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More could quit, drugs panel tells Johnson

Mark Easton | 14:50 UK time, Monday, 2 November 2009

The home secretary has been told by his drugs advisers that unless he gives them assurances "about the role and treatment of the Council and its work", more scientists will quit.

The BBC has obtained a copy of the letter sent to Alan Johnson by a majority of ACMD members. They make it clear that the sacking of Professor David Nutt on Saturday has "brought to the fore wider and pre-existing concerns".

"For some members," it continues, "these matters are of such seriousness as to raise the question whether they can, in good conscience, continue on the Council".

Here is the letter in full.

Dear Minister / Re: Professor Nutt and future standing of the ACMD  / Although we have not managed to contact all members in such a short time frame, it is clear that a majority of the Council have serious concerns about the dismissal of Professor David Nutt as Chair of the ACMD and the subsequent future of the Council.  The removal of Professor Nutt has brought to the fore wider and pre-existing concerns amongst members about the role and treatment of the Council and its work.  For some members these matters are of such seriousness as to raise the question whether they can, in good conscience, continue on the Council.  In this situation members wish for clarity and assurances about how the ministers view the Council's advice and will view the Council's advice in the future.   The ACMD had previously planned for a scheduled, biannual, meeting on the 10th November 2009.  There is still Council business to attend to and, even in these extraordinary circumstances we are keen that we proceed with our duties.  We propose that one possibility would be for Council to meet with you on this day, in session and closed to the public. It would be possible to provide you with additional briefing on the key issues as we see them, prior to the meeting and via the Secretariat, to help prepare for the discussions. We hope it will be possible for your department and the ACMD to agree a joint statement on priorities and how we work together in the future, though it is unlikely this can be achieved on the day.  There is a consensus amongst members that a face to face discussion is the correct and proper forum to take these matters further.  We will therefore continue as per the last two days and avoid discussion with the media, insofar as we can persuade members to comply.   This will be all the easier to maintain if the Home Office avoids actions and statements that appear to pre-judge the outcome of our meeting - such as beginning the search for a replacement Chair.  Due to the pace of events, the contents of this letter have consensus approval from those members contactable over this weekend.  Those involved represent a majority of the Council but obviously cannot claim to represent those who have not had the opportunity to comment. We have asked Professor Les Iversen to speak for the members insofar as we are able to collectively agree a position, and we would also suggest that the Secretariat is well placed to mediate preliminary discussions about the format for a meeting. This letter has been sent on the basis of confidentiality and we, collectively, do not intend to publicise its contents. ACMD members

It is clear from the last paragraph that it had been intended that the letter should remain confidential. However, a copy was sent to the BBC by one of those involved in its formulation.

Separately, there is a move by scientists and advisers more generally for clarification and reassurances on the role of specialist advisory committees and their members. I understand that one idea is for a new code of conduct to be agreed by government which would set out three important principles:

• a recognition that advisers do not lose their scholarship or academic freedom if they freely offer expertise to ministers;
• that ministers must consider seriously the expert advice they receive (and not dismiss it before they have even read it as some members of the ACMD felt the government did in respect of their recommendations on cannabis and ecstasy);
• that if government decides to reject the advice of an advisory panel, they publish both the original advice and their reasons for not accepting it.

While the ACMD is clearly looking to offer the government a way out of this mess with the request for a face-to-face meeting with the home secretary, ministers have successfully opened a debate on whether scientific and other academic advisers are respected for their expertise and their independence.

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