Independence from Government

.

 

 

The Treasury says "the Function of a Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) is to help Government Collect scientific information and make judgments about it. It reviews, and sometimes commissions, scientific research, and offers independent expert judgment" and then lists the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs as a SAC. 

A Home Office press release descibed the ACMD as "an independent expert committee that advises the Government on drug classifications".

Mr. Bob Ainsworth, former Home Office drugs minister, said in Parliament that "the Advisory Council is a statutory and independent Advisory Non-Departmental Public Body, which was established under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971".

Caroline Flint, Home Office drugs minister, said in Parliament (22 Jun 2004) "My hon. Friend said a lot about the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and we should remind ourselves that it is a fully independent, non-departmental public body" and "the advisory council is an independent and impartial body, and it provides evidence-based advice to the Government".

 

The Code of Practise for Scientific Committees:

39. The secretariat should be an impartial and disinterested reporter. It should at all times respect the committee's independent role. It should guard against introducing bias during the preparation of papers, during meetings, or in the reporting of the committee’s deliberations.

44. Committee members should be aware of the role of Departmental representatives and other officials and advisers having contact with committees and/or attending meetings as observers, (or in any other capacity). Such officials should at all times respect the committee’s independence.

76. A committee’s advice should be in writing, and should be seen as independent of government.

 

House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology: The Scientific Advisory System

75. It is important for the effectiveness of advisory committees that they be properly staffed. In most cases, advisory committees are staffed by a small secretariat of civil servants drawn from the sponsoring Department(s), and located within the Department. While this may give rise to questions as to their independence, it allows good communication between the Department and the committee. The Phillips Report found that "it will often be desirable to draw the secretariat from the commissioning Department(s) in order to provide a two-way channel of communication". It noted, however, that "the secretariat must be careful to respect the independence of the committee".[123] We welcome the Government's undertaking that these concerns will specifically be taken into account when the next draft of the Code of Practice is issued.[124] While we accept that close links with the Department concerned can be useful, we suggest that it would be beneficial for at least some of a committee's staff to be brought in from outside (for example, on secondment from the Research Councils or the Learned Bodies). It is essential that the staff of an advisory committee appreciate that they work for the committee and not for the Department.

76. In our GM inquiry, we were concerned by the evidence of the Chairman of ACRE that insufficient resources and staff were allocated to the support of his committee, and that this was causing "serious problems". We recommended that the Government looked closely at the staffing arrangements for scientific advisory committees and committed itself to providing large enough secretariats to ensure their efficient working.[125] The Government does not appear to have reviewed the staffing arrangements more generally, as we recommended. In our current inquiry into Genetics and Insurance, we have been told by a member of the former Human Genetics Advisory Commission that its staff resources were "barely adequate" and that on occasion this caused difficulty for members.[127] We believe this to be a widespread and continuing problem. We recommend that the Government ask each advisory committee to report on the adequacy of its resources, and to make a case for an increase, if they think this necessary. Advisory committees must have the resources they require to operate effectively.

Conclusion: 81. It is clear from the Phillips Report, and from our own case studies, that all is not well with the scientific advisory system. ... faults, in the way that the advisory committees are set up, staffed and operate, mean that it is not always as good as it needs to be. The Government does not always seek advice when it needs it, nor ask the right questions. It is not always effective in assessing the advice when it gets it, and does not always apply that advice in policy-making. The distinction between the role of scientific advisory bodies and Government Departments in policy-making is not always clear-cut. These are systemic problems which must be addressed. We welcome the Government's constructive response to the BSE inquiry and acknowledge the very real progress which has been made, particularly in openness and transparency. But there is still some institutional complacency, and a misplaced belief that the problem lies with public perception rather than with the structure and use of the scientific advisory system itself. Reform of the scientific advisory system is required if public confidence is to be restored.

 

Phillips BSE Inquiry Report:

Vol 1, para 1302: "any advice given by a CMO or advisory committee should be, and be seen to be, objective and independent of government."

"Lessons Learned - The use of scientific advisory committees

  • It will often be desirable to draw the secretariat from the commissioning Department(s) in order to provide a two-way channel of communication.
  • In such cases, as in all cases, the secretariat must be careful to respect the independence of the committee".
  •