Home Office adviser quits drugs panel over ‘political vetting’ of applicants critical of government policy

‘If suitably qualified experts are excluded from membership on the basis of stated disagreements with government policy, this will erode the quality of advice’

Andy Gregory
Monday 07 October 2019 19:18
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A drugs expert has quit the government's advisory panel over accusations of 'political vetting'
A drugs expert has quit the government's advisory panel over accusations of 'political vetting'

A drug policy expert on the government’s advisory panel has resigned, warning the Home Office’s “political vetting” of applicants is undermining the body’s independence.

Professor Alex Stevens cited recent instances where a minister blocked suitable applicants from the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), after they criticised government drug policy on social media.

It followed the revelation in June, that Niamh Eastwood, executive director of drug charity Release, had her ACMD application denied by a minister because of her social media activity.

An interview panel had earlier found that she “impressive experience”.

Ms Eastwood, a leading legal expert on drug policy, had previously accused the Home Office of “just making s*** up”.

She tweeted that a letter from crime minister Victoria Atkins rejecting the ACMD’s call for safer drug consumption rooms despite a climate of rising drug-related deaths was “utter BS”

When her application to the ACMD was denied, Ms Eastwood submitted a subject access request, which revealed the government had vetted not only these and other comments on drug policy, but on Brexit, the Windrush scandal and “race-related” issues.

Mr Stevens said two other people, who wished two remain anonymous, had been similarly vetted and blocked from sitting on the panel.

After questioning the government about this process to no avail, Mr Stevens said in a statement over the weekend that ministers had not provided any assurance this would not happen again.

“The statutory duty of the ACMD is to provide the best possible advice to ministers on how to reduce drug-related harms,” Mr Stevens told The Independent. “If suitably qualified experts are excluded from membership on the basis of stated disagreements with government policy, this will erode the quality of advice that the ACMD can give.

“It also fundamentally undermines the independence of the ACMD. The longer this approach to vetting is left in place, the less independent the ACMD will be.”

Mr Stevens also criticised the government’s failure to act upon the panel’s recommendations.

In 2016, the ACMD advised the government on how to reduce opioid-related deaths in the UK.

“The most important recommendation was to maintain investment in opioid substitution therapy (OST), like methadone, which has been proven to save lives,” Mr Stevens said.

Despite ministers claiming to accept the recommendations in 2017, save for the advice to introduce drug consumption rooms, funding for drug treatment services, including OST, has since been cut across the UK, Mr Stevens said.

A lack of local government funding for drug treatment, combined with a policy-driven emphasis on abstinence rather than harm reduction, has frequently been cited as a likely reason for the increasing number of drug-related deaths.

Ms Eastwood is among those calling for the government to prioritise evidence-led policies.

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Responding to Mr Stevens’ decision to resign from the ACMD, she told The Independent : “Whilst I disagree on the government’s current approach to drug policy – especially in light of the record level of drug related deaths – that should not bar me from appointment.

“Rather a range of views makes for better, and more informed, advice and decision making. Professor Stevens’ resignation in light of the minister’s decision to block my appointment to the ACMD and general concerns around the politicised nature of the appointment process is well founded.

“The fact that the government are undertaking checks on a person’s social media account in relation to Brexit and Windrush, which have nothing to do with the work of the ACMD, is frankly Orwellian.”

Ms Eastwood said she stands by her description of Ms Atkins’ letter as “utter BS”.

“We’ve seen over the years the government ignore the evidence of the ACMD, which frankly is frustrating to all of us, not least because of drug related deaths and the continued decision to block drug consumption rooms, which could really save lives," she said.

“If you think about the rates of drug-related deaths in this country, the highest since records began for the seventh year in a row. At some point you get frustrated at the lack of leadership from the Home Office on this issue.”

In 2009, the government’s chief drugs adviser Professor David Nutt was sacked by home secretary Alan Johnson after he criticised policy, saying ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes.

Five other members of the panel resigned in the wake of the row.

The sacking forced ministers to reaffirm publicly their commitment to the independence of advisers and a working protocol was put in place to protect the body from governmental interference.

Mr Stevens' statement said the renewed commitment to the ACMD's independence following the debacle was a key factor in his decision to apply to the panel in 2014.

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Responding to Mr Stevens' departure, Prof Nutt said: "The news that a leading expert on drug policy has resigned because the Home Office rejected another well-qualified expert for political reasons shows they have learnt nothing in the decade since my sacking. Surely it's now time to put the responsibility for drug policy in the Department of Health who at least understand the meaning of evidence."

A government spokesperson: “Ministers are responsible for appointing members to the boards of public bodies and do so in line with the Governance Code for Public Appointments. The names of candidates are submitted to Ministers following assessment by an independent Advisory Assessment Panel. It is then for Ministers to determine merit and make the final appointment.

“It is important that candidates who are considered for these roles undergo appropriate checks to ensure they are suitable to hold these vital public positions”.

Additional reporting by PA

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