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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:04 am on 25th February 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

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

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.