Saturday, 31 October 2009

Unacceptable behaviour – Ministerial sackings

The rules in the UK which govern how and when Ministers can sack officials and advisors need to be changed. Two dreadful decisions have been made in recent times which undermine the credibility of government and Parliament – the sacking of a local authority Director of Children’s Services by Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and the sacking yesterday of Prof. David Nutt, Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, by Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary.

Of course, Ministers should have the right, in the appropriate circumstances, to sack the people they have appointed. This is not in question. It is the criteria for deciding when the circumstances are appropriate that we need to get right – and they are clearly not right at the moment.

Let us take the two cases in turn. The sacking of a top local government officer by a Secretary of State, for behaviour in office in that local authority, should not be acceptable. If the behaviour of that officer had serious consequences in other agencies, in other areas or for the country as a whole, then there is indeed a case for a Secretary of State to step in. However, this was not the case. Their mistakes, if indeed they are properly found to have made mistakes, should have been dealt with by their own agency. If that agency is generically mismanaged, then there are indeed powers for the Secretary of State to step in and arrange for the management of such an agency to be supplemented or even replaced. But picking on one Director, on the grounds that the Secretary of State can tell more appropriately than the local politicians who should be employed and who shouldn’t, is patent nonsense. That way, madness lies. It is necessary to change the rules so that Ministers cannot again intervene in this way in the affairs of a local authority.

Turning to David Nutt and the Home Secretary, it is NOT in question that Ministers have the right to disagree with the advice given to them by scientists and other expert advisors – and indeed, sometimes it is essential for them to do so. Scientists and experts don’t know everything. Politicians bring different expertise to the decision making process – in particular, they bring a value system which has been legitimated by their election to Parliament and their appointment to Ministerial posts. However, we need to be clearer as to when it is appropriate for Ministers to exercise these powers to countermand expert advice. When it is in the public interest, and Ministers clearly have an understanding of certain public interests to a greater degree than their expert advisors, we should celebrate that we have a system which protects us from the narrow perspectives of ‘experts’. This particularly applies when there is a moral dimension to a decision or when choices have to be made between the interests of different groups in society which are in fundamental conflict. No way do I want ‘experts’ to get their way on such decisions – here, all politicians, but especially Ministers, must be up front and brave in challenging the ‘expert’ advice they get and making sure the policies recommended to Parliament take into account the public interest.

Inserting a moral dimension? Resolving fundamental conflicts between groups in society? Were these the grounds on which Jacqui Smith, the then Home Secretary, intervened to regrade cannabis as a drug more harmful than alcohol and tobacco, when her advisors have unambiguously told her the opposite? No, it does not seem so. Sheer party political interest, driven by ill-informed and hysterical commentary in the national media, appeared to drive her decision. Not acceptable grounds for overturning scientific advice.

And Alan Johnson’s decision now to sack the Chair of his Advisory Council? He writes in his letter of dismissal: “When you wrote previously around the relative harms of drugs comparing ecstasy to horse riding my predecessor made it clear that it is not the job of the chair of the government’s Advisory Council to comment or initiate a public debate on the policy framework for drugs”. Yet, actually, it is precisely the job of that Advisory Council to advise on the evidence for the relative harms of drugs. To do so in a way which makes the issues clear to the public (albeit embarrassing to the government) would seem especially praiseworthy (and, of course, particularly unusual).

Then Alan Johnson goes on to write: “It is important that the government’s messages on drugs are clear and as an advisor you do nothing to undermine public understanding of them.” Well, I think we would all drink to that. (Sorry, ‘agree’ to that).

So, have David Nutt’s recent statements in the press “undermined public understanding” of the government’s messages on drugs? In no way. In fact, quite the opposite – they have significantly increased the public’s understanding that the government has acted to regrade cannabis, not because of its likely harms to the public, but for party political advantage. Here, it is clearly the government which is behaving unacceptably, not its advisor.

And can we justify Alan Johnson’s decision by using the general principles of public interest? For example, has he injected moral values into the debate, on behalf of those who have elected him? No, the government claims it is simply reacting to the evidence given to it on relative ‘harms’. Or is Alan Johnson claiming that his intervention is to resolve fundamental conflicts between the interests of different groups in society? No, the government claims that there is a general public interest in reducing the harms from drugs – so that both those groups who argue for utterly draconian penalties on drug takers and dealers, and those who argue for complete legalisation of (unadulterated non-lethally-poisonous) substances have got it wrong – both groups will have their interests best served if the government acts to reduce the harms arising from drug misuse.

Conclusion? Ministers are currently taking significant decisions on the appointments of public figures without any reference to the public interest and with clear intention to secure party political advantage. This may not be surprising. It may not be unprecedented. It may not be easy to eradicate. But it IS unacceptable. We should launch a search for new rules which make it harder and less likely in the future. Parliament should debate this immediately and set this search for new rules in motion.

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