Drug Use and Possession: Royal Commission — Question for Short Debate
Baroness Neville-Jones (Minister of State (Security), Home Office; Conservative)
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Norton for the thoughtful way in which he introduced this debate on a subject of very considerable public import that, precisely because of the harms associated with it, excites very considerable strength of feeling and, I have to say, disagreement. There is a broad consensus on some of the damage that it does; where those who are informed as well as those who are uninformed part company with each other is on what we do about it.
I would like to respond to the points raised and set out the Government's thinking as it has developed on the drug strategy. Between us and those advocating decriminalisation, which I have to tell noble Lords the Government are not going to engage in, there is common ground on some of the things that we consider need to accompany a policy that continues to classify drugs and criminalise the taking of them. Do we believe in an evidence-based policy? Most certainly. Do we think that the law can do it all by itself? Certainly not. We certainly think that both education and treatment need to be integral parts of policy. Do drugs contribute to global crime at all levels, violent as well as organised? Yes, absolutely they do. Do we need therefore to take action? Clearly, we do.
The example of Portugal has been mentioned, and I shall come to that in a moment, because the conclusions that you draw from the evidence in front of you is going to influence what you say about what should happen next. The picture that emerges from Portugal is somewhat more complex than some noble Lords have allowed.
Let me say something about how the Government's thinking is developing and then I shall return in the light of that to some of the comments that have been made. As the House will be aware, in December last year the Government launched their new drugs strategy, whose component parts include: reducing demand; restricting supply; building recovery; and supporting people to live a drug-free life. The supporting part is very important.
The strategy has two high-level ambitions, one of which is to reduce illicit and other harmful drug use. I might say that we do take a dim view of alcohol abuse, which we also believe needs to be tackled. Some of the treatments that accompany that are much like those for the abuse of drugs. It is for the reason that alcohol abuse is certainly going up that we are clamping down on below-cost sales of alcohol and restricting their sale to young people, and so on. We do think that that needs tackling-so there is nothing between us on the subject of the evils of alcohol abuse. However, we do not believe that because alcohol abuse is going up, that is somehow reason for not being tough about drugs as well.
Our second ambition is to increase the number of individuals who are able to recover from their dependency on drugs or alcohol. In delivering these ambitions for the next four years, we are committed to an evidence-based approach, and we will undertake evaluation of the policy as we go along. We are not suggesting that we will pursue this policy irrespective of what the evidence shows that its results might be. I assure and promise noble Lords that constant evaluation will be an integral part of the approach that we pursue, and we will take into account the wider evidence available. I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, that I have asked whether we have any social research on the stocks at the moment. I fear that the answer is no, and I think that is something that we should take away.
High-quality advice on this complex field is obviously of the utmost importance. We value greatly the work of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and the proper consideration of its advice is at the heart of enabling us to deliver this strategy. We are developing with it an evaluation framework to assess the effectiveness and value for money of the drugs strategy. We will redo that on annual basis and from that annual review we will then develop further initiatives and actions as the programme develops. That I hope will give us the necessary flexibility to respond to changes in the drugs scene and the nature of the trade and based on the outcomes that we are managing to achieve.
The Government are also ensuring that our policies complement each other and build the necessary links between the strategy itself and sentencing, welfare and public health reforms so that we optimise the outcomes and the cost-effectiveness of individual policies.
A number of noble Lords have mentioned the whole question of impact assessment. I have some sympathy with this notion. It is very hard, however, to know what you are measuring. One reason is that it is extremely difficult to disaggregate the interaction of various phenomena. Two honest people can measure an impact and come out with a different answer. I hope the House would agree that we have to tackle the complexity of the interaction of various factors. I hope if we are able to do that it will give us a better clue as to how to proceed.
I suppose I need to say at this point that, although we are going to go through evaluation, we do not intend to go for a thoroughgoing review. We do not consider that that is warranted. What we want to do is to give the strategy that we are outlining, which contains new components of policy, a good try to see what it delivers. We are not a Government who will take no notice of the results of policy, but we certainly think that the case at the moment is made for proceeding with the policy on the basis of constant review.
As I said, we have decided that we are not going to decriminalise, but we are going to deal with a lot of the features of the scene. The four decades of the Misuse of Drugs Act have provided the UK with a coherent legislative framework. Although some noble Lords seemed to think that we could somehow duck our international obligations, we do not believe that is actually the case. We have to engage in policies which restrict the availability of drugs and their misuse and which protect public health and welfare. We will continue to try to do that.
We will engage in a number of positive features in our policy-I think it is important to do that-but before I come to that issue I want to say something about the relationship between the level of crime and drug use. The findings from the British Crime Survey 2009-10 show that drug use among young people in the 16 to 24 age group has fallen to 20 per cent, from 29.7 per cent when the survey began. That is quite a significant drop. The latest figures from the NHS Information Centre's annual survey of drug misuse in England, which was published earlier this year, confirmed the downward trend of the past few years. That is why I mentioned the complexity of interaction. That is an encouraging phenomenon and we would like to know exactly why that is happening.
We want to empower young people to steer clear from drugs rather than encourage their consumption. In due course we shall be debating the Government's proposals in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill for the introduction of temporary banning measures, which was mentioned by a number of noble Lords. We believe that it is right and proper to have measures in place to be able to ban such substances. The experience of methadrone convinces us it is the right thing to have done. The ban had an impact on attitudes-consumption went down. We are certainly not of the view that it is wise to give the impression that, because a drug is legal, it is therefore safe. Indeed, some of those drugs are extremely damaging.
As part of reducing the demand strand of the drug strategy, we want to help people resist the pressures to take drugs and the encouragement that may come in their lifestyles and we want to make it easier for those who have taken drugs to stop. This is key to reducing the huge cost to society. We will focus in our strategy on early years prevention, particularly for families who have complex needs, and we will provide high-quality drug and alcohol education and information to young families and parents through schools, colleges, universities and the Frank service. Education was stressed by a number of noble Lords. We certainly intend to lay a lot of emphasis on that. We will provide intensive support to vulnerable young people to stop them becoming involved in drug and alcohol misuse.
We also wish to give discretion to the police on whether to prosecute in given circumstances and to the judiciary to take into account all the circumstances of an offence. In practice, the law enforcement element is one that we wish to see used judiciously. It is fair to say that some of the results in Portugal, where it has been said that legalisation has taken place, do the opposite in that they put people into treatment, which is what we want to see happen here. However, some of the picture in Portugal is not so good. It is the country in Europe, I think, that has the second highest level of HIV. There are relationships between these various phenomena.
Very few custodial sentences are imposed for simple possession offences and a fine is the most commonly imposed conviction.