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The Home Affairs Select Committee risks undermining democracy

    The Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) is fast becoming our new public moral arbiter. With its urbane and intelligent chair, Keith Vaz MP, it has increasingly taken centre stage, dissecting in turn, responsibility for the riots, phone hacking and border control.

    Their launch this morning, of a comprehensive review into drug policy is though, worrying. It is not that it is unreasonable to re examine drug policy, one of the big social issues of our time; it is, after all, eight or nine years since they last did so. Last time, I note the Committee incorporated a young David Cameron, who has since recanted some of the 2002 Committee’s wilder conclusions (The Government’s Drugs Policy: Is It Working?, HC 318, 2001–02) and specifically those on the harms of cannabis.  

    My concern this time, is their apparent uncritical adoption, lock stock and barrel, of the self-styled “Global Commission on Drug Policy” agenda, as set out in the call for evidence yesterday.

    It is surely reasonable to expect all such select committee enquiries to start with a blank sheet of paper, without any pre-conceptions or prejudice within their terms of reference, least of all, for such a Committee of the House of Commons, to be a tool for a lobby group. If they do not do this, what, frankly, is the point? But it is striking, in the case of this new HASC enquiry, the extent to which this is not the case.

    By marked contrast with the specific factual questions of previous enquiries HASC’s call for written evidence on drugs policy avoids requests for factual information. Instead it frames its enquiry in the curious terms of:  “The extent to which the Government’s 2010 drug strategy is a ‘fiscally responsible policy with strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights’ in line with the recent recommendation by the Global Commission on Drug Policy.”

    A list of  fudged ‘areas’ for investigation follows  – for example, “Whether the UK is supporting its global partners effectively” and “The extent to which public health considerations should play a leading role in developing drugs policy”. Why HASC has not posed these as straightforward questions is not clear. For surely one of the questions we need the answer to is: to what extent have public health considerations played in the development of drugs policy (particularly in view of that seminal advice from the ACMD in 1988 that Aids was a bigger threat to the public than drug misuse) and what impact have the subsequent mass ‘public health’ interventions of needle exchange and opiate substitution had on the drug problem? Not a question perhaps that the Global Commission wants to hear the answer to.

    To use the Global Drug Policy Commission’s recommendations as their starting point makes it almost inevitable that a ‘skewed’ report will result. But worse, HASC’s stated ‘alliance’ with this group begs the question of whether their terms of reference have been ‘planted’ on them (and manipulated) to confer authority on what is a well financed, self appointed pro-legalisation lobby group? It also begs the question of whether indeed, behind the scenes, this body is already providing the committee with their research ‘expertise’, either directly or covertly?

    Putting aside for one moment consideration of HASC’s new ‘fiscal responsibility policy test’ - not one I believe applied previously to their recent inquiries into the riots, border control or policing – it looks suspiciously like the Home Affairs Select Committee Administration has indeed been handed this agenda (possibly by inhabitants of “the other place”) and has uncritically and unquestioningly, regurgitated it.

    It is understandable how and why this could have happened. In recent months the Committee’s remit has been huge and inevitably beyond the capacity of the staff and the research it has at hand.  Staff too, may be naïve about the subtleties of high level lobbying and perhaps in some awe of those providing them with this unsolicited but apparently helpful advice, no doubt dressed up as dispassionate.

    So I would ask the Committee’s Chair, Keith Vaz, to review the terms of reference urgently. The discrimination he needs to make between preferential ‘advice’ and evidence submission should be clear to him.

    • Yes, it is reasonable to expect his committee to recognise and hear from legalisation or any other lobby groups, powerfully funded or otherwise.
    • Certainly they should be taking evidence from such groups.
    • But when they do so, their concern should also be with asking them searching and probing questions about what lies behind their advice – their funding, their support and their possible future commercial interest - and the philosophy of drug use within those groups.
    • But NO, it is not reasonable for HASC to align itself with one participant in the field whether covertly or manifestly.

    For the Global Commission’s media and public relations strategists must be congratulating themselves on this ‘coup’- a priceless one in financial, media and most of all, in political terms. It is one that will reverberate around the world and, uncorrected, it will do just this  before the review has even got out of the starting blocks.

    So if the committee is not to become a lap-dog and if this inquiry is to be treated with the respect it deserves,  the terms of reference cannot be framed exclusively by the agenda of any  lobby, whatever the profile of the ‘names’ attached to that lobby or the massive finance behind it.  Nor should it, by naming that lobby, be giving it prior authority over the terms of the debate – not least when its dearth of objectivity, in the misleading and irresponsible statistics it contrived to make its case, has already been exposed.

    The call for evidence must be framed as questions. The date for written submissions must be extended from the ridiculously short notice of January 10th 2012.

    If HASC goes ahead without rectifying this, then the (ab?)use of a Select Committee by such a lobby group must be a case for referral to the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee. 

    Kathy Gyngell has a first class honours degree in social anthropology from Cambridge and an Oxford M.Phil. in sociology. She has worked for the former ITV companies, LWT and TV-am as a producer and senior programme executive. A full time mother after the birth of her second son, she founded the voluntary organization Full Time Mothers.

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    Matthew Heenan - About 2305 days ago

    Kathy Gyngell is the last of the die hard prohibitionists. Legalising drugs is not making them compulsory. It is also not a 'white flag' in the war on drugs but a serious escalation. Removing crime from the equation will remove the gateway aspect of drugs, remove the unfair enforcement of drug laws towards minority groups, provide safer unadulterated and known potency products etc etc. Not even to mention the risk from new legals with unknown health effects. I could go on and frequently do. But, in countries where progressive drug policies have been implemented they have been successful by virtually any measure. Giving people the choice between carcinogenic tobacco, frequently lethal alcohol and far safer MDMA and cannabis can only improve public health. Also, buying legal hard drugs on prescription from a chemist will prevent peasant farmers in central america paying for the West's currently insatiable appetite for narcotics. The world won't end when drugs are legal. Recently, a study shows where medical marijuana is regulated, there are fewer car accidents and related fatalities, crime goes down et etc

    Current drug policies are indefensible and must change NOW! It's time everyone to stop believing Nixon's 40 year old 'war on drugs' dogma, look at the available evidence and say 'drug policy must change'.

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    Steve Rolles - About 2304 days ago

    Moderators - I posted a comment here Thursday AM but it doesnt seem to have appeared, so am reposting similar (I didnt save a copy).

    Kathy - The Committee is asking precisely the same questions that you regularly engage with on this blog. You shoudl welcome it.

    All are invited to submit evidence, whatever their perspective, and we cant prejudge the outcome of the Inquiry and you do a disservice to the committee and its members when you do. The vague accusations of some sort of Illuminati-style legalisation conspiracy are quite baseless - and there is no mention of the word 'alliance' in the terms of reference (which you have in quotes as apparently 'stated').

    The inquiry is not dissimilar in its framing to their 2002 drugs inquiry (which I assume you dont also think was part of some DanBrown esq plot, even though David Cameron backed a debate on 'legalisation and regulation' at the UN in its recommendations).

    Perhaps a more realistic appraisal would be that the Committee has been influenced by the emerging evidence in following decade, and the accompanying developments in the public media and political debate (including, but not limited to, the CGOD report).

    Shouting conspiracy when the debate takes a turn you dont agree with isnt the way to win arguments. A convincing submission may be more helpful.

    On one specific point: You say that 'what impact have the subsequent mass ‘public health’ interventions of needle exchange and opiate substitution had on the drug problem? Not a question perhaps that the Global Commission wants to hear the answer to.'

    on page 6 of the Global Commission report, supported by three very clear graphs, they say:

    "Countries that implemented harm reduction and public health strategies early have experienced consistently low rates of HIV transmission among people who inject drugs. Similarly, countries that responded to increasing HIV prevalence among drug users by introducing harm reduction programs have been successful in containing and reversing the further spread of HIV. On the other hand, many countries that have relied on repression and deterrence as a response to increasing rates of drug-related HIV transmission are experiencing the highest rates of HIV among drug using populations"

    three references are provided:

    10 -UNAIDS (2010) UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic 2010 Accessed 04.18.11
    11 - WHO (2006) Treatment of Injecting Drug Users with HIV/AIDS: Promoting Access and Optimizing Service Delivery Geneva: World Health Organization Accessed 04.16.11
    12 - US Institute of Medicine (2006) Preventing HIV Infection among Injecting Drug Users in High Risk Countries: An Assessment of the
    Evidence Washington: National Academies Press Accessed 04.16.11

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    Anonymous - About 2303 days ago

    Whether you agree with it or not, it's silly to criticise the committee for referring to the work of others on this subject.Starting from a blank sheet would mean ignoring everything which had ever been written about it.

    The committee's terms of reference do not about having taken advice from the global commission. All their witnesses and staff seem to be listed on their website. Do you have some inside knowledge or is this just speculation?

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