Orders of the Day — Drugs (Sentencing and Commission of Inquiry) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 9:33 am on 25th February 2005.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley 9:44 am, 25th February 2005

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is with great pleasure that I present the Bill to the House. The use of drugs in this country has reached crisis levels in parts of our society and it affects us all, whether directly, through family members who are caught in the cycle of addiction, or indirectly, through crime that is fuelled by people's need to buy more drugs. All that is going on against the background of a Government who have sent all the wrong signals on drugs. The reclassification of drugs such as cannabis has sent those wrong signals throughout the country and many people now believe that it is safe to use cannabis. The aim of the Bill is to redress those problems, to give more powers to the police and the courts to combat our drug culture, and to look into the effects of cannabis so that the Government can see that the drug that they have gone soft on is actually quite dangerous and harmful.

To summarise for my right hon. and hon. Friends, my Bill has three main strands, which I will consider individually: the use of a mandatory seven-year jail sentence if a dealer is caught selling class A drugs for the third time, the use of a custodial sentence for any adult convicted of selling class A drugs to a minor for profit, and the establishment of an independent commission to look into the effects of cannabis and to make recommendations to the Government on its classification.

Penalties for drug selling are rightly very harsh. Some 85 per cent. of all drug offenders are convicted of unlawful possession, but, although maximum penalties are severe, most offences are dealt with by fines and nearly three quarters of those fines are less than £50. The state of the drug problem in the United Kingdom has shocked me as I have looked into it. In 2002, the Home Affairs Select Committee, in its landmark report on drugs in the United Kingdom, "The Government's Drugs Policy: Is It Working?", found that drugs are easily available. About 4 million people use at least one illegal drug each year and about 1 million people use class A drugs such as heroin, cocaine or ecstasy.

The cost of those illegal drugs has plummeted in recent years, which has made it even easier for people to get their hands on them. The Independent Drug Monitoring Unit reported that the cost of drugs is at its lowest level for a decade. It highlights that, in 1995, heroin cost £80 a gram and that it now costs £35 a gram. That trend also applies to cocaine, which used to cost £56 a gram in 1995, but now costs £45 a gram. A newspaper recently reported that a line of cocaine is now the same price as a cup of coffee bought from Starbucks. That probably says more about the price of cocaine than about the price of coffee at Starbucks.

The trafficking of drugs into the United Kingdom has also continued to increase in recent years because organised criminals and gangs are making huge profits at all the stages of getting drugs into the country. The last figures available show that the number of people arrested for trafficking cocaine has doubled. There has also been a large rise in the number of arrests for cannabis and crack cocaine trafficking, so we have a huge problem in our country and on our streets. Cannabis use has risen by more than a third, ecstasy use has doubled and cocaine use has risen by 250 per cent. over the past eight years.

Evidence clearly shows the amount that drug use has gone up in the past three decades. In 1969, 4 per cent. of people used amphetamines, 2 per cent. used cannabis and less than 0.5 per cent. used other drugs. The British crime survey reported in 2002–03 that a third of 16 to 59-year-olds had tried drugs at least once in their lifetime. It also reports that cannabis is the most frequently used drug in all age groups. About 3 million 16 to 59-year-olds have used cannabis in the past year, with a quarter—about 1.5 million—of 16 to 24-year-olds admitting to using it in the past year.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reported in November 2003 that Britain had the highest use of cocaine in Europe, with 7 per cent. of 15 to 24-year-olds admitting to using it recently. Deaths owing to drugs have risen sharply in recent years, too. In 2002, there were 2,685 drug-related deaths in England and Wales—an increase of 19 per cent. compared with the number of such deaths in 1993. That represents 5.1 drug-related deaths per 100,000 of the population in England and Wales.

An obvious side effect for us all in the war against drugs is the effect that the rise in drug use has on drug-related crime. According to my right hon. Friend David Davis in his speech to the House on 18 January this year, about three quarters of hard drug users commit crime to obtain drugs. In February 2002, the Home Office cited figures from a study by York university showing that the cost of drug-related crime in the United Kingdom could be as much as £19 billion a year.

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look into the effects of cannabis so that the Government can see that the drug that they have gone soft on is actually quite dangerous and harmful.

Can I assume you will be taking a similar stance on alcohol, and pubs that remain selling after hours?

I have seen both drugs in use, together, and seperately, by others, and myself, yet I have only seen mindless violence and destruction whenever the legal drug is involved.

About 3 million 16 to 59-year-olds have used cannabis in the past year,

With so many users the death rates must be staggering, could you tell me where to find these figures please, as I have searched for months and come up with none.

Deaths owing to drugs have risen sharply in recent years

I wonder if you could also explain to me here, are these "Deaths owing to drugs" the drugs killing the users? or is it the impurities added by unscrupulous dealers "value adding" causing the deaths?

Sir, surely your own comments, suggest the misuse of drugs act needs an overhaul, but also our methods of dealing with drug users? If say "registered addicts" were prescribed a medical source of their "crutch" on the proviso counselling/medical help was given before/after/during, with the cost of the medicaly monitored versions of these drugs being safer, not leading to the nasty side-effects the propoganda of the 80's told us "how to spot a junkie" on top of the difference in cost to the user surely a lot of these problems would be sorted effectively?

There would be no need to shut the charities so many Mp's and counsellors like to get involved with, merely change their services a little for the sake of a better Britain.

Submitted by Torpidai

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Does my hon. Friend intend in any part of his analysis to make a comparison with the use of tobacco and alcohol, both as addictive substances and, particularly in the case of alcohol, as contributors to crime? It has always struck me as being rather odd that, in any discussion about drugs, we often tend to ignore the fact that substances legally obtainable in this country can in many ways be just as damaging.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I did not intend to point that out because I know very little about statistics that show that people go out to commit crime to fuel their purchases of alcohol or tobacco products. As regards cannabis, for those who mix it with tobacco to use, it is the tobacco that is addictive, which creates the problem of people becoming addicted to cannabis through the tobacco. The smuggling of huge amounts of tobacco and alcohol into the United Kingdom is a major crime, and I declare my interest as the owner of a retail business in Swansea.

Photo of Mr Paul Marsden Mr Paul Marsden Shadow Minister, Transport

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the British crime survey shows that two thirds of violent crime is related to alcohol abuse and use?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I concede immediately that there is a serious problem in this country with those who cannot control their alcohol consumption and go on to commit violent crime. That needs to be looked at, particularly in relation to extended licensing hours. We must be ever vigilant against such crime, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for introducing that topic into the debate.

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

My hon. Friend is opening the debate in sterling form, and I congratulate him on presenting his Bill. Does he agree that, despite the problems that are faced in our prisons by prisoners who are dependent on drugs and alcohol, it is a great shame that there are no specific accredited alcohol treatment programmes with ring-fenced funding in any of our prisons in England or Wales?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her kind comments. I know that she has taken a particular interest in that aspect. We cannot simply lock up people who are convicted of drug or alcohol-related crimes and throw away the key. We must ensure that programmes are properly funded and that they relate to the crime for which a prisoner has been convicted. In the case of alcohol-related crime, we must make sure there are properly funded programmes to help people off their addiction to that product.

More than a million violent crimes associated with the use of drugs are committed every year. Overall crime is up by 16 per cent. and violent crime is up by 80 per cent. That increase is being fuelled by the drug culture. Drug crime and possession has gone up by 4 per cent. Around three quarters of heroin or cocaine users commit crime in order to obtain those drugs. Persistent drug-misusing offenders commit almost 10 times as many crimes as people arrested who do not use drugs. The new English and Welsh arrestee drug abuse monitoring project known as NEW-ADAM provides detailed analysis of the association between drug use and crime. The results of the first two years of the NEW-ADAM programme were published in 2004. The programme involves interviewing and voluntary drug testing of those arrested by the police in 16 custody suites in England and Wales. Arrestees are questioned about their drug use and their offending behaviour in relation to acquisitive crime.

The results are shocking—57 per cent. of arrestees reported having used a class A drug in the past 12 months; 48 per cent. of arrestees reported using heroin, crack or cocaine in the past 12 months; and 75 per cent. of those who had used crack in the past year reported committing one or more acquisitive crimes in the same period. It is our children about whom we should be concerned. More than 50,000 young people in the United Kingdom are addicted to hard drugs. That is 50,000 too many.

According to official figures, almost one in 10 prosecutions fail because of procedural mistakes by the Crown Prosecution Service, and even if a conviction is secured, sentences are often too lenient and fail to reflect the gravity of the offence. That is clearly the case with drug sentencing, and it is why the current punishments are not doing enough to deter people from a life of crime.

The first part of my Bill sets a mandatory seven-year jail sentence if a dealer is caught selling class A drugs for the third time.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am intrigued by the numbers that my hon. Friend is suggesting. Why not a mandatory jail sentence for the second time? I can just about understand that if someone is caught selling class A drugs once, it may have been a mistake or they may be prepared to learn their lesson. Why is my hon. Friend allowing someone to do it three times before they are properly sentenced?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He almost sounds as though I am being too lenient.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

We will start with the most persistent offenders. Transparency is essential. Persistent offenders are the ones who must suffer, but that does not mean that if we believe that that is not sufficiently effective, we cannot return to the matter in the near future.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

My hon. Friend has just been telling us about the tragedy of young people taking drugs. Presumably, if someone sells drugs to a young person for the first time, we regard that as being heinous and unforgivable. My hon. Friend is almost suggesting that we allow them a second sale to a young person free, before they are hit properly at the third offence. How can that make any sense?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

It does not make any sense. That is why the second element of my Bill focuses specifically on the dealing of drugs to young people. I shall make it clear later in my speech that anyone who is caught selling drugs for profit to a young person will receive a jail sentence on the first conviction.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I hope that that reassures my right hon. Friend. Even people convicted on the first offence of dealing class A drugs ought to receive a custodial sentence, in my view, but at the third offence we leave no discretion to the judges. The sentence is a minimum of seven years, and I hope offenders will receive far more if they are caught persistently selling class A drugs.

It may be of interest to right hon. and hon. Members if I set out how the provisions of my Bill differ from the provisions of section 110 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. That can be summarised in three points. The provisions of the 2000 Act relate to all drug trafficking offences, as defined in schedule 2 to the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. The offences listed include offences under section 4(3) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, but include other offences, such as importation offences. The Bill focuses on the selling of class A drugs.

There is an element of discretion for the court in the sentences in relation to offences under section 110 of the 2000 Act. That is not granted in my Bill. A person caught for the third time will go to jail for seven years minimum. There is a requirement in section 110 of the 2000 Act for the convictions for the previous offences to be consecutive, so that two offences tried at the same time would not be treated as two offences for the purposes of the provisions. That is not the case in my Bill. Every crime will be treated individually.

Drug sellers are the scourge of our society. If we can deter them, we can go some way towards winning the battle. The number of people found guilty or cautioned for drug trafficking offences each year has more than doubled in 12 years. In 1990, 6,680 people were prosecuted or cautioned for trafficking. The figure rose to 14,610 in 2002. In Lancashire in 2002—the most up-to-date figures available—127 people were cautioned for class A offences and 391 were found guilty.

In Lancashire we have a key initiative that has been set up to look into and tackle the problem of the supply of class A drugs—Operation Nimrod, which was set up in April 2002 and is funded through the street crime initiative. Every day Operation Nimrod deploys two undercover policemen to different areas in Lancashire to make test purchases in the semi-open market. They appear as drug addicts and work undercover to get dealers arrested. It can take up to five months to gather enough evidence to prosecute those people, which is clearly a problem. Since April 2002 there have been 541 prosecutions as a result of the operation, and on average dealers are getting three years' imprisonment. Is that enough, particularly in view of the amount of time spent in getting the convictions?

I congratulate that high-profile scheme on what it has achieved and on the recognition that it has received—it recently won a commendation in the Home Office tackling drugs award. The senior investigation officer for Operation Nimrod, Detective Inspector Roger Price, commented that he saw many drug offenders reoffending, and that it would be a "wonderful development" to see drug dealers receive a mandatory sentence of seven years for their third conviction. He also commented on the fact that dealers are now frightened of Operation Nimrod, and said that they cautiously joke with under-cover policemen when they first make contact by saying, "You're not a member of Nimrod, are you?" The fear of prosecution is one of the greatest fears and deterrents. I urge the Home Secretary to look at such schemes and help ensure that they are extended throughout the country. The Bill would provide a deterrent for drug dealers in respect of reoffending. Many do so, and we must prevent that.

I want to deal specifically with drugs and children, which my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth mentioned. We have all heard in the news tragic stories about children dying from taking class A drugs. There was the story of Leah Betts dying after taking one ecstasy pill and the harrowing photos of Rachel Whitear after she died taking heroin, lying on her bedroom floor with a needle in her hand, will be with us all for ever. I pay tribute to Rachel Whitear's parents for allowing the photograph to be used in all the newspapers throughout the country, so that people can see that taking heroin is not cool. People should never take it lightly or think that it is fashionable. That young girl lost her life. I congratulate her parents and the parents of Leah Betts on going around the country trying to promote the fact that taking drugs is extremely dangerous.

Celebrities are mentioned from time to time in relation to drugs and the newspapers have recently been full of people such as Pete Doherty. Anybody who thinks that taking drugs is cool needs only to look at the photographs of Pete Doherty to see the appalling effects that they can have on a talented young musician such as him. In yesterday's papers, Naomi Campbell was talking about her drug addiction and the appalling effects that it had on her character. We wish them both well in coming clean of drugs. I have to mention Robbie Williams, whose music I think is brilliant. I was delighted when his song "Angels" was recently made a "Best of the Brits" song at the Brit awards, but some of his recent comments about drugs leave me cold. I hope that he and people like him realise the huge responsibility that they have throughout the country, as a lot of young people see them as role models. It is serious when people such as him make comments like, "I thought drug taking was cool and it was only because I ballooned up and could not control my weight that I gave it up." That is one of the most irresponsible things that he could have said. He clearly does not appreciate the huge responsibility that he has for young people, who, to be frank, would listen to him far more than to me on the issue of drugs. I therefore hope that he will look again at the messages that he and other celebrities, whether they are in the realm of music or of sport, send out and at their effect on young people. They should consider the influence that they can have to the good if they start campaigning and educating youngsters against the use of drugs.

The Department of Health annual survey on drug use, "Drug use, smoking and drinking among young people in England", found that 4 per cent. of all 11 to 15-year-olds reported class A drug use during the previous 12 months. The prevalence of drug use increased sharply with age. Only 8 per cent. of 11-year-olds had used drugs in the past year, compared with 38 per cent. of 15-year-olds. That is why we need tougher sentencing for drug dealers who sell their drugs to minors. We all know that class A drugs are dangerous in the extreme, but their effect on minors is even worse.

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

Does my hon. Friend agree that that makes it even more serious that it took the Government two years to bring to the House provision to make it an aggravated offence to sell drugs to children around schools? The Government originally announced that they were going to introduce such measures in 2002, and the Drugs Bill has got through its Commons stages only this week. That is two years that have been wasted by the Government.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Absolutely. Such action should have been taken a long time ago. I hope that the police will be given every support in cracking down on anybody who deals drugs to minors, particularly anywhere near schools, where they know young people go. We must be certain that the police will get full support. When parents send their youngsters off to school, the last thing that they would want to think is that their kids will be under any pressure whatever to take drugs. We all know about peer pressure, which is bad enough, but let us ensure that we crack down on dealers who perpetrate crime around schools.

We have talked about ecstasy, whose effects on youngsters can be harrowing. It can cause body temperatures to rise to dangerously high levels, it is linked to liver, kidney and heart problems, and it can activate urinary infection such as cystitis in women. My Bill will tighten the legislation on seven class A drugs: heroin, crack, cocaine, ecstasy, mushrooms, methadone and amphetamines prepared for injection. The aim is to prevent today's young people from becoming tomorrow's problem addict drugs users. The Government's own report, "Drugs Guidance for Schools", states:

"All pupils, including those in primary schools, are likely to be exposed to the effects and influences of drugs in the wider community and be increasingly exposed to opportunities to try both legal and illegal drugs."

We know that that is not dispute, but the Bill will make it clear to dealers that they now have a choice—they can deal and face a far tougher sentence than before, or they can stop dealing to the most vulnerable in our society, whether near a school or anywhere else.

As part of citizenship classes in schools, children are now taught about the harmful effects of drugs. I applaud the Government's guidance on this matter and the hard work of the educators involved. I also pay tribute to the life education initiative. I am a Rotarian in Clitheroe and, through their charity, the Rotarians support life education in schools throughout Lancashire, warning youngsters not only about the effects of drugs, but about other abuses.

C

I don't get this at all. Who has ever heard of "pushers hanging around schools"? MPs seem to read about some fantasy idea in the Mail and fixate on it. When they first proposed that part of the drugs bill I remember hearing several head teachers and policemen interviewed, and they all said they weren't aware of any particular problem of that sort. All this type of legislation is purely for headline grabbing effect; I do not believe the law should be abused in that way.

Submitted by Cosmo Loginaut

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

I am grateful to my fellow Rotarian for giving way. I have been following his exegesis with great interest, and there is much that is superficially alluring in what he says, particularly about young people. Where in his Bill, however, does he address the problem that most of the drugs dealt in my part of the world are dealt by children under 16 on bicycles who are connected by mobile phone to some anonymous figure who may not even be in the same country, let alone the same city? What will he do in respect of those drug dealers?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Anybody who is dealing for profit to anybody under 18 will be dealt with by the Bill. I appreciate the sensitivity of the issue of young people dealing to young people and, indeed, the abuse of older people using minors to try to get around the law, but that issue will also be dealt with. There will be custodial sentences for anybody dealing for profit.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Sentencing will be available through the courts. It will be up to judges to use discretion, because the relevant part of the Bill allows for discretion in looking at all the effects. Clearly, we want to get to the big dealers—the people who manipulate youngsters to deal their drugs—and they must be in no doubt whatever that, when we get to them, they are going to be dealt with harshly.

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that it is a crying shame that, when I sought in the Committee stage of the Drugs Bill to lower the age provisions to take into consideration exactly what Mr. Pound is talking about, and what this House is worried about, the Government resisted the proposal so strongly and left the specified age at 18 instead of looking at lowering it to 16 or the age of criminal responsibility, as the Opposition advocated?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I agree. I can see that Mr. Pound, who is sensible in most things, could almost be attracted to sitting on the Opposition Benches. Even if he does not come here now, he will certainly be sitting here after May. It is only a matter of time.

I welcome the approach to drug education of schools in my constituency, such as Clitheroe royal grammar school. Their aim is to enable pupils to make informed choices and to make up their own minds to reject drugs by increasing their knowledge, challenging attitudes and developing and practising skills. That is done by providing accurate information about drugs, increasing understanding about the implications and possible consequences of use and misuse and promoting a greater awareness of personal and social attitudes to substances.

The "Talk to Frank" website, which is sponsored by the Government, is imparting sensible information to youngsters and there is a 24-hour helpline. I think that the address is talktofrank.com, and I hope that not only youngsters who are worried about their own drug use, but those who are worried about their friends using drugs, will access the site. I hope that youngsters will use the helpline to get information on how to tackle the problem of dealing with friends who are taking drugs.

Although the percentage of children who use hard drugs is small, we must enact safeguards to protect them from the temptation that awaits outside the school grounds. We must also look outside schools to protect younger people in our society from the pervasive presence of drugs. Approximately 1 million children play truant, 100,000 children are temporarily excluded from school and 13,000 children are permanently excluded. The antisocial behaviour that leads to truancy and exclusions is part of the slippery slope on to drugs that we must try to curb through legislation.

Surveys show that truants and school excludees engage in high levels of poly-drug use, with cannabis, solvents, poppers and amphetamines featuring strongly. Heroin use, which is negligible among school attendees, affects 2 per cent. of truants and excludees on a lifetime basis. The level of consumption of any class A drug once a month during the past year is significantly higher for excludees than for those who routinely attend school. Other research into drug use by school age young people highlights a similar pattern of experimentation, with cannabis use most prominent, followed by the use of amphetamines, solvents, magic mushrooms and poppers.

The links between drug use and criminal activity are well established and acknowledged. For young people living on the streets, lifetime use of the more harmful drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, crack, tranquilisers, steroids, solvents and hallucinogens, is high—four to 10 times higher than for those minors who have never been homeless. For that section of our youth, who are so often the forgotten minority, to be a habitual drug user is a life sentence. Not only must those young people drag themselves off the streets and face the problems that put them there, but they must stop the cycle of desperation that led them to, and keeps them on, drugs. Indeed, there is evidence that drug use in later life is far more likely among runaways and the homeless than among minors who remain under a roof for that period. My Bill will make all drug pushers think twice about whether they want to risk their futures and continue dealing to our youth.

I hope that we all agree that cannabis is a dangerous drug. It is easy for members of the public to forget that cannabis is still dangerous. The Government reclassified cannabis from class B to class C on 29 January last year throughout the United Kingdom.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am puzzled, because my hon. Friend seems to be prejudging the deliberations and outcome of his own commission. He wants us to take his commission seriously—I remain to be convinced—but he wants it to pose the exact question that he is already answering. Why should it waste its time if he has already got the answer?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Because nobody listens to me. [Laughter.] We are in opposition—I currently speak from the Opposition Benches, but soon I will sit on the Government Benches—and I was upset when the Government reclassified cannabis without reference to an independent commission. I have talked to a number of charities about the effects of cannabis and have made my mind up. I want to set up an independent commission to convince the Government that what they have done is completely wrong. Indeed, when my party gets back into power, we will reclassify cannabis to class B without any hesitation.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Will my hon. Friend tell me what would happen if the commission, having deliberated, decided that cannabis was not that harmful and that it would not be a bad thing if it were made legal?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

My right hon. Friend poses an interesting question, which I have considered. Given the information that I have read about long-term drug takers, I cannot believe that any independent commission that knew the facts would not recommend reclassifying cannabis to class B. I would be staggered if an independent commission decided that cannabis is not that harmful and it would not need to be loaded to recommend reclassification to class B.

The Government sent out all the wrong signals when they reclassified cannabis, because they basically said that it is not as harmful as many other drugs. Cannabis is comprised of more than 400 chemicals and contains more tar and a higher concentration of carcinogens than tobacco. Not only can it cause cancer, but it can disrupt the control of blood pressure, which increases the risk of fainting. Even occasional use is bad for people with heart and circulation disorders and for those predisposed to schizophrenia.

The risks of mental illness are clear. Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of mental health charity SANE, has recently commented on the link between cannabis and mental illness, saying:

"We have growing evidence from our 1,000 callers a week that the current culture of taking cannabis makes treatment difficult and adversely affects the prognosis for those who become psychotic."

In January this year, she said:

"While an inquiry would have been welcomed before the lowering of the classification last year—making it more easily available and giving out messages that it is relatively harmless—we would urge the Government to reverse its decision on classification urgently, backing that with a multi-million pound education and awareness campaign on the dangers of cannabis for young people whose brains are developing."

When the Minister replies, I hope that she will say whether the Government intend to introduce a programme advertising the bad effects of cannabis.

C

Cannabis may not be without some risk, but it seems by comparison to be much safer than most other drugs, illegal or otherwise. Although there are carcinogens in cannabis smoke (obviously), I do not believe it has ever been shown that there is a cancer risk associated with cannabis alone; this could be because of the presence of anti-cancer chemicals as well.

Contrary to what he says, the risks of mental illness are far from clear, and what research has been done seems to show any risk is minimal. I would like to see all research into cannabis carried out head-to-head with alcohol and maybe an anti-depressant, so that any results can be put into a recognisable context.

I don't argue against that schizophrenics might sometimes have their symptoms exacerbated by smoking cannabis, but I'd expect watching a horror film to do the same, but I don't advocate banning horror, although some of them really are awful :-)

Submitted by Cosmo Loginaut Read 2 more annotations

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government message that cannabis is a harmless recreational drug that can be taken freely has backfired? They have had to spend £1 million of taxpayers' money advertising that the drug is still illegal, because of the increase in usage after it was reclassified to class C.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

My hon. Friend is right and the £1 million did not get the message across that cannabis is still an illegal drug. The newspaper headlines about reclassification indicated that the police would turn a blind eye to cannabis, which has clearly happened in many cases.

The charity Rethink supports my cause. Its chief executive, Cliff Prior, said:

"Cannabis is not risk free. We have known for years that using cannabis makes the symptoms of schizophrenia far worse in people who already have the illness. There is a rapidly growing body of evidence showing that cannabis can trigger schizophrenia in people already at risk—and probably even in people who should only be low risk."

Both those charities support my private Member's Bill.

Cliff Prior also said:

"Rethink would welcome an independent commission to look into the effects of cannabis and to make recommendations to the Government . . . Cannabis is an illegal, but widely used drug, particularly amongst young people, reclassification has confused the issues still further, while most young people may still understand that the drug is illegal, its reclassification has reinforced the existing 'street view' that cannabis is safe and harmless. It is not."

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of SANE, commented:

"SANE has been campaigning for over 18 years for the government to take seriously the damaging effects of cannabis for those suffering from or vulnerable to mental illness, especially schizophrenia. We fully support Mr. Evans's call for an independent commission to look into the effects of cannabis and its classification."

According to the Metropolitan police, the number of people in London caught with cannabis has increased by one third since the Government relaxed the law on possession, which is a clear indication that the Government's policy has led to a huge increase in the number of people using this harmful drug.

Last week, The Observer printed the following story under the headline, "Drug surge follows law change". It stated:

"Demand for cannabis has exploded in the wake of the relaxation of drugs laws, according to senior Scotland Yard officers."

Police in the south-east of England have made a number of massive seizures of cannabis, which has alarmed law enforcement officials, who

"believe criminal gangs are trafficking large quantities of cannabis because they believe police 'have taken their eye off the ball'."

We should not be reassured by huge seizures, which are the tip of the iceberg, because they are indicative of the huge amounts of cannabis in this country. This month, police and customs officers raided a pub in Dagenham, Essex, and recovered a record 1.37 tonnes of cannabis resin worth more than £4 million. In a separate operation a few days later, police stopped a lorry on the A20 near Folkestone, and recovered more than 600 kg of cannabis resin.

The price of cannabis has fallen so much that it has become easier and easier to obtain. It has fallen by 33 per cent. since 1994, and it now costs just £10 for an eighth of an ounce, which is what many young people spend on topping up their mobile phones. That demonstrates the problem that we are up against. About 3 million 16 to 59-year-olds have used cannabis in the past year, and a quarter of all 16 to 24-year-olds admit to having used it in the past year.

The recent case of the murder of Jodi Jones by Luke Mitchell highlights the devastating nature of the drug. On sentencing Luke Mitchell, the judge, Lord Nimmo Smith, said:

"Heavy use of cannabis may well have contributed to your being unable to make the distinction between fantasy and reality, which is essential for normal moral judgments."

That case alone is daunting and worrying. The awful murder that Luke Mitchell committed was attributed partly to his use of cannabis.

The Government's website refers to the huge dangers of cannabis, which I described earlier. It says that the drug can cause heart problems, bronchitis and cancer. Frequent use can cut a man's sperm count and suppress ovulation in women. It states:

"Cannabis can cause a range of mental health problems from short lived and more common problems such as anxiety and paranoid feelings, to less common difficulties with actual psychotic states that may require medical treatment."

Rethink has asked the Select Committee on Health to reconsider the problem of cannabis and I understand that the Government have decided to do more research into its effects, with special reference to psychosis.

It therefore shocks me, given that the Government had publicised the effects, that they even considered reclassifying cannabis. It is testament to the need to establish an inquiry at the earliest opportunity to look into the effects of cannabis and report back to the Government. Reclassification should never have happened without such an inquiry, but it did, and my Bill will establish one.

I hope that the Government will give the Bill a fair wind and at least allow it through today's stage so that it can go into Committee and be examined in more detail. I know that we do not have much time if the election is held on 5 May but if the Government are serious about tackling drugs, they will know that they must do much more about sentencing and be more effective in sentencing those who deal to minors, and also set up an independent commission to consider the effects of reclassifying cannabis from class B to class C. I have no doubt that, when that commission reports, the Government will consider its conclusions carefully and reclassify cannabis to class B. There is no shame in admitting to making a mistake and taking action. Action is needed now and my Bill will provide for that.

Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt PPS (Rt Hon Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Secretary of State), Department for Constitutional Affairs 10:22 am, 25th February 2005

I am delighted to take part in this important debate. I firmly believe that it is valuable for everyone if we discuss the problems of substance misuse in the House. I am also extremely jealous of Mr. Evans, who came second in the ballot. I do not do the lottery because I never succeed in such matters and I am therefore envious of the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I have been a Member of Parliament for 12 years and I have done well in the private Member's Bill ballot five times. I do the lottery and I cannot work out why I have never won.

Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt PPS (Rt Hon Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Secretary of State), Department for Constitutional Affairs

If I get the opportunity again to be a Member of Parliament and apply in those ballots, I shall be right behind the hon. Gentleman when he puts his name down.

I take a special interest in the subject of our debate because, before I entered the House of Commons, I was a registered nurse and I often cared for people who had to be admitted to hospital for a range of diseases and conditions that resulted from drug taking. Having spent a lot of time with those who were sadly addicted to substances, I firmly believed that it was a complex matter that could not be tackled with simplistic responses. Soon after being elected, I became and continue to be one of the vice-chairs of the all-party group on drugs. We have done much work on considering the problems of addiction.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley raised some interesting issues. However, his proposed response is too simplistic and does not get under the skin of the problem of substance misuse. I should like to explain why I believe that.

We all use statistics and statements from groups to support our aims and objectives and leave out the less supportive statistics. I should like to say a little about those whose reaction to the reclassification of cannabis is more favourable. I repeat "reclassification"—I am against any legalisation of drugs. The evidence about not only the physical but the psychological effects of cannabis on people is serious and we should not take it lightly. However, I am in favour of reclassification. The Bill is centred on setting up an organisation effectively to support the hon. Gentleman's view that cannabis should not have been reclassified, but I believe that it is important to decouple cannabis from the most serious, class A drugs that regularly kill people.

I take a close interest in my drug and alcohol team in West Sussex. It happens to be one of the best in the country because it is always considering how to get information to young people and ensuring that they understand what it is all about. After reclassification, we were all a little nervous about whether it would promote use among young people because they did not understand that cannabis remained an illegal drug. Of course, that did not happen. The Government's work after their £1 million campaign, in which the drug and alcohol teams participated, showed that 93 per cent. of young people completely understood that cannabis remained an illegal drug. They might have continued to take it, but they understood its classification.

We must consider, therefore, why young people continue to use the drug. After all the years of trying to get under the skin of those who use illegal drugs, we continue to struggle to find solutions, including penalising methods and encouraging people away from use. I took on board the hon. Gentleman's statement about Robbie Williams. We all find it shocking that he was worried simply about getting fat and ugly. I think that he is a bit of all right, so I can understand why getting fat and ugly was a problem for him. However, we are finding that, strangely, young people respond more to messages about body image than to those that say, "You're going to die if you take this." The same applies to smoking. If we tell young women that they will have horrible wrinkles and a saggy bottom by the time they are 40, they start to think about their cigarette smoking. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's anecdote about Robbie Williams was not as damaging as he suggested, but I understand his concern.

The hon. Gentleman clearly set out two aspects of the Bill. The first element is a "three strikes and you're out" campaign on dealing. We all despise those who make money from the awful trade, out of which it is sadly all too easy to make money. However, I have found that dealing is a complex matter. The dealers with whom I have had most contact in my community—not to buy, of course—are also users. That makes the issue more complex. I hope that I do not appear to be some woolly libertarian who does not take such matters seriously. I am genuinely trying to explain that simply taking punitive measures against dealers does not work. That is why I support doing everything that we can—and everything that the Government are doing—to provide treatment, help and support to users, especially of class A drugs. That is how we encourage people to give up drug taking, so that they no longer have to make money to support their drug use. This is a difficult issue and a simple style of sentencing will not easily make it any better, which is why I am suspicious of that approach. This is not the first time that such an approach has been proposed. Before the 1997 general election, a Bill that was not enacted put forward a similar proposal.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

The provision on the statute book recommends a sentence of seven years. Sadly, however, since 2002, it has been used only half a dozen times, so the vast majority of people are getting away with these offences. I support what the hon. Lady says, however. If drug dealers who are also drug users are convicted, it is pointless to keep them in prison without the proper rehabilitation, care and treatment that they desperately need, because they will go straight back to taking drugs when they come out.

Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt PPS (Rt Hon Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Secretary of State), Department for Constitutional Affairs

That is a sensible and coherent response to the problem. However, the difficulty is that, once prison has become part of a drug user's life, it is difficult to break the cycle. Prison is often one of the most difficult places in which to keep people away from drugs, and there is often a reluctance to use punitive measures as a response to dealing and drug taking. I remain convinced that such measures are not the only proper solution for those who deal in and take drugs.

I am not sure that we need a commission on cannabis, because I am convinced that it has long-term psychological effects on people who use it in vast quantities. There is even some evidence that weekly use can cause difficulties. The hon. Gentleman's Bill refers to those who are affected by other people's use of cannabis. That can be especially relevant in regard to driving and to people in the workplace. However, I am wholeheartedly against a strict measure for testing for drugs in the workplace. I firmly believe that a much better approach exists. My local drug and alcohol team have developed a fantastic toolkit to encourage employers not to go straight in with mandatory drug testing but to find ways of supporting their staff and of giving them access to treatment for their drug use. Using the workplace as a forum in that way makes it more of a place of safety for everyone, and helps people to understand that it is dangerous to take drugs in the workplace as it might endanger their colleagues. It also gets across the message that it is important to get them off the drugs, rather than driving them into taking more serious drugs. We have found that that can happen in prison, because cannabis can be detected in a urine sample for up to 30 days, while many class A drugs—particularly opiates—have gone after 48 hours. This is a difficult and complex matter.

I serve on the Joint Committee on the draft Mental Health Bill, and we have paid many visits to places that treat people with mental health problems, as well as looking in detail at why people get into those situations and at the effect of drug taking on mental illness. It is a difficult issue. Does the mental illness come first, followed by self-medication with cannabis to make the person feel calmer and less anxious? Or can there be a dual diagnosis, in which a person takes cannabis and then becomes psychotic? The jury is still out on that one. It is an interesting issue to study. I am not entirely sure that a commission could get to the bottom of it, because there should be a medical response to such cases and it should be medics who look at those issues. There is plenty of evidence to show that there are problems around cannabis use, but it is difficult to determine whether the psychosis has been prompted by its use, or whether it is being used for self-medication by someone who is feeling unwell. But it is the job of the medical profession to make that determination.

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

I agree with a lot of what the hon. Lady is saying on this important matter. Does she agree that it is sad that, during the passage of the Drugs Bill earlier this year, the Government resisted amendments tabled by her colleagues on the Labour Benches to involve GPs more intricately in the assessment process for addicts and other drug users? I believe, as I am sure she does, that the involvement of the medical profession is paramount in assessing how people might benefit from a course of treatment or a programme to get them off drugs.

Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt PPS (Rt Hon Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Secretary of State), Department for Constitutional Affairs

I thank the hon. Lady for that interesting intervention. The opposition to those proposals was on the ground of logistics. I hope that it is obvious from what I am saying that I believe that experts in drug abuse and substance misuse should play an integral part in such processes. Indeed, I firmly believe that they have. We have only to look at the amount of money that has gone into community action against drugs. A GP in my constituency takes a great interest in assisting drug users through the Addaction project, which is funded in part by the Home Office and which allows people proper access to care and treatment. Medics should be at the heart of any discussions and decision making on both treatment and sentencing.

This is an important debate. I had my first opportunity to call out the results of a Division earlier, and nobody at all had come through the Aye Lobby. I was upset about that. I know that there are only 14 of us here, but it is important to get these issues on record. Although I take issue with the components of the Bill, it is important that we discuss these matters in detail.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 10:38 am, 25th February 2005

I am constantly puzzled by the way in which the debate about drugs unfolds. I do not think that I am any clearer on the subject than I was when I arrived in this place nearly 22 years ago. I am puzzled because everyone says what an important subject this is—reference has been made to an all-party group—yet when my hon. Friend Mr. Evans offers the House an opportunity to debate this vital matter in his well-considered Bill, we find a pathetically and tragically small number of people here. We know the numbers because we counted them earlier; looking round the Chamber, that is sadly reflected. I want to hear no more from my colleagues about how much they care about this subject, because when they are offered an opportunity not only to debate it but to legislate on it, they do not turn up. They do not come to the House of Commons when they have an opportunity to decide whether my hon. Friend's Bill would present a good way in which to deal with the problem that they all say is so important.

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

Will my hon. Friend support me in saying how appalling it was that, when we were legislating on this subject earlier this week, the Government allowed a pathetic three hours for Report and Third Reading of the Drugs Bill, which was entirely unsatisfactory. That showed that the Government did not want a reasoned debate on the subject.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. She is right that on a previous occasion, on which we need not dwell, the Government truncated debate, but the very people who were frustrated on that occasion could have turned up today and had a substantial amount of time for debate. These blessed Fridays are the one occasion on which the Government do not control the timetable, and colleagues had an opportunity today to discuss the matter covered by the Bill to which she referred. It is an irony that Members undoubtedly felt frustrated by the Government's attitude, but on the very occasion when they could have been allowed lots of time to debate the matter—today—they apparently found it more important to be elsewhere.

My puzzlement increases when I think about the extent to which our policy on drugs, broadly defined, has probably been one of the most consistent and massive failures of public policy for several generations. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley alluded to that and reinforced the point in his speech. We are talking about substances that are illegal and deemed extremely harmful to those who take them. Even on my hon. Friend's figures, however, they are more readily available than they have ever been, cheaper than they have ever been, the only beneficiaries are the criminal classes, we raise no tax revenue from them whatever, and they contribute considerably to the level of crime. On every conceivable basis and measure, the drug problem has got worse. We have failed completely, Government after Government and decade after decade, to deal adequately with this problem. That must be one of the most comprehensive failures of policy conceivable in the civilised world. I therefore conclude that our policy direction must be almost completely wrong.

We apparently cannot prevent these substances from coming in through our borders. When people sell them, we do not deal with them adequately through the justice and criminal system. We fail to raise any taxes from them, and we also apparently fail to persuade people, be they young people or adults, of the evils of these substances and the fact that they should not take them. There are no positives at all. It is a resounding, consistent, sad negative.

It is suggested that we should try to tighten our border controls, but that does not seem to work. It is also suggested that perhaps we should increase the penalties on people who use, or more particularly sell, drugs. That does not seem to work either, because the penalties are not sufficient or, more probably—I think that this was what my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley was hinting—because the judicial system, for some reason that none of us can understand, fails to use the penalties that are available to it. Perhaps it does so because our prisons are already too overcrowded—I do not know. We therefore have no success in that regard.

Historically, back in the 1920s, our friends in the United States, confronted with what they saw as a similar problem with alcohol, introduced prohibition. In a sense, what we have today is a modern form of prohibition. We are saying, as the Americans said back in the 1920s, that we believe that these substances are wicked and people should not be able to take them, so we will ban them and make them illegal. What happened with prohibition in the United States? Alcohol appeared glamorous as a result, speakeasies sprang up, the criminal classes benefited because they met the demand, and in the end the Americans had to accept the reality that prohibition simply did not work. Surely that is some sort of lesson for us.

If we consider the paradox of the status of alcohol and tobacco in our society, the issue becomes even more problematic. Tobacco, in its own way, is just as addictive and harmful to the people who use it as many, if not most, drugs. Alcohol alters behaviour as well as damaging health and having effects on people's behaviour and relationships in just as bad a way as most drugs. Perhaps for historic reasons, however, alcohol and tobacco are legal substances, freely available and sold legally through shops, including the shop of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley. They raise tax revenues that go a long way to paying for our national health service, not to say our nuclear weapons and missiles. We also put warnings on alcohol bottles and cigarette packets about the harmful effects of such substances.

In those cases, we say that it is right to tell our citizenry that such substances, although they are legal and we derive huge tax revenues from them, might be, and almost certainly are, harmful to them. We leave it to their judgment as citizens to decide whether to consume them, while at the same time attempting as best we can to protect young people from using or abusing tobacco and alcohol until they are of an age at which they can make a decision. The paradox must be self-evident.

We are therefore struggling with a debate today about cannabis and other drugs and substances against a background in which two categories of substance that are in many ways just as harmful are already freely available in our society. Laura Moffatt referred earlier to the possible effect of cannabis use on driving. We acknowledge that in our laws, because although alcohol is a legal substance, we say that if one takes it and drives, one is committing an offence. Therefore, a parallel exists between alcohol and cannabis. The debate is all over the place, and it is not taking us anywhere productive.

I pulled my hon. Friend's leg earlier about his proposed commission, and I did so for a number of reasons. I am suspicious about commissions anyway, and even more suspicious of experts, as in most cases the advice that they give us seems to be either wrong or contradictory, usually both, and in the end is usually altered on further investigation. I therefore have an innate suspicion of commissions. When my hon. Friend is prepared, in his usual honest and open way, to prejudge the deliberations of his proposed commission, I get even more suspicious. If we are to have a commission of this kind, I would prefer its remit to be broadened to examine the whole subject of drugs, substances, abuse, consumption and the general effects.

The piece missing from the equation is an adult debate about drugs in modern society. I would go as far as to say—this is usually unspeakable, but I can say it in the Chamber today because I know, with confidence, that it will never be repeated—that surely there is a place for the legalisation of some or all drugs. In many ways, the logic of what I have said would take us in that direction. There should be a debate and argument about whether, were we to legalise such substances and treat them like tobacco and alcohol—to raise revenue from them, put health warnings on them, make them more freely available, decriminalise them and take away the benefits to the criminals—it is at least possible that we might deal with the problem in a much more effective way than we do now, when we are completely failing to deal with it.

Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt PPS (Rt Hon Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Secretary of State), Department for Constitutional Affairs

I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman, particularly in relation to having a sensible debate about legalising drugs. He might be interested to know that the all-party group regularly has sensible debates about the legalisation of drugs. Given the billions of pounds spent in the NHS on people who abuse alcohol and cigarettes, however, does he have any concerns that the same might occur should drugs become legal? I understand what he says about our debate being completely fractured, but does he have such concerns?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

No, because I think that we would get a positive cash flow. The intriguing thing—the hon. Lady will know this better than I do—is that it is beyond dispute or debate that the revenues raised from the sale of cigarettes and alcohol far exceed the cost to the national health service of treating the ailments that arise from abuse of such substances. Sad to say, I would probably argue that in the unlikely event that we legalised these substances and taxed them—indeed, it is unlikely that we would even consider debating my suggestion—the same point would apply. The tax revenues raised from them would far exceed the cost of treating through the NHS those who used them. That is a reasonable assumption to make, based on the historical evidence of tobacco and alcohol use.

I welcome these opportunities to have such a debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley for this one, and from that point of view I welcome his Bill, but I do wish that we took such opportunities to broaden the debate and turn it into a serious one. The sad truth is that we politicians are afraid of articulating this debate in the way that I am suggesting because we assume that there would be a backlash from the electorate. As a result, with a few honourable exceptions—sadly, one particularly honourable exception, who consistently speaks out bravely on this issue is not here today, albeit for a doubtless very good reason—an opportunity for Members to debate this issue is again being missed. I regret that greatly.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his Bill and I will support it today, if only because it would provide a proper vehicle for further such debates. If it goes into Committee, as I hope it will, I will try to amend it to broaden the remit of his proposed commission, so that we can go somewhat in my suggested direction. For that reason alone the Bill is well worth supporting, but sadly, today is an opportunity that has been missed.

Photo of Mr Paul Marsden Mr Paul Marsden Shadow Minister, Transport 10:51 am, 25th February 2005

I congratulate Mr. Evans on his luck and success in coming second in the ballot and, as has been mentioned, on providing another opportunity to talk about this very important subject. I also want to congratulate Laura Moffatt on showing great insight and thoughtfulness in her speech, based on her previous profession and her involvement with the all-party group on drugs misuse. She has demonstrated her feelings on the subject and made an important contribution today.

As ever, Mr. Forth brings a breath of fresh air to the House. For probably the first time in my eight years as a Member, I am in agreement with him in that I, too, think that we should broaden this debate. It is rather strange that the media and the public seem to get very excited about cannabis, given the facts about the short-term effects of its use. Although I accept that its long-term use can cause some harm, in the greater scheme of things we should be actively debating the effects of alcohol and tobacco. Alcohol kills some 120,000 people every single year and tobacco kills some 40,000 a year. The number of cannabis overdoses can be counted on one hand, and it is clear that the number of deaths attributed to it is none, or virtually none. Of course, every single drug user death or instance of suffering must be taken very seriously. Nevertheless, we need to inject a breath of fresh air into the debate, take a step back and have a proper discussion on the entire spectrum of drugs.

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

I agree that we should have a proper debate about drugs; indeed, we are endeavouring to do so. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the outcome of the debate in his party? Do the Liberal Democrats still advocate the ultimate legalisation of cannabis?

Photo of Mr Paul Marsden Mr Paul Marsden Shadow Minister, Transport

Yes, that is our policy, but we would need to gain international consensus and agreement; indeed, the United Nations convention on narcotics use requires other countries to agree to such a change. It is our policy to work towards that ultimate aim, but we will have to wait and see exactly what is in our general election manifesto, which may be pending, on the policies of any future Liberal Democrat Government. The media get excited and distracted by the mere mention of the word "drug", but in effect I take drugs, as most Members probably do, if we count tobacco and alcohol. So let us have a sensible debate, because sometimes discussion about cannabis use is akin to talking about the colour of the napkins on the dining room table of the Titanic. Instead, let us focus on something a little more important.

On the Bill's specifics, we Liberal Democrats do not agree with mandatory sentencing. We understand the sentiment behind such a proposal and the frustration and amazement that people feel when they read in the newspapers that one judge has passed one sentence and another has passed a completely different one. However, I am not an expert on the law and I believe that such decisions should be left to the experts—the judges.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Does the hon. Gentleman understand the huge frustration felt by the police and, indeed, by the victims of the crime associated with drugs? A huge amount of time and effort is put into catching drug dealers, but when they come before the courts and are rightfully convicted, the sentences meted out are pitifully low. Seeing dealers get away with it, in effect, must destroy people's confidence in the judicial system.

Photo of Mr Paul Marsden Mr Paul Marsden Shadow Minister, Transport

I accept that that may be true in certain cases, but overall our judiciary does an excellent job. I listened to the recent debate about the Home Secretary's proposal that politicians take decisions on matters such as house arrest. I have to say that I am very nervous about the prospect of politicians getting involved in such decisions because that is the thin end of the wedge. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, however, and we may well need to review the system, but the principle of allowing the judiciary the independence to decide on individual cases on the basis of the evidence before them should be retained.

I do, however, wholeheartedly endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments about a commission; indeed, it is Liberal Democrat policy to establish a commission to examine all drugs. I echo what the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said about the need to widen the remit of such a commission to include all forms of drugs. It should not simply review cannabis as a one-off but conduct an ongoing review of all the evidence.

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

Presumably, the proposed Liberal Democrat commission—I understand that it would be a royal commission—would not examine cannabis because, as the hon. Gentleman has just established, their policy of legalising it as soon as possible is already set in stone.

Photo of Mr Paul Marsden Mr Paul Marsden Shadow Minister, Transport

On the contrary. I understand where the hon. Lady is trying to lead me, but she is wrong. Although it is our intention to legalise cannabis use, that could not come about because the United Nations convention on narcotics use would have to be amended. We would have to abide by international law, so we would not legislate to legalise cannabis because we could not.

We are also very mindful of the fact that, as I said, such a commission should conduct an ongoing review of the evidence. The long-term effects on mental health in particular—I have a long-standing interest in mental health issues—are not known. More research needs to be done and we need more information and data. If such evidence demonstrated further adverse effects on mental health, such a commission would have to take that information into account in making its recommendations.

I agree with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley that the current drugs laws simply do not work. The UK has one of the highest rates of illegal drug use in Europe. Some 4 million Britons reportedly used illegal drugs in the last year alone, and it seems that those who want drugs have no difficulty in obtaining them. Crime associated with illegal drugs costs the UK £16 billion a year. Such crimes range from burglaries and robberies by addicts trying to feed their habit, to the very serious violent crime, gun crime and associated culture that seems to be increasing, particularly in our cities.

The prison population is at a record level and the increases are largely due to the imprisonment of drug offenders. We want a policy that is effective: we want to see addicts break the cycle of drug taking and crime. We must shift resources from the targeting of users and crack down on dealers. We must find the dealers and ensure that they are punished. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley spoke of making them suffer, although I am not sure that we should go too far in that regard.

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

If I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, he said that most people in prison had been imprisoned for drug offences.

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not, but that was the impression I gained. According to statistics published in September 2004, the largest group of people in prison had been imprisoned for violence against the person. Over 10,000 people were in prison for drug offences—they constituted the second largest group—but some 14,000 were in prison for violence against the person.

Photo of Mr Paul Marsden Mr Paul Marsden Shadow Minister, Transport

I think that the record will show that I said that the number of people in prison for drug offences was on the increase. I was talking about the recent explosion in the prison population. I am happy to stand by the statistics quoted by the hon. Lady, which demonstrate that a huge number of people are being sent to prison for drug-related offences.

The focus should be on dealers and traffickers, not just on users. As has been said before, if we say—rightly—that we want a tougher approach to drugs, logically we should suggest banning and criminalising alcohol and tobacco, which surely have more harmful effects on society than any other drug group. I would not advocate that, but it is a logical progression. In focusing narrowly on one drug whose effects are minimal, although I accept that they may be harmful—more research is needed—we are wasting an opportunity, and also wasting resources that could allow the police to concentrate on class A drugs. Two or three years ago, the Lambeth project established that, over six months, about three police officers could use resources to focus on hard drugs after they stopped focusing on cannabis. If that were extended throughout the country, it could have a significant effect on the fight against the real hard drugs that do the damage.

Every pound spent on treatment saves £3 in costs to the criminal justice system. If the illegal drug structure is dismantled, there will be less street dealing, fewer robberies and less gun crime. The Liberal Democrats supported the reclassification of cannabis from class B to class C. Although we acknowledge that cannabis may have certain effects, it is clear that the police should target what is really important. We want a tough approach. For instance, we want to create a new offence of dealing and thereby target the pushers. We want a new offence of dealing near schools to protect children, and an offence of pushing drugs near mental health institutions containing some of the most vulnerable people in society. Prevention is always better than cure. We want a greater emphasis on how resources are used, and we want more help for those who are addicted. They should not simply be punished—we want them to stop reoffending, get on with their lives and improve the quality of their lives.

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office) 11:04 am, 25th February 2005

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Evans—known in his home country, Wales, as "Lucky Evans"—on his good fortune in drawing such a high position in the ballot, and on his excellent choice of Bill. Although, like Laura Moffatt, I have never been fortunate enough to do so well in the ballot, we all know of the enormous pressure exerted on Members as soon as their names come up in the lottery. My hon. Friend could have chosen any number of Bills, but by deciding on this topic he has given us the opportunity to discuss drugs that has been sought by my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth. Like my right hon. Friend, I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Crawley is not accompanied by more members of the all-party parliamentary drugs group—and, although I am sure that the Minister will do justice to the topic, I am sorry to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Miss Johnson, is not present, as she is responsible for drug policy.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

As I told the hon. Lady, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is in Europe representing us on an EU committee dealing with justice and human rights.

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

I know. I had a discussion with the hon. Lady before she left. Nevertheless, her absence reflects priorities. Given the importance of this subject, it would have been helpful if she had been here today, especially as our debate on the Drugs Bill earlier this week was cut off in its prime.

Sadly, I suspect that the Minister who is present has no intention of supporting the Bill, and I doubt that the Government will give it any time. Let me issue a challenge to the Minister. I am sure that people both inside and outside the House are aware that at this point in the parliamentary cycle the Bill could easily reach the statute book well before the general election on 5 May—after which, of course, we shall have a chance to introduce and implement our own policies. Indeed, we saw an example of that this week. The Prevention of Terrorism Bill is highly controversial, but that did not stop the Government from rushing it through all its stages in double-quick time. If the Government were serious about drugs, my hon. Friend's reasonable and clarifying proposals could easily be dealt with in the same way. Will the Minister do that? I hope she will think about it carefully, because these are modest proposals.

The Bill does three things. It imposes a mandatory sentence of seven years on those caught dealing class A drugs for a third time. I tend to agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that that is not tough enough, but it sends a clear message. The Bill imposes a custodial sentence on those caught dealing class A drugs to a minor. I—indeed, all Conservative Members—feel strongly about that. The Bill also establishes an independent—that is the key word—commission to examine the effects of cannabis.

I do not have one friend who is a parent who is not concerned about their child's potential exposure to drugs. I do not know how many parents are in the Chamber today, but I am sure that they feel exactly the same. This is a modern problem born of a complex society, but it visibly destroys families and neighbourhoods irrespective of wealth, creed, colour or religion. It cuts across all boundaries.

We politicians see only the tip of the iceberg—in our surgeries, in individual cases that come to our attention and, sadly, through friends and their children. We may be able to help in a few cases through direct intervention, but we can make a real difference as politicians by constructing a legislative framework that allows the law to protect the vulnerable and punish those who prey on them.

This Bill attempts to do just that by clarifying and reinforcing the laws surrounding the abuse of dangerous drugs. The first provision will ensure that there is no doubt that, if anyone is caught dealing for the third time, there can be no extenuating circumstances. There will be a guaranteed sentence of at least seven years—and it will mean seven years when a Conservative Government come to office. I was alarmed to read that only six hard drug dealers have been given a mandatory minimum sentence since 2000. That is hardly a message of deterrence from a Government who boasted that they would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.

The second provision imposes a custodial sentence on someone caught dealing class A drugs to a minor. Earlier this week, the Government made an admirable attempt in the Drugs Bill to protect children in their school environment from drugs dealers. I commended the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Caroline Flint, on clause 1 of that Bill, which is now going to another place. During the Committee that considered the Bill, she accepted Opposition amendments to strengthen it but did not go far enough in clause 1. Instead of offering full protection to children in and around school premises, she sought to leave in the Bill exclusions about the vicinity of a school and timing exclusions. That means that if a child goes to school premises—a place where that child is comfortable—at 10 o'clock at night or a couple of hours after the school has shut to meet a dealer, the Bill will not protect that child or provide for the aggravated offence. It was a missed opportunity.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley has studied the Drugs Bill closely and he agrees that the message to parents, children and, more important, to drugs dealers must not be diluted. The Government Bill has diluted that message. At least this Bill reinforces the message that should come from Government, irrespective of any political position.

I have looked at the provisions for the commission in my hon. Friend's Bill. Again, I throw a challenge to the Minister. I want her to accept the proposal. Unfortunately, earlier this year the Government rejected the reasonable proposal to reclassify cannabis as a class B drug. If the Government have set their face against that, let them have the courage of their conviction that that drug is harmless and let them bring in the commission to establish what they believe they are saying about the use of the drug.

I disagree with the Government's position. I think that they will disagree with even so much as formulating the commission because they have set their face against any message going out that says that drugs are bad for people. They have bought the harm reduction message rather than the abstinence message. They have been moving in the wrong direction. A Conservative Government would move us back in the right direction.

We should look at the Brixton experiment—the trial project in 2001–02 to caution rather than arrest those who were caught with cannabis. Metropolitan police figures show that between 2001 and 2002, there was a significant increase in the area in drug-related offences. It was alarming. Incidents of drug trafficking increased from 18 to 36, a 100 per cent. increase. Incidents of possession rose from 76 to 242, a 218 per cent. increase. Other drugs offences increased by 300 per cent. Total drugs offences increased by 197 per cent., which is alarming. Many people spoke out against that. Sir John Stevens said: "Children are massively vulnerable." He did not think that anything that exposed children to more contact with drugs should be tolerated. The project did expose more children to contact with drugs. The deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police noted:

"Our school officers report that children feel that the police are sending mixed messages to young people by on the one hand trying to deter young people from abusing and experimenting with drugs, and yet appearing hypocritical by not strictly enforcing the drug laws."

That is the environment that has been created by the Government. It is against that background that my hon. Friend is proposing the commission. It is something that should bear consideration.

The hon. Member for Crawley made some valuable points relating to the medical profession. I agreed with a lot of her speech. Her position on the all-party parliamentary drugs group is well known. However, I hope that, like me, she was alarmed to read the results of a major study by researchers from the Netherlands, which surveyed 2,500 young people between the ages of 14 and 24. That study, which is I believe was published in an online version of the British Medical Journal, followed 2,500 young people living in Munich, Germany. It showed that regular cannabis smoking increased the risk of developing psychosis by 6 per cent. over four years. There was a substantially greater impact on young people who had already been identified by psychiatrists—here I agree with the hon. Lady—as having the potential to become psychotic. The minute they took to regular cannabis smoking, they raised the risk of developing psychotic mental illness by 25 per cent.

That needs to be looked at more carefully. More and more information coming in from the medical profession is pointing to the harmful effects of a marijuana or cannabis habit. It is essential that the Government do not sit back in a relaxed fashion and say, "It is all right if you have it for personal use and have a little bit. The police are not really going to pursue it", because real evidence is starting to come in from the medical profession that those drugs are particularly harmful.

New medical information is becoming available. Another report says that regular users of cannabis could be putting themselves at risk of a stroke. It was published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry literally a couple of days ago. A 36-year-old patient was a sporadic user of cannabis. The first incident occurred after he took some cannabis—he only drank occasionally and was not a regular user of any other drugs or alcohol. He lost his ability to speak and a few hours later suffered convulsions. A brain scan revealed a patch of bleeding and a blood clot. A year later, again after a bout of cannabis smoking, he lost the ability to talk and experienced hemiparesis on one side of his body. Another brain scan revealed a further blood clot. He stopped using cannabis for 18 months but, unfortunately, fell back on his abstinence. He was unable to recognise sounds and there was more bleeding and damage in the area where the previous bleeding occurred.

With that sort of information coming forward, the Minister has to admit that we need further and better particulars and that the message that has been sent by the Government on that drug does not contain enough warnings to our children and to the people who deal in drugs. As I said earlier this week in the Chamber, there is evidence that there is now far more cannabis being imported into this country and far more cannabis available on the streets the length and breadth of this country. As my hon. Friend said, the price of those drugs is coming down alarmingly. Drug dealers are treating them as loss-leaders to introduce young people—their market for the future—into the drugs culture.

I do not want to delay the House any longer as I want to hear what the Minister has to say. However, I believe that the Government have done a disservice to our society in this area. They have been heading in the wrong direction and many people feel disillusioned and let down by their drugs policy. We want to give peace of mind to parents and security to teenagers so that they grow up free from drug dealing. We want to give families the security that comes from having a coherent, consistent and committed anti-drugs programme. That is what the next Conservative Government will give to this country.

We will maximise on that area because the rewards are enormous. We can bring a generation of addicts back into society so that they can contribute to their communities. We can make sure that our children grow up in a safer and more secure society than the one we have inherited. That is what a Conservative Government will deliver after the next election, but in the meantime—in the absence of that Government, and without knowing quite when the election will come—I have great pleasure in supporting the Bill.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) 11:21 am, 25th February 2005

I join other hon. Members in congratulating Mr. Evans on raising this important subject in the Chamber. The Government are determined to deal effectively with the menace that drugs cause in our community.

Mr. Forth asked why people were, or were not, here this morning. It seems to me that the Bill's provisions are largely dealt with by existing legislation or can be dealt with in other ways, so hon. Members might be absent because, like me, they do not think that the Bill would necessarily move us forward. However, the discussion and unanimity of concern among Members about the harm caused by drugs and our determination to tackle that harm might help us to make progress.

Let me explain why the proposals in the Bill are unnecessary and would not be effective. At first sight, the mandatory sentencing provisions might seem superficially attractive, but I am afraid that consideration shows them to be flawed and redundant. Section 110 of Powers of the Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 already requires a court to impose a custodial sentence of at least seven years where a person is convicted of a class A drug trafficking offence—including the offence of supply of a class A drug—that was committed after 30 September 1997. The date is important because of the principle of not imposing a retroactive penalty. If we believe that sentencing provisions have a deterrent effect, it is important that we do not create retroactive penalties.

If, at the time the offence was committed, under the existing Act, the offender was aged 18 or over and had been convicted in the United Kingdom of two other class A drug trafficking offences, one of which was committed after he had been convicted of the other, the court may impose another sentence—that is, one of less than seven years—if it is of the opinion that there are particular circumstances that relate to any of the offences or to the offender that would make it unjust to apply a custodial sentence of at least seven years in all circumstances.

The provisions in clauses 1 and 2 are inappropriate because they remove the discretion of the courts to impose less than the mandatory minimum sentence for a third section 4(3) offence. We believe that the courts must be given discretion to allow for particular mitigating circumstances in those cases where a seven-year sentence might not be appropriate. Examples include cases where there has been coercion or intimidation, where addicts are dealing very small amounts to fund their habit, or where schoolchildren are passing on drugs to their friends. In such circumstances, it is important that while Parliament sets a clear framework, we allow, where mitigating circumstances absolutely exist in a particular case, the judiciary to take those into account.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Is not the Under-Secretary staggered by the low level of such cases where the minimum sentence is given? What does she put that down to? There have been a mere half a dozen since 2000.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

The figures have not been collected for very long and because of the date timing, there is an impact on the number. I do not know the answer; I have asked officials to try to find out the background to the cases but it looks like we do not have that information. In fact, we are trying to remove from the courts and the police the burden of providing vast amounts of information to the Home Office. That said, I do not think that there is evidence to suggest that the courts have used in a cavalier manner the discretion—indeed, it is quite a narrow one—available to them under the Act.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that not many mandatory minimum sentences seem to have been passed by the courts, but I am confident that the courts would not cavalierly reject the mandatory minimum sentence; actually, they do not have that power and must take into account specific circumstances. That may suggest that what he fears is not happening. I hope that that is the case, but we must drill down further.

In most respects, I have great confidence in the judiciary, although there will be moments of disagreement, inevitably. But I do not think that where Parliament clearly sets out a minimum sentence framework and allows the courts some element of discretion, they would be inclined to discard the framework established by Parliament. Were the courts to do so, my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and my noble Friend the Attorney-General have the power to take the accused to court to overturn an unnecessarily lenient sentence. The hon. Gentleman will have seen my right hon. and learned Friend on the Bench beside me and we were discussing that particular point. She said clearly that she and the Attorney-General were very eager to use that power, were there to be inappropriately lenient sentences for drug dealers.

A mandatory prison sentence for a person aged 17 or under for dealing for a profit is unnecessary and unworkable. It removes discretion from the courts and cuts across the role of the Sentencing Guidelines Council. Courts already have the discretion to take into account, as an aggravating factor when considering the seriousness of an offence, the deliberate targeting of vulnerable victims. Let us be clear; "vulnerable victims" includes those under 17. A victim is the child to whom drugs are sold. There is no doubt that children are covered by that offence, as is made clear by the guidelines issued by the Sentencing Guidelines Council in December 2004 regarding the overarching principles to be followed when deciding the seriousness of offences.

Every court must have regard to the guidelines that the Sentencing Guidelines Council issue on the principles of sentencing, including aggravating and mitigating circumstances. That is in its work programme for 2005. Parliament will have the opportunity to comment on that draft guidance before it is published, so there will be a further opportunity to toughen up the impact of sentencing guidance for crimes in which children are victims.

A child who purchases from a dealer is a victim of a criminal offence, as well as being involved in an offence. I am confident that the courts will accept that and that the sentencing guidelines will provide an opportunity effectively to achieve the hon. Gentleman's ambition, which I share, that when a child is the victim of a dealer that should be taken into account when sentencing the dealer. Removing the courts' discretion when sentencing in the sort of cases envisaged in the Bill could mean that a dealer who deals only on a small scale to fund his habit and not for profit, and who may not be much younger than the victim, could automatically end up in prison when a non-custodial sentence involving treatment for drug misuse and reparation activity might be more appropriate. For example, the community order in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides the courts with a tough and flexible non-custodial sentence, which may be appropriate in some cases. It will enable the courts to construct a bespoke community penalty tailored to the offender and the offence.

The range of options that will become available from April this year includes participation in a specified activity—for example, to make reparation—and programmes aimed at changing the offending behaviour. The hon. Gentleman referred to the importance of such programmes in prisons, but they can also be used as part of a non-custodial sentence within the new sentencing framework. They can be a mandatory part of the framework and include curfews, exclusion from certain areas—that is often relevant with such offences—residence requirements, drug rehabilitation, including treatment and testing, and supervision. In some cases, such a sentence may be more effective. The hon. Gentleman and the Government share the ambition to find sentences that are effective in reducing drug dealing and misuse, and such a sentence may be more effective than that proposed by the hon. Gentleman.

In the Drugs Bill, the Government are introducing measures to protect young people and further close the loopholes open to dealers. It will make dealing by someone over the age of 18 on or in the vicinity of school premises, when they are in use by young people, an aggravating factor that the court will have to take into account when considering the seriousness of the offence of supply. Mrs. Gillan argued for an amendment referring to the hours when the offence should be applicable. She knows that the purpose of the aggravating offence is to protect young people. To make dealing in the vicinity of a school at 2 am in the morning an aggravating offence would not achieve the ambition that the offence is designed to achieve. That is why we limited the hours during which the offence is available.

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

The hon. Lady is poorly briefed because the Drugs Bill provides that the offence occurs only within one hour of the school being used as a place of education for young people. If the school shuts down at 7 o'clock in the evening, the aggravated offence would not apply as early as five past 8. Surely she can see that it would have been much simpler to make the offence an aggravated offence if it occurred in or around a school at any time, without the rider referring to the timing of the usage of the school, which will be a gift to defence lawyers.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

The purpose is to protect young people and children. I am not of the view that dealing down the road from Herschel grammar school in my constituency at five past 8 in the evening creates a bigger threat to young people than dealing a mile and a half away where there is no school. It does when the young people are leaving school and when they are near the school, and the ambition of the provision is to address that. The hon. Lady is wrong if she thinks that geography is the issue. The issue is the presence of children and young people. The issue is dealers using the school as bait to catch vulnerable young people. It is not buildings that are not actually being used or have not been used by young people for the past hour.

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

The Minister has just said that it is irrelevant that the buildings exist as a school. In that case, there is no point to clause 1 of the Drugs Bill. The very premise of the clause is that the school buildings are the attraction for dealers and that is where children need to be protected. Her argument is flawed and I do not think that she fully understands it.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I absolutely understand it, and I thank the hon. Lady for patronising me. The point of clause 1 of the Drugs Bill is to protect children, not to protect school buildings. In order to achieve that, we have ensured that the provision connects the aggravation of the offence for sentencing purposes to the times that children are likely to be at or near the school. We have not limited the times to when teaching is actually taking place: we have provided a window either side of such times when children may be around. I have not been made aware of any evidence that children hang around near schools when teaching has finished for the day. If such compelling evidence existed, it would have been discussed in the debate on clause 1, but it was not.

The Drugs Bill will make using a child or a young person as a courier in a drugs transaction an aggravating factor that courts must take into account. The Bill will also close loopholes exploited by dealers by imposing an evidential presumption on them. That change will have a powerful effect, because dealers will be charged with a supply offence if found in possession of a quantity of drugs over a certain threshold. It will allow courts to draw such inferences as are appropriate from an unreasonable refusal to consent to an intimate search, X-ray or ultrasound scan designed to detect concealed drugs. In that way, we will substantially increase the power of courts to deal effectively with the actions of dealers that so damage young people.

The second part of the hon. Gentleman's Bill proposes a commission of inquiry, but I suggest that the proposal is unnecessary. At present, the Government take their advice on such matters from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which is an independent non-departmental public body. The establishment of the proposed commission would in many ways replicate the existing procedures and undermine the authority of the ACMD. We believe that such matters should be dealt with objectively and considered by the best experts in the field.

In March 2002, the ACMD produced its report, "The classification of cannabis under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971", which detailed the physical and mental health risks of taking cannabis. On the basis of the recommendations contained in that report, the Government reclassified cannabis from class B to class C.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Frankly, the report was damning about cannabis and I am still mystified about why it made the recommendations that it did on the evidence that was adduced. A number of subsequent reports have pointed to links between schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders and the use of cannabis. Would it not be useful to establish a commission to examine that new evidence and assess what has happened in the 12 months since reclassification?

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

The hon. Gentleman is right—I was just coming on to the point—that we need to keep this problem under regular review. There is no doubt that new scientific evidence on the impact of cannabis, particularly the link between mental health and the drug, has changed our understanding of these matters over the year. It is important that such information is properly reviewed.

The hon. Gentleman initially asked why, given that the report confirmed that cannabis was a profoundly harmful drug, it was recommended for declassification from B to C. Some people might think from reading our debate that the C classification means that the drug is not illegal, but that is not the case. Cannabis is an illegal drug and a harmful substance, but it seemed more appropriate in respect of the nature of the harm that cannabis does for it to be classified together with other class C drugs. The comparison with A class drugs such as heroin was clear. That explains the recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Other drugs in class C, including GHB, liquid ecstasy and rohypnol, the date rape drug, are harmful, which is why they are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The ACMD meets regularly every six months and cannabis is a standing item on its agenda. It does review new evidence and it is charged with providing advice to the Government on these matters. It has produced some influential reports, such as "Hidden Harm" That was an important report that changed our policies. The ACMD has produced thorough examinations of the harmful effects of drugs such as cannabis, ketamine, methylamphetamine and so forth. It produces professional and thorough reports and draws its members from a range of disciplines.

When considering the classification of any drug, the job of the ACMD is to consider the relative harms of the drug. That is not to deny that any of the drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act is harmful. That is a given. The ACMD is not trying to find ways to reduce controls on drugs. Rather, it is considering as objectively as possible the relative harms of individual drugs and making recommendations about classification. When it believes that a drug should be subject to increasing controls, it will make a recommendation to the Government to that effect. For example, at a meeting in November 2004, the ACMD recommended that the drug ketamine should become a controlled drug. I highly recommend that ACMD's ketamine report, which is now available on the Home Office website. The Government have accepted the recommendations in principle and we shall consult on that matter later this month. With respect to ketamine, the ACMD is recommending increasing controls.

The structure and procedures of the ACMD are contained in primary legislation, particularly in schedule 1 of the 1971 Act, which provides that its membership should include persons with professional experience such as practitioners of medicine, pharmacy and the pharmaceutical industry. It seems to me that this body, which receives nominations from a wide range of sources, including relevant professional bodies, is the right body to keep continuously under review the impact of cannabis. We need to ensure that it does its job.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley referred to recent studies, such as the one produced by Professor Jim van Os of Maastricht university, which was based on surveys of 2,500 people from Munich between 1995 and 1999. The professor concluded that cannabis use moderately increases the risk of psychotic symptoms in young people, but has a much stronger effect on those for whom there is evidence of a predisposition to psychosis. We should use the evidence of such reports to ensure that we have effective ways of dealing with cannabis.

The ACMD takes the view that the evidence produced since its report on cannabis does not affect the overall weight of evidence in its conclusions about health risks. Regular and heavy use of cannabis could be a contributory factor to individuals developing mental health problems such as schizophrenia, especially when people already have a predisposition to such problems. The ACMD also certainly accepts that cannabis can worsen mental illness that already exists. The question remains how we should best deal with the problem.

Only yesterday, I spoke to Marjorie Wallace, a doughty campaigner on mental illness. She supports the Bill before us, but also recognises that, in dealing with the harm that cannabis produces, particularly among young men, the most important requirement is to educate them about the risks.

I thank the hon. Member for Ribble Valley for his support for the "Frank" campaign. Speaking to young people in ways that they can understand is important. I have with me here some of the leaflets that are available and I have to say that they are not generally directed to middle-aged women such as myself. I am not sure whether citing some of the language used could be unparliamentary, but the major theme is clear: smoking cannabis could "screw you up". It manages to use messages that connect both to the beauty theme mentioned by my hon. Friend Laura Moffatt, the mental health risks and the danger of getting a criminal record. The leaflets inform young people in a range of ways that cannabis is not just okay because it is a class C drug. It is absolutely not okay.

It is interesting to note that, while some people of my generation think that the reclassification of cannabis to a class C drug amounts to something like legalisation, young people do not. The reclassification provided a context in which we could mount a powerful education campaign—the sort of campaign that might prevent more young people from starting to smoke cannabis and getting into the habit of taking it. It is different from emphasising punishment and conviction.

When I was young, I simply thought that bad things would never happen to me. I thought that if I did naughty things, I would never get caught. I thought that I would live for ever. [Interruption.] I did not really think that I would live for ever. There is a sense that young people believe that they will not get caught and that it does not matter. Sometimes the ways in which we communicate the consequences of their actions need to be tailored specifically to young people themselves.

We know that our debate is not going to reach young people, but we took the opportunity offered at the time of cannabis reclassification to target credible messages on young people, based on the kind of harm that cannabis does. By that means, we managed to make our message have a more powerful effect. The distinction between cannabis and class A drugs is clearly giving the Government's strategy the right balance and focus. Reclassification has also allowed the police to focus greater resources on priority areas, such as class A drugs. Resources have been channelled into operations such as closing down crack houses.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley referred to Operation Nimrod in his area. That is an excellent model. It is by no means unique, but it is a powerful example of how what we have done has helped to free police resources to tackle drugs operations in an effective and targeted way. Estimates from the police show that, since January 2004, there have been one third fewer arrests for possession of cannabis, resulting in a projected saving of 199,000 police hours. Classifying cannabis as class B again would, in effect, divert resources from the policing of class A drugs in order to criminalise thousands of young people for the possession of small amounts of cannabis. Operations such as Nimrod or the joint ACPO-Home Office initiative, Operation Crackdown, which is currently under way and ensuring that the Nimrod approach is widely adopted, would be damaged. There is a scheme to recognise the best drugs operations, awarding commendations and bringing police forces together at a conference to consider good operations and spread best practice. In that way, we can effectively target drug crime.

All that has had a result on acquisitive crime connected to drug misuse, to which hon. Members have referred. According to the British crime survey, there was a 42 per cent. reduction in burglary between 1997 and March 2004. In thefts, there was a 34 per cent. reduction, from 5.6 million to 3.7 million. We have made a difference on the acquisitive crime associated with drug misuse.

Opposition Members may say that if the British crime survey says that, what does recorded crime tell us. I know that they have concerns about that, but the pattern is exactly the same. Burglaries in 1997 were more than 1 million, and in 2003–04 the figure was 818,000. Thefts, excluding vehicles, were at 1,054,000 in 1997; the figure has gone up slightly, but not a lot. We have reached the stage where acquisitive crime is coming under control.

Photo of Mr Paul Marsden Mr Paul Marsden Shadow Minister, Transport

Does the Minister have the equivalent figures for gun crime related to drug use and pushers?

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

They are not in front of me, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman, who is right to indicate that there is a significant problem with gun culture, which is often associated with drug use and misuse. There is a cycle involving those in which the causative factor is not clear, which is one reason why we have made such rigorous efforts to deal with the gun menace and to work not just using the criminal justice system but with civil society, including such groups as Mothers Against Guns, to reduce the gun culture often associated with drug culture. I do not, however, share the hon. Gentleman's view—I do not know whether this is his view, but one might read it as being his view—that legalising cannabis would make any contribution to the reduction of that gun culture.

The general principles set out in the ACPO cannabis enforcement guidance are clear. In general, there is a presumption against arrest, but the police can arrest in specific circumstances, including where an adult is smoking cannabis in a public place. As with all policing, it is for the individual officer to judge the most appropriate response to a specific set of circumstances within the overall framework of the guidance. Clearly, where someone is openly flouting the law, they are liable to be arrested, but our main energy is directed to ensuring that our drugs laws reflect the relative harm of drugs, so that the Government can send an effective and credible message to young people about the dangers of the misuse of drugs.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

The Minister is making a logical argument, but following reclassification there was a headline in The Observer reading "Drug Surge Follows Law Change". The newspaper specifically related the surge to the fact that the law had changed, saying that the police had taken their eye off the ball and more people were taking cannabis. How does the Minister react to that?

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

That story was based on what was said by a single officer in the Metropolitan police. There is no evidence of a surge in imports. The Observer referred to one officer, but the Met and ACPO support the policy on reclassification. They changed policing on personal possession, but they did not affect policing on Customs, or Customs policy on importation and dealing. Penalties for those things have not changed at all: we still have a 14-year penalty for dealing. The police have been shown to be effective in targeting dealers and importers. Indeed, perhaps the 199,000 police hours to which I referred earlier have enabled the police to target mass importation of cannabis rather than spending their time arresting users who were smoking with their friends. Frankly, in my view, that is a better use of police time. That action is likely to reduce the harm that cannabis can cause more effectively than anything else.

Our public information campaign, including 600,000 leaflets and radio and television advertisements, has had a real impact on the young people who are the most vulnerable targets for cannabis.

Photo of Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

The Minister says that 199,000 hours of police time have been saved. I presume that that would equate to just one policeman over 20 years, which is hardly an enormous saving in time. Following my intervention earlier this week on the Minister with responsibility for drugs, can the hon. Lady confirm that the amount of drugs seized in the latest crackdown is not as great as the quantities seized back in 1998 and 1999? Has she had the opportunity to study those figures and the reference sources that I gave? Can she give me figures that would disprove those that I cited? Admirable though it is that the police are seizing quantities of drugs, it does not seem that they are seizing as much as in 1998–99.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I do not have all the figures in front of me, but I will write to the hon. Lady.

We are determined to tackle effectively the importation of drugs and reduce the use of drugs in our communities. The British crime survey shows a slow but steady decline in cannabis use among young people. Under the present Government, the number of people entering and being retained in treatment has increased. We are tackling the supply of drugs in the UK. We are educating young people about the harm that drugs cause us all. We cannot be complacent. There is more to do to make our families and communities safer. However, the measures in the Bill will not contribute to that aim, so I cannot commend it to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 13, Noes 11.

Division number 97

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members had taken part in the Division, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the rule of the House is that the vote must follow the voice, and on this occasion the Minister spoke and voted against this excellent measure. I seek your advice on the propriety of Government Whips blocking the No Lobby to prevent hon. Members voting in order to allow a procedural device to destroy this important measure, which obviously has the support of the House today.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Chairman of Ways and Means

I am not sure what the right hon. Gentleman means about obstruction. It is not unusual for persuasion to be used until the eleventh hour with regard to votes in this House, and that is not a matter for the Chair. The Chamber is not the only place in which persuasion takes place.