he finds himself accused of misleading Parliament in his statement last week on the sacking of David Nutt as its chairman.

    Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat science spokesman, has written to Mr Johnson detailing several factual errors in Mr Johnson's statement. The most important is that, contrary to the impression the Home Secretary gave, his department was informed and consulted before Professor Nutt gave the lecture at King's College, London that became the catalyst for his dismissal.

    Mr Johnson has replied, defending his position. Here are both the letters. Do you think the charge is a fair one?

    Rt Hon Alan Johnson
    Home Secretary
    Home Office

    I am writing to raise with you several issues where you misled the House of Commons during the Urgent Question on the Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs on Monday 2nd November. The points you made are of such seriousness to the professional and public standing of Professor David Nutt that you should now correct yourself in the chamber and apologise for misleading the House, and I would be grateful if you would confirm to me as soon as possible that you intend to do so at the earliest opportunity. I am copying this letter to Mr Speaker and to Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat shadow Home Secretary.

    1. You stated in the chamber: "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."
    This is incorrect. A peer-reviewed journal - the Journal of Psychopharmacology -published the article (not Professor Nutt). It was in January 2009, not February as you stated. Professor Nutt wrote and submitted the article the previous year. It was reviewed prior to publication by two expert reviewers. Neither at the time of writing, nor at the date of publication of the article, was Professor Nutt aware of the Government's position on the classification of ecstasy since the ACMD had not even published its report let alone received the Government's response. Furthermore the content of the article was discussed with the ACMD secretariat (though he was not required by the Code of Practice to do so) and was discussed and approved in a conversation with Professor Nutt by Paul Wiles the Departmental Chief Science Advisor.

    2. You stated in the chamber: "On Thursday 29th 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".
    This is incorrect, as Richard Garside, Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London has made clear. Professor Nutt delivered his lecture at King's on 14th July 2009 to an audience of 150 people with no media. This was published by the CCJS on 29th October. As you know, there is no requirement on an independent scientific adviser to give prior notification of academic work to the ACMD secretariat in the Home Office in either the general or the ACMD code of practice.

    Nevertheless, Professor Nutt had indeed informed the secretariat of the paper and received feedback. Prof Nutt even discussed it with Paul Wiles, the Home Office Departmental Chief Scientific Adviser. In fact the Home Office publicised it in advance on their website here. (Note, this link is temperamental, but there is a cached version here)

    The official flyer for the event described Prof Nutt as Professor David Nutt, Edmond J Safra Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology and Head of the Department of Neuropsychopharmacology and Molecular Imaging at Imperial College London. It was only the Home Office advert that also described him as Chair of the ACMD.

    Prof Nutt would not, of course, be banned from accusing Jacqui Smith of "distorting and devaluing scientific research" under the ACMD code of practice , but he did not. There are no references to Ms Smith in his lecture and only 3 to the "former Home Secretary" which are factual. The reference to "distorting" and "devaluing" in the lecture clearly refers to the use of the precautionary principle.

    3. You stated that the former Home Secretary - Jacqui Smith- had protested to Professor Nutt concerning the comparison in the Journal of Psychopharmacology article of the risks of ecstasy with the risks of horse-riding. You then went on: "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".

    This is incorrect. There was no evidence at the time or now that any of those events involved a breach of the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees or the ACMD by Prof Nutt, and this is reinforced by the fact that neither Home Secretary in either of their letters to him has made this allegation, and nor did you raise it in your recent and only meeting with Prof Nutt. Yet if this allegation were made outside the House, it would be actionable given the slur on Professor Nutt's reputation.

    4. You stated: "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-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."

    Professor Nutt is not a full-time Government or Departmental Chief Science Adviser within the civil service, but an unpaid part-time adviser paid as an academic. You confuse the two roles. Nor has Prof Nutt campaigned against Government policy. One academic paper and one lecture in one's area of expertise do not constitute a campaign, especially as both the paper and the lecture were notified to the ACMD secretariat and beyond in the Home Office and the content discussed and approved.

    5. You stated: "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."
    This is incorrect. As we saw above, the King's College event was four months ago not last week. Professor Robin Murray was not there.
    You will see from the litany of errors in your remarks that it is now essential that you return to the chamber to correct them. I look forward to your response.
    Yours sincerely,
    Dr Evan Harris
    Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon


    Thank you for your letter of 5 November. I did not mislead the House in my statement on 2 November. I will take each of your points in turn.

    1.In relation to the publication of Professor Nutt's paper in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. This was published by the journal but was authored solely by Professor Nutt. I accept that the journal may have been published in January, although its publication did not come to our attention until the beginning of February.

    The paper was discussed with the ACMD secretariat and Professor Paul Wiles, Home Office Chief Scientific Advisor. However, neither the secretariat nor Professor Wiles approved the paper. It is not the role of the Chief Scientific Advisor of the Home Office, or indeed the ACMD secretariat to approve, or otherwise, the academic papers produced by independent academics.

    2. Regarding Professor Nutt's paper at King's College. Professor Nutt made the ACMD Secretariat and Professor Wiles aware of the presentation he made on 14 July and saw the slides that were to be used for the presentation. However, neither the secretariat nor Professor Wiles were made aware of the subsequent publication on 29 October, authored by Professor Nutt. Similarly, we were not aware of the article Professor Nutt wrote in the Guardian the following day (published on-line on 29 October).
    You state that the official flyer for the event described Professor Nutt in his role at Imperial College. However, the website advertising the lecture also referred to Professor Nutt chairing the ACMD. Furthermore, David Nutt's presentation, clearly used information that was part of his role in Chairing the ACMD and he referred to the Council as 'we' repeatedly during the presentation. Therefore, the impression could easily be given that Professor Nutt was speaking in his capacity of Chair of the ACMD, regardless of how the lecture was advertised.

    Your letter states there were no references to Ms Smith in Professor Nutt's lecture, but three references to the 'former Home Secretary'. This is true, although Professor Nutt did refer to the former Home Secretary, alongside quotes from Jacqui Smith in the paper, so it is clear to whom he is referring. In addition, Professor Nutt's Guardian article and Press Release for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies paper both mention Jacqui Smith by name. These criticise her stance on cannabis being to 'err on the side of caution'. This is the explanation of why the Government rejected the ACMD's advice on cannabis, in that it is not prepared to risk the health of our young people. Professor Nutt's paper, on page 8, criticises this stance as to 'devalue the evidence'. I completely refute the fact that erring on the side of caution to protect the health of our young people in anyway devalues or distorts the evidence - we make decisions in the full confidence that they will protect the public.

    3. I refer to my answer to the point above with regard to publishing both the King's College, paper and the Guardian article. You state that this did not breach the ACMD's Code of Practice. Can I refer you to paragraph 48 of the ACMD's Code, which states, 'Any media appearances that members have been asked to undertake on behalf of the ACMD, or which specifically cover the work of the ACMD should be reported beforehand to the Secretariat…'.

    4.In your letter you accuse me of confusing roles. I am in no way confused about the role Professor Nutt held. He was chair of my advisory committee and chose to campaign against decisions my predecessor had taken, not just through a lecture and a paper but through a series of media appearances, an article and a press release. Although, as stated above, the lecture was notified to the secretariat in June, the paper and the Guardian article in October were not.

    5. Professor Robin Murray did, indeed, oppose Professor Nutt's comments. These were made in the Guardian on 30 October and Professor Murray does take a different view on cannabis to Professor Nutt.
    I am copying this letter to Rt Hon. John Bercow MP and Chris Huhne MP.

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