Drug Misuse (West Suffolk)

– in the House of Commons at 8:49 pm on 5th May 1994.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Conway.]

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring , Bury St Edmunds 9:10 pm, 5th May 1994

I am glad of the opportunity to introduce this Adjournment debate, and I am grateful to the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd), for being here to reply.

In November 1992 general practitioners in Newmarket, which is in my constituency, asked me for a meeting to discuss the rising incidence of drugs abuse in the town and their resulting considerable anxieties. I should say immediately that there is little difference between drugs misuse in Newmarket and drugs misuse in other East Anglian towns. However, there is a history of drug taking in the horse racing industry, which gives it a special twist. I spoke to the police and to the West Suffolk drugs advisory service, and so began a personal odyssey for me, culminating in tonight's debate.

My local campaign to highlight the dangers of substance abuse was helped by the extremely supportive stance taken by the Newmarket Journal. In the spring of 1993, my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) visited my constituency and spoke most persuasively about substance abuse to the pupils at Newmarket upper school. Today, the Newmarket drugs task group comprises representatives from the district council, the police, probation officers, the clergy, schools, the racing industry, community education and the drugs advisory service. I am most grateful to Forest Heath district council—in particular, to its chief executive—for its financial and moral support of our efforts.

Professor Howard Parker of Manchester university has carried out research showing that 47 per cent. of 16–year-olds in Manchester and Merseyside have taken drugs. However, drugs abuse is no longer a feature of urban areas alone. A report commissioned by the Home Office and the East Sussex Drugs Advisory Council—ESDAC —produced the alarming statistic that the incidence of drug taking in the North Wealden district of East Sussex was almost identical to that in Brighton. More than one fifth of 14 and 15-year-olds had tried an illicit drug, and, of those, 5 per cent. are likely to develop problems owing to drug usage.

There is an additional danger in rural areas like west Suffolk. The more erratic supply of drugs results in the temptation to try yet harder drugs or lethal so-called cocktail mixes, with all the attendant consequences. ESDAC is probably the most sophisticated body of its sort in Britain. This is due largely to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone), who, both in the House and outside, has highlighted the dangers of substance abuse.

There is clear evidence that drugs abuse is now a problem in every part of Britain. Unquestionably, the rise in juvenile crime can be traced to rising levels of drugs use nationally. Until recently there has been a misconception that crime is a real problem only in metropolitan areas. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has changed that perception by sponsoring the parish constables initiative and by encouraging chief constables to use new and more effective rural policing methods. The fruits of that are already apparent in my constituency. Every Member of Parliament who represents a rural constituency should be grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for what has already been achieved.

The bulk of drug taking in Britain is confined to cannabis. In 1992, 488 people in Suffolk—that is up from 177 in 1989—were found to be in possession of cannabis, and 76 per cent. were cautioned. Cautions are generally regarded as successful because there is a low re-arrest rate. The Home Office initiative on drugs usage and drugs prevention in December 1993 dealt with the question of whether soft drug users moved into harder drugs. It pointed to a link between the use of cannabis and some other drugs, but not very dangerous drugs such as heroin, cocaine and crack. There was a clearly observed link between cannabis, alcohol and tobacco. In any event, the number of registered addicts grew by 17 per cent. last year.

I say bluntly that I am opposed to the decriminalisation of cannabis. Even some policemen believe that prosecuting users of cannabis is a waste of their time. Some people regard cannabis as simply relaxing and recreational, but perhaps it is not widely known that it can stay in the body system for up to 30 days. One of the most respected professionals in substance abuse studies graphically likened cannabis to pouring boiling water into a crystal glass: a tiny flaw could cause the glass to break. In his professional experience, and that of others, cannabis usage can trigger considerable mental disorder in those suffering from even mild forms of schizophrenia, phobias and depression.

Additionally, the strength of cannabis has greatly increased. One variant, skunk, can cause hallucinations. The legalisation of cannabis would send entirely the wrong signal to young people. Those with a more daredevil mentality would be tempted into more dangerous drugs just for the added thrill of trying something illegal. Drug pushers increasingly offer a full spectrum of drugs merchandise. Those seeking to buy only cannabis are usually offered harder drugs too. Users of cannabis should know that they run the risk of getting a criminal record.

In the past year there have been no fewer then 9,000 major drug seizures. The police and customs now believe that the drugs market in Britain has a street value of £3 billion. That is big business. Ruthless, well-armed and determined gangs, ranging from Chinese triads to Jamaican yardies and the new eastern European mafias, are muscling in on the British drugs market, according to the National Criminal Intelligence Service.

Of course, money from drug smugglers can be seized and confiscated but murder, even of policemen, is a feature of their existence. The director of intelligence of the Metropolitan police believes that one in four burglaries is drug related. Police studies in Liverpool, Manchester and the Wirral suggest that 85 per cent. of heroin addicts support their dependence through property crime. There is undoubtedly a direct link to both the rise in criminal activity and the mental disorder among young people and substance abuse. That is truly a cancer in our national life.

Since 1989, there have been more than 400 deaths just because of glue sniffing. A campaign launched earlier this year by the Department of Health and aimed at parents sought to help them to talk more easily to their children and to watch out for signs of misuse. That was greatly welcomed.

Substance abuse destroys lives and causes death, grief and misery to families and loved ones. Parents must be at the heart of the fight against abuse, not only because it is their responsibility as parents but because it is they who so often have to pick up the pieces when their children become addicts. The Government's appreciation of the horrors of drug misuse is now high. However, until recently there was no attempt to co-ordinate various departmental anti-drugs activities. The Government spend £535 million each year on combating drugs abuse. Yet it is plain that we have not been making the best use of that tremendous sum of money. Of course we need international co-operation. Some 40 per cent. of drugs seized come from other European Union countries. Recent initiatives include a Europe-wide drugs intelligence service and the permanent stationing of a drugs officer at Interpol headquarters in Lyon.

Welcome though that is, the main thrust of our attack on drugs misuse must come at the local level, but under an umbrella of nationally agreed priorities. The overall conclusion of "Across the Divide", a report to the Department of Health that was published early this year, is that a new shape needs to be given to local collaboration aimed at curbing drugs and misuse. The emphasis is on involving local communities in prevention. It advocated drugs misuse community partnerships as a strategic focus to assess the needs, to monitor the extent of drug misuse and to develop and co-ordinate an appropriate strategy. The local community partnerships should comprise commissioning bodies such as the police and the health authority, local government representatives, local businesses and other community representatives.

That accords very much with what we are embryonically trying to do in Newmarket. In many respects, it parallels the existing Home Office safer cities programme. Crime prevention activity is co-ordinated locally with co-operation at a number of levels. It is a nation-wide attempt to cut criminality, through policies carried out at a local level. Participation by local people is a clear pointer to what can be achieved by partnership, and the results have been impressive.

A number of countries have introduced a national drugs strategy. There is no perfect role model of success. Canada has, however, the one that is of perhaps the greatest interest. It was launched in 1987 and 70 per cent. of funding went to reducing demand for drugs via prevention, treatment and rehabilitation. Specific groups at risk, such as young people, have been targeted. The Canadian Government believe their anti-drugs strategy to have been a success. For example, the number of first-time teenage users of cannabis has dropped from 47 to 29 per cent. Some 790 community action projects are active in reducing the harm from substance abuse. Prevention is regarded as critical and the strategy aims to assist communities in their fight against substance abuse. Therefore, I applaud the establishment of the central drugs co-ordination unit under the safe hands of my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council. I welcome its remit to establish a clear strategic framework. Importantly, it will take the lead in devising plans for local co-ordination in tackling the drugs menace.

In years to come, it will be seen that one of the achievements of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was his determination to cut red tape and bureaucracy. The appointment of a Minister for deregulation, and his remit to cut across all Government Departments, will be regarded as an important policy decision. Once the drugs co-ordinator makes her report and recommendations in September, I urge my right hon. Friend personally to give support to a national plan of action that will not be impaired by any interdepartmental blockages. I urge him to appoint a specific Minister to see that the strategy is fully implemented.

The role of teachers and general practitioners in the drugs issue is pivotal. Many doctors do not like prescribing drugs for addicts in their surgeries, and we need to be sensitive to that. Additionally, many teachers do not feel comfortable about the issue of drugs abuse. I welcome, therefore, the proposed revision of science within the national curriculum to emphasise substance abuse and its effect on the body. Programmes specifically designed for schools, such as that devised by Turning Point in London, have the effect of raising pupils' awareness of drugs in a creative and informative way. As the Government consider possible changes to initial teacher training, drugs education should be highlighted in the context of overall health education. Similarly, GPs should attend courses dealing with drugs issues.

Recently, I visited Highpoint prison in Suffolk, where concern was expressed to me about growing drug usage. I urge more rigorous screening of inmates and visitors. As to prevention, short-term prisoners should be required to attend a drugs programme. There are real grounds for alarm that our prisons are being overwhelmed by the drugs problem and are breeding grounds for greater usage.

I refer finally to the role of employers. In the United States, workplace drugs testing is a £400 million business. The US Government require alcohol and drug tests for workers such as truck drivers, airline pilots and oil tanker captains. Increasingly, anybody applying to an American pharmaceutical, engineering or chemicals firm is required to undergo a drug test. I applaud the fact that British Rail has a comprehensive screening policy for drugs and alcohol, stemming from the requirements of the Transport and Works Act 1992. Other employers followed suit.

I urge that that practice be followed more widely. Nothing is more likely to concentrate the mind of a young person leaving school or university and seeking a jot) than obtaining a clean bill of health. That will act as a disincentive to drug taking. I wish to persuade employers to undertake routine random drug screening of employees for the sake of them both. 1 urge the Government to set an example and to give encouragement to the private sector.

In combating the drugs menace, we have not given sufficient considered attention to the preventive side. That is difficult to measure and evaluate but must be done, as we draw up a coherent strategy for prevention, rehabilitation and enforcement. Statutory and voluntary bodies dealing with substance abuse, including alcohol, work best when they work together.

It is tempting for those of us who are practitioners of politics to sloganise about drugs. It is easy to talk exclusively of enforcement. That is vital but only part of the picture. Similarly, the chattering classes, in seeking to decriminalise cannabis, only demonstrate their superficiality and distance from the horrific reality of the drugs problem.

West Suffolk has made a start in the battle for minds and bodies against drugs. It is a small step in the right direction. By the end of the decade, I hope to see a multitude of community task forces pushing back the tide of substance abuse under the umbrella of committed and clear national parameters. If Parliament can put such a programme in place, it will be a worthy memorial to those whose lives have been destroyed or terminated by the scourge of drug taking.

Photo of Sir Peter Lloyd Sir Peter Lloyd , Fareham 9:27 pm, 5th May 1994

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Spring) for initiating this Adjournment debate on drug misuse in west Suffolk, as it provides another opportunity to discuss one of the most serious threats facing society today. My hon. Friend's speech demonstrated his deep concern and the great effort that he has made in investigating the problems involved —particularly in his part of the country, but drug misuse is global. There are few countries in the developed or developing world that are not affected.

In this country, all the indicators suggest—as did my hon. Friend—that drug misuse continues to rise, although measuring the extent of the problem is notoriously difficult. Drug misuse knows no social barriers. It can affect those living in inner cities, suburbs and rural areas —no part of the country is immune.

Where rural areas are concerned, such as some parts of my hon. Friend's constituency, the picture is only beginning to come into focus. We need to know considerably more. I will mention briefly some relevant research projects funded by the Home Office.

An exploratory study has been conducted by Dr. Russell Newcombe into drug misuse in rural east Sussex, with a view to developing local community-based drugs prevention. Findings showed that cannabis use in rural areas was lower than in urban areas. For other drugs, the picture was less clear. The published report provides recommendations for the development of a local drugs misuse strategy and drugs prevention work of the kind that my hon. Friend particularly recommended. That work is currently being taken forward by local agencies. We have also funded a telephone survey in Greater Manchester that aims to compare self-reported drug usage and attitudes of rural and urban residents.

Another example of research that we are funding is the Somerset county youth service project, which is carrying out research to estimate the prevalence of drug misuse among the local population and the transient population of young holidaymakers.

I want to mention the Government's national strategic framework for tackling drug misuse, to which my hon. Friend referred with a note of criticism in his voice. It has been in place since the mid-1980s. It involves simultaneous action on five main fronts: improving international co-operation to reduce the influx of drugs from abroad; increasing the effectiveness of police and customs enforcement; maintaining effective deterrence and tight domestic controls; developing measures to prevent the spread of drugs misuse, including publicity and education; and improving treatment and rehabilitation.

The strategy aims to reduce both the supply of and demand for drugs. It is as much concerned with prevention and treatment as it is with enforcement action against drug trafficking. The issues that it addresses cover a range of policy areas, which are the responsibility of a number of Departments and involve expenditure, as my hon. Friend said, of more than £500 million a year.

I want to clarify one point for my hon. Friend: the strategy has been co-ordinated and monitored since its inception by successive ministerial committees. It is now being overseen by a committee under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Lord President.

The strategy, however, has been in place for several years. It is timely, therefore, to review it. That is why the new central drugs co-ordination unit was announced last December, which my hon. Friend particularly welcomed. The unit has been given two major tasks: first, to ensure that departmental policies are planned, developed and implemented in England with a clear strategic framework; and, secondly, to take the lead in devising an effective basis for local co-ordination of action to tackle the drugs problem. Both are vital tasks. We need to ensure that the strategy is really addressing the areas where the problem lies and that resources are targeted where they are most needed.

We must also ensure that at ground level there are clear and coherent structures for delivering the strategy. In both respects, particularly the latter, there are no doubt improvements to be made. Part of the purpose of setting up the central unit is to get from those who work in the drugs field ideas for those improvements. I know that the director of the unit and her colleagues have consulted widely during their work.

The unit has seen a number of written proposals, including a consultant's report commissioned by the Department of Health, to which my hon. Friend referred. I am glad that he has already met the director and put his views to her on these matters. All that will inform the unit's review of the strategy, which will be published later this year. I am sure that there are lessons to be learned from some of the local initiatives in place such as the excellent work being done by the drugs task group in west Suffolk. The way in which that group is seeking to mobilise the whole community to fight the problem of drug misuse is one of the features underpinning the Home Office's drug prevention programme.

The initiative ensures that people are properly informed, encouraged and supported in their resistance to drug misuse. Since being launched in 1990, the 20 local drug prevention teams have been working with local agencies and communities to find effective ways of preventing the spread of drug misuse and considering how effective local action can be organised with the aim of enabling drugs prevention to become a self-sustaining activity. One of the assumptions made very early on was that if all the many social and other influences on people at risk could be marshalled, organised and concentrated, there would be a very much better chance of making a lasting community impact on the incidence of the problem.

The local teams were placed in areas—mostly urban—which were known to have drugs problems. As we know, other areas, including rural areas, have drugs problems, too. Our aim is to use the experience of the 20 areas with teams to learn what works best and how we may find the best way forward in community-based drugs prevention.

There is little doubt that the solution to the problem of drugs misuse, wherever it occurs, is neither straightforward nor short term. The drug prevention teams have supported more than 1,000 projects in an attempt to ensure that the community is properly informed, encouraged and supported in its resistance to drugs misuse. The emphasis is on stopping young people taking drugs in the first place, and on getting them to stop if they have already started.

There is some evidence of success. Independent reviews have shown that good progress has been made in providing preventive action that is strong, consistent and well co-ordinated. It is, however, too soon to say whether there has been a long-term, lasting impact. Only time will tell. But, in the meantime, the effort must continue and develop. So we shall make an announcement soon about the future of the drugs prevention initiative and how we intend to develop from the start that has already been made.

We should also recognise the importance of the availability of effective treatment services. We need a comprehensive range of locally based services for drug misusers, from detoxification and counselling to after care and rehabilitation. Specific funding has been made available to health authorities as a contribution towards the costs incurred in developing such services. This amounts in total in England to more than £25 million for 1994–95. My hon. Friend will be interested to know that, of this, more than £1 million has been allocated to health authorities in the East Anglian area, of which £125,000 has so far been allocated to Suffolk health authority.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Health announced this month a review of treatment services for drug misusers. The aim is to determine how effective such services are in helping misusers achieve drug-free life styles and reduce drug misuse and the harm associated with it. The review will be conducted by a task force chaired by the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, President of Queens' college Cambridge, and it is due to report next year.

My hon. Friend raised several other points in his wide-ranging review. As he said, legalisation of drugs is proposed from time to time as a solution to the drug problem. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend declare his opposition to any such proposal. There is in any case little or no support for it in the international community. A recent meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs adopted a resolution which urged Governments not to derogate from full implementation of the international drug control treaty and to continue strictly to limit the use of narcotic drugs to medical and scientific purposes. The Government agree with my hon. Friend. We believe that legalisation would simply lead to wider misuse.

I readily accept my hon. Friend's point about the need for effective international co-operation in the fight against drugs. We attach great importance to that element in our strategy. The Government also recognise the need to deter international drug traffickers and dealers by providing the courts with maximum penalties and depriving offenders of the proceeds of their crimes. The maximum sentence for trafficking in class A drugs such as heroin or cocaine is life imprisonment. United Kingdom laws for getting at the profits of drug dealers are among the toughest in the world. We have negotiated bilateral agreements with 30 countries to facilitate the confiscation of assets.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the problem of glue sniffing. As he has said, parents must warn their children of the dangers and watch out for the warning signs of misuse. The campaign to which my hon. Friend referred was launched at a cost of £5 million in January of this year by the Department of Health. The publicity material is designed to encourage and help parents to talk to their children about drugs and solvents. So far, more than 1 million copies of the booklet "Drugs and Solvents—Why You and Your Child" have been issued.

We recognise that, as my hon. Friend says, the education service has a vital part to play in ensuring that young people are made aware of the harmful effects of drugs and are equipped with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that they need to resist pressure to use or misuse them.

Until comparatively recently, drug education in schools was very much an optional extra. However, under the provisions of the Education Reform Act 1988, all maintained schools are now required to provide education about drugs as part of the national curriculum.

I noted my hon. Friend's concern about drug misuse in prison as a result of his visit to Highpoint prison in Suffolk. I assure him that the Prison Service takes the problem extremely seriously and has made reducing drug misuse one of its major corporate objectives. It is developing a strategy that will tackle problems associated with both reducing the supply of and demand for drugs. The strategy will also involve improving the provision of treatment for prisoners during their sentences and the treatment and support being carried through on their release to the community. New measures in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill will also allow testing of prisoners' urine. We believe that that will act as a deterrent to those tempted to use drugs while inside.

Finally, on workplace drug testing, my hon. Friend mentioned those employers who feel that their business demands it. They have already used the opportunity afforded by collective or individual bargaining to introduce testing provisions into contracts of employment. I am sure that that development is to be welcomed. The Department of Employment recommends that any testing be done in the framework of a policy that aims to rehabilitate misusers and prevent risks to others from their actions.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important matter. I hope that what I have been able to say in response has given him some encouragement, for there is a great deal to be done, as he made so clear in his speech.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Ten o'clock.