Cable faces down US with ban on execution drug

Vince Cable dramatically intervened to stop drugs used in executions being exported from the UK today.

In a move which is likely to anger US authorities, the business secretary imposed strict export controls on the anaesthetic propofol, which states such as Missouri had been trying to source for executing prisoners.

"The new export control will go a long way to protecting the British pharmaceutical industry from unwitting complicity in executions in the USA, but more action will have to be taken at a European level to fully shut off the supply of execution drugs from Europe to US death chambers," Maya Foa, an investigator for human rights group Reprieve, said.

US death penalty states are already struggling with a shortage of drugs required for executions after the barbiturate sodium thiopental was blocked due to European export controls.

Some states then tried to access a secondary barbiturate, pentobarbital, but the Danish manufacturer imposed distribution controls. Missouri then resorted to propofol, which Cable has now put under control.

"Our policy in this case will be to put a process in place to expedite any requests to export propofol to legitimate end-users, but to refuse licenses for direct exports to correctional authorities in the United States, and also in cases where we assess that there is a clear risk of diversion to correctional authorities," the business secretary wrote to Reprieve director Clive Stafford Smith.

The news came as a welcome relief to Liberal Democrats who are still reeling from the chaos over House of Lords reform rebellion last night.

"Today's announcement demonstrates that the UK is taking the lead on fighting the death penalty internationally and the Liberal Democrats are doing the right thing by taking the lead on this issue within the coalition government," Lib Dem chief whip Alistair Carmichael said.

Cable introduced export controls on four drugs used in lethal injections last year and the new development is a sign the business secretary intends to maintain his stance despite exploratory moves towards other drugs by US penal authorities.