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.