Photo of Mark Lancaster

Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North, Conservative)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. You may not have heard of the drug khat—indeed, many people in the United Kingdom have not—but it is a plant that is grown in the middle east and Africa whose leaves are chewed among Somali, Ethiopian and Yemeni communities here. Its effects are similar to those of better known substances, such as amphetamines. Khat is a stimulant, creating euphoria. Like nicotine, it is highly addictive; like cannabis, it is linked to mental health conditions; yet unlike those drugs, khat is not controlled in this country. Despite its physical effects, including liver and kidney problems and mouth lesions, it is neither classified nor regulated; yet khat’s main component, cathinone, is a class C drug —the same cathinone that is found in mephedrone, the drug that this House was so quick to act on last year. Khat is illegal in 16 European countries, as well as in the United States and Canada. It is legal in Holland, but regulated.

However, rather than the physical effects, it is the social impact that many ethnic communities in the UK are railing against. Khat can easily become a way of life. One former addict in my constituency described his routine: waking at 3pm, buying the leaves from a local house or car boot, and assembling in a local living room, or “khat house”, with around 20 others to begin an eight-hour session of chatting and chewing—a bit like the House of Commons. The inevitable come-down involves many users sleeping all day after a session before resuming the routine. Unsurprisingly, unemployment is rife in such communities. The habit perpetuates a lack of integration on those diverse estates and creates tensions. I have had complaints from residents about the obstruction caused by people queuing for khat, about night-time disruption and about intimidation from nocturnally high neighbours.

Meanwhile, family breakdown is often fuelled by khat. The financial strain increases the problem in deprived areas. Although khat costs only 3.50 a bunch, up to four are required per session, so the habit can cost 98 a week. Abandoned mothers and community leaders, and even users themselves, are crying out for something to be done.

The problem might come as news to many people, but it is certainly not new to Parliament. It was first raised in 1996, when the then Government said that they were monitoring the issue. In 2011, we are still monitoring it. Meanwhile, the problem continues to grow. Usage has risen with immigration, with the UK Somali population doubling in a decade. The way in which khat is used is also shifting. In its countries of origin, elders chew it on special occasions, but in Europe, contemporary patterns of consumption are excessive. Anecdotal evidence suggests that consumption is spreading to women, teenagers and even indigenous residents on our diverse estates.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs considered classifying khat in 2005, but declined to do so because its prevalence in the UK was relatively low. Therefore, while the plight of those addicted to cocaine, cannabis or alcohol is well documented, the fate of those who are under the spell of khat rarely comes to light. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has stated that

“khat use is both common and commonly overlooked”.

It has 20 million users worldwide. It is thought that about 7 tonnes of khat are imported into the UK each week, but we do not have a full picture of its effects, as the police do not collect data on khat, and hospitals do not collect admissions statistics related to the drug.

Those omissions need to be rectified. While that is being done, with a view to possible classification of the drug in future, will the Minister tell us whether he believes that, after 16 years of inaction, the time has come to regulate khat as a first step? If sellers required a licence, antisocial behaviour problems would be reduced. A minimum age for purchase would stop the drug’s popularity spreading to youngsters, and it would at last register on the Government’s radar.

5:41 pm
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Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion, Green)

One of my priorities as MP for Brighton, Pavilion is to tackle our city’s sad reputation as the drugs death capital of the UK. Since being elected, I have met many of those in my constituency who are most affected by drugs to explore ways of reducing the harms associated with drug use. Based on those meetings, I have two proposals for the Minister today. The first is that future drugs policy be based on evidence. The second is that responsibility for drugs policy be moved from the Home Office to the Department of Health, and I hope to demonstrate why such a move would be commensurate with an evidence-based approach.

Drug-related harms and the cost to society remain extraordinarily high in Britain despite decades of prohibition, yet successive British Governments have put their faith in the illegality of drugs being a deterrent in itself. Just last weekend, however, new research published in the Journal of Substance Use corroborated previous studies that suggested that whether a drug was illegal had very little bearing on people’s decision to use it. Why do we not look at the evidence?

In Portugal, the number of people taking heroin has halved since its use was decriminalised. In Switzerland, a series of new policies based on public health rather than on legality has led to a sharp decline in heroin demand and crime. A comparison between Norway, which has a very liberal regime but similar levels of drug use to Sweden, where strict controls are in place, shows very little correlation between levels of punishment and levels of drug taking.

In other words, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that prohibition is not the most successful way to reduce drug-related harms, and that there are other approaches. As the chair of the UK Bar Council, Nicholas Green QC, has said:

“A growing body of comparative evidence suggests that decriminalising personal use can have positive consequences. It can free up huge amounts of police resources, reduce crime and recidivism and improve public health. All this can be achieved without any overall increase in drug usage.”

The Government, however, appear to be unwilling to countenance any approach other than prohibition. Their 2010 strategy makes a firm commitment to evidence-based policy making, yet in the very same document, the Home Secretary completely dismisses alternatives such as the decriminalisation of personal use.

There has never been an impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971; nor has there been a cost-benefit assessment, or any attempt to compare its effectiveness

in reducing the societal, economic or health costs of drugs misuse with the alternatives. Yet we surely owe it to those affected to ensure that the overall policy framework—as well as spending decisions about particular treatments, for example—is informed by the evidence. Evidence-based prevention needs to be considered as well. If we want fewer young people to use drugs, we must craft messages that work, and we must do so in the context of the Equality Trust research that shows a clear and demonstrable correlation between high drug use and high levels of inequality.

The message I am hearing loud and clear from those I have met in my constituency is that rather than criminalising drug addiction we need to give people treatment and support. That view is echoed by Chief Superintendent Graham Bartlett of Brighton and Hove police, whose personal view is that

“the use of drugs is not well addressed through punitive measures.”

As he goes on to say,

“Providing people with treatment not only resolves their addiction—thereby minimising risk of overdose, drug related health issues, anti social behaviour and dependence on the state, for example—but cuts the costs to the community by reduced offending.”

That is why my second recommendation is that we decriminalise personal drug use and remove responsibility for drugs policy to the Department of Health. I am hosting a round table in Brighton in September to discuss how we might move forward as a city on this issue. It is clear that any changes need to be brought in slowly and carefully, but if the Government were to lend their support to such an approach, committing to a drugs policy that is evidence-based and treatment-led, I am confident that we could save lives locally.

5:45 pm
Photo of Jane Ellison

Jane Ellison (Battersea, Conservative)

I want to speak about an issue that affects a growing number of women and girls right across our country—female genital mutilation. It is the third time that I have raised the issue in the Chamber over the last year, and it has been raised by Members in both Houses in recent weeks, with a thoughtful debate taking place in the other place on 30 June.

FGM is not a religious issue; nor is it restricted to one ethnic group. It is a cultural practice prevalent in Africa, the middle east and parts of the far east. But behind the acronym FGM is a crime—a brutal crime perpetrated against those who are least able to protect themselves: little girls and young women.

FGM is the full or partial removal of, or injury to, the external female genitalia for non-therapeutic reasons, which means that there is no beneficial medical basis for the practice. In every case, the health of the girl or woman is damaged, often irreparably. What is most shocking of all is that a great many of these criminal acts are perpetrated against girls aged 10 and under, right down to infants. It is “the unkindest cut of all”, as FGM is carried out in the full knowledge of those who are supposed to protect their children—their families.

FGM causes all kinds of severe problems for girls and women’s sexual and reproductive health and general well-being throughout their lives. The Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development, FORWARD, estimated that around 66,000 women and girls in England and Wales have already been subject to FGM and that

well over 22,000 should be considered as “at risk”. In some areas of London, about 5% of women giving birth present with signs of FGM. Those grim figures are based on the 2001 census. Given migration patterns over the last decade, these figures are likely to be much higher today.

In a recent article in The Guardian, Hugh Muir stated that some 6,000 girls in London were taken abroad and subjected to genital mutilation. Head teachers have described to me happy and outgoing young girls who have returned from their summer holidays withdrawn and distressed. I struggle to understand why the systematic and brutal wounding of young girls is not considered a national scandal. I know that right hon. and hon. Members would not tolerate a situation in which little British girls were taken abroad and returned missing their fingers. Likewise, we should not tolerate FGM. It is a child protection issue. FGM in the UK is child abuse; it is that simple—yet FGM continues to grow, largely unchallenged, in British society.

Since 2008, there have been more than 100 Met investigations into cases of FGM, but despite that, and even though FGM has been illegal since 1985, there have been no convictions to date. France has made more than 100 successful prosecutions. Ms Efua Dorkenoo, a leading expert in the field, believes that we must make it clear to communities where FGM is prevalent that the Government, police and courts take this issue very seriously and that it is completely unacceptable. Prosecutions would make that clear. We need to understand the barriers to prosecution. Have Ministers discussed with their counterparts in France how that country’s successful prosecutions were secured?

Prevention is even more important. Are we focusing on children aged under 10? Are Departments such as Health, Education and the Home Office working together to make the existing framework of child protection even more effective? Are we urgently addressing the need to update the evidence base on FGM? Figures that are now more than 10 years old suggest that the practice affects more women in the number of new cases than ovarian or cervical cancers—yet female genital mutilation can be eliminated, and I would like to see it given the emphasis it deserves.

5:49 pm
Photo of Yasmin Qureshi

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East, Labour)

I want to talk about the innovative and excellent work done by Fortalice house in my constituency. Before I explain why I believe that its work should interest Back Benchers as well as Ministers, let me give some statistics for domestic violence.

Domestic abuse accounts for almost 25% of recorded violent crime. An average of two women a week are killed by a male partner or former partner, 30% of domestic violence starts during pregnancy, women are assaulted an average of 35 times before seeking help, and a woman is assaulted in her home every six seconds. Those are staggering statistics in a modern, advanced, civilised society such as ours.

Fortalice house, which has existed for three years, accommodates up to 22 women and up to 70 children in fully furnished, self-contained flats with 24-hour supervision.

Its ethos involves not just providing physical shelter, but re-educating women and children so that they can change their own patterns of behaviour. Its staff work with women to deal with issues such as alcohol, drugs, living skills, relationships, money and physical health, and to motivate them to take responsibility for their own mental and emotional health. The skills that they teach include managing money and using IT, sewing, and cooking healthy food. As a result of their work, in the last year only 5% of women who went into Fortalice house went back to the perpetrators of violence: it had a 95% success rate. Staff also provide practical help, filling in forms and liaising with different agencies to ensure that the ladies receive the benefits to which they are entitled, which helps them to look after themselves and their children.

The work of Fortalice house is, by nature, people-intensive, and funding cuts of more than 18% will have a severe impact on its ability to deliver the excellent services that it currently provide. Domestic violence is an issue in Bolton, where, between April 2010 and March 2011, there were 8,160 incidents of domestic violence, more than in any other area in Greater Manchester. Twenty per cent. of recorded crime in Bolton is domestic violence, and 50% is alcohol-related. I know that there are budgetary constraints, but I urge Home Office Ministers to recognise that some of the work that is being done is so vital and crucial that it must be supported. I ask the Home Office to consider not just funding Fortalice house so that it can continue its work, but enabling that work to be extended to other domestic violence refuge centres throughout the country. Ultimately more money will be saved, because prevention is always better than cure.

Finally, I invite Ministers to come and see for themselves the excellent work being done at Fortalice house, and ask them again to consider providing resources so that domestic violence refuges—

Photo of Nigel Evans

Nigel Evans (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means; Ribble Valley, Conservative)

Order. The hon. Lady’s time is up.

5:53 pm
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Bob Blackman (Harrow East, Conservative)

I want to draw the House’s attention to increasing concern in my constituency about gang-related crime.

Let me begin by saying that the London borough of Harrow is the second safest borough in London in terms of crime. The police do a brilliant job in apprehending criminals and ensuring that they are processed through the courts and punished accordingly, and they have my huge support. The Mayor of London has increased the number of police officers available to the borough, as well as the number of police community support officers. However, there is a great fear of crime in the area, which has been exacerbated by recent events. It stems from what happened two or three years ago, when Wealdstone was essentially a no-go area after dark because of the gangs in the area. The situation culminated in the stabbing of a young man at a petrol station. I am delighted to say that the police apprehended those responsible and broke the gang, and that those responsible are now in prison, but, of course, gang membership starts at different ages.

The police cracked down in Wealdstone, and that was a tremendous success, but the gangs then moved north into Harrow weald. A gang has terrorised the local

neighbourhood there. There are recorded crimes. On Friday 24 June, nine of the gang’s members were arrested after a young man was stabbed in the street at night. Happily, the young man was not severely injured, but he was badly injured. On Sunday 3 July, there was another incident in which a young man was stabbed. The criminal involved has, we believe, been apprehended, and will be processed.

This is the tip of the iceberg, however. The gang is causing mayhem in the area. Young people on their way to and from school are frequently mugged—relieved of their money and their mobile phones—and are in fear of going about their normal business in daylight hours. We must combat that.

I ask the Minister for one simple action that we promised before the general election, and which I hope will happen. Those who are apprehended carrying knives should face a custodial sentence, regardless of their age. Even if they are under 18, we need to challenge young people and say, “Do not carry knives, because if you do so and you’re apprehended, you’ll face a custodial sentence.”

We must go further, too. We must encourage parents to make sure that young people do not join gangs in the first place, and we must offer alternatives for young people. Just yards away from where this gang is operating, there is a tremendous initiative in Harrow: a joint arrangement between Watford football club, the lottery and Harrow council to open a state-of-the-art youth centre, which will offer an excellent set of facilities for young people. My fear is that parents across Harrow may be discouraged from allowing their children to go to the youth centre because of the activities of this gang. We must take strong action to remove the gang from the streets, so that young people are given positive outcomes for their future development and positive things to do. Over the summer, I hope to see this youth centre, which I shall visit this week, start to come into operation so that we can see a more positive future.

5:57 pm
Photo of Jeremy Wright

Jeremy Wright (The Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury; Kenilworth and Southam, Conservative)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to this short but varied debate. I should apologise to all Members who have taken part, however, as I will not be able to give them the detailed answers their contributions deserve in the time available, but I do want to respond to some of the points they raised.

My hon. Friend Mark Lancaster expressed concerns about the drug khat. The Government share his concerns. He rightly pointed out that we do not have a great deal of information about the extent of the use of khat. What we know at present is based on a 2010 estimate that about 0.2% of the population reported using it. My hon. Friend asked about acquiring more information. I can tell him that there are now—since, I think, October 2009—questions in the British crime survey about the use of khat, and I hope that will lead to the Government having more information in making appropriate decisions.

In 2006, the previous Government decided to accept the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs not to ban khat at that point. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary wrote to the ACMD in February of this year asking it to review the available evidence now, and to reconsider the question of controlling

khat under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. I can tell my hon. Friend that that work will begin in the autumn, and that we therefore expect in the fullness of time to have a good deal of information available from the ACMD and conclusions the Government can consider in deciding what to do next.

My hon. Friend would not expect me to prejudge the outcome of that ACMD review, and I will not do so. However, I can tell him that it will be thorough, and I am also sure that the ACMD will be interested in any evidence he and others can bring forward for its consideration. As I say, the decision that it takes and the decision that the Government then take will be based on evidence.

That brings me neatly to the remarks made by Caroline Lucas. She made two proposals to the Government, the first of which was that drugs policy should be evidence-based and the second that we should move away from the criminalisation of drug use towards a more health-based model. I shall deal with both of those in turn.

The first point to make is that we already have a balanced drugs policy. It is right that drugs policy should be based on evidence and that it should be balanced, not just on criminalisation but on other issues. The title of last December’s drugs strategy, to which the hon. Lady referred, starts with the words “Reducing Demand, Restricting Supply, Building Recovery”. All those elements are important, and we will continue to evaluate the strategy to make sure that it is delivering what it should. The strategy set out, for example, that the commissioning of drug and alcohol treatment services will be a core responsibility of local directors of public health, so there will continue to be a health-related element to the Government’s drugs strategy, and that is as it should be. There will also be an education element to the strategy. It is right to say also that young people need to understand exactly what they are dealing with when faced with a variety of illegal drugs and they need to be discouraged from taking them.

That brings me on to the second area. I understand that the hon. Lady had a very limited time in which to make her case on this important issue. I have an even more limited time in which to reply, so I understand that we are restricted in what we say. However, I disagree with her view that the right answer is to decriminalise the drugs that we are discussing. The simple reason for that is that legalising something that was previously illegal sends out a very clear message, and that message is that society no longer disapproves of this item in the way that it previously did. That would be acceptable only if the effect of these drugs was not as damaging as it is. The hon. Lady says that she is interested in evidence when it comes to drugs policy, so she must accept that the evidence clearly shows that illegal drugs of the type we are discussing are extremely damaging. They are damaging to the individual who takes them and to their family, and to the wider community. Therefore society should not take a neutral view on whether these drugs are a good or bad thing; society should take a strong view that they are a bad thing. The Government’s view is therefore that those drugs should remain illegal.

I will certainly pass to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Lynne Featherstone,

the invitation from Yasmin Qureshi to visit the Fortalice refuge, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will consider it. The hon. Lady was right to say that the people who work there do a remarkably good job and offer a service that many people find extremely valuable. However, I do not think it is right to conclude that the funding difficulties with which the Government certainly have to contend on a range of fronts mean that these types of services cannot be provided.

The hon. Lady will know that a substantial part of the local funding to refuges such as the one in her constituency comes from the Supporting People programme. In relation to that programme, 6.5 billion-worth of funding has been secured for the current spending review period. Admittedly, that represents a reduction, but the average annual reduction over the four-year period is less than 1% in cash terms. Central funding is also available and the Government are making available 28 million of stable Home Office funding over that period for specialist services, including independent domestic violence advisers, independent sexual violence advisers and co-ordinators for multi-agency risk assessment conferences. Those are all important services that she will recognise, and they co-ordinate with the types of services at the refuge in her constituency that she is describing.

I was discussing the Government’s commitment to preventing violence and abuse against women and girls, not just in the UK but more broadly so I shall move on to deal with the comments made by my hon. Friend Jane Ellison. As she said, she has spoken in this House before—and powerfully—on female genital mutilation. She has done so again today and she is right to say that this practice constitutes horrific abuse of often very young children. It remains a crime, as she says, and it has been a crime since 1985. More specifically, under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 the maximum sentence for this offence has been increased to 14 years’ imprisonment. Crucially, as she said, this Act allows the behaviour of British citizens abroad to be punished, whereas previously it could not be. That is an important point for the reason she gave, which is that occasionally such activity transferred abroad to avoid the effect of the criminal law.

My hon. Friend would probably also agree that there are a number of things we can do. We should look not only to punish those who are responsible for committing these offences but to improve the guidance available to prosecutors so that they can prosecute more often. She is right that there have been no prosecutions, but it is worth noting that there have been some 58 investigations into this offence. If there are difficulties with prosecuting, they might be to do with the types of information and understanding that Crown prosecutors need to have and later this summer the CPS will therefore be issued with new guidelines to assist, we hope, in taking forward prosecutions where appropriate.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we can do more. We can raise awareness of the issue, which remains in many ways a hidden crime, and we will therefore attempt to get more Government guidelines to teachers, general practitioners and nurses, who need to

understand the signs of such offences so that they can identify them. We also need to broaden awareness more generally and we have sent out some 40,000 leaflets and 40,000 posters to schools, health services, charities and community groups, because wider society needs to understand what is happening. We also need to assist victims, which we are doing with 15 specialist NHS clinics offering a range of services, including so-called reversal surgery. Women can go to those centres direct and do not need to be referred. Finally, this is a cross-government issue. It is not simply the Home Office that must act but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Education and the Department of Health.

Let me turn finally to my hon. Friend Bob Blackman, who spoke, as he has before, about the tragic and worrying events in his constituency. He is right, of course, that the Government should be very clear about the consequences of knife crime not just for the victim but for the offender. Let me make it very clear that so far as this Government are concerned, those who commit a criminal offence using a knife can expect to go to prison. As my hon. Friend knows, a prison sentence is available not just for adult offenders but for young offenders and in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is making its way through the House, the Government propose a new offence of having an offensive weapon in a public place and threatening someone with it. That offence will receive a mandatory six-month prison sentence, unless that would be unjust in all the circumstances.

My hon. Friend is also right to point out that we need to ensure that resources find their way to the problem. On that front, he might know that the Home Office has committed 18 million over the next two years, up to 2013, to support police, local agencies and the voluntary sector in tackling crime involving weapons and youth crime more generally. That includes 3.75 million for the three police forces where most knife crime occurs, and, as he would expect, that includes London.

It is also important, as my hon. Friend said, that we support those community projects that help to deter young people from involvement in knife crime. On that front, he will be interested to know that the Government have committed 400,000 to an organisation known as Kids Taskforce, which helps to educate school pupils about knife crime. He may have come across the organisation, because its materials are used by schools in Harrow.

My final point—I know my hon. Friend would support this—is that we must make those who are tempted to carry a knife understand that doing so does not, as they might believe, make them safer but makes them less safe. That is part of our education task when we deal with knife crime. I know that he would wish us to pursue that and that he would hope that it would be pursued in his constituency.

My speech has not covered all the contributions that have been made in the detail that is justified, but I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to respond to the extent that I have. I wish you and all those who work in this building a very prosperous and happy recess.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Nigel Evans

Nigel Evans (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means; Ribble Valley, Conservative)

Order. The final debate is the general debate and, as Members can see, it is well over-subscribed and we will finish at 7 pm. Although there is a four-minute limit, if Members have only one point and can make it within those four minutes, they will help other colleagues.