Johnson under fire as more advisers threaten to resign

Decision to sack top drugs scientist threatens to tear apart council established in 1971

The future of the Government's scientific advisory council on illegal drugs hung in the balance last night as further resignations were threatened.

After four days of increasingly acrimonious exchanges between the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, and the scientific establishment following the sacking of Professor David Nutt, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs which Professor Nutt chaired until Friday, broke its collective silence for the first time.

In a letter to Mr Johnson yesterday, the council said that while it had not been possible to contact all 28 remaining members – two resigned at the weekend – "it is clear that a majority of the council have serious concerns" about Professor Nutt's dismissal and the future of the council.

The letter said the case had "brought to the fore wider and pre-existing concerns among members about the role and treatment of the council". It added: "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."

Mr Johnson proffered an olive branch in the shape of a promise to meet them "shortly" – possibly at their scheduled meeting next Monday – and praise for their work. In a statement to the Commons he said the advisory council, set up in 1971, had been "invaluable to the successive governments it has served". But he told MPs that he had "lost confidence in the professor's ability to be my principle adviser on drugs" because he had "acted in a way that undermined the Government rather than supporting its work".

The row erupted last week after Professor Nutt said the dangers of alcohol and tobacco were more serious than those posed by ecstasy and LSD and criticised the decision to move cannabis to Class B. It emerged yesterday that a review of the council's functions, planned before the present row erupted, is under way. But Mr Johnson said it was part of a routine Cabinet Office value-for-money review of non-departmental public bodies and not linked to Professor Nutt's departure.

Bitter criticism from scientists of the Government's role continued to flood in yesterday as the row escalated. Sir John Krebs, former head of the Food Standards Agency, said the Government operated a "pick and mix" approach to scientific advice. "When it suits the Government (for instance, on BSE in meat, badgers and bovine tuberculosis) ministers say they 'cannot make policy without the scientists – we have to go with what the scientists tell us'. If ministers reject science advice they should be completely open about why, and the advice itself should be totally public. There should be no gagging of scientific advisers.

"I cannot imagine any reputable scientist wanting to take on David Nutt's job with Alan Johnson as Secretary of State. All academics will think hard about offering their advice in such a regime. Without science advice the Government is compromised."

Opposition politicians were more muted in their criticism, refusing to attack Mr Johnson over the sacking of Professor Nutt, who is seen as a loose cannon because of his comparison of the dangers of ecstasy with riding a horse and similar remarks. The Tory leader David Cameron branded the row "very unseemly", and said there had been a "breakdown of confidence" between the Government and its advisers. But he said everyone who takes part in public life "has to think about what they are saying and the way they are saying it".

Mr Johnson was backed by Gordon Brown yesterday. But the Prime Minister came under fire from the former home secretary Charles Clarke, who said it had been wrong for the Prime Minister to say at the beginning of his premiership that he was going to change the classification of cannabis – from Class C to Class B – before the advisory committee had considered its position. "I think that was an error," said Mr Clarke.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Pre-Press / Mac Operator / Artworker - Digital & Litho Print

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: With year on year growth and a reputation for ...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Live Virtual Training / Events

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Manager is required t...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Group has been well establishe...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Group has been well establishe...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003