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.
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.