Topical Debate — Drug Strategy

Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 12:31 pm on 3rd April 2008.

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Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 12:31 pm, 3rd April 2008

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of the Drug Strategy.

Let me start by thanking many of the hon. Members whom I can see around me on both sides of the House for the contribution that they have made to the development of the drug strategy that we published a few weeks ago. Their contribution to what is an incredibly important debate in many of our communities has been welcomed. Although they may not agree with all the various points in the strategy, I hope that they recognise some of the differences and changes that have been made. In particular, some of my hon. Friends—and, to be fair, Opposition Members—have said that while it is important to concentrate on the enforcement side, we must also, in order to reduce harm to communities, consider what to do about dealing in the street, crack houses, and those who run gangs in order to supply drugs in a neighbourhood.

We must also think about treatment. We have been very successful in increasing the numbers going into treatment, which has been welcomed by all Members. We have taken on board what people have said to us about ensuring that treatment is effective, that it is not only about numbers but outcomes, and that when people enter treatment and seek to leave it we not only consider whether abstinence is appropriate but take into account all the other services that are necessary to support somebody in those circumstances. That means closer relationships with housing and employment services, the benefits system and so on. We try to reflect that in the new strategy.

Those important contributions to the debate have enabled us to move on.

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Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I hope that the Minister will focus on the role played by prisons. Far too often, people go into prison as drug addicts having committed volume crimes to feed their addiction. They come out a few months later—a very few months later in many cases—still drug addicts, with no testing beforehand to check whether that is the case. Moreover, there are still too many people who take drugs for the first time in prison. Will he dedicate some time to explaining what is being done in prisons to stop the proliferation of drugs?

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Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

Certainly, one of the things to consider is how drugs get into prisons and to ensure that we are robust in that respect. A lot of measures have been put in place. We have increased the amount of money that is available for prison drug treatment, and it is now about trying to ensure that that treatment is effective. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a real interest in these matters. He is right to say that just because somebody is locked up that does not mean that they stop being a drug addict, and we need to take measures to deal with that. We need to consider not only what happens to somebody when they are in prison and what is the effective treatment in that situation, but what support is given to them when they leave prison. There are sometimes difficult issues to deal with involving chaotic lifestyles and so on. If that support is not available for somebody in those circumstances, the possibility of their returning to crime, whatever the rights and wrongs of that, is increased.

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Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

A good place to start would be to look at the outcome of the billions of pounds that have been spent and the results of the policies adopted 10 years ago, which, I am sorry to say, have failed abjectly. One of those policies was to reduce drug taking among young people by 50 per cent. Virtually nothing has worked in 10 years of effort by this Government. Can we not at least say, "Let's look at what happened—it went wrong", and examine why it went wrong?

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Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I am sorry about that. I discuss and debate many of these matters with my hon. Friend at great length. We have tried to learn from what happened under the previous drug strategy. I know that he welcomes many of the things in the new strategy, such as support for families and making treatment more effective. I point out to him that the British crime survey figures show a fall in the number of 16 to 59-year-olds using all drugs in the past 10 years, during which period the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds reporting the use of drugs in the past year has also fallen. He asks whether what has happened is good enough, whether we are where we want to be, and whether we want to do more. Of course we want to do more and to be more effective. My point was that in developing the new drug strategy and trying to take forward the agenda, it is important to recognise that the previous drug strategy delivered a reduction in the numbers of those taking drugs, adults and children alike.

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Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

Does the Minister agree, though, that one of the most obvious ways in which we could tackle the problem of supply is to end the absurd situation whereby it is possible readily to buy seeds for strong strains of cannabis on the internet, which also gives advice on how to obtain resin from those strains?

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Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

As the hon. Gentleman and I have discussed on several occasions, we need to monitor certain things that happen in respect of the internet. We keep all these matters under review. I am concerned about the availability of cannabis seeds on the internet, as well as some of the paraphernalia that is available from shops and elsewhere. He makes a reasonable point, and we need to consider what we can do about it.

The new drug strategy provides the Government and their partners with an opportunity to build on some of the successes of the previous strategy and to achieve a substantial and sustained reduction in the harms caused by drug misuse. Drug misuse poses significant challenges. It damages health, undermines family life and gives rise to high levels of crime. The costs to society are enormous in financial terms and lost opportunities. Reducing the harm caused by drugs must therefore remain one of the Government's top priorities, and it is obviously a priority for this House.

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Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Special Envoy for Forestry

I probably speak for many Members on both sides of the House in saying that I welcome the Minister's openness in meeting us and discussing these issues, which are incredibly important to us and to our constituents. I thank him for agreeing to reconsider the question whether khat should be a banned substance. It causes extreme difficulties, particularly within the Somali community, some of whom have recently been in touch with me and are very grateful to him for his intervention on this matter.

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Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

A lot of representations have been made to me, particularly from the Somali community and from Members of Parliament. Indeed, I have just written to Members about the issue. We are looking to see what evidence there is with respect to this matter. We have asked for it to be looked into, and we are developing how we deal with it. We shall examine what comes back to determine how we proceed.

The Government are committed to be responsive to the needs of communities and to the views of our stakeholders and partners. The drug strategy will be delivered in partnership, and it is for that reason that it was developed in partnership. It is informed by the findings of a detailed, extensive and independently conducted consultation. Following the consultation, as hon. Members will know, the new drug strategy was launched on 27 February, and we are now working with stakeholders to put in place mechanisms to deliver the strategy in the most effective manner.

I am pleased to note that those same stakeholders, along with representatives of service users and members of the public, have generally welcomed the new strategy and provided very positive feedback. The new strategy builds on the very real achievements of the previous 10 years, while learning lessons, as my hon. Friend Paul Flynn has pointed out, and it draws on the experience of all those involved in its delivery.

A few of the achievements that we can point to include drug use being at its lowest level since 1998; the fact that the number of people entering drug treatment has more than doubled over the same period, with average waiting times having fallen significantly so that 96 per cent. of clients are receiving treatment within three weeks of being assessed; a fall in drug-related crime of around 20 per cent. since the introduction of the drug interventions programme in 2003; and the introduction of a range of new powers that have allowed the police and other partners to strengthen our enforcement effort, seizing more drugs and drug dealers' assets and closing crack houses, which can be so destructive to the confidence of communities. I am pleased to say that since the introduction of those powers in 2003, more than 1,000 crack houses have been closed, and all of us would like to see even more of them being closed.

Those achievements have delivered real improvements to the lives and experiences of families and communities all over the country, but we know that more remains to be done, including closing crack houses that are still open. Although we can see where the drug strategy has been successful, we can also see where more work is needed, or where we need a change of approach. For example, while drug-related crime has been driven down, we recognise that further support needs to be given to help people rebuild their lives, so that they do not fall back into drug use and crime—a point made by Philip Davies.

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Photo of John Mann John Mann PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Minister of State), Cabinet Office

The Minister will have seen the representations made by Mr. Cameron, who has twice, in writing, proposed "shooting galleries"—injecting rooms. Has the Minister had the chance to consider the right hon. Gentleman's idea, and does he intend to introduce such a proposal? If he does, please do not let it be in my constituency.

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Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

We have no intention to introduce so-called shooting galleries anywhere in the country, including my hon. Friend's constituency.

The Government's vision is to produce a long-term and sustainable reduction in the harm associated with drugs, where fewer people start using drugs; where early intervention prevents and reduces the harms caused by substance misuse, particularly among those most at risk; where people with drug problems receive the treatment and support that they need to move on to lead healthy, productive lives; where communities are relieved of drug-related crime and the associated nuisance; and where organised trafficking networks are dismantled and their assets are recovered. That means that we want fewer young people and families to be harmed by drug misuse. We want to make sure that treatment is as effective as possible and that people get access to the support they need to re-establish their lives.

We want to continue to drive down drug-related crime, and we want to put communities at the heart of our approach, working with them to tackle problems and communicating more effectively with them to improve confidence. We have set four targets that will help us to achieve that vision: to increase the number of drug users in effective treatment; to reduce drug-related offending; to reduce the number of people who think drug-related antisocial behaviour is a problem in their area; and to reduce substance misuse among young people. The new drug strategy and the associated action plan set out the action that the Government and our partners will take to reach those targets. Both documents are based around the four priorities of protecting communities, preventing harm to children, young people and families, adopting new approaches to drug treatment and social reintegration, and communications and community engagement.

Before I say any more about those priorities and protecting communities, in the time I have left I want to say something about cannabis. Our message has always been that cannabis is harmful and illegal. Although its use is decreasing, there is real public concern about the mental health effects, and it is our role to be prepared to respond to new evidence that shows a new threat or potential for increased levels of harm. We must be confident that we have the right position on classification, which is why the Home Secretary asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review its position. The ACMD is continuing its review and will submit it and its advice to the Home Secretary at the end of this month. A decision about the reclassification, or not, of cannabis will be taken at that time, when we have received that evidence from the ACMD.

In conclusion, we believe that we made progress under the previous drug strategy. The new drug strategy will have an emphasis on enforcement, but it will also place emphasis on ensuring that treatment is more effective. We have to look at the outcomes that come from treatment, and much of that will relate to the support we give, not only to get people into treatment, but to ensure that such treatment is effective, allowing people to move towards drug-free lives as far as is possible. I thank hon. Members for contributing to this extremely important debate, and I am grateful for the point made by my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner. I will continue to listen to what others have to say, because we all want to reduce the harm to our communities and to individuals.

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Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 12:46 pm, 3rd April 2008

Despite the Minister's fine words, the UK has the highest level of problem drug use in Europe. In 10 years, total recorded drugs offences have increased by 43 per cent., and, by the Government's own admission, class A drug use remains stubbornly high. The Government's latest strategy to "protect families and communities" has therefore been greeted with understandable scepticism and, in some quarters, derision. Class A drug use generates an estimated £15.4 billion in crime and health costs every year. The drug and alcohol charity Addaction estimates that since this Government came to power the total cost amounts to £110 billion, which is more than the NHS budget.

It is a question of not only the monetary cost, but the human cost of drug addiction. In 2006, the number of confirmed hepatitis C infections reported from laboratories in England rose to 8,346—a rise of 10 per cent. in a year, with the Health Protection Agency forecasting an increasing number of deaths, transplants and hospital admissions for hepatitis-related end-stage liver disease.

The single biggest risk factor is injecting drug use. Illicit drugs are cheaper than they have ever been. Since 1997, the average price of cocaine has fallen by a third and the price of heroin has dropped by 40 per cent. Even the simplest economic and market analysis tells me that if the price has gone down that much, the Government have failed to control supply. That is reflected by declining enforcement. In 2005, 1,082 people were prosecuted for the unlawful importation or exportation of drugs and 1,061 were convicted. In 2006, the number had fallen to 904 prosecutions and 870 convictions.

The Government now try to offer us a new force to secure our porous borders, but this shiny new agency with its shiny new uniforms will have no police representation and no new powers of arrest. In reality, it is the existing border control badged under a different name. The effect is that it will not be able to arrest a single person caught with drugs. So much for the Prime Minister's promise that this force would have police powers to deal with those suspected of criminal offences.

What of the Prime Minister's other statements about changing cannabis from a class C to a class B drug? Last September, he said:

"Why I want to upgrade cannabis and make it more a drug that people worry about is because we don't want to send out a message—just like with alcohol—to teenagers, that we accept these things."

He was right about alcohol. The Government's ill-conceived licensing policies have led to more violence on our streets late at night and to hospital A and E departments bearing the brunt, with alcohol related admissions rising by a quarter.

What is the Prime Minister waiting for? Why the delay? What more persuasion can he possibly need? Super-strength skunk cannabis now accounts for some 80 per cent. of all seizures. Its links with psychosis, paranoia and schizophrenia become more apparent every day. Even the Association of Chief Police Officers, which initially supported the decision to downgrade cannabis, now states:

"The 2004 change in classification of cannabis has inadvertently provided an opportunity for the greater and now flourishing illegal market in the production, distribution and use of cannabis throughout the UK and potentially beyond."

We need action, not more delay. I challenge the Under-Secretary to make a commitment here and now to reclassifying cannabis. He has the evidence, the power and, frankly, the duty to do so.

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Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Mr. Cameron made some perceptive and interesting comments about drug policy when he was a Back Bencher and a member of the Home Affairs Committee. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with him? What are his proposals for reducing the number of drug deaths in Britain?

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Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

As we know, 80 per cent. of seizures are of super-strength cannabis. We therefore urgently need to change the classification and send out the message that the Prime Minister said that he wanted to convey. I will deal with treatment, which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, shortly, because it is a fundamental issue and one of the failures that we must tackle.

The Home Office does not appear to know the scale of the problem. Its strategy document states:

"Cannabis factories represent a worrying development. It is clear that serious, organised criminals are investing in the production of cannabis on a commercial scale."

The document continues:

"Intelligence from the community will be used to target drug markets and the sources of domestically-produced drugs such as cannabis factories."

Yet when we ask for a breakdown of the number of cannabis factories detected by each police force, the Home Office simply replies that that information is not kept centrally. So much for intelligence.

The flawed approach applies not only to enforcement. Drug treatment is mired—under the latest plan, it will stay mired—in muddled and ineffective thinking. It is telling that the latest policy document contains only two references to "recovery". Neither relates to recovery from drugs—they both refer to asset recovery—and I will say more about that shortly.

Fundamentally, the Government's approach is not about ridding people of addiction, but switching people from an illicit drug to a substitute prescribed drug. The necessity of abstinence, which is recognised as the key step on the road to recovery in other European countries, is notably absent from the approach. As the prisons and addictions forum of the Centre for Policy Studies says in its critique of the latest strategy:

"The harm reduction techniques that are espoused to achieve this goal, when stripped bare, seem to rely almost entirely on replacing one substance with another as a way to manage and solve dependency without addressing the issues underlying it. Government policy in the treatment domain is revealed, like the emperor's new clothes, as not being treatment at all."

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Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Thanks to the Centre for Social Justice, I spent four days at St. George's Crypt in Leeds, which deals with homelessness and addiction because the two usually go hand in hand. I commend that work to my hon. Friend. He might like to go to St. George's Crypt to ascertain what is being done to promote abstinence—the very point that he made—to get people off drugs rather than using replacements. My hon. Friend is making a powerful point.

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Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recommending that work. It is important to recognise the great work that so many charities, voluntary organisations and the third sector do in providing treatment and support. One of the problems with the Government's approach of regional commissioning is that it stifles such innovation.

We have only to examine the evidence. The cost of methadone prescriptions has increased by £6 million in only two years to £22 million. Last October, the BBC revealed that, of 180,000-odd people signed up for treatment, 20,000 never had any, 80,000 did not complete their treatment and only 5,000—less than 3 per cent.—left the Government programme free of illegal drugs.

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Photo of John Mann John Mann PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Minister of State), Cabinet Office

What would the hon. Gentleman say to hon. Members who have called for more methadone prescribing in newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph? One example is the right hon. Member for Witney, who did so in an article in The Daily Telegraph and another in the Edinburgh Evening News.

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Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Methadone has its place in the treatment regime, for example when sex workers move from addiction and genuine desperation. My point is that people should not be kept on methadone, but moved from that through abstinence-based treatment, so that they beat their addiction.

With the Government, if one does not measure something, it simply does not matter. The new document provides an Orwellian definition of "effective treatment", which is satisfied if someone is

"discharged from the treatment system 12 weeks or more after triage; or that remain in treatment 12 weeks after triage; or that were discharged in less than 12 weeks in a care planned way".

As I said earlier, it is hardly surprising that recovery is the word that dare not speak its name.

Instead, the Government are supposedly offering us more rights of asset recovery, with the Home Office news release breathlessly promising that

"those who buy 'bling', plasma screens and other household goods, to avoid circulating cash, will have their assets seized before they have a good chance to disperse them".

No one has been able to explain what is wrong with the existing powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which include confiscation orders and restraint orders that can be sought from a judge before conviction. The policy does not bear examination. Even if there were a hypothetical need for more rights, the complete failure of the Assets Recovery Agency, necessitating its merger with Serious Organised Crime Agency, underlines where the real focus and attention should lie.

As for the Government's apparent proposals to remove benefits from drug users dropping out of treatment, as one drugs charity kindly put it, the policy "needs further explanation".

The Government are out of ideas, out of the real world and on the wrong path. The plan is an explicit admission of failure, which cannot be disguised by the hotch-potch of gimmicks cobbled together to masquerade as a strategy. We need a zero-tolerance approach to drugs from our shores to our streets, with a proper border police force, the reclassification of cannabis, abstinence-based rehabilitation, and drug treatment in prison.

Carl Gustav Jung said:

"Every form of addiction is a bad thing, irrespective of whether it is alcohol, morphine or idealism".

The Government's addiction is not idealism, but image: they measure inputs rather than achieve outcomes; they want to spin perception rather than change reality; and they commission reviews rather than take action. Their time has come for a long spell in rehab.

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Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West 12:59 pm, 3rd April 2008

I will not pursue the superficial speech of James Brokenshire, which will embarrass his party leader.

We are in a time of change, and we must have the honesty to examine our two 10-year strategies. One was introduced in the House—I recall the debate 10 years ago, when there was great optimism. The drugs tsar was to be appointed and things were going to change enormously. A reduction of 50 per cent. in drug use was proposed—a ludicrously ambitious figure. We are also signed up to another policy; indeed, the whole free world is signed up to the United Nations policy. It was decided in the same year, 1998, and its aim is the complete eradication of or a substantial reduction in all drug cultivation and use. Who could sign up to such a thing or believe that that was possible? That policy comes to fruition this year, but we have made virtually no progress on it.

What has happened since 1998? We have spent billions of pounds, with the agreement of every party in the House; there was only dissenting voice to the policy in 1998. The result is figures—I will give just one, as I do not want to spend my whole 10 minutes talking about the figures—that show a reduction in the number of deaths caused by heroin. There has not been a reduction; what has happened is that the base year was changed. A reduction of 2 per cent. is being claimed on the basis of setting the base year as 1999, but if we use 1998, the proper base year, we see that there has been an increase in deaths of 10 per cent.

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Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon

The hon. Gentleman is making the point that my hon. Friend James Brokenshire made for him. The thrust of my hon. Friend's point was that the Government are spinning perception. The hon. Gentleman is exactly right: figures have changed, statistics are manipulated and no progress is being made. That was the criticism.

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Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I will not go into the details of why the speech that the hon. Member for Hornchurch made was superficial, but he missed the point. Cannabis is a minor part of the problem, and reclassification is of no importance whatever. There are much more serious problems, which Mr. Cameron well understands. We need to get to the heart of them, and that is happening elsewhere.

There are two, or possibly three, optimistic signs. One is at the United Nations, which has recognised that world opinion is changing. There was a time when this country had very few drug users—fewer than 1,000 addicts. We became tough and had a zero-tolerance policy, doing all the things that the Opposition spokesman in this debate wants to do, but sadly we did not become intelligent about drugs. We had that policy in 1971. The result is that we now do not have 1,000 addicts; we have 280,000 addicts. We have a problem that is permanent and a great scourge among our young people.

We did not show an example to the people in eastern Europe, who effectively said, "When the iron curtain fell and drugs came into our countries, we looked to you guys in the west to tell us how to deal with them." What they heard was a babel of conflicting voices and advice. The result is 5 million addicts in the Russian Federation. I had the experience of visiting a hospital in Moscow—I can feel the emotion churning up as I think of it—that was filled with thousands of patients, every one of whom was a child of a drug user or sex worker born with AIDS. Those things have happened because of our failure to tackle poverty and because of the self-gratification of the politicians. We want popular policies that give us good headlines in the daily papers, which do not tell us that we will go to pot if we are found in possession of an intelligent idea or something that works.

There is a new European convention, which was presented by a British rapporteur in the Council of the Europe in September and is supported by all parties in the House in the Council and by all 47 countries there. The convention is similar to another document called "The Rome Consensus", which enjoys the support of more than 120 nations and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Those two documents—"The Rome Consensus" and the new European convention, which is yet to go to the Council of Ministers—say a great deal, but the basic argument is that our reliance on the criminal justice system for solving the problem of drugs has not worked. Substitution has worked. Every £1 that we spend on substitution, treatment, needle exchanges and so on is worth £12 that we spend on the criminal justice system.

The situation in our prisons is tragic. I had the awful experience of visiting the family of two young people in my constituency who would be classified as two of the great successes of our system, because they went into prison as heroin users and came out clean. The system was working—what a triumph; how wonderful. Indeed, I am sure that those young people are named somewhere in the figures. The young man who came out lived a day; the woman who came out lived a week. They went back to their drugs because they did not have the chance of being looked after. That is an abject failure.

We are now in an awful position. The hon. Member for Hornchurch said that we are the worst country in Europe for drugs, which is as it is. Every one of the countries that has shooting-up galleries and has taken a more compassionate line, treating drug users not as criminals, but as patients, has less harm. We are missing something and we are failing. We need to get to the point where we recognise that, despite all our self-satisfaction as politicians—our desire to get good headlines to get ourselves re-elected—we are failing a generation whose lives are being destroyed by drugs. That is the lesson of today.

I believe that there will be a change. The atmosphere is changing in the United Nations, which determines everything. The United Nations went along with the myth that we can control drugs at the supply—we tried that in Colombia for nearly 30 years and in Afghanistan, but it has been an utter, abject failure. After £250 million of taxpayers' money being spent on drug eradication in Helmand province, the result is that the drug crops there are the highest in history and the price of heroin on the streets of London is the cheapest that it has ever been. That is failure from both angles.

Let us stop congratulating ourselves on what clever politicians we are, on what great successes we have enjoyed or on the press supporting us, including on the completely foolish idea of reclassifying cannabis, especially when all the evidence is that reclassifying it probably made very little difference, because fashion and many other things were involved. Indeed, the use of cannabis went down, and everyone admits that. There is another demand to reclassify it upwards, but the whole of drug-taking policy, in my 20 years in Parliament, has been an evidence-free zone that is rich in prejudice, ignorance and denial.

We are all drug users in many ways. We should look to a policy that puts the emphasis on education, the truth and the things that work. They include drug substitution, which has been mentioned, not some idiotic idea about zero tolerance, which does not work, or the other foolish idea, about khat. Khat is a drug with its own dangers, but if we decide to prohibit it, we will immediately drive a wedge between the Somali and Yemeni communities and the police, and drive the trade underground. Khat is currently legal, but if it became illegal, Somali areas would be divided up into territories that were guarded with guns. If we want to create another minor crime wave, we should prohibit khat, because people will keep using it—they have used it for centuries as part of their tradition.

Prohibiting khat is another instant solution that appeals to politicians. I urge the House to consider the position in the real world. We have a terrible record as politicians, but when I saw the parents of the young man who died in my constituency, did I blame myself for what I had done? I know that if the policies that I and others advocated in this place 20 years ago had been put into practice and come to fruition, those young people would probably still be alive today.

We have taken a path that is not based on the truth or on the practical ways of dealing with the problem. One of the best examples from other countries is from Portugal, which has already been mentioned. In 2001, the Government in Portugal decided to de-penalise all drugs. It was not a popular policy—the Government there were howled at by the press and the public thought that the politicians had gone mad—but the result was a reduction in the total number of deaths from drugs in Portugal of 50 per cent. in five years. That is the most spectacular result of any drugs policy anywhere in the world. Other countries have adopted bold policies—the shooting-up galleries, for instance—that have been unpopular with lots of people, but that is not the path of popularity, which is increased drug use and the continuing scourge of drugs that is affecting the whole world.

I know that many hon. Members wish to speak in this debate, so I will draw my remarks to a close by begging everyone from both major parties—indeed, from all parts of the House—to look at what was said here in 1998 and at the ambitions that were announced. None of them has been achieved. We have had 10 years of utter, abject failure from all angles—from the waste of money involved to the fact that not a single prison in this country is free of drug use. One Conservative Member told me that he went into a prison and was told by a prisoner, "I've got a toothache that I'd like to get an aspirin for, but I have to wait until tomorrow morning to see a doctor, yet I can go from my cell and get every illegal drug you'd care to mention within a quarter of an hour." That is the reality of life in prison.

If we cannot keep drugs out of prison, what hope is there for all the brave policies of zero tolerance working in the community and in clubs in our society? We need to look at this issue through new eyes and to read the evidence, which says that the harm reduction techniques work. We need to concentrate on those techniques and end our reliance on the criminal justice system, which has increased the problem so tragically over the past 35 years.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London) 1:10 pm, 3rd April 2008

I welcome this topical debate. The reason for its topicality was the drugs strategy, but there has also recently been a leak from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the panel of 23 experts who are apparently going to recommend that there should be no reclassification of cannabis. That leak reminds us that we need to ensure that our decisions are based on evidence and science if we are serious about tackling the scourge of drugs, as Paul Flynn suggested.

The leak also prompts a number of questions, which I hope the Minister will be able to answer. If the leak is accurate, is he in a position to confirm whether he will follow the advice of the advisory council? Will he confirm that, if the Government chose not to follow that advice, it would be the first time that that had happened? Will he also tell us whether he has considered putting the advisory council on a more formal footing, to allow more expertise to be brought in and perhaps to give it a wider remit? Such a change could create the equivalent of a standing royal commission to look at the issue of drugs, to ensure that we were using science and evidence-based facts to devise the most effective policy for tackling the problem.

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Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

Would the hon. Gentleman accept that, at the time of the previous reclassification of cannabis, there was already considerable evidence to link the use of cannabis—particularly the stronger strains—with the incidence of psychosis and schizophrenia? However, the advisory council chose to ignore that evidence. It would be unsurprising if the council chose to stand by its earlier decision, but should we not be cautious about accepting its recommendation, given its record on this matter?

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London)

The hon. Gentleman has made a strong point that in some respects strengthens my point about widening the remit of the advisory council or setting up a royal commission that would have greater expertise to ensure that its decisions took into account a wider range of views. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the Government would favour such a proposal.

We need to focus on all the links in the drugs chain, from production through to supply, if we are to tackle this issue. I am sure that the Minister would agree that one aspect of the problem is the glamour that is often associated with drugs. This was highlighted in the recent annual report from the International Narcotics Control Board, which stated that treating stars leniently undermined people's faith in the criminal justice system and had a damaging effect on adolescents. Celebrities who are users might well be able to use their wealth to buy their way out of their habit through rehabilitation, but others might not be in that fortunate position. The Minister will undoubtedly agree that those so-called stars should be treated in exactly the same way as anyone else who is caught in possession of drugs.

I wonder whether the Minister is as sad as I am that some celebrities seem to treat drugs as a bit of a joke. I have informed Mr. Johnson that I was going to refer to him in his debate. He is not in his place today. It was extremely regrettable that, on "Have I Got News for You", he said:

"I think I was once given cocaine but I sneezed and so it did not go up my nose. In fact, I may have been doing icing sugar."

I do not know what other Members think about that, but I believe that that comment sends out a message that drugs are not a serious issue and that they can be treated almost as a joke. That is extremely regrettable coming from a person who is seeking to become the Mayor of London.

There is much in the drugs strategy that we could not possibly oppose, including protecting communities through robust enforcement to tackle drug supply, drug-related crime and antisocial behaviour, and preventing harm to children, young people and families affected by drug misuse. The Government are going to have to demonstrate how they are going to achieve those aims. I had a useful meeting a few days ago with a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority. She referred to a family in which the mother lived off the proceeds of crime, the daughter was dealing and the son was in prison for having dealt drugs. There were also two children of primary school age in that family. It is exactly that type of scenario that the Government's drugs strategy needs to address. How can we help all the different members of that family to get out of the situation that they are in? In particular, how can we ensure that those young children do not inevitably follow the line of business that the elders in that family have regrettably taken?

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Photo of John Mann John Mann PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Minister of State), Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman is giving the House an interesting analysis of the situation, but I am failing to hear any precise policies. I should like to draw his attention to Liberal Democrat policy briefing No. 10, which states that the Liberal Democrats' policy involves:

"Maintaining the classification of cannabis as a Class C drug".

Would that be his party's policy regardless of what the advisory council might say? If not, why is it in his party's policy document?

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London)

I can confirm that that is our policy. I am sure that, if the advisory council were to come up with a recommendation that cannabis should be reclassified, we would want to look at that policy area very carefully. However, the leak suggests that that is not what it is going to recommend. As the hon. Member for Newport, West said earlier, the evidence shows that cannabis use went down as a result of the reclassification, rather than up.

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Photo of John Mann John Mann PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Minister of State), Cabinet Office

I should like to clarify this important matter of policy. Is it the hon. Gentleman's policy to accept the advice of the advisory council on any issue relating to drugs, whatever recommendation it might make?

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London)

I can only say that our policy will be strongly influenced by the advisory council. I cannot prejudge what recommendations it might come up with in the next five years that might conflict with existing party policy. We shall have to cross that bridge when we get to it, but our policy is that we would like to establish a standing royal commission so that these issues can be addressed in a scientific and, perhaps, independent way. I think that most Members would admit that that is extremely difficult to achieve at the moment, because of the pressures that we face from outside. That sometimes makes it difficult for science to dictate the decisions that we make here.

We desperately need the Government's drugs strategy to deliver. Our drugs policies are barely keeping a lid on this devastating plague. As other Members have pointed out, this country has one of the most punitive approaches to drugs, while also having among the highest levels of use. We need to combine placing a greater emphasis on tackling drug use as a public health issue with taking a much more focused approach to the dealers and organised criminals who peddle these drugs, destroying lives and fuelling criminal activity. If that is what the Government's drugs strategy delivers, we will support it.

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Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East 1:19 pm, 3rd April 2008

I listened carefully to what James Brokenshire had to say. It came over loud and clear, and it sounded like a war on drugs. I have always been against waging a war on drugs in the way that the Americans have tried to do. I prefer to wage a war on the causes of drug misuse, which, as far as I am concerned, are social exclusion and poverty. I know which party put people into poverty. I also know which party is now trying to dig people out of poverty; it is the party that I support.

I believe that the Government have the political will to deal with the problem, although, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows, I do not always agree with them. The 10-year drug strategy document that has just been published marks a shift—no more than that—in the right direction. There is more talk about helping families, rather than about individuals who are addicted. An addict causes havoc in the entire family, not just the immediate family. There is also more talk about early intervention. As we know, in the case of all drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, the problem tends to start when a person is nine, 10, 11 or 12. If no one intervenes at that stage, the job is lost. The young person will truant, become an addict and a general nuisance, associating with the criminal element of society.

The United Nations has made some interesting comments recently. Its International Narcotics Control Board publishes a report in March each year, and I usually attend the launches. The press kit accompanying the 2005 report includes a statement from Professor Hamid Ghodse, of St George's hospital in London, who said:

"Both rural farmers and socially marginalized city dwellers need and are entitled to the opportunity of a legitimate livelihood.

We should make renewed efforts to reach all of them, striving to create environments less conducive to the production and abuse of drugs."

I think that that is what it is all about. I do not think that the answer is to start a war on people once they have become addicted, although it is of course important to try to give people treatment.

On 7 March this year the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs published a very interesting document, which I commend to Members. It is called "Making drug control 'fit for purpose': Building on the UNGASS decade", and was provided for a conference in Vienna between 10 and 14 March. It looks back over the 100 years during which we have tried to control the misuse of substances throughout the world. I shall return to the report shortly, but the main point that I want to make is that any war on drugs, any zero-tolerance approach or any hard action of that kind merely displaces the problem. There are a number of instances in which we have caused ourselves serious problems.

The Moroccans have been waging a war on the farmers who have been growing cannabis in their country. Seventy per cent. of the cannabis sold in Britain used to come from that source. It is noteworthy that Moroccan cannabis contained only 5 per cent. of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. It was smuggled across the straits of Gibraltar to the Costa del Sol. The Spanish were waging a war on drugs all along the coast, and as a result the import of cannabis from Morocco to Europe, including Britain, almost ceased. That created a vacuum in this country, which has now been filled by Thai and Vietnamese criminals who have started to farm cannabis in rented houses all over Britain. In Bolton alone, the police have invaded 30 houses in three months. People have been caught farming cannabis from the cellar to the attic.

Seventy per cent. of the cannabis that is now sold on the streets of Britain is home-grown rather than imported. By stopping the Moroccan trade in cannabis with a 5 per cent. THC content, we have put on to the streets, through our own war on drugs, cannabis with a 15 per cent. THC content, which is causing our young people immense problems. Of course if children of nine or 10 start smoking cannabis of that sort they will blow their minds, and probably even damage their minds.

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Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

I should prefer to continue, if I may.

We must be very careful about the way in which we apply our policies in this war on drugs. China had a huge problem with opium. In fact, it is often said that we planted opium in China to undermine the social structure of that country. So of course there was a war on the use of opium in China. What did we do? We displaced it to the golden triangle. Then we had a war on the use of opium in the golden triangle, and what happened next? It was displaced to Afghanistan. Ninety per cent. of the heroin that comes into this country now comes from Afghanistan. Every time we take action, we displace the problem.

Another example is cocaine production in the Andean countries. Everyone knows that Colombia is, or was, the main source of supply. The Americans sprayed the crops. They gave the Colombian Government arms with which to tackle the rebels who were using the profits of cocaine manufacture to try to take over the Government. What happened there? We displaced production of the coca bush to Bolivia and Peru. The message that I am trying to get across is that the war on drugs does not work.

Most of the cocaine that came into Britain came in via the Caribbean rim countries, especially Jamaica, and Kingston in particular. There were terrible problems with the selling of cocaine to European countries, including Britain. What did we do? We sent the Royal Navy into the Caribbean, and we have had huge successes there, but that has not ended the problem. Although cocaine is still coming into Britain via Jamaica, it is arriving in smaller quantities. Most of it is now going to west Africa, and some west African countries are now experiencing the corruption and deaths that Jamaica has experienced for decades.

We must stop this war on drugs. It simply does not work, and we are spending billions of pounds on it. I am more concerned about the fact that we are displacing people by adopting a zero-tolerance approach and increasing enforcement measures. People do not want to be arrested. They do not want to go to prison, and they do not want criminal records. But there are plenty of drugs available on the internet, and there are plenty of drugs in the doctor's parlour—he will provide a prescription for them—and those are the drugs to which people are turning now.

Let me quote another interesting statement:

"The abuse and trafficking of prescription drugs is set to exceed illicit drug abuse", the United Nations has warned, adding:

"The 'high' they provide is comparable to practically every illicitly manufactured drug."

That is what is happening now. There are role models, from film stars to Robbie Williams. I could name a string of very interesting people who are not using illicit drugs, but getting their "buzz" from prescription drugs and even drugs that can be bought over the counter in the local chemist's shop, cough mixture included.

I have been concerned about this for 10 years, and when the United Nations document turned up I decided, as chairman of the all-party parliamentary drugs misuse group, to interest the group in launching a public inquiry into the misuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. We launched one last summer, and so far we have received 75 pieces of evidence from organisations and individuals. It is a pity that I have no time to read out some of the letters from individuals whose relatives are addicted, in old people's homes or in their own homes. Carers have written to me saying, for instance, "The elderly person for whom I am caring is being completely knocked out by the general practitioner, and is addicted to benzodiazepines", or to over-the-counter or prescription drugs containing codeine or morphine.

That is a huge problem, and it has nothing to do with the war on drugs. It is happening in front of us. I say "By all means adopt a zero-tolerance approach, but you will not stop people seeking relief from the turmoil that their minds are causing them." For that is the reason why people turn to drug misuse: it is triggered by something that has gone wrong in their lives, perhaps the death of a close relative or a friend. We ought to intervene and help those people instead of locking them up.

The UN says that drug misuse is a "disease of development". What it means by that is that we in the more developed countries are more subject to stress; we are always increasing our performance and productivity, which increases our stress levels, and we sometimes need to escape from reality in order to get some relief. That is why people turn to misusing not only controlled drugs, but increasingly prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

I have discussed geographical displacement, to borrow a phrase the UN uses. It also mentions substance displacement. Methamphetamine was not a classified drug at one time, but it came on to the scene and we recently bunged it into class A. As a medicinal chemist, I know that every time we classify a drug into categories A, B or C, there will be another drug that is not yet illegal waiting in the queue for some person—or, rather, thousands of people—to misuse. All of this will never stop.

The Science and Technology Committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend Dr. Gibson, the RSA—or Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce—and even eminent people such as Professor Colin Blakemore and Professor David Nutt, who is a member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, have said that drug classification is a waste of time. This debate about whether cannabis should have been kept in class B, as previously, or should remain in class C, where we have now dropped it, or be put back into class B again is yo-yo politics, and it will have absolutely no effect at all on young people. They want to know which drugs give them a buzz, regardless of whether they are illegal. They want to know how much those drugs cost, too, and as the street prices of drugs are falling, more and more people will, of course, be tempted to try them. It is not the classification of drugs that matters; it is economic factors such as price that switch people on to drugs once they have had a problem in their lives.

This is a complex issue, and I recommend that Members read the recent UN reports. Let me read out one final quote. The UN commission says that

"there is indeed a spirit of reform in the air"—

I hope we hear it here this afternoon—"to make the conventions" of 1961, 1971 and 1981, which are the three UN conventions on which our policies are based,

"fit for purpose and adapt them to a reality on the ground that is different from the time that they were drafted".

I shall leave the House with that thought.

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Photo of David Amess David Amess Conservative, Southend West 1:32 pm, 3rd April 2008

I enjoyed listening to the speeches of the hon. Members for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), and I shall re-read them to absorb further what they had to say. I have not previously heard the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East speak on the specific issues before us, although I have heard the hon. Member for Newport, West discuss them. He and I worked together on issues concerning arthritis, so we will not fall out on cannabis. However, I will just say to both those hon. Members that I fundamentally disagree with their views on cannabis.

We have a good and competent Minister, and I listened carefully to his comments. I wish him well, but he has a tough battle ahead. In my early years in the House, when I represented a different constituency, a constituent called Leah Betts died as a result of ecstasy; her father later became an adviser to the Government. A satirical programme managed to gain admittance to this House and interviewed me about a drug called "cake". Lord Newton of Braintree had the Minister's job at the time. His officials answered the questions we tabled on "cake"; we as Members of Parliament did not know whether "cake" was a slang term. I am hardly a superstar, but even nowadays sometimes when I walk along a street a very young person will run up to me who has seen that bit of television footage—it is shown over and again. What I usually say to them is, "Okay, you thought it was funny, but did it actually put you off taking drugs?" Obviously, the parents of Leah Betts were not particularly pleased at the trivialisation of the matter.

On cannabis, I say to the hon. Members for Bolton, South-East and for Newport, West, "Forget the classification." I was a Member in 2003 when we voted on the matter. Eleven Labour Members voted against. The current Prime Minister thought that we should change the classification. It is not about the classification; it is about the impression it gave to young people, which was absolutely wrong. Why did we not listen to Marjorie Wallace of SANE, who really does know what she is talking about?

I am not about to tell the Minister that locking such youngsters up in prison will provide a solution. What my hon. Friend Philip Davies said was right. I do not understand why our prisons are awash with drugs—perhaps I am being naïve—but they are. I wish the Minister a fair wind in trying to deal with that as part of his strategy. It is a terrible situation.

The psychotic effect of cannabis is absolutely proven. I wish the Government had listened then to the advice of the International Narcotics Control Board. This week, senior police officers have said that changing the classification was not a good idea. Where were they in 2003 and 2004? Were their words not reported? Also, why was the current Prime Minister not against the reclassification? I understand the point that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East made, but we should think about the impression that it gave. All Members have constituents who come along to their surgeries and tell them about the devastating consequences of cannabis on the lives of young people.

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Photo of David Amess David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I shall do so—but only briefly—as I have dropped my papers.

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Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

One of the pressing arguments that persuaded the then Home Secretary to change the classification was evidence from parents of young people who had died of heroin poisoning. They said that their young people had gone through the following journey. They had been told that cannabis is a terribly dangerous drug, but then when they used it they found that they did not have great problems with it. Therefore, they disbelieved the fables they had been told, so they then disbelieved what they thought were fables about heroin. The idea was to make a difference between the classifications of cannabis—which has its dangers, of course—and heroin, which is far more dangerous.

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Photo of David Amess David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I said that I was not going to fall out with the hon. Gentleman, but I must say that his view on cannabis is absolutely wrong.

Let me conclude by making a plea. Over the last week or so, a Liberal peer insulted Essex when he attacked a speech by my hon. Friend Mr. Francois. However, I noticed that yesterday Bob Russell was wearing a T-shirt with the logo "Proud to come from Essex". We in Essex have a wonderful organisation called 2 Smart 4 Drugs; I will send the Minister some details about it. As we all know, the first step towards effective prevention is early education, and that is what it specialises in. It is an award-winning drugs and alcohol community project, organised by Essex police in conjunction with Essex FM. I have attended some of its presentations. This is not money wasted; it gets real results, but—the Minister knows what I am about to say—it needs more money. The organisation is led by Victoria Wilson of Essex police and a wonderful lady called Pam Withrington, whose aunt, Jo Robinson, tragically lost her son as a result of drug misuse. I ask that the Minister, in his very difficult task, look at this project, which has made a big difference in Essex.

I hope that the House will come to a positive conclusion, because all Members are united in trying to do something about this situation—I will not call it a war—but it is a very tough nut to crack.

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Photo of John Mann John Mann PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Minister of State), Cabinet Office 1:39 pm, 3rd April 2008

We may all be united, but there are different points of view on this matter. There may be a vagueness in being united about the fact that we will do something about it, but what politician would say publicly or privately, or would even think to themselves, "Well, we'll do nothing about the issue of drugs, and pretend it isn't there."

One of the problems with drugs debates in this House—this weakness has hidden some of the successes of the Government's drugs policy—is the use and misuse of statistics. The key weakness in the Government's drugs strategy is not the strategy itself, but the assessment of outcomes and the precise measurements. Let us consider the example of cannabis. Everybody knows, and the research on this will soon come through to show—it is only just emerging—that there has been a huge fall in cannabis use. The cause is pretty obvious to me: it is called the smoking ban. That makes me particularly pleased that I voted for the smoking ban.

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Photo of John Mann John Mann PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Minister of State), Cabinet Office

With respect, I do not think there is time to take interventions.

People are smoking far less, so people are smoking cannabis far less. I have seen no evidence of any diversion towards people baking cannabis cakes or anything like that. Cannabis use is decreasing. That does not mean that where someone does use cannabis, it is more or less of a problem than it was before.

The information is there. I am sure that all hon. Members have read my 2002 report to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, in which I described in great detail hydroponics and cannabis, the experience of the Vietnamese ex-pat community in Australia, in Melbourne in particular, and what would happen here when those techniques were used. In essence, people would grow for profit in their houses, using the latest techniques, on an industrial scale. That happened in Australia, because a market existed, and it has happened in the UK. Wherever the new markets in drugs emerge—the most difficult markets will be in chemical concoctions of one kind or another that are created not abroad but here in the UK—the drugs involved will be the new wave that will come into this country. The drugs I am talking about are already here, but their use will grow. We can see all this from the evidence of what has happened elsewhere.

However, monitoring outcomes would give the Government some good news. They would be able to declare, as they will at some stage, that cannabis use has declined. More importantly, analysis of school exclusions in respect of drugs and alcohol demonstrates absolutely that drugs and alcohol are not a major problem in schools. There is no evidence of such a problem; minor numbers are being disciplined. If my schoolkids are asked, they say, "A few teachers come in the worse for wear for alcohol, but do you think we would be stupid enough to buy or use drink or drugs in school? We know where to get it outside if we want it."

Let us examine one of the great myths, because the Government have the statistics to quantify things. My hon. Friend Paul Flynn is wrong about overdose deaths. On the basis of the classifications used by coroners' courts, the number of deaths from heroin overdose in this country is falling. Nowhere is that more the case than in my constituency, where the fall has been huge. In 2002, 11 of my constituents died because of heroin, but only two have done so in the past four years. The matter is quantifiably provable.

As for accident and emergency admissions, I recommend that every hon. Member ask their local hospital whether the drugs strategy is working in their area and monitor the situation. The figures on accident and emergency admissions for an overdose of injectable drugs give a clear trend line. In my area, a fourfold reduction has taken place, which means that the drugs strategy, particularly with regard to heroin, is working there. Strangely, the biggest reduction in Britain in the number of house burglaries has occurred in my area—and I suggest that there is a correlation. In monitoring those outcomes, the Government should be pulling those correlations together. I do not care who takes the credit—the police, the Government, the health service or charities. Everyone can have some credit.

If anyone asks me what has happened about drugs in my constituency, I can tell them. If they had walked down Bridge street in Worksop five years ago, they would not have got five yards without being accosted by a young person on heroin. Now, although there are one or two problems with the Tory council, lots of cars are being parked illegally, the Tory leader drove illegally the wrong way when he made his fleeting visit, and the police are failing to tackle cyclists, someone walking down Bridge street would struggle to find a drug addict. That is what is happening in the real world, so quantifiable proof exists: I recommend cost-benefit analysis.

The other thing that I strongly recommend to the Government—this concurs with what my hon. Friend Dr. Iddon said—is to examine causation. My analysis of my constituents who have been on heroin is that the vast majority have now come off it since my heroin inquiry in 2002. By far and away the key factor in young people getting involved with drugs is major trauma. That can be identified in different ways. For example, it might be a major change in economic circumstances, but it is more likely to be the death of a parent, often a father—my amateur research base tells me that—or a messy divorce, a split in the family situation, abuse or attacks. Those are by far and away the factors that lead young people into drug addiction. Such things can be identified. It is now far more acceptable to talk about things such as child abuse within a family in society and societal organisations than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Such things can be addressed, but we do not pull the two issues together. That is where the improvement to the Government's strategy can be tweaked in a big way. We can use the data on outcomes, but we must put them together more cleverly. We must examine causation, and in particular, the role of major trauma among children and young people in leading to addiction.

We know what the Government's drugs strategy is, and we know that not all Labour Members have agreed with it. I generally do agree with it, because it generally works. We know what the Conservative policy is, because it has been outlined recently: before, everyone would have been put into residential rehabilitation, but now they will be put into secure residential rehabilitation. The proposal has not yet been costed, although my costings of it show that it would be quite expensive, and the definition of "secure" has been left a little vague. Unfortunately, James Brokenshire did not outline it further. I am sure that he and his colleagues will take the opportunity to explain about the 280,000 secure residential places, or however many the number is; a figure has not yet emerged. The Conservatives' recovery policy has also been clearly outlined, even though their leader repeatedly and consistently took totally the opposite approach—his was more in line with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West; it could have been the same speech. The Tory leader is out of synch, but I am sure that he is accommodating himself to the current policy and learning it. There will be some interesting tensions there.

We know, from a speech made by Fergus Ewing today, that the Scottish National party has stolen lock, stock and barrel the Tory party policy of recovery and abstinence. We know that Mr. Souter, who has helped the SNP in various ways, has inspired its new policy in his recent meetings with the party. At last the SNP has a policy! It is identical to the Conservative party's policy, which will make for some interesting debates.

We still do not know what the Liberal Democrat policy is—individuals have different views, not least on cannabis—but we do know about the proposal by its new leader. His one statement on the matter was made on 21 December 2002 on the European Parliament proposal for a recommendation—B5 0541 is the paper—in which he makes it clear that he is in favour of the legalisation of drugs. We are beginning to see a policy emerge; it is in process. I hope that the Liberals will give us more of an opportunity in the near future to let us know—

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London)

I want to inform the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend Mr. Clegg has made it very clear—much more recently than the example given by the hon. Gentleman—that he is opposed to the legalisation of skunk, for example. Would the hon. Gentleman like to withdraw his comments?

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Photo of John Mann John Mann PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Minister of State), Cabinet Office

The would-be Home Secretary from the Liberals has not commented on drugs, or anything else, since the change in party leadership. We look forward to the Liberals having policy on this matter; that would contribute to the debate.

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Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons) 1:49 pm, 3rd April 2008

In the few minutes remaining, I am pleased to contribute to the debate. One of the first things I did when I was elected to this place, as a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, was take part in an investigation of drugs policy entitled "The Government's drugs policy: is it working?" I do not often agree with Paul Flynn, but I agree that the policy was not, and still is not, working. I do not think that any of us would underestimate the enormity of the problem, or the task of dealing with it.

Everybody here has the good will to acknowledge that there is a problem, and to try to do something about it. Of course, opinions on how to deal with it are varied. During its investigation, the Committee took evidence from across the opinion spectrum. We took evidence from the legalisation lobby—from people who would make all drugs freely available and supplied by the Government. At the other end of the spectrum, we heard some heartbreaking stories from parents who had lost children to a drug habit. My view, then and now, is that there is an imbalance in drugs policy. It focuses too heavily on harm reduction and the provision of rehabilitation, important though that is, and not enough on drug prevention. Dr. Iddon said how important it is to warn very young children about the dangers of drugs. The age at which that needs to be tackled is, sadly, getting younger and younger.

I was unable to agree with the outcome of the investigation, and I was the only person on a cross-party Committee to do so. I tabled about 80 amendments, all of which were blown out of the water. I thought that I was right then, and I still think so now.

Today's announcement—or leak—from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was disappointing to me. I believe that the message that reclassification would send out to young people—many of whom believe that taking such drugs is not only legal but harmless, and a purely social occupation from which no harm will come—is very important. We all know, not least from the evidence heard by the Committee and that which we have seen since, that mental health professionals are extremely worried about the increase in psychotic illnesses, depression and so on that arise from cannabis use. If it transpires that the council advises that cannabis should not be reclassified, I hope that the Home Secretary will think long and hard about the evidence that comes from other quarters before she makes her decision.

The hon. Member for Newport, West thought that reclassification was of no importance. I fundamentally disagree with him. The message given to young people is very important. No young person should be in any doubt about the dangers that can flow from the use of illegal drugs. We have to start with cannabis, which is probably the most easily available. Most drug dealers now are poly-drug dealers. If young people buy cannabis, the range of harder, more harmful drugs is readily available to them. The temptation to try other drugs, which can lead to serious habits from which there is often no return, is an important message that would come from any reclassification.

Several hon. Members have referred to the availability of drugs in prisons. The challenge of ridding prisons of drugs is enormous, but we have to take every action we can to help people with drug habits who have been given custodial sentences because of acquisitive crime, because they will not get rid of their habits if drugs are easily available in prison. People who are given custodial sentences for other reasons, and do not have a drug habit, often acquire a habit while they are in prison, and add to the body of people who require rehabilitation treatment.

I want to make some brief comments on the Government website Frank. I looked at it yesterday and today and it provides a helpful A to Z of drugs, including yaba, zero and isobutyl nitrate. I learned more about drugs from looking at Frank than I would ever have found out in any other way. It has videos about parties where drugs are being taken, jokey commentaries, and comic cartoons about replacement brains. I do not think that that website will deter a single young person from taking illegal drugs. It does not present the subject in anything near a serious enough way. I am dismayed to notice that I have run out of time. I had so much to say— [ Interruption. ] The Minister tells me I can have a little longer; that is very kind.

Frank also advertises free information on drugs 24/7, and tells lots of frank stories. We need to give young people serious warnings about what they are doing to their future, their education, their employment prospects and their families, friends, colleagues and neighbours. People do not take drugs in isolation. They affect all the other people around them. Nowhere on the site could I see a simple message such as, "Don't do it. It's illegal and it will harm you." We need to get down to plain simple language rather than wrapping it up in jokey cartoony videos that do not do what the site is intended to do.

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M

I have read you comments with interest as I am currently in a quagmire as to what to do with the responses I am getting from Social Services in Brighton regarding the fact that my son has decided to live with his father who has 25+ years of drug dependancies. Social services think that 'recreational' drug use is ok and dos'nt seem to have an effect on a childs welfare and upbrining. I would have to argue to disagree very strongly after having a very lucky escape from a drug fuelled relationship with my sons dad and all the abuse I had suffered is an understatement. People who buy,use and sell drugs do not care one little bit about the consequences of thier actions. They cause a lot of emotional damage and harm. There was an artical in TIME in March it was called 'maimed by the mob', I can relate very well to this very informative piece of journalism and am furious at the lapsidasical approach by so called professionals. If you want to ask yourselves why cylces of abuse repeat themselves then start to look at the Law and see all the loopholes and inadequacies which lie within it.

Submitted by Miriam Gillingham

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 1:56 pm, 3rd April 2008

I thank all hon. Members for the quality of the debate. Mr. Amess was very complimentary, which was nice of him. The debate shows some of the difficulty in reaching a drug strategy that commands general support. With drugs charities, drug misusers, others Members of Parliament, parliamentary groups and all sorts of individuals, I have tried to build consensus around the new drugs strategy. We have tried to get away from the false debate about whether we should crack down hard on dealers and those who bring misery to our communities—whether we are therefore tough on drugs—or whether we should support families, provide better treatment and ensure that the outcomes of treatment are more effective, to avoid the sorts of horror that have been described, which is what my hon. Friend Dr. Iddon was talking about.

I was disappointed by the comments made by James Brokenshire, which is unusual for me. The new strategy was not met with derision, because we had tried to reach that consensus. That does not mean that every person in the country and every group would support it wholeheartedly. One or two would deride it, because they want drugs to be legalised or completely decriminalised. The Government attempted to ensure that we had a radical policy that moved forward, and moved away from the false choice between tough enforcement and just treatment. We tried to bring those together. Our approach was not met with derision, with due respect to the hon. Gentleman, but with general support from the vast majority of people, simply because it moved away from that choice.

My hon. Friends the Members for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) and for Bolton, South-East, who have in the past been very critical, have recognised the shift in our policy. I cannot answer all the points that have been made in the few minutes I have left, but it is essential that we enforce the law against those who deal in misery in our communities by dealing drugs. Every person in this House will accept that. The asset recovery panels are significantly different, because they allow us to take action on arrest rather than on conviction. They will enable us to take the action that people want against those in our communities who deal in drugs.

The key is to make drug treatment more effective. Some hon. Members picked up on that point. If the hon. Member for Hornchurch and others read page 28 of the drug strategy, they will see that it mentions abstinence, and states that we need a menu of options, and that a person's needs will be a matter for a clinical decision, made by a doctor, as to what is appropriate for them. For some people that will be methadone—and I agree that we should not just abandon people on methadone. For others it will be residential treatment, but it is a clinical decision based on the person's individual needs that will make the treatment effective, not some grand statement that everybody should go into abstinence straight away or that everybody should be on methadone. It is about ensuring that there is appropriate treatment for the individual.

I apologise to hon. Members for not answering all their questions specifically. Education is obviously important, and we will wait for the ACMD review of cannabis. I agree with my hon. Friends that it is important to tackle causation, and I thank hon. Members for their contributions to the debate.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed without Question put, pursuant to the Temporary Standing Order.

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