Will the Davies aviation commission be nobbled?

The Lib Dems are worried that the Tories are trying to skew the report in favour of a third runway.

The government’s policy on expanding airport capacity is officially to have no policy this side of an election. An independent commission will be set up, chaired by Howard Davies.

It will deliver an interim report by the end of 2013 and a final verdict by the summer of 2015. That conveniently allows all parties to promise in their manifestos to implement the recommendations of the Davies Commission, thereby avoiding the need to say anything specific about preferences for or against a third runway at Heathrow. That, after all, is what the whole debate is really about and a choice that divides Labour and Tory ranks all the way up to cabinet/shadow cabinet level. (Around Westminster many comparisons are being drawn with the tacit pre-election agreement to await publication of the Browne review into higher education funding that allowed Labour and Tories to avoid arguing over tuition fees in the campaign. That left the field open to the Lib Dems to vigorously oppose higher fees. Then, of course, they found themselves running the department that implemented a variation of Browne’s report. Oops.)

Now it is again only the Lib Dems who are united on the third runway question: they utterly hate the idea, on environmental grounds and because noisy jumbos annoy voters in blue-yellow battle ground seats south west of the capital.

At the moment, that tension in the coalition is expressed in the vagueness of the government’s stated position, as set out by new Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin in parliament last week.

“The Government believes that maintaining the UK’s status as a leading global aviation hub is fundamental to our long term international competitiveness. But the Government is also mindful of the need to take full account of the social, environmental and other impacts of any expansion in airport capacity.” In other words, “we are very much in favour of more runways except when political circumstances force us to be against them.”

I understand that a battle is brewing in government over the terms of reference for the Davies commission, likely to bleed across into arguments over who sits on it. The Lib Dems are worried that the Tories are trying to skew the whole thing with a prejudice in favour of Heathrow. Much hinges on how the fundamental question before the commission is phrased.

You could ask something broad and open-ended - “what is the best long-term aviation strategy for Britain?” That would put all sorts of options on the table and leave room for a discussion of the environmental considerations of building new runways in various places. Or you could ask something along the lines of “given the urgent need for new capacity and the impacts on growth of having current airports groaning under the strain of over-use, what is the best option available?” In which case the answer is far more likely to be: a third runway at Heathrow. The plans are there in the drawer, drafted by the last Labour government and generally supported by big business.

At the moment, the outline for what the Commission is supposed to do is as follows:

- examine the scale and timing of any requirement for additional capacity to maintain the UK’s position as Europe’s most important aviation hub; and

- identify and evaluate how any need for additional capacity should be met in the short, medium and long term.

All fairly neutral. But rule one of setting up independent commissions in government is to make sure you know the answer you want to the question before you ask it. Gordon Brown was the master of this technique and George Osborne is not averse to plundering the old Brown playbook for political tactics. It is Osborne whom some Lib Dems suspect of trying to nobble the commission with loaded terms of reference. That, of course, might just be a reflection of how depleted levels of trust on pretty much anything have fallen in the coalition.

A protest sign is displayed in an area that would be demolished for a third runway near Heathrow airport. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity