Criminal Law

Part of Theft from Shops (Use of Penalty Notices for Disorder) – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 11th March 2009.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 5:45 pm, 11th March 2009

Absolutely, and the hon. Gentleman was not given a multiple choice beyond wine or cannabis. I am sure that in Chesterfield there are lots of other choices available to the children of Members of Parliament.

This is a very serious debate and although the hon. Member for Chesterfield pointed to what he regarded as an inconsistency on the part of the Government in hyping the importance of a debate on drugs yet ensuring that the penalty was not as serious as it should be by using this method of enforcement, I think that there is agreement on all sides of the House about the harmful effects of cannabis and the serious nature of drug taking.

At the moment, the country is gripped by the story of Julie Myerson and her young son in the book "The Lost Child". I have not read the book but there has been much press comment about it and about how a parent can become so frustrated with the drug taking of his or her child that they lock them out and exclude them from their homes. That is not the only example; there are many other case histories that we have read about.

The Government are right to begin any consideration of the policy of enforcement with a clear and unequivocal statement about drug taking and drug use. The Minister was right to point out the harmful effects of taking cannabis. There is research and medical evidence to support what she said and although this debate is not specifically about cannabis—in the sense of whether our penalties are severe or not—and is on a limited motion that deals with enforcement, it is important that the House looks at the issue.

I am pleased to see in his place David T.C. Davies, who is a member of the Select Committee that I chair. The Committee has decided to undertake a major inquiry into drugs that will begin at the beginning of April. We will look not just at what the Government have done in this case and at classification, but at the way in which drugs enter this country and at whether the penalties are sufficient to deal with what has been an increase in the availability of cannabis and other drugs. It will be a long inquiry and will be concluded at the end of the year, and we are willing and eager to have evidence and views from all political parties.

Mr. Burrowes made what I regarded as a thoughtful speech in which he accepted the Government's position on cannabis but was worried about the process. He is perfectly entitled to be concerned about these matters, but I ask him not to let the process get in the way of a decision that has to be made by the House today. I hope that the Conservative party will not vote to have the order annulled because it is important that we have the necessary penalties in place to deal with the situation. I know that he feels that the penalties are not sufficient. I gather from his speech that he would like the £80 fine that is to be imposed to be even higher, but I think that the three-stage process set out by the Government is a method that works and that we can support.

I hope that the Minister will, as a result of the debate and the other deliberations she has had upstairs, now ensure that sufficient research is done in support of the Government's view that those penalties work. I know that some research has been commissioned in the past, and I do not think the issuing of 400,000 fixed penalty notices since 2004, implemented across all 43 police forces, would have resulted in nobody being discomfited, so such steps clearly work, but there is a need for further research of the sort that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate spoke about.

The hon. Gentleman was also right when he said that this three-stage process must be properly monitored, and I was grateful that the Minister responded positively to that suggestion. The worry is that the warning that should currently be given is not in the local notes of police officers. That is why I have put to the Minister—and I put it to her again now—that if there is concern that there is not proper monitoring, the proper course of action is for the Home Secretary to write to the chief constables in the 43 areas or to communicate with ACPO. There are many methods by which the Home Secretary can get across to chief constables the importance and necessity of recording such information—and I notice that the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing has just entered the Chamber to listen to the debate. I think that that deals with the Opposition's point. I therefore hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle, will go away and, not have an informal chat with the Home Secretary, but actually make sure something is done to support this, so that there can be more robustness to the three-stage process that she spoke about.

On the level of penalty, I have no problems with the fine that has been mentioned or with the effectiveness of the PNDs. I think they have been effective. We know that skunk now accounts for between 70 and 80 per cent. of the cannabis seized on the streets, whereas six years ago it only accounted for 15 per cent., and, as we also know, skunk is a much stronger version of the drug.

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