David Blackburn

Nanny knows best

Nanny knows best
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Does Professor David Nutt's dismissal concern the impossibility of relaxing drugs legislation, or the relationship between experts and ministers? David Nutt was sacked because he spoke the unspeakable and criticised the government for failing to acknowledge the self-evident scientific truth that horse-riding, especially after quaffing sherry, is more dangerous than taking ecstasy and dancing maniacally in a night club.

As Bruce Anderson notes in today’s Independent, it is impossible to have a rational debate about drugs. The politics of narcotics always trumps evidence. Despite David Nutt’s eminently sensible view that classification must reflect quantifiable harm, for the benefit of proportionate punishment and effective education, disassociation from any leniency on drugs is a pre-requisite for most politicians.

But the controversial context of this affair obscures the more pertinent issue: the relationship between advisors and ministers. I agree with Alex, minsters should not be compelled to accept every piece of advice they receive. In this instance, Alan Johnson’s political decision is correct: why compound society’s drink and smoking related problems by easing the availability of narcotics? However, Labour’s style of government is too self-assured for the nation’s good. New Labour is credited with the invention of evidence-based policy. David Nutt and his former colleagues have made clear that they were asked to find evidence to support pre-conceived conclusions. This practice seems the norm. Only a fortnight ago, a very substantial research document arrived on Ed Balls’ desk. Its findings were unacceptable to the government, determined to resist improvement and progress on any terms other than its own, and Balls binned it. Alan Milburn’s social mobility report is another example, and the most infamous case of all was that of David Kelly. On each occasion, nanny knew best.

The Nutt affair should not deter experts from giving their time. Neither should ministers accept every recommendation made, but they should certainly listen with an entirely open mind.