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David Cameron called the sacking of the Government’s chief drugs adviser an “unseemly spat” today, but said that his party did not support any relaxation in the penalties for taking illegal drugs.
The Conservative leader said that scientists advising the Government should be able to give advice in a “clear and unvarnished way” but all people in the public eye had to think about the wider implications of what they said, he added.
Professor David Nutt was dismissed as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs by Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, on Friday, after publishing views on the relative harm caused by illegal drugs and alcohol.
Mr Johnson said Professor Nutt was sacked for “crossing the line” between giving advice and campaigning for a policy.
Two members of the drugs advisory panel have quit in protest and others are understood to be considering their next move.
Gordon Brown’s spokesman said today that the Home Secretary had the Prime Minister's full backing: “The Prime Minister clearly supports what the Home Secretary has done.”
But Mr Cameron said that if his party wins the next election, he would hope to avoid the “sort of unseemly spat we have seen over the last few days”, with the Home Secretary “shouting on television”
“What seems to have happened here is the breakdown of confidence and mutual confidence between adviser and minister and some very unseemly scenes have followed,” he said.
“But I am very clear in terms of the actual policy that we should not be changing classifications, we should be keeping them where we are — yes, on drugs, but also on alcohol.”
He added: “I don’t think what Professor Nutt said about the respective merits of taking Ecstasy and riding horses was a particularly good way of putting it.”
Mr Cameron’s room for manoeuvre is limited by his past support for the declassification of cannabis from ‘B’ to ‘C’. As a backbench MP sitting on the Home Affairs Select Committee, Mr Cameron also supported state prescription of heroin and provision of safe injecting rooms in 2002.
He has since said that he was mistaken and supported Mr Brown’s decision to overrule the recommendation of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs to restore the original classification of cannabis in 2006. The Tory leader cannot risk even the appearance he is changing tack again.
Writing in The Times today, Professor Nutt said that any “true” scientist would be unlikely to work for the Home Secretary in future.
“My sacking has cast a huge shadow over the relationship of science to policy,” he said.
The Government spokesman said Downing Street was informed by Mr Johnson of his decision to sack Professor Nutt, but said the Prime Minister took no part in it.
He said it was an “important principle” that advisers should present advice to ministers but should not campaign against their policy decisions. While ministers were expected to take expert advice into account when considering an issue in the round, they were not bound to follow it.
“It would be regrettable if there were other resignations, but this is an important point of principle,” he added.
“The Government is absolutely committed to the importance of having independent advice and evidence presented by advisory bodies.”