Government has to take tough decisions. It will want to act on the best advice available. When, as is regularly the case, those decisions attract controversy, what should we be told about the advice given, especially if the decision goes against the advice? And what should the advisers be allowed to say on the subject?
The row over the sacking of Government drugs adviser Professor David Nutt has not, it seems to me, shown anyone involved in the best light. Home Secretary Alan Johnson is cast in the role of the suppressor of an objective and independent scientific viewpoint, and as dismissing someone who dared to disagree with him.
At the same time Professor Nutt has been rather pushing his luck in criticising policies with which he disagreed. Is it helpful, for example, to compare taking ecstasy with horseriding in looking at relative causes of death, when the latter is a legal activity open to anyone? Not obviously a scientific approach, I would have thought.
Probably in the result the Government has simply inflamed the debate further because of the dismissal. It should certainly be prepared to engage fully in justifying its policies, rather than taking the big stick approach.
Advisers should remember whose job it is to take the decisions, and that wider considerations than the purely scientific may legitimately come into play. But they should be allowed some leeway, and on this issue, as with most others, the public interest is likely to be best served by full and open debate. That, after all, tends to show up anyone who stands on shaky ground.
On a different subject, but also concerning advice to Government, on what basis does the Scottish Government defend its proposed minimum price for a unit of alcohol against the charge that it conflicts with European competition law, especially in the wake of the Advocate General's opinion in the tobacco case? Although there are additional sensitivities concerning legal advice, MSPs who will have to vote on the policy deserve the best information available, especially given the amount of lobbying from powerful vested interests. Should we not be given a full statement of the Government's legal position?