“(1) In section 84(3) of the Education Act 2002 (curriculum foundation subjects for the first, second and third key stages), after paragraph (g) there is inserted—
“(gi) personal, social and health education.
(2) In section 85(4) of the Education Act 2002 (curriculum foundation subjects for the fourth key stage), at the end there is inserted “, and
(d) personal, social and health education.”
(3) In section 74(1) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, which (when brought into force) will substitute a new section 85 in the Education Act 2002, in subsection (4) of that substituted section (foundation subjects for the fourth key stage), at the end there is inserted “, and
(d) personal, social and health education.”
(4) Before section 86 of the Education Act 2002 there is inserted—
“85B Personal, social and health education
(1) For the purposes of this Part, personal, social, health education (“PSHE”) shall comprise—
(a) education about alcohol and tobacco, illegal recreational drugs and new psychoactive substances;
(b) education about emotional health and well-being and how this can be impacted by psychoactive substances;
(c) education about individual safety, including risk taking behaviour.
(2) The National Curriculum for England is not required to specify attainment targets or assessment arrangements for PSHE (and section 84(1) has effect accordingly).
(3) The Secretary of State for Education shall set out guidance to schools and colleges to ensure that a coherent approach to personal, social, health and economic education is developed, including between primary and secondary schools.
(4) It is the duty of the governing body and headteacher of any school in which PSHE is provided in pursuance of this Part to secure that guidance issued under subsection (3) is followed and principles set out in subsections (5) to (6) are complied with.
(5) The first principle is that information presented in the course of providing PSHE should be accurate and balanced.
(6) The second principle is that PSHE should be taught in a way that—
(a) is appropriate to the ages of the pupils concerned and to their religious and cultural backgrounds, and also
(b) reflects a reasonable range of religious, cultural and other perspectives.
(7) The third principle is that PSHE should be taught in a way that—
(a) endeavours to promote equality,
(b) encourages acceptance of diversity, and
(c) emphasises the importance of both rights and responsibilities.
(8) In the exercise of their functions under this Part so far as relating to PSHE, a local authority, governing body or headteacher shall have regard to any guidance issued from time to time by the Secretary of State.” —
This would amend the Education Act to make PHSE, with drugs education including new psychoactive substances, a foundation subject in the national curriculum.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 3—Control of cannabis—
‘(1) Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State shall consult the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs pursuant to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 with regard to the use of her powers to make regulations under sections 7, 10, 22 and 31 of that Act to—
(b) add those substances to Schedule 2 to the 2001 Regulations.
(2) The substances referred to in subsection (1) are—
(a) cannabis, and
(b) cannabis resin.”
The intention of this amendment is to re-scheduling Cannabis from a Schedule 1 drug to a Schedule 2 drug for the purposes of promoting research into its medical use.
New clause 4—Referral to Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—
‘(1) The Ministers shall refer to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) any substance which is, or may be, a psychoactive substance.
(2) The ACMD shall advise the Ministers whether the substance is, or appears to the ACMD likely to be, misused and of which the misuse is having, or appears to the ACMD to be capable of having, harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem.
(3) For the purposes of this section, “the Ministers” has the same meaning as in section 1(4) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs).”
New clause 5—Review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971—
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall commission an independent evidence-based review of—
(a) the effectiveness of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 in reducing the harm caused by the misuse of drugs, including social problems connected with their misuse, and
(b) the implementation of the Act.
New clause 6—Possession of controlled drugs—
‘(1) The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is amended as follows.
(2) Omit section 5(1) and (2).
(3) After section 5 insert—
“5A Measures in respect of possession of controlled drugs for personal use
(1) Where a person is detained on suspicion of having committed an arrestable offence and is found to be in possession of a controlled drug, falling within Schedule 2 (Class A drugs) in circumstances which do not constitute an offence under section 3 (restriction of importation and exportation of controlled drugs) or section 4 (restriction of production and supply of controlled drugs), a senior officer or a local authority may require the person to attend a drug treatment programme or drug awareness programme.
(2) The Secretary of State shall by regulations define “drug treatment programme” and “drug awareness programme” for the purposes of this Act.
(3) Regulations made under this section must be made by statutory instrument.
(4) A statutory instrument under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, both Houses of Parliament.””
Amendment 23, in clause 1, page 1, line 3, after “about” insert “reviewing the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and”
Amendment 24, page 1, line 11, at end insert—
‘(6A) Section [Control of Cannabis] provides for legal possession and supply of cannabis prescribed by a doctor.”
Amendment 18, in clause 2, page 1, line 14, after “any” insert “novel”
Amendment 19, page 1, line 15, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—
“(a) in the opinion of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it, and
(aa) is, or appears to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs likely to be, misused and of which the misuse is having, or appears to them capable of having, harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem, and”
Amendment 12, page 1, line 16, leave out “and” and insert—
“(aa) is not prohibited by the United Nations Drug Conventions of 1961 and 1971, or by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, but which may pose a public health threat comparable to that posed by substances listed in these conventions, and”
This amendment to the definition includes part of the alternative definition of psychoactive substances proposed to the Home Affairs Select Committee by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
Amendment 20, in clause 3, page 2, line 12, at end insert—
‘(2A) The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs shall propose to the Secretary of State the amendment of Schedule 1 for the purposes of subsection (2)(a) if they consider that a substance does not have, or is not capable of having, harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem.”
Amendment 21, in clause 5, page 3, line 9, at end insert—
‘(2A) It shall be a defence that the person did not supply the substance for gain (whether direct or indirect).”
Amendment 13, page 3, line 15, at end insert—
‘(5) It is not an offence under this section for a person (“A”) to supply a psychoactive substance to person (“B”), where A and B are known to each other and such supply is part of an agreement to obtain psychoactive substances for either A’s, B’s or both’s own consumption and the supply does not profit person A.”
This amendment avoid one person being criminalised when as part of a group, he is responsible for obtaining psychoactive substances for the group where, in effect, each person in the group is purchasing for their own consumption.
Amendment 14, in clause 8, page 4, line 38, leave out paragraph (i)
This amendment seeks to exclude from criminalisation those who order psychoactive substances over the internet for personal consumption.
Amendment 22, page 5, line 19, at end insert—
‘(5A) It shall be a defence that the person imported the substance for his own consumption.”
Amendment 15, in clause 10, page 6, line 22, at end insert—
‘(3) In sentencing, the court shall take account of the relative harm associated with the psychoactive substance that was the subject of the offence.”
This amendment seeks to ensure that sentencing is commensurate with the potential harm done by the substance involved.
Amendment 4, in clause 58, page 36, line 25, at end insert—
‘(2A) The report must inform Parliament on progress made in improving education and awareness about new psychoactive substances.”
This amendment requires the Secretary of State to include a section on progress in NPS education in their statutory review.
Amendment 25, in schedule 1, page 40, line 5, at end insert
“except to the extent necessary to give effect to section (Possession of controlled drugs).”
Amendment 1, page 41, line 12, at end insert—
8 Pramiracetam9 Oxiracetam10 N-phenylacetyl-L-prolylglycine ethyl ester11 Phenylpiracetam12 Nefiracetam
13 L-Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine14 Citicoline15 Meclofenoxate
16 L-Theanine17 Oxitriptan18 Tongkat Ali19 Resveratol20 Trans-resveratol21 Sulbutiamine”
This amendment exempts a number of substances from scope of the regulation regime introduced in the Psychoactive Substances Bill. The substances in this amendment are commonly used to improve individuals’ cognitive performance and have been found to have positive effects in a number of academic studies.
Amendment 5, page 41, line 12, at end insert—
8 Alkyl nitrites”
This would exempt “poppers” from the Bill, as recommended by the Home Affairs Select Committee.
Government amendment 10.
Both amendment 4 and new clause 1 deal with the key issue of drugs education and awareness. This Bill contains provisions to disrupt the supply of new psychoactive substances, but they will not be effective without action to reduce demand. What we need is a coherent and comprehensive education and awareness strategy to go alongside this Bill.
Amendment 4 would place a duty on the Secretary of State to update Parliament on the progress made by the Government in improving education and awareness of new psychoactive substances. The Bill requires the Secretary of State to bring a progress review before Parliament. Our amendment prescribes that this review should contain information about education and awareness, too.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Wales has a very impressive education programme, and I will come to that later in my contribution.
New clause 1 seeks to amend the Education Act 2002 to make personal, social, health and economic education include a focus on drugs and new psychoactive substances. It should be a foundation subject in any national curriculum. The Government’s drug education strategy contains some warm words about providing good quality education and advice so that young people and their parents are provided with credible information on actively resisting substance misuse, but these warm words are not, and were not, acted upon. The coalition Government reversed Labour’s plans to make PSHE a statutory requirement, despite that being recommended in the review carried out by Sir Alasdair Macdonald. They closed the drugs education forum, a source of expertise on drugs education in England which disseminated information to teachers across the country. The forum was closed as part of a drastic cut in drugs education spending. According to the Department of Health, drugs education spending was reduced from £3.9 million in 2009-10 to around £0.5 million in 2010-11.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about the need for PSHE to include these measures. Given that Five Year Forward view set out by Simon Stevens for the national health service assumes £5 billion-worth of savings coming from prevention, is this not exactly the kind of prevention we should be promoting in our schools?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If I remember my facts rightly, the Government estimated that having a comprehensive drugs education would cost approximately £500 for every pupil in England and Wales. If we offset that against the average of nearly £1 million that would be spent on a person misusing substances over the course of their lifetime, we can see it can be cost-effective to provide decent, comprehensive drugs education and so stop us spending at the other end, on people misusing and abusing substances.
Statistics provided by Mentor UK, the drug and alcohol charity, demonstrate that this was a disastrous set of decisions by the Government. Some 60% of schools now teach drugs education for one hour or less per year, and 59% of pupils say they cannot remember having a drugs education lesson in the last year. Paul Tuohy, former chief executive of Mentor, has told a national newspaper:
“We are probably in the worst situation for drug education for decades.”
Where there is drugs education in our schools, the quality is questioned. Ofsted found that 40% of PSHE teaching was not good and needed to improve. A 2013 survey of teachers by the PSHE Association reported that 81% of respondents would like more classroom resources for drugs and alcohol education.
Can my hon. Friend give an example of any anti-drug use education programme here or anywhere else in the world in this century or the last century that has resulted in a reduction in drug use?
I am going to come to that later in my speech when I talk about Wales. Although there has not yet been a proper examination of the findings from the drugs programme that Wales has put into action, the initial findings appear to show that it has had some impact. If my hon. Friend will allow, I will continue with my—[Interruption.] Thank you: I will continue with my oration.
The evidence, including from the Government’s own inspectors, suggests that the Government’s approach to PSHE simply is not working. This failure has occurred at a time when the growth of the new psychoactive substances industry has started to radically alter the drugs situation in our country.
Moreover, parents want these changes. A National Union of Teachers survey suggests that around 88% of parents want PSHE to be compulsory. A 2011 survey conducted by Mumsnet showed that 98% of parents were happy for their children to attend PSHE lessons.
While this legislation will go some towards addressing legal highs, there is still the issue of the purchase of legal highs online. Does the hon. Lady agree there is still much to do in relation to that?
I agree that there is much we can do to prevent the supply of, and demand for, these substances. This set of amendments is dealing with demand, and I feel that, unless we get across the message that these so-called legal highs are neither legal nor safe, the demand on the internet will become even greater. We need to get across the core message that the Government are sending through this Bill: these drugs are not legal and not safe. The demand on the internet needs to be curbed as well, which is why we need to make sure that we have proper education and information out there.
Teachers, parents and the Government’s own inspectors think we should have more and better drugs education, but it appears that the Government do not agree. In Wales, a Labour Government show us how successful an alternative approach can be. A £2 million investment in the all-Wales school liaison programme has made substance misuse education a core subject in 98% of Welsh primary and secondary schools. Almost all Welsh schoolchildren receive accurate, consistent and credible information about the potential harms of drugs, rather than having to rely on friends, myths, the internet and guesswork. The school programme is complemented by the Welsh emerging drugs and novel substance project, a new psychoactive substances information and harm reduction programme, as well as measures to educate parents. These are all part of a £50 million investment in reducing drugs harms.
There are signs that the Welsh approach is working. Drug deaths in Wales are down by 30% since 2010. By contrast, drug-related deaths have been creeping up in England. There was a 17% increase in the last year, and the Office for National Statistics states that they are now at the highest level since records began in 1993.
Too much of the drugs education in our schools is focused on providing information. Evidence suggests that to get drugs education right, it has to be taught alongside a focus on the life skills which empower young people to resist peer pressure and make informed decisions.
It is good to hear from the hon. Lady again; I enjoyed listening to her in Committee. I agree with a lot of what she is saying, and nobody is suggesting the situation is perfect, but we have Mentor UK, the “Rise above” programme and the “Frank” campaign, and I feel sure she will come on to say that while of course there is a role for the state and for education and health, there is also a role for parents. I am a parent of two young children, and I intend to educate them as well as I possibly can with the information I have about the dangers of psychoactive substances. Does the hon. Lady agree that that has got to be a key part of this?
I do so agree with the hon. Gentleman about that. Unfortunately, I have not been lucky enough to become a parent, but I have nieces and I know that what their parents tell them and the information available to their parents is crucial in their making the right decisions.
There are a lot of very responsible parents out there who will of course talk to their children about legal highs, and about building resilience and self-confidence so that they make the right decisions in their lives. We have to accept, however, that unfortunately many children do not have the advantages we would like them to have, so it is incumbent on us all to recognise that education within the school setting is another way of getting important messages across.
My hon. Friend is right indeed about that.
These life skills can be taught only by helping children think about the challenges and dangers they face. They need to understand that bullying is often a tool of the drug pusher, and that a consequence for people taking drugs from pushers is often that they will get into debt or be open to exploitation. When these messages are introduced in the classroom, they can result in conversations between young people and a real learning process rather than it all being a bit hit and miss, as my hon. Friend says, if this occurs out of school. We need information, values and context in order to deliver a quality drugs education. That is why drugs education belongs in the sort of comprehensive personal and social education that can be provided by PSHE, and not solely, as is happening so often, in science lessons. Unfortunately, the Government have consistently opposed making PSHE a foundation subject whenever the issue has been raised in this House.
There is reason to believe that education about new psychoactive substances is particularly bad. Research by the Royal Society for Public Health found that a quarter of young people aged between 16 and 24 believed that so-called “legal highs” were safer than illegal drugs. As we all know, that is a dangerous misunderstanding because some new psychoactive substances have been classified as class A drugs. It is little wonder that young people, and indeed older people, are confused when they are being bombarded with marketing tricks from drug pushers who tell them that these are safe and legal alternatives. Given the ingrained and damaging myths around new psychoactive substances, I find it astonishing that as of
New psychoactive substances education and awareness is not just about schools. That is why I have tabled amendment 4, which would place a statutory duty on the Home Secretary to include an update on progress in improving new psychoactive substances education and awareness in her statutory review. The amendment would focus minds at the Home Office and compel it to put in place the most effective and comprehensive awareness campaign possible.
The Welsh Assembly found that 57% of new psychoactive substances users used the media as their main source of information about these substances. Public relations and advertising campaigns therefore have a key role to play, particularly among adult groups where the Government cannot act as a direct provider of education as they do in schools. The Government’s own public awareness campaigns are limited to the “Frank” website, which, regrettably, has almost no social media presence. In the absence of any Government action, the Angelus Foundation has been forced to run its own advertising campaigns, using fundraising and corporate donations in kind. I want to praise its work again, but I am sure it would acknowledge that these campaigns should be nationwide and comprehensive, and it simply cannot afford to do this itself. The job it is doing is the job that Government should be doing.
I, too, very much commend the Angelus Foundation, which gave evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs and has been very important in establishing the case for more education. Is it not strange that the “Frank” website and the information it provides are wholly separate from, and without any connection or link to, other great work being done, such as the films that are pushed through social media about awareness of new psychoactive substances? There is no collaboration; surely we need the Government to take a lead on that.
I say give the hon. Gentleman a job in the Home Office, because we would become much more effective if we put into practice what he has just suggested. In Committee, the Minister seemed to agree—I do not want to put words into his mouth—that “Frank” was inadequate. He said:
“I put my hands up: ‘Talk to Frank’ is not perfect. We will work with everybody to try to ensure that “Talk to Frank” improves...the way in which it is feeding information is perhaps not as open or as direct as possible. Let us sort that now.”––[Official Report, Psychoactive Substances Public Bill Committee,
I encourage the Minister, in responding to the points I have raised, to respond to the point Mr Burrowes has just made and to give us some understanding of the progress that has been made in sorting it.
The hon. Lady may not be aware that a very prominent anti-drugs campaigner in my constituency, Mary Brett, has always had a lot of problems with the “Frank” website, particularly because of its emphasis on harm reduction. The feeling is that the website fails to really point out the dangers in a direct way that youngsters can understand. I therefore rise to support the hon. Lady in hoping that the Minister will re-examine this issue, because many very good campaigners with honestly held views think that “Frank” is not good enough.
I thank the right hon. Lady for making that point. I know very little about drugs, apart from what I have learned hard over the past few months. I did not even know what poppers were when I first took on my brief—I had never heard of them; I thought they were the little things with the string that we had at parties. When I looked at the “Frank” website it did not enlighten me that much. I needed something a bit more basic that would help to enlighten and educate me, and I therefore agree with the point she has made.
I urge the Minister to accept my amendment 4 and pledge to report to Parliament on the progress made in delivering the Government’s education strategy. It really is not a big ask and if the Government are serious about drugs education—I genuinely believe that the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice is—they ought to be committed to rigorously monitoring this, at the very least. He claimed in his letter to the Bill Committee that the statutory review should focus on the operation of the legislation. I agree, but the operation of this legislation will not happen in a vacuum. He has repeatedly said that it must be complemented by a communication and awareness strategy. It therefore seems appropriate to me that a look at the “operation” of this legislation would include a substantive section on education and awareness, just to make sure that we are getting the messages out there and reducing demand.
I am sure the Minister will agree that we should be keen to review and evaluate the impact this legislation will have, and I am pleased there is provision in the Bill to ensure that that will happen. However, will he provide assurances that in the regular and annual collection of statistics about arrests, prosecutions, sentencing, offender management and treatment, information collected about substances covered by this legislation will not be subsumed into the similar data collected for drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971? Similarly, will he confirm that surveys carried out by the Government on crime and public health will separate out the consideration of information about the Misuse of Drugs Act controlled drugs and of information about psychoactive substances? I raise that matter because it will be too easy simply to obscure the impact this legislation will have if the information is collapsed into the existing systems for collecting data about action taken on drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
I would also like the Minister to accept new clause 1—a girl can dream! The Government’s approach to PSHE simply is not working and we cannot stand by and let that happen when new psychoactive substances are bringing new dangers into our communities.
While I am on my feet, I will also speak to amendment 5, which, if passed, will add poppers to the list of exemptions to the ban on psychoactive substances. Poppers would then be treated like nicotine, alcohol and caffeine—substances that we know to be psychoactive, but do not feel it judicious to ban. We support the Bill because legislation is necessary to safeguard against the serious harms created by new psychoactive substances. Our concern to safeguard against harm is exactly why we believe that poppers should be exempt from the ban on psychoactive substances. In our judgment, fewer harms are likely to occur if poppers are added to the exemption list.
I have noted the Home Secretary’s response to the report of the Home Affairs Committee in which she recognises the representations made about a beneficial and health relationship effect and the concern that a ban will have, especially on men who have sex with men. I was pleased to see that the Home Secretary has chosen to refer the issue for further consideration by expert bodies. However, I was a little perplexed as to why that consideration is being made in partnership not with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—her own body of scientific experts on drugs—but with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. Strangely, if the recommendation from the MHRA is favourable and agrees with the evidence about poppers to date, the ACMD will then be consulted. Why does the Home Secretary prefer a different set of scientists and clinicians from her own? Perhaps the Minister could provide some clarity on that.
I am conscious that this is an intervention and not a speech. Later on, when I have a chance to respond to the debate in the tone that has been used throughout the passage of this Bill, the shadow Minister will be pleased to hear that the ACMD will start the process. That is something that I have initiated in the past couple of days.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and, yes, I do agree with him. Despite this seemingly welcome movement by the Home Secretary, I am still minded to vote this afternoon to place poppers on the exempt list. I will do so, because I am fearful that placing a ban on such substances will push their use underground and away from the regulatory controls that currently exist. In short, we may do more harm by that action. If, after a review and further evidence, it is proven that poppers are harmful and that, on balance, a ban would be appropriate, Labour Members will willingly review and test the evidence and, if the case is proven, support a ban on these substances.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s approach to this matter, as it makes a lot of sense. The Government’s approach could create uncertainty and send out mixed messages not just to the gay community, but to the population at large.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Let us look at the context and the evidence. Poppers have been used recreationally in Britain for more than 30 years, and, in all that time, no Government—not one—have sought to ban them. The word “poppers” is used to describe a group of different chemical compounds, some of which carry more potential harms than others. They are a popular substance in some sections of the gay community because, I am told, they enhance sexual experience. The National AIDS Trust argues that amyl nitrite and butyl nitrite are relatively rare in Britain because they are regulated by the Medicines Act 1968 and by EU law. As a result of that regulatory regime, the most common compound of poppers in the UK is isopropyl nitrite, which is weaker and does not pose a significant health risk.
I am glad that the hon. Lady has mentioned the National AIDS Trust. I have read its briefing on this matter today. Poppers have been around for a long time, but they are not controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act. That is not because they are not harmless, but because they do not meet the very high threshold of that Act. We are debating this Bill now on the Floor of the House of Commons. If we are to bring in a blanket ban, which we have a successful manifesto commitment to do, we should understand that this is a psychoactive substance. Surely the Minister’s response to the Home Affairs Committee report suggests that he will do the research. As she knows, there is provision in clause 3 to enable something to be added to a schedule. Surely, therefore, we are doing this the right way round.
I do not think that we should be doing this the other way round. I will explain why as I go along. My feeling is that this Bill should be about harms. Poppers have not been controlled by any Government. They have been around for decades—I think they were created in the late 19th century. I understand that they were used by some Ministers to keep them going at the Dispatch Box, and that they were prescribed at the time by their doctors. The reality is that if we ban poppers now and then unban them in four months’ time, it would create confusion. It would be better to allow the current situation to continue. If the test of significant harm is proved, then we should ban them and take them off the exempt list. We will not have created any underground laboratories that make synthetic poppers and then sell them in nightclubs. We will not be causing the harm that we would if we did not put them on the exempt list today.
I wish to express a view that is opposite to that of my hon. Friend Steve Brine. The simple truth is that if we ban something and then take it back again later, we bring the law into disrepute. There is nobody in this House who is fiercer than I am in terms of banning inappropriate substances, but this is the wrong way round. I agree with my hon. Friend Crispin Blunt that we should keep poppers off the banned list until we know the facts.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman.
In giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee Dr Owen Bowden-Jones, head clinician for the Club Drug Clinic, stated that
“as far as I can speak as a clinician, I do not think I have ever seen anybody come through”— our clinic
“with harms related to poppers.”
Professor Iversen of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs said that he had not seen sufficient scientific evidence of harm in the case of poppers to justify a recommendation under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and that he was not aware of any growth in the use of poppers in the UK.
Just to be fair-minded, while I also share concerns about poppers not being on the exempt list, I wish to make the point that Dr Owen Bowden-Jones also went on to say that there are associated harms. For example, we are now getting a link between poppers and eye damage. Again, this is very unpredictable. Perhaps the Government could respond to that.
Genuinely, if the evidence changes and we can see that there are significant harms, we should ban poppers. This is a bit like alcohol: when it is used excessively, it causes massive harm. As I understand it, the way that poppers are generally used, they do not create the kinds of harms that would require us to ban them. We genuinely believe that to ban them would cause more harm than it would solve.
Will my hon. Friend challenge the popular myth that, by banning a drug, we reduce its use? That has virtually never happened, and almost every time a previously legal substance is banned, its use increases. That happened with mephedrone and its use increased 300%. It is a complete myth to say that banning a drug will have such effect. What it is likely to do is replace a legal market with a criminal market, which is infinitely more harmful.
I agree that if we do not place poppers on the exempt list today, we are likely to replace a regulated market with a criminal market, which is in no one’s interest.
The situation is worse than that set out by my hon. Friend Paul Flynn. What is likely to happen if we make poppers illegal is that a gay man who uses poppers to enhance sexual pleasure may well be tempted to go on the black market and use a Class A or Class B drug, which would increase the risk of unprotected sex and, as a consequence, sexually transmitted infections.
I apologise to the hon. Lady for intervening a second time, but I just want to ensure that we get the reference point for harm clear. I know almost as little about poppers as she does—I spent this morning reading about them on the web. They can sometimes cause fainting and minor cases of blood damage. Paracetamol can cause damage; it can be used for suicide. Aspirin can cause damage; one can die from duodenal bleeding as a result. Let us be clear about what damage means. On the face of it, poppers do not appear to be harmful drugs.
Again, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The Home Affairs Committee concluded that poppers ought to be exempt from the ban. I hope that the Committee’s Chair, who has been in his place for most of the debate, will inform the House of his views on the Home Secretary’s response to his Committee’s recommendations, because I will be listening with great interest.
Poppers are not a new drug that has recently appeared on the market and that we know nothing about. As I have said, they were first created in the 19th century, so they are not a new chemical compound that has been synthetically produced to mimic the effects of already banned substances. There is a good argument to be made that poppers are not only relatively harmless, but are not the sort of “new” psychoactive substance that the Bill is intended to deal with.
We feel that a ban on poppers, even for a short period, would in fact bring about harms; it would take the sale of poppers out of this successful regulatory regime and users might end up being pushed underground, where unscrupulous and unregulated sellers, who are in it for the profit, are more likely to provide harmful compounds and possibly drive users towards harder and more harmful drugs. If it is likely that the review will take between four and six months—it might be even longer—that means four to six months of confusion, potential prosecutions and a real danger of under-the-counter sales of poppers that will not be subject to the same regulation. Even a temporary ban would create a real danger of harm. Will the Minister therefore consider a temporary exemption for poppers until the MHRA and the ACMD report back?
I understand that the Government have told the National AIDS Trust that the fear that I have outlined is unfounded, as a similar ban in Ireland has not led to an increase in popper-related harms. However, the National AIDS Trust has been informed by the gay men’s health service in Ireland’s Health Service Executive that poppers are still openly sold in Ireland’s sex shops and saunas, effectively placing poppers on the exemption list. If that is the case, we would not expect to see any harms associated with pushing popper use underground in Ireland, because the poppers market is still, in effect, out in the open. It therefore cannot be inferred from the situation in Ireland that there would be no health harms as a result of a ban on poppers here in the UK.
Additionally, I fear that including poppers in the ban might undermine the Bill and make it far more difficult to get across the vital message that psychoactive substances can be, and often are, very dangerous. There is a risk that the Bill will become synonymous with a ban on poppers, a substance that is thought to be relatively harmless, and that as a result the public will come to believe that all the substances banned by the Bill are relatively harmless. That would be an absolute disaster, and it would completely undermine the important work that the Bill is seeking to do.
Finally, given that poppers are widely used but relatively harmless, we fear that enforcing a ban would waste scarce police resources. Enforcing this legislation will be difficult enough without disproportionate police time being spent on enforcing a ban on a relatively harmless drug. If in future any evidence to the contrary is produced, then poppers should be removed from the exempted list or controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
The Minister said in Committee that it would be sensible for the Government to take stock of the evidence presented about poppers so that the House could decide on Report. I urge him to place poppers on the exempt list until the MHRA and the ACMD have considered the evidence and reported back. I will be listening intently to what he has to say.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Before calling the next Member to speak, I point out that we have about two hours remaining, which means another hour and a half on this group of amendments, with a large number of Members wishing to speak. I would be grateful if Members kept their remarks as short as possible so that we can get everyone in.
Amendment 1, which stands in my name, is a probing amendment, as I wish to ascertain the Government’s position on a number of products marketed by a constituent of mine through an online marketing company called Focus Supplements. Several weeks ago he came into my constituency surgery. He was very concerned that the products he sells, quite legally—they are effectively health supplements used for various reasons, which I will talk about later—might fall within the ambit of the Bill.
I want to ensure that the Minister and the Department know that there are substances out there that are being marketed by perfectly honest, decent and legal companies, such as Holland & Barrett, and indeed on eBay, that might fall within the ambit of the Bill. It might criminalise substances that are perfectly innocuous, and indeed that are in some demand. I have no personal experience of those products, and I am very supportive of this Bill, so make no mistake that I would not have tabled the amendment or asked for clarification from the Minister if I thought that the substances I have listed would lead to any harm. The purpose of my amendment is to see whether those substances might fall foul of the Bill, and indeed whether clause 3, which has already been discussed, can be fleshed out at this stage, as that would help people listening to the debate.
Many of these products are used by people to combat anxiety, to aid sleep, to enhance memory and learning and to improve focus, and as such they are used as dietary supplements. Cholinergics increase choline in the brain and contain a substance that is found naturally in many foods—foods rich in choline include smoked salmon, fried eggs, chicken livers and Brussels sprouts. Indeed, there are recommendations in some health regimes around the world that people should take a certain level of choline every day in their diet.
Racetams—I hope I am pronouncing these correctly—are sometimes called nootropics. They can in some cases improve one or more functions of the brain. They can improve working memory, motivation or even attention—perhaps Members of this House should take such supplements to improve their attention in some debates. Various products are listed in the amendment as miscellaneous. Oxitriptan, a precursor for serotonin, is sold in health shops such as Holland & Barrett. L-Theanine is found in green tea and is available from companies such as Nature’s Best. Tongkat Ali is available from various health shops. Resveratol, I am reliably informed, is an excellent substance that is found in red wine. Sulbutiamine is two thiamine—vitamin B1—molecules.
When my constituent, Jack Baldwin, met the MHRA, it indicated it was perfectly legal for him to sell those products, but it stressed it was important that no medicinal claims was made for them. Indeed, in many other countries, including the USA, none of the substances listed in amendment 1 are controlled substances and it is perfectly legal to use, own and sell all of them. One of the problems with a lot of these products is that they are relatively young—only 10 years old in some cases. Although many have been subject to studies at academic level, they have not gone through the rigorous testing that medicinal drugs would necessarily go through. Nevertheless, they do not seem to be the sort of products that this Government or this Minister are seeking to ban.
My right hon. Friend is exactly right, for two reasons. First, many fitness supplements and other supplements work through the brain. There is no doubt about that—growth hormone-related ones do, and benign things like sage oil do. The other problem she faces is in the definition in the explanatory notes, which says that a psychoactive substance is a substance that causes
“a range of effects including, but not limited to hallucinations; changes in alertness, perception of time and space, mood or empathy with others; and drowsiness.”
All of those could apply to everything from antihistamines to, as I say, something as benign as sage oil. The problem is that if we are not careful we will end up with bad law that will undermine the status of people such as her constituent.
I could not put it better myself. That is what concerns me about the Bill. The point was made that if this is seen to be a blanket ban—and a stupid ban because it bans perfectly innocuous substances—that will undermine the very purpose for which the law is being passed.
Does not the right hon. Lady think that if we treat these nootropic drugs differently from all the other new psychoactive drugs, there is a danger that we give them some credibility or approval? There has been some research into their harm, or otherwise. The trials have been poorly designed, and they have not found any great dangers in them, but they would not be accepted as being right for a medicinal drug. I understand her constituent’s commercial interest, but would it not be dangerous to treat this group the same as any other and thereby give the public the impression that they are harmless, because we do not know that?
I do not think that putting them on the exempted list means that anybody should draw the conclusion that they are harmless. They obviously have an effect of some sort on individuals; otherwise, my constituent would not have, as he reports to me, 32% repeat orders for many of these substances. I take the hon.
Gentleman’s point. However, in relation to cholinergics, the National Academy of Sciences has said that choline is a dietary requirement, as I mentioned, and the Food and Drug Administration has recommended 425 milligrams of choline intake a day. With regard to racetams, oxiracetam, for example, has been shown to improve step-down, retention and acquisition performance in research carried out on rats, I believe, and was supported in a paper in “Behavioural Brain Research” in 1996. I have various other references citing good research carried out into these drugs; some, I admit, have not had so much research into them.
The purpose of amendment 1 is to make sure that the law of unintended consequences does not apply to this Bill. The Minister needs to reassure my constituent, and the many organisations such as online companies and health food shops that sell these substances, that either they do not fall within the ambit of this Bill, and that therefore they need not concern themselves about falling foul of it, or, if he thinks that these substances need more research, to tell us what needs to be done. I expect, at the bare minimum, that he will undertake to review the products that I have listed in the amendment and to let us know, after discussions with the ACMD, what he intends to do. I hope that he will be able either to add these products to the exempted list or to let us know that the Bill does not apply to them. If it does not, he needs to reassure my constituent by letting me know the timescales within which he will investigate these products and perhaps others that might be brought to his attention.
It is a pleasure to follow Mrs Gillan, who is one of the most distinguished and respected Members of this House, and makes her case very powerfully. I owe her an apology. Because of the speed with which the Home Affairs Committee had to look at the Bill, owing to the timetable that the Government gave us, we did not have the opportunity to explore properly the points she has made or to take evidence from her constituent and others who might have felt that they were going to be affected by it. If we had had more time, we certainly would have had them before us. I am sure that, as is our policy, when we come to review this Bill in a few months’ time we will have the opportunity to consider exactly what its effect has been. I thank her for tabling the amendment and for reminding the House of the importance of all the other products that might be caught by the Bill.
I want to commend the Minister, who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite Home Office Ministers, partly because he agreed to be Father Christmas at the Westminster kids club party, and did it so well, but also because he is prepared to listen to the House. He said he would look at the work of the Select Committee and try to reflect some of it in the amendments he tabled in Committee, and he did so in the case of many of our recommendations. Yesterday he sent me—I thank him for giving me plenty of time to read it for today’s debate—the Government’s response to the Bill’s Committee stage and to our recommendations.
I thank Mr Burrowes for last year pushing the Select Committee to hold an inquiry before the House had to consider the Bill on Second Reading. Again, we were caught out by the Government’s timetable being moved forward, as a result of which we did not have all the time in the world to consider these things. However, I thank him for doing it. I thank members of the Bill Committee, some of whom are here today, for the work they did at very short notice to ensure that that happened. Victoria Atkins attended many of the Committee’s sittings despite the fact that she was serving on two other Committees at the same time.
The Government have moved on several of the points that we have made. They were right to legislate—there is no question about that. This has been in the in-tray of successive Home Office Ministers for a number of years. The previous Labour Government were committed to doing something about it—it was in our manifesto, as our excellent shadow Home Office Minister said—and I am sure that if the votes had fallen in the opposite direction, we would have a Labour Minister introducing a similar Bill. I therefore say well done to the Minister for doing this and for incorporating most of what we have suggested.
I particularly want to talk about amendments 1 and 5. It is very important that we give support to voluntary organisations such as the Angelus Foundation, which invariably know more than Government, because they draw on the experience of real, live people, and they are prepared to come together voluntarily to try to warn the public and Parliament about the risks of these substances. I am glad that we are not using the term “legal highs” any more, because, as the report clearly says, that encourages people to want to try them.
I agree very much with the shadow Minister’s comments about education, which I am sure the Minister will echo. We cannot do too much to persuade young people that they should not be taking these substances. My children are 20 and 18, and they are away at university. It is every parent’s nightmare that one of their children, on a night out after studying and doing their work, will be offered a substance that is perfectly legal, take it, and then be ill and, in some cases, die. The Home Affairs Committee therefore absolutely support the Government’s tough approach.
My right hon. Friend says that the name “legal highs” attracts people to the drugs. Does he not think that if we change their name to “illegal highs”, they will become even more attractive to adolescents?
They may well do, but we are not going to call them “illegal highs”. The Bill does not seek to change their name. The effect of the Bill is to ban the substances that cause death. It is not about relabelling. I have great respect for my hon. Friend, who was a distinguished member of the Home Affairs Committee. I know that his position is to liberalise the law on drugs, but that is not my position and nor is it that of the Committee. Although we miss him, and I know he would have forced most of our reports to a vote, we do not miss him that much.
If I get called, I will speak in support of the right hon. Gentleman’s excellent Committee’s report. It is every parent’s nightmare that their child should die of drugs. Whether they are legal or not is neither here nor there. If we legislate in a way that makes the use of illegal drugs more likely, which is what will happen if amendment 5 is not carried, we will not be serving our children and others.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and he brings me on to the issue of alkyl nitrites. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Lyn Brown, has said—this was a bit of shock for me after 28 years in this House—that Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box having had poppers. I think that is what she said and it was a great surprise to the House. She obviously knows more than I do about such issues, even though she claims that she knew nothing about drugs until she became the shadow Minister with responsibility for drugs.
I thank my hon. Friend for that information. I wonder whether they are still in use around the Cabinet table.
“We accept the evidence given by Professor Iversen, the National Aids Trust, and the Gay Men’s Health Collective on alkyl nitrites”.
Professor Iversen said that they were
“not seen to be capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a societal problem”,
and therefore we recommended, unanimously, that they should not be banned. We said that if the Government were to present evidence that changed that position and our view, they should, of course, be added to the list of banned substances. Indeed, the report states:
“If in the future there is any evidence produced to the contrary, then ‘poppers’ should be removed from the exempted list or controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.”
As a result of the immensely able work of Mike Freer, the Minister wrote to me last night proposing that a review should begin. He felt that there should still be a case for putting poppers on the banned list, but that if the evidence changed he would come back to the House, or by some other order, and put them on the exempted list. I think that that approach is the wrong way around.
The shadow Minister has asked me for my view and I have listened to Steve Brine, who I know also has constituents who are very concerned about drugs issues. The Committee, which also addressed the banning of laughing gas, does not believe that this particular case has been made. This is my personal view and other Committee members can, of course, say what they want, but when we considered the issue and voted unanimously on it, we did not consider poppers to be harmful.
The Minister wrote back to us and told us that poppers are beneficial, as if in some cases they may well be mandatory. He wrote that
“the Government recognises that representations have been made to the effect that ‘poppers’ have a beneficial health and relationship effect in enabling anal sex for some men who have sex with men, amid concern about the impact of the ban on these men. In consultation with the Department of Health and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the Home Office will now consider whether there is evidence to support these claims and, if so, whether it is sufficient to justify exempting the alkyl nitrites group (or individual substances in the group).”
Although I welcome that approach—it is a really positive step forward—it is actually the wrong way around. A better course of action would be to put alkyl nitrites on the exempted list, conduct the review and then come back to the House or by order and change the position. It is what we like to call evidence-based decision making. That is what we have said consistently over the eight years I have chaired the Home Affairs Committee.
There is a lot of emotion out there about drugs, and a lot of people have great concerns. Some, such as my hon. Friend Paul Flynn, are passionately in favour of liberalisation, while others have a different position, but why take a position of banning and then unbanning? That affects the huge authority that the Government have in respect of this very important Bill. The Minister has the whole House with him on it. I doubt we are going to divide on many issues, which is pretty rare for Home Office Bills. I am trying to think of another Bill where that has happened. There is always a division of some kind, but why divide the House on this issue when there is no reason to do so?
I call on the Minister to accept amendment 5, or to not oppose it, and to let us move forward constructively. He could have his review, come back and then everyone in this House will accept what the experts say. Without equivocation, I give him a guarantee that if the review decides that poppers are harmful, I will be the first in the Division Lobby with him, supporting that view. But to ban and then unban sends a powerful message to a section of our community that they are not being listened to, and to experts who have given evidence to us that they are wrong.
I urge the Minister, even at this late stage—as I have said, he is a Minister who listens to the House, the Home Affairs Committee and individual views—to look at the issue again and ensure that alkyl nitrites are put on the exempted list until his review is concluded.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Quite a large number of Members still want to speak. At this rate, if Members go over 10 minutes we will not manage to get everybody in. I cannot impose a time limit, but if Members are brief we can get everyone in.
I will be very brief, Madam Deputy Speaker.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I agree with nearly every part of his argument and I certainly agree with the conclusions of the Committee’s report. I commend every Member who took part in its deliberations. I want to leave enough time for my hon. Friend Mike Freer to speak, because he has been fighting a battle behind the scenes to ensure that this Bill does not do anything really daft.
Sometimes a measure is proposed that becomes personal to oneself and one realises that the Government are about to do something fantastically stupid. In such circumstances, one has a duty to speak up. I use poppers—I out myself as a popper user—and would be directly affected by the Bill. I am astonished by the proposal to ban them, as are very many other gay men. It simply serves to bring the whole law into disrepute. If this drug—which I use and which has, as the Opposition spokesman, Lyn Brown, said in her extremely good speech, been used for decades—is banned, respect for the law will fly out of the window.
All the effects warned about in paragraph 43 of the Home Affairs Committee’s report—in particular, the Gay Men’s Health Collective warns that a ban would result in increased class A and B drug use and increased transmission of sexually transmitted infections—will obviously happen. Driving the supply underground will simply put the trade in the hands of criminals.
It is right to focus on supply, which is the focus of the Bill. It is important to give the clear message that the Bill will not ban use, but supply: it will not ban the continued personal use of poppers, but it will ban their supply.
The issues are complicated. There are controls on alkyl nitrites in that the sale of poppers to under-18s is caught by the Intoxicating Substances (Supply) Act 1985. There is a wider debate about whether that is a proportionate response for under-18s. However, there are already controls on supplying under-18s. We need to be aware that this is a complicated area of law, beyond the issues relating to psychoactive substances.
I know that my hon. Friend has done a significant amount of work on this and that he, too, has been trying to use his influence in the right direction. He kindly sent me a message saying that he has been working to make sure that we do not do something really daft on this issue. He is, of course, loyal to Conservative Front Benchers, as am I—or I try to be—but we may differ on how to influence them. I will not be party to something that I know is, frankly, really foolish by voting for such a piece of public policy.
The issue is about supply. The policy might put someone like me into the hands of criminals if he wanted to get a supply of something that he used to think was perfectly okay. Under legislation that I think is absurd, someone like me—obviously not me, because I will, of course, respect the law of the land—might be so minded, and would then find himself in the hands of those who supply everything with which they might conceivably tempt people.
It is manifestly stupid to go down the path we are going down. Let us get the evidence; if the Government then come forward with a case that convinces the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and his colleagues, we can then discuss the issue in due course. Please let us not have a ban.
Supply does seem to me to be a very grey area. I understand that the policy is not intended to victimise current users, but it puts them in a position—dealing with a criminal—in which they might be susceptible to blackmail if they are a public figure. It seems to me that it will criminalise people whom it does not intend to criminalise.
Indeed. I suppose I have advertised the fact that I may be vulnerable to that. I therefore plead with the House to make sure that I do not find myself caught in this particular situation. Given that the issue relates to my personal experience, as well as to my experience as a Justice Minister with responsibility for offenders and offender management, I implore my colleagues at the very least, if they do not want to be seen voting against the Government, not to be associated with putting the Bill on the statute book. It is a real mistake, and it would be sensible to do anything possible to ensure that amendment 5 is accepted, with our looking at and considering the matter again in due course.
I am not alone in having a constituency that has been blighted by the use of legal highs. I do not like the term “legal highs” because, unfortunately, the very words attract young people to them. I have been concerned about that for a long time.
I commend the Government on introducing very strong legislation for us to consider in the House. The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Keith Vaz, referred to the Minister as his “favourite” Home Office Minister. When he brings such legislation before the House, the Minister is the favourite of many Members. My constituents will be grateful to him for the proposed changes. I am not at all in favour of liberalising drug use, so it is quite clear where I am coming from. I think the Government have the same stance, which I welcome.
I welcome that stance because, just last year in my constituency, we saw an example of the heartbreak, illness and trauma that results from legal highs. A young man, Adam Owens, a constituent of mine—I know his father and stepmother quite well—was found dead in the town of Newtownards in my constituency of Strangford as a result of his addiction to legal highs. The case shocked not just my constituency, but the whole Province. It left the family devastated, and they told me the very nature of their concerns. Adam’s step-mum Dawn said:
“Legal highs are a major problem around here and something has to be done about it.”
I welcome the fact that the Government are now doing something about it.
I want to make three quick points to the Minister, including about amendment 15, which refers to sentencing, and to provide some background. He will know about the legislative changes in the Republic of Ireland, mentioned by the shadow Minister, Lyn Brown. It brought in a ban on all legal highs, and the ban has been extraordinarily effective, according to the Irish police. Only five years ago, it was acceptable to have 100 so-called head shops selling legal highs, but that number has been reduced to zero.
However, the Republic of Ireland has very clearly stated that, even with its hard-line legislation, there is still an issue. I want to ask the Minister about that. A BBC investigation found that the Republic of Ireland’s drugs squad is unable to act against a new range of legal high-type drugs because of problems with the legislation. To bring a prosecution, police must prove scientifically that a substance has a psychoactive effect. So far, there have been only four successful prosecutions in five years. One of Ireland’s top drug squad officers, Detective Sergeant Tony Howard from the Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, has said:
“Unfortunately a prosecution cannot be taken.”
He outlined that that is the case, even with the tough legislation—the Bill mirrors that legislation—and it is therefore important to learn from the Irish system and not end up with a similarly ineffective approach, if that is what may happen.
I want there to be very clear definitions in the Bill. Has the Minister had discussions about that? I am aware that there were 26 attempts to deliver drugs via drones to prisons in England and Wales in the first 10 months of 2015. Insiders claim that intelligence reports suggest the number could be eight times higher. The legislation is great, but it will work only if every other Department does its bit as well. Will he respond on that point?
I am very conscious that you have set us a timescale, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I will keep to it. This is my last point. The shadow Minister said that although it is good to have the legislation, people can still purchase drugs, legal highs and the like online. Many of us feel that the legislation will be strong, which is exactly what we want, and I thank the Government for that. What my constituents and people from across the whole of Northern Ireland want is to ensure that local councils and police can stop the manufacture and sale of such products.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in Ireland, after the introduction of legislation very similar to the Bill, not only did every one of the 102 head shops close, but no Irish domain websites now sell such substances? We obviously hope that there will be the same effect in England and Wales.
I mentioned the closure of the head shops, which is really good news—good stuff. I also referred to the detective sergeant in the Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau. He outlined an issue that the Irish are now trying to address. It is good to be able to refer to other examples of hard and fast legislative change to address such issues. In the Republic of Ireland, they have been partially successful in relation to online sales—they are almost there—but we must also do that.
I commend the Minister and the Government on what they have introduced. This is the sort of legislation that I and my constituents, as well as people from across the whole of Northern Ireland, want. I look forward to supporting the Minister when it comes to a vote—if it comes to a vote.
I thank the shadow Minister for a balanced speech that contained some well-judged comments. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for his courtesy when I took a delegation to him from the National AIDS Trust, Stonewall, Millivres Prowler and Boyz magazine to discuss this topic.
It is clear not just from this debate, but from the debate that has been raging in the gay press over the past few months, that there is considerable concern over the need to ban poppers. What has come to the fore over the past few months while I have been working on the topic is the complete lack of empirical data one way or the other. I appreciate that the Home Office believes—I have no reason to think that this belief is not genuine—that deaths have occurred from the use of poppers. However, that evidence has never been forthcoming.
I therefore decided to do a bit of research of my own. I would like to draw attention to some American research, particularly that of Dr Thomas Hall of the University of California in Los Angeles, who gave evidence to the Gay Times for a report on the effects of isopropyl nitrite. I will not quote the whole document, you will be pleased to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, but he said:
“There is very little specific research on the health effects of alkyl nitrites other than amyl nitrite.”
He went on to say:
“My summary statement would be that in the grand scheme of drugs of abuse, the risks from nitrite poppers are fairly benign… Isopropyl nitrite and other nitrite poppers appear to be far less harmful to the body in general than chronic alcohol consumption.”
I then looked at The New England Journal of Medicine, which stated in 2010:
“To our knowledge, over the past 10 years, there have been only two case reports of visual loss after inhalation of poppers, and the anatomical basis of this injury remains elusive.”
Finally on medical research, I turned to the US Department of Health and Human Services report of January 2014. It stated:
“To date, use of alkyl nitrites as a psychoactive substance among MSM”— men who have sex with men—
“has received little attention in addiction textbooks, where they are subsumed among other inhalants.”
We have heard about that today. The report continues:
“This is unfortunate, because lumping these disparate agents together based on mode of administration”— that is, inhalation—
“obscures substantial differences in both mechanism and typical risk between alkyl nitrites, which act on a specific…pathway, and inhaled solvents and propellants” that have other effects. That is about the sum of the medical evidence that I could find.
“not seen to be capable of having harmful effects”.
There has been talk of a medicinal benefit to poppers, which I thought was an interesting turn of phrase until I received an email. I have to bow to the knowledge of our SNP colleagues, because it was from a gentleman from Croy in Inverness. He said: “Alkyl nitrites are carried, used and, when the need arises, shared by many people who work in the countryside as the first line of treatment if one is bitten by an adder.”
I confess that adders are not common in Finchley and Golders Green. Mr Joyce of Croy went on to say:
“A substantial number of people are bitten each year in Britain and the bite is rarely fatal, but whether that is because the venom is not particularly powerful against modern healthy humans or because treatment, with Alkyl nitrite or one of the eight known anti-venoms, is almost always administered very quickly is a question that is open to debate.”
That email shows that there is a conflict between the views that are held and what limited information and fact are out there in the public domain.
I support the view that there is a need to provide up-to-date empirical evidence. There also needs to be proportionality. Everything that we do carries a risk, whether it is smoking or anything else. If one drinks bleach, one will be harmed, but we are not proposing to ban bleach. When we seek to control, regulate or ban anything, we must deal with it in the round and consider the proportionality of doing so.
I welcome the response to the Home Affairs Committee report, because it states that an investigation will be under way shortly into the impact of the ban on the relationships of gay men and women. I am told that this issue affects not just gay men, but gay women. The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, whom I would like to call my right hon. Friend, talked about anal sex. That is quite a crude way of saying that poppers can facilitate sex, through the relaxation of muscles. However, this is not just about the physical side of a relationship. If people want their relationship to be as intimate as possible and poppers facilitate that, they are an important element in the emotional wellbeing of that couple. Therefore, if we are talking about the medicinal benefits, we have to include the emotional and mental health benefits that the use of poppers in a relationship can bring.
When we are talking about risks—I have mentioned proportionality—it is important that we do not start banning things on the basis of one or two incidents. There has to be a significant risk of significant harm to a significant number of people, otherwise we would be banning cigarettes and alcohol tomorrow.
I say to the Minister that the investigation and report must be as open and transparent as possible. I ask him to give an assurance when he responds that evidence will be taken not just from organisations such as Public Health England, elements of the NHS and the ACMD, but organisations such as the National AIDS Trust, the Terrence Higgins Trust and Stonewall. It should also be taken from organisations such as Millivres Prowler, which I believe is the largest retailer of poppers in the UK, because it has a strong, relevant and up-to-date evidence bank of how poppers are used and how they are sold. Because it is a reputable retailer, it also has an enormous amount of data on the illegal import of the more dangerous poppers that are coming in through the internet. I hope that the Minister will also say that evidence will be taken from the international bodies, a few of which I mentioned earlier, that have done medical research into the benefits or disbenefits of the use of poppers.
Finally, if the Home Office decides that there is a risk that needs to be mitigated, but that an outright ban is not necessary, I urge it to consider licensing poppers for sale through sex shops. That would allow some level of control, regulation and protection, without the need for an outright ban, which might lead people to be exposed to all sorts of underground drugs.
There is a lot of work to be done. I welcome the swift action of Keith Vaz. Members might think that my conclusion will be that I will support Opposition amendment 5, and I have to say that the Opposition have spoken a lot of sense. However, I will support the Government because
I want an exemption based on empirical evidence. If poppers are exempted by the summer recess, as outlined in the response to the Home Affairs Committee report, that exemption could not be easily overturned on the whim of a future Home Office Minister, because it would be based on empirical evidence, whatever it says. On that basis, I will support the Government on this issue.
Oh, I am speaking to them and not begging at all. I wish to speak to the amendments that stand in my name, amendments 12, 13, 14, 15 and—along with Labour colleagues—amendment 5.
We support the aims of the Bill to protect public health and to go after the big guys—the ones who are making a profit out of other people’s endangerment—rather than going after the individuals who decide to try these substances for whatever reason. In that respect, however, I do not think that we are quite there yet, which is why we have tabled our amendments.
Before I speak to our amendments, I would like to make a plea that I made in a previous debate about the language that we use and the names that people give to these new psychoactive substances. The products have names that are given to them by marketeers to make them sound bold and exciting, and I always say that I will not use those names. We should call them exactly what they are, and I notice that that has been happening much more in the debate today.
Amendment 12 deals with the definition of the term “psychoactive substance”. As I have said, we welcome the broader public health aims of the Bill, and the Scottish Government have worked hard with the Government down here to ensure that the measures are proportionate, workable and based on the best available advice. The best advice we have comes from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which made it clear in its submission that the definitions at the heart of the Bill required further detail. The Home Affairs Select Committee also recommended that the Government should reconsider the definitions.
The Government seem to be coming at this from a different angle and going against the grain of scientific advice. We have therefore tabled amendment 12 to encourage the Government to be more specific with their definitions. If I were to ask a member of the public what they considered to be a legal high, they would generally define it not by its chemical family or by the fact that it was in itself psychoactive, but by the similarity of its effect to that of substances that are already prohibited under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The amendment would ensure that this commonly held way of defining a legal high was similar to that in the legislation. That would improve public understanding and acceptance of these measures.
The other important aspect of the amendment is that it would tie the legislation firmly to the questions of public health and the threat of harm. The Bill as it stands is an extremely broad measure, and while it is the Government’s intention to cover all psychoactive substances, old or new, synthetic or natural, it is surely a good principle when legislating to be clear about the threat that we are legislating to tackle. We should be tackling the effects of psychoactive substances on the individual and the threat to broader public health, not the fact that the entity itself is mildly psychoactive.
We have also tabled amendment 13. The Scottish National party has welcomed the Government’s move towards criminalising supply and not necessarily criminalising possession, but we have tabled the amendment to try to prevent the counterproductive criminalisation of young people who purchase a psychoactive substance together, with one of them placing the order using money from the wider group. At that moment, that individual would be at risk of being criminalised for supplying a psychoactive substance. However, the effects on public health—and indeed on the group members’ finances— are indistinguishable from the effects had they all purchased the substance individually.
I am sure that the hon. Lady knows that the situation she has just described in which youths place an order with a dealer and then distribute the substance among their friends is entirely consistent with the law as set out in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The message is that if you buy the drug and then distribute it, you are a supplier in the eyes of the law. I would be interested to know why she thinks there should be a distinction between these substances and the more serious drugs that are dealt with under the 1971 Act. Surely we are still trying to achieve the same aim: to stop the supply of harmful substances.
My understanding was that we were trying not to mirror the Misuse of Drugs Act. We have moved on, and this Bill is not about criminalising individuals for possession, as they can be under the Act. The Bill does not have to mirror the Act exactly. The key issue is the effect that criminalising a young person for a foolish mistake can have on their life chances. Drugs blight enough lives already—that is certainly the case in my constituency—and we do not need to penalise someone who is acting on behalf of his or her peer group, a small group of friends, without any financial motive. These young people are not drug suppliers. Obviously, we might question the sense of their decision to buy drugs, but it should not be a criminal offence. A young person could be pressurised by their peer group to purchase these substances, and they might do so in order to gain the recognition of their peers, but if they were caught they could end up with a substantial criminal conviction.
Surely the point is to introduce clarity to the young people that the hon. Lady is describing. Ecstasy is a class A drug, and if a young person buys it, they risk going to prison for a very long time if they are prosecuted and convicted. If a young person buys one of these new psychoactive substances that is minimally different from MDMA, and the dealers get round the problem by saying that it is just a little bit different from ecstasy and therefore does not fall under the 1971 Act, that young person could be placed in a very difficult position. They would have to be a scientist to know the difference between the two substances. My question is: should we not be encouraging clarity to distinguish between those drugs, to enable young people to know that they should not be buying those substances and distributing them?
I am not arguing that we should not be discouraging young people in that way. I am arguing that if someone buys these substances for themselves and a couple of friends, we should not criminalise them as though they were drug dealers when they clearly are not. I worry that, further down the line, Members of this House will be contacted by the parents of someone who has foolishly purchased such a substance on behalf of himself and one or two friends and has been convicted of supplying drugs. That young person’s life chances would be greatly diminished. Of course we hope they will be discouraged by our telling them what will happen to them if they make these purchases, but I certainly do not think we should punish them and label them as a drug dealer for stupidly buying stuff for their friends. On the whole, people pass a strong moral judgment on anyone with any kind of a conviction relating to drugs, but an even stronger judgment is passed on anyone convicted of supplying drugs. We are talking about a young person getting these substances for himself and his friends, not a young person who has become a drug dealer, yet that is what the conviction would be for.
Following the arguments being put forward from the other side, does the hon. Lady agree that the two most deadly drugs, which are taken by millions of people in this country and which cause addiction and a huge number of deaths, are tobacco and alcohol? Has she contemplated the effects that banning those two drugs would have throughout the world?
The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to disagree about the considerable harm that tobacco and alcohol can cause, but today we are talking about new psychoactive substances. I take his point, but it is important to carry on discussing what we have come here to discuss.
Any Member in the Chamber today who has children could face a situation in which their child was silly enough, along with some friends, to experiment with some currently legal highs. They might be fortunate enough not to be damaged physically or mentally by their experience, but they could still be convicted of a drug dealing offence just for stupidly experimenting.
Amendment 14 deals with the question of internet purchases. It seeks to highlight the fact that the Government are criminalising the use of drugs for personal consumption that have been purchased over the internet and that are then shipped into the UK for use by an individual. The Government suggest that they are moving forward and that they are not seeking to criminalise individuals unnecessarily. Indeed, the Bill indicates that those who purchase in other ways will not be committing a criminal offence. However, this part of the Bill will still unnecessarily criminalise people.
I would strongly prefer law enforcement agencies to use their time and effort to prevent the large-scale importation of psychoactive substances for distribution in the UK, rather than concerning themselves with the purchase of these substances for personal use by one individual. In a previous debate on the Bill, the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice stated:
“The spirit of the Bill is that we do not want to criminalise individuals for possession, but we are going to criminalise the sale and purchase of these substances.”
We asked for further clarification, and he said:
“I apologise: I kind of misled the House unintentionally on individual possession. I was talking about intent to supply, not intent to use. Making a purchase from a foreign website would be caught, but the purchase on its own from a website or foreign website would not, and I apologise if I misled the House on that point.”
“the person intentionally imports a substance,” and
“the person…intends to consume the psychoactive substance for its psychoactive effects”.
He went on to say:
“It seems to me that if someone imports and possesses even a small amount of the substance over the internet he is criminalised, but if he bought it in a head shop, for example— in this case the head shops would be gone, so if bought in the street—
“he would not be criminalised, which seems to be a strange provision.”
The Minister’s response was:
“That is not the Bill’s intention. As we go through the Bill in Committee we will endeavour to iron out those concerns.”—[Official Report,
I was unable to be on the Committee as I was serving on another Bill Committee but I can read Hansard, I have hon. Friends who served on that Committee and I know that in Committee the Minister voluntarily offered this statement:
“Possession in a club would not be an offence; indeed, possession is not an offence under any part of the legislation, unless in a secure facility. It is important to send that message out.”––[Official Report, Psychoactive Substances Public Bill Committee,
I would like some clarity from the Minister on that.
How much longer have I got, Madam Deputy Speaker?
There are no time limits in this debate but many Members want to speak and the list is getting longer and longer, so the longer the hon. Lady speaks, the less others will have a chance to do so.
I will move on, then. I will take out all my killer arguments and bring them up when the Minister is summing up.
I shall make one more point, which is about purchasing online. If we are saying that it is not a criminal offence to purchase down a dark alley, which is where people would have to purchase if they intended to purchase these psychoactive substances, but it is a criminal offence to do so over the internet, we will end up with a situation where two people, brother and sister, could try to do exactly the same thing, and one of them would be a criminal but the other would not. Which of them, the boy or the girl, is most likely to be gung-ho enough to meet a criminal drug dealer down a back alley? It is far more likely that women are going to be criminalised because they are less likely to want to go and meet the drug dealer in person.
Amendment 15 proposes sentencing commensurate with the potential harm done by the substance involved. In Committee the Minister said that he supported the principle behind the amendment, so we should like to hear where he stands on it today.
On poppers, I am proud that the SNP championed this from the start. It was great to hear so many passionate speeches of support from both sides of the House, so I shall say nothing further and let someone else speak.
I shall speak to new clause 3. First, though, I welcome the constructive approach taken by my right hon. Friend the Minister to engaging with Members on all sides of the House during the passage of the Bill—a constructive engagement which, I believe, has enhanced the positive aspects of the Bill. I am pleased that the broad consensus across the House is that this is an important piece of legislation about public protection.
What we have heard clearly today is a call for evidence-based policy making. That has been echoed in a number of contributions on different amendments and new clauses, and we should all sign up to that. In that spirit, I tabled the new clause primarily as a probing amendment to examine and draw out the Minister’s comments on an increasingly confused law in respect of the medicinal use of cannabis. The existing law is an impediment to research into the effects of cannabis on mental health and general research on the medicinal benefits of cannabis and cannabis derivatives.
I support my hon. Friend. Does he agree that the momentum is with his case? The all-party group on drug policy reform hopes to conduct an inquiry shortly into the medicinal use of cannabis. Its results will be interesting in the context of that evidence base.
My hon. Friend is right.
I shall speak, first, about the barriers to mental health research—we know that the use of cannabis has links with mental illness, particularly psychosis—and also about the broader research into the potential medicinal benefits of the many products contained in the cannabis plant. That has been investigated in the United States, where more than 20 states have relaxed their laws to allow the medicinal use of cannabis and cannabis derivatives. I am pleased to hear that the all-party group is to look into that because it is important that we examine the evidence that is out there and, if necessary, consider using that evidence to change the law. The law should be for public protection but also for public benefit, and if there is a legitimate medicinal use of cannabis, we should support and encourage it because that is good for patients.
Before I proceed, I want to touch on the very brave speech from my hon. Friend Crispin Blunt. It is rare that we discuss our personal experiences in the Chamber, but it brings into focus the importance of making sure that the laws that we pass impact positively on the real world and the day-to-day lives of our constituents. He spoke bravely about his own use of poppers, which helped to bring the debate alive and crystallised the importance of that evidence-based policy making. I know the Minister will respond to that later.
On the rescheduling of cannabis from a schedule 1 to a schedule 2 drug, as we are aware, the scheduling of drugs was laid down in the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. The reason that cannabis was considered a schedule 1 drug was that it did not have any medicinal benefit. That is now a matter of considerable contention in the light of the evidence I am about to present. It is important to highlight some of the inconsistencies in legislation.
Under the Schengen agreement, it is legal for somebody in a Schengen country to bring into the UK cannabis for medicinal use, if they have been prescribed it by a doctor on their own country, for up to 30 days, yet it is not legal in this country for a doctor to prescribe cannabis for medicinal purposes unless it happens to be for the purpose of treating multiple sclerosis. That is the one licensed drug currently available. If we recognise that cannabis can be licensed for the treatment of MS, currently under very elaborate licensing law by the Home Office, surely we recognise that there is a medicinal benefit. Quod erat demonstrandum: schedule 1 is the wrong place for cannabis because we accept that it has a medicinal benefit. The Home Office accepts for its licensing programme that there is a medicinal benefit to cannabis, so we need to consider rescheduling the drug.
I have touched on the intervention from my hon. Friend Steve Brine by reference to the growing evidence from the United States that there are other potential medicinal benefits of cannabis for the treatment of patients. The relaxing of laws in over 20 states on the basis of that evidence is something that we clearly need to look at in this country. In particular, the potential benefits of cannabis products in palliative care merit greater scrutiny. There is inconsistency in the classification of cannabis, which is why I tabled the amendment.
I want to speak about some of the barriers to research. I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice for meeting Professor Sir Robin Murray and Dr Marta Di Forti, who work in mental health, particularly in psychosis—he is an eminent professor—to examine the issue and learn at first hand about some of the difficulties they experience in conducting research into mental ill health. We know that there are links between psychosis and cannabis use, and it is particularly important that we understand the basis on which the plant works on neurotransmitters and that we support researchers in conducting their research. At the moment, those researchers could potentially be criminalised for carrying out research that would be legitimate in many other fields of medical research. I am sure that that is not an intended consequence. It also makes it very difficult to carry out research effectively in the field of mental health and the links with cannabis. I know that the Minister is sympathetic to that and I look forward to hearing how we can find a workable solution to the problem. We want to improve our treatment of patients with mental ill health, but to do that we need properly to support the researchers in carrying out their work, and I hope that the whole House can sign up to that.
This is not an easy matter and it is not part of a broader discussion on the merits or demerits of legalising cannabis. I specifically wanted to table the amendment for discussion today to highlight the difficulties faced by researchers carrying out their jobs and to highlight some of the clear inconsistencies in drug laws in relation to cannabis and, more importantly, drugs that we would consider much more potentially harmful if used by the public. Heroin, or diamorphine, is a schedule 2 drug, whereas cannabis, the use of which is shown by a growing body of evidence to have a medicinal benefit, is a schedule 1 drug. I believe that the Government need to look into the inconsistency in current drug laws, but in particular I would be very grateful for my right hon. Friend the Minister’s comments on how we can facilitate and ease the process of legitimate research without criminalising researchers.
Does my hon. Friend also agree that there is a real anomaly when a drug such as DNP, which has caused the death of so many young people and is taken as a drug for body building or to improve people’s perception of their body image, is so classified and falls between so many stools that it is impossible to get it banned, despite the deaths and damage it has caused?
My right hon. Friend speaks wisely. On that subject, looking at the scheduling, steroids come under schedule 4 to the misuse of drugs regulations. They are often a drug misused by body builders and other athletes whereas, in the example I just gave, diamorphine, or heroin, is a schedule 2 drug. There is now a clear and compelling case, because of the growing medical evidence and the barriers to research, to consider the scheduling of cannabis. More broadly, before we even get to that point, I know that there is more we can do to make it easier to research the links between cannabis and mental health and to support that very important research so that, hopefully, we can move towards a better position through this Bill, not just in protecting the public from psychoactive substances but in improving the care of a number of the most vulnerable patients looked after by our health service.
I rise in support of new clause 1 and amendment 4. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Lyn Brown, who sits on the Front Bench, on the excellent way she set out why new clause 1 and amendment 4 need to be incorporated in the Bill.
It has been six years since we seriously started to discuss in Parliament why personal, social, health and economic education should be made compulsory. I greatly regret that we did not manage to do it when we were in power. At the very end of the 2010 Labour Government, PSHE was going to be made a statutory part of the national curriculum. There was a very good case made for that, based on building life skills, confidence and resilience in young people, which we all accept needs to happen. To me, the challenges that young people face in the modern world include how to deal with drugs and these new psychoactive substances. It was a great regret that in the wash-up, during those final months leading up to the 2010 election, we were not able to secure the support of the Conservatives to get that change to the law.
The UK Drug Policy Commission spent six years researching what our drugs policies should be, and found that the best drugs education is delivered in an evidence-based life skills programme. That is why making PSHE compulsory is important. Why does it need to be statutory? The Select Committee on Education, in its report last year, said:
“There is a lack of clarity on the status of the subject. This must change, and we accept the argument that statutory status is needed for PSHE”.
We know that it varies all around the country. In some schools, it is taught very well, but in many schools it is not taught well at all, and that is because it is not statutory. It is not measured and we know that headteachers will always have an eye on ensuring that their schools and pupils do best in what is measured. That is the compelling argument for me: we should ensure that we have a level playing field across all schools, so we have to provide statutory PSHE. Another important reason to make it statutory is that schools have to ensure that teachers are properly trained. One of the big problems with how PSHE is delivered in this country is that the teacher with a little more time in their timetable—perhaps the PE teacher—takes responsibility, not a teacher with the level and depth of training required to teach the subject properly.
We know, as my hon. Friend said from the Front Bench, that many students say that they have only one hour of drugs education in school. At the moment we are relying on good will, charities and other organisations to provide information to our young people. I think that that is wrong. However, I want to pay tribute to the Angelus Foundation for the work it has done. It was set up in very sad circumstances by Maryon Stewart, who lost her daughter, Hester, who took GBL without knowing what it was and sadly died. Maryon has fought hard for this legislation to be put on the statute book, but I am sure she would be the first to say that we need to ensure that our young people are educated. It is not just about changing the law, but about making sure that young people make good decisions for themselves.
I also want to refer to an organisation in my constituency called REAL— Recovery Enabling Abstinent Lifestyle—run by Mike Tong and Su Baker, who are also trying to get information out to young people in Hull to explain about legal highs. We have already debated how we should describe legal highs, and I think it right to refer to them as new psychoactive substances, rather than legal highs. Those provisions all rely on good will and charity, which is why it is vital that the amendments are accepted today.
Before the Minister responds, I wish to mention the “Frank” campaign—I think my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham also mentioned that. “Talk to Frank” is not good enough, and if the Government are serious about ensuring that young people have information to make good choices in their lives, “Frank” is not the delivery mechanism for that.
We know that young people have called for PSHE to be made statutory, and the Youth Parliament supported and ran with that campaign a few years ago. Parents support PSHE and want it brought into schools, as does the cross-party Education Committee. We need to equip our young people with life skills to make good decisions, and to equip the police with the powers that they need to enforce the law against those who exploit, harm and damage people, particularly young people. The Minister is a sensible man who often relies on his good common sense, and I hope he will think hard about whether rejecting these amendments is in the long-term interests of this country and the young people whom we in this House wish to ensure are protected and able to make good and healthy decisions about their lives.
It is a pleasure to follow Diana Johnson. Much of the debate on this important Bill has shown consensus across the House. Along with many others, I have campaigned for this Bill for many years, and for a blanket ban on certain substances, and I recognise the efforts made by the Minister to bring the issue to the table. Unusually, that has been done at some pace, and the Home Affairs Committee—on which I and other hon. Members present in the Chamber sit—sought to keep up with the Bill and to ensure that we added our penny’s worth to the debate. Hopefully that has helped, and it was a pleasure to sit on the Bill Committee and see those long-standing interests come to fruition.
I will speak later about poppers, but in some ways, if one wishes to deal with this issue with a blanket ban, the Bill could be seen as a blunt tool in tackling the evil of NPSs. If one wishes such a ban, there are some anomalies or concerns in the Bill. Amendments have been tabled about other seemingly harmless substances that may be tied into a blanket ban. I am willing to give the Government as much rope as possible to hang not themselves but the target of this Bill, which is those evil pliers of the trade—the “big fish” that were mentioned—and the new substances that are coming on to the market. That is what the target should be, and although there has been a natural concern about poppers—I raised that issue in Committee—and we obviously do not want to criminalise the personal use of them, we must also deal with those other substances. However, poppers are not the target of the Bill.
I want to make some progress.
Let me focus on education, because it is important to ensure that there is enough communication to deal with this issue and to have a profound effect, not just through legislation and enforcement, but through education. We must make the most of the opportunity to educate everyone out there about the harms caused by NPSs.
I have been involved in drugs policy for some time, and I had the pleasure and privilege for a number of years of sitting as an honorary member on the inter-ministerial group on drugs. To me it is not surprising—I say this frankly and openly—that no representative from the Department for Education is currently sitting on the Treasury Bench. Although that IMG was well attended—it is one of the best attended cross-departmental groups, and it led to the 2010 drugs strategy in which I played my part—the Department for Education was the most difficult Department to get to the table.
I say that openly and publicly because it is relevant when assisting the Minister to ensure that communication gets out there, and that education is prioritised. I do not believe that the Department for Education has yet been as forthcoming as it should be, not least given the commitment understood by the Committee, which was that meetings between the Home Office and the DFE would run parallel to parliamentary business, so that we could see that the DFE is serious about wanting to educate young people about the harms of NPSs.
My concern is great—I say this in relation to new clause 1. I do not suggest that we need such a prescribed PSHE route, but we urge the Government to include education in the review and to say that 30 months down the line they will look at how well we have done on education, and how well the word has been spread about the harm of NPSs. The Government told the Home Affairs Committee that the strategic communication plan has been set out, but a question tabled by Lyn Brown revealed that no specific funds have been set aside for its implementation.
In case I forget this point in my later comments, perhaps this is an opportune moment to say from the Dispatch Box that that issue will be part of the review into how well we have done in educating young people. I will respond in a moment to Lyn Brown about the financial point. Perhaps I will not be—I nearly said “doing drugs”, but that is probably a bad thing to say in the Chamber. I may not have this responsibility in the near future, so it is good that I put on the record, categorically, that that issue will be part of the review.
I have seen my way, when I was on the inter-ministerial group, through four Home Office Ministers. I recognise my right hon. Friend the Minister’s commitment to tackling drugs and, although there has been a revolving door of individual Ministers involved in tackling drugs, Department for Education Ministers need to show that same commitment.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what attention the Committee gave to the fact that the only two countries in the world that have passed similar legislation have seen large increases in the use of these drugs? In Ireland, there was an increase from 16% to 22%, and in Poland there was a level increase of 3%, the biggest in its history. Is the Bill not going to have the same bad effect?
I am not convinced by the hon. Gentleman’s premise. We consistently disagree on drugs policy. The evidence from Ireland is clear. Its blanket ban has been a success, with the closure of head shops and less accessibility to new psychoactive substances.
Everyone agrees that this is the most significant change in drugs legislation since 1971. This is a huge step-change and represents progress in tackling the new drugs on the market. It is not matched, however, with the same commitment to provide funding for education and information. The Department for Transport spent £1.952 million on developing, delivering and evaluating its communications campaign to ensure people became aware of enhanced police powers in relation to drug-driving—I know the Minister was very much in favour of putting that in the statute book—and in particular driving under the influence of cannabis. We do not see that same matched funding commitment to such a significant Bill. We need to see where that will come from to ensure that the good words expressed in the strategic communication plan have a real effect. We need the public to be informed. We need a strategy that covers social media. We need to involve the Angelus Foundation. For the foundation not to be linked to “Frank” is frankly ridiculous. That needs to change. “Frank” needs to talk better with Angelus and learn from it, in particular from its film awareness campaign. It is so important to have the common goal of alerting young people to the harms presented by NPSs. I look forward to hearing some reassurance on that from the Minister.
I would like to touch very briefly on two other aspects of the Bill. There are amendments on cannabis. I want to link them to new clause 6, which seeks to suggest that arrests and detention for class A drugs should trigger assessment and treatment. I want to highlight the fact that the big issue for young people, along with NPSs, is their use and misuse of cannabis. Cannabis is having a profound effect on them. I visited Highbury Corner magistrates court with the Justice Secretary, the Lord Chancellor. He heard that cannabis has an impact on many young people, but only Islington has a drug treatment facility or the ability to deal with that treatment. Justices have at least one hand tied behind their back when it comes to getting young people the treatment they need. We need to tackle that, along with treatment facilities for NPSs. We need to get up to speed with where the market is going. It is going away from substitute treatment for addiction to the old opiate substances and towards needing an holistic approach to treatment and education. We must get up to speed and the review needs to convince us it is doing that.
Finally, I come to poppers. In Committee I raised concerns about the ban on behalf of many people, including the gay community. I am very pleased that the Government have, belatedly, reached a point where they are going to look seriously at the evidence and at exempting alkyl nitrate. I agree with the Government that there are some complications, however. I raised in an intervention the fact there are already controls around the supply of alkyl nitrates. Under-18s are caught by the Intoxicating Substances (Supply) Act 1985. All of these areas need to be looked at, because there is commonality. The problem with poppers-alkyl nitrates is that they can be tweaked and abused so that the substance becomes harmful. Historically, that has been the case.
The reference to the Home Office about this is somewhat historical. It is not new, and it should not have led to an 11th-hour conversion to consider putting it on the exemption list. The Bill has been around for months—this issue was raised in the other place—so it is encouraging, if also disappointing, that we are still, at this late stage, considering exemptions. I am willing to go with the evidence, however, because it is complicated and we do not want the blanket ban diluted. We need to ensure that this is done properly, with evidence, so that, as the Home Affairs Committee said, there is eventually an exemption.
There are many other issues to talk about, but I want to give others the opportunity to speak. I broadly welcome the fact that, at long last, we will have a blanket ban on the statute book. It will be a force for good, particularly in protecting young people.
I support the Bill and its aims. Indeed, I wound up the Second Reading debate in the Chamber because Labour felt it was important to view it not just as a Home Office Bill—although that is where it is placed—but in terms of its public health aspects. As Labour’s shadow public health Minister, therefore, I have been keen to promote some of the public health issues. I also commend the work of my hon. Friend Lyn Brown, who led the Opposition in Committee and in the House today in an exemplary fashion.
I support the Bill and want to make it as good as it can be. There are several areas where it is not as strong as it ought to be, and that is why I am proud to support my hon. Friend in tabling several amendments. In particular, I want to talk about new clause 1, on PSHE, and amendment 5, on poppers, because both have an important public health aspect to them.
On new clause 1, I mentioned in an intervention that Simon Stevens, in his Five Year Forward View for the NHS, had identified £5 billion of savings that could be reinvested into the NHS as a consequence of prevention. The Government were unwise to cut £200 million from the public health budget, because that is the very kind of prevention that will not now bear fruit in year five of the Five Year Forward View, but they could redeem themselves by adopting the new clause. I have always viewed it as a weakness that we do not have statutory PSHE in this country. Many schools do it, but it is a “something else” added on to the curriculum; it is not given the focus it ought to be given.
If we are serious about tackling the whole range of health inequalities, we could start providing statutory PSHE for children from a very young age. If we are to talk about the dangers of tobacco, alcohol and drugs, and about sex and relationships, we must do it in the context of a statutory framework in all our schools. There are huge public health benefits to doing so. When the Minister comes to consider the views expressed today, he could do nothing better than read in Hansard—I know he was listening—the contribution from my hon. Friend Diana Johnson, because she got it spot on. The real benefits of having statutory PSHE in schools are clear. It would really strengthen the Bill’s aims and ambitions.
Our amendment 5 relates to poppers. In the short time I have been Labour’s shadow public health Minister, I have met lots of charities and organisations in the public health world, and many of them, including drug abuse charities, have raised many issues with me. Not one has raised poppers as an issue.
I will tell the Minister who has raised the issue of poppers with me, and that is a large number of LGBT charities and organisations. There is a public health role here. Mike Freer made some very important points, not just on the health and wellbeing of gay and lesbian people, but on some of the mental health and relationship issues surrounding what we are discussing today.
There is a wider public health issue. Many of the organisations I have met—the National AIDS Trust is one example—have told me that there is a balance of risks. Yes, some small risks are involved with alkyl nitrates, and Mr Burrowes mentioned anecdotal evidence that suggests they could cause some damage to eyesight. My advice to the Minister would be to balance the risks of that—they are very small—with the risks of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.
It has been put to me—I think there is some credence in this argument—that there are two scenarios. One is that two gay men will have protected sex with poppers, which make anal sex easier, or alternatively they will use other substances if poppers are not available. We could be talking about class A or class B drugs or alcohol, and the problem is that any of those substances, unlike poppers, runs the risk of potentially leading to unsafe sex. That, in turn, increases the risk of the contraction of HIV, Hepatitis C and a string of other sexually transmitted infections. The other point is that what we are considering is potentially discriminatory against a group of people who are doing no harm and just want to enjoy themselves in a sexual relationship.
I therefore urge the Minister to think carefully about whether the Bill’s intention is to do something in the way he wants it to be done or in the way we want it to be done. This Minister is known for common sense, and I give credit to him for that. He is straight talking and has a modicum of sense that some of his colleagues do not often display. I am being kind to the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect.
I simply do not understand the logic of banning poppers, then looking at the evidence and subsequently perhaps unbanning them. That would send out mixed messages. If the review comes forward with enough evidence to warrant the banning of poppers, I will support the Minister all the way. However, I am not in the job of banning things for banning’s sake only to unban them later. The Minister should apply some common sense and back our amendment 5, because that is the right approach.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me slightly earlier than I expected.
I speak in support of my amendments. Taken together, they are designed to challenge the Government’s approach to this Bill. I suspect all Members share the same objective in that we are all ultimately concerned about harm and want to reduce for our loved ones and across society the risk that drugs, both legal and illegal, pose.
Speaking as a father, I happen to be rather hostile to drugs. I am hostile to the excessive use of legal drugs because of the damage they do to society, but I challenge the approach taken in this Bill. Mrs Gillan spoke of the risk of making bad law, and I think that, seductive though the Government’s approach may be, we face the risk of legislating for bad law in this instance. As I have said, our objective should be harm reduction, and we should surely base legislation on evidence of what works.
According to the Home Office’s own 2014 report entitled “Drugs: International Comparators”,
“there is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use.”
As Paul Flynn pointed out, the great risk is that Members on both sides of the House will assume that adopting the Bill’s approach will reduce the use of what are, in some cases, dangerous substances, although the evidence points in precisely the opposite direction.
Like others, Crispin Blunt, who made a fantastic speech and spoke very openly and candidly, made the point that the Bill—in respect of poppers, but, in fact, across the board—would drive users into the hands of criminals. What criminal has people’s interests at heart? None of them, of course. I urge Members to think before they vote for the Bill, because that is precisely what we shall be doing. Moreover, we shall be massively increasing the profits of criminals and criminal networks. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has said that there is a clear link between the profits made from illicit drugs and the funding of terrorism, pointing out that, in Afghanistan, money raised from the sale of cocaine has been fed into the hands of the Taliban.
I will not, because I am conscious that time is very tight, and I do not want to get into trouble with the Chair.
We should think before we act. New clause 5 calls for a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 so that we can determine policy on the basis of evidence rather than prejudice. New clause 6 calls for a decriminalisation of the use of drugs, given that evidence from Portugal has shown a reduction in harm as a result of the adoption of that policy. In new clause 3, I happily join my former colleague in the Department of Health, Dr Poulter, in arguing for the facilitation of research on the potential medicinal value of cannabis. Amendment 24 proposes the legalisation of possession of cannabis for medicinal use. Surely we should not be criminalising people who use cannabis to relieve pain, yet that is what we do in this country. It is madness.
New clause 4 argues that we should ban substances under the Bill only after they have been referred to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, so that an objective judgment can be made about whether they cause social harm. That, of course, is in line with amendment 5. We are about to commit an act of total madness, banning poppers and then removing the ban just a few months down the track. That makes absolutely no sense, and, as we heard from Mr Davis, it brings the law into disrepute.
The Bill’s approach is seductive, and it is understandable, because people are fearful of the effects of these products. Ultimately, however, it is bad law, and it will have precisely the wrong effect.
I rise to express my broad support for what the Government are trying to do. This is a major issue in Plymouth. At the beginning of this week the local paper ran a story about an individual who had drowned in a local harbour in October 2014. A toxicology report showed that among a number of other drugs a legal high was present in his system. Sadly, I need only look back a further five days in the same paper to find another story about these chemicals, which have now become a haunting menace to society.
Over Christmas I did what many of my hon. colleagues will have done, and went and served Christmas lunch to the homeless at the hostels, and they are being plagued outside these hostels by people selling these illegal highs. This is a real problem in Plymouth.
I also go out with the emergency services at least once a month. When doing so, I see the challenge presented to our law enforcement by these substances. I fully support the Minister in his efforts to identify the new psychoactive substances and react more quickly to them.
I ran a campaign briefly prior to Christmas attempting to raise awareness of these substances, and I strongly support other councils on this. I would like Plymouth to lead the way in getting these substances banned locally before this Bill is enacted.
Ultimately, for me this comes down to one key thing. We often talk in this House of how we support those who challenge the most challenging parts of society, such as police officers and prison officers. They strongly support what we are doing here. It is not good enough simply to stand up in the House of Commons and say, “We fully support the police” and “We fully support prison officers” and then not give them the tools to do their job, which is what I think is being done here. That is why I support the Government’s position.
Before I start, may I point out one major error? A picture of me has been widely retweeted by Members of the House. It was taken from American television, where tens of millions of people were informed in the caption that I was leader of the Labour party. I just want to point out that this information is a tad premature.
It is generous to describe this Bill as a landmark in legislative futility, because it is in fact worse than that: this Bill will do harm, as all the other prohibition Bills in the 28 years in which I have been here have—they have all done harm. The Home Affairs Committee does not seem to have considered what has happened in the two countries that have passed legislation very similar to this Bill. In Ireland what happened was that, certainly the head shops closed down—of course they did; they were illegal—and the sites closed down, but they were replaced by other illegal head shops; they were replaced by a market that is criminal and irresponsible. Furthermore, in Ireland the market among young people for using these drugs increased from 16% of the population to 22%. Those are figures from the European Monitoring
Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Meanwhile in Poland there was a 3% increase. So now the countries that have passed similar Bills to this one have the greatest use of psychoactive drugs in the world.
This Bill will be counterproductive. In 1971 we passed the Misuse of Drugs Act. At that time we had 1,000 cocaine and heroin addicts in Britain. We have now got 300,000. I wish Members would consider the possibility, in respect of what they are doing and the ideas they have, that the conventional wisdom is the conventional stupidity. It would be madness to ban poppers, as everyone says.
This Bill should be considered on the evidence alone. Should we support the attempt to move cannabis into an area where scientists can work on it? That is an approach that is based not on superstition, rumour or prejudice, but on science, and it should be supported.
I shall be brief.
I wish to emphasise that although so many elements of the Bill are important, it is essential that it is strengthened in the field of education. New clause 1 addresses that and does answer what was set out in paragraph 76 of the Home Affairs Committee report, which says:
“Successive governments’ spending on education on the dangers of NPS has been shockingly inadequate to date. Action must be taken now, to educate young people”.
Therefore, we are dealing with a plea and a recognition that there has been an absence of education. This is not about politics; it is about evidence-based practice, which is why I am hopeful that the Government will support new clause 1.
Who provides that education is also vital. Trained professionals, school nurses and public health workers have the qualifications to deliver that programme. This is therefore not about putting pressure on teachers; it is about enabling health professionals to do their job. I ask the Minister to give this issue due consideration, to ensure that the full public health agenda is brought in, because if we do not couple this Bill with public health and the education agenda around it, its impact will be lessened. We need to make sure that the Bill has real impact and does deliver results, so let us include education. My last point is that the only systematic way of achieving that will be through the PSHE programme.
I, too, will be brief.
First, I wish to thank the other members of the Bill Committee. This was my first Bill Committee experience. It was clear that the Minister, shadow Minister and all the other members of the Committee were pointing in one direction and that although we might have slight disagreements about the measures to take along the way, we ultimately want to get to the same point.
I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend Anne McLaughlin in support of her amendments. I also very much wish to echo the comments made by a number of colleagues in Committee; I raised the point about poppers there and the case was again made, “We want a blanket ban. How can we possibly have exemptions?” We already have a schedule of exemptions in the Bill, so there is a precedent. Giving an exemption now and having the study to continue the work being done, rather than banning poppers and having to undo that and unpick a mess that we might create for ourselves, is a far more sensible approach to take. I hope that the number of voices from around this Chamber today to that end will be heard by the Minister and he will tell us that he has now come to that conclusion and that that is the position we are going to take. I am aware of the pressures and the keenness to get on to the second group of amendments, so, with that, I shall conclude.
It has been said several times that perhaps this Bill should have been introduced a lot earlier—many years ago. One reason why it was not is that it was so difficult to do. I say to my Liberal Democrat friend, Norman Lamb, that when Lynne Featherstone was in my job she was 100% in support of this Bill. I know it has been a difficult time for the Liberal Democrats, but perhaps she was right in many of the things she said and which we brought forward. I am not going to comment any further on that, because the right hon. Gentleman and I disagree profoundly. We will, of course, oppose his amendments; he is not going to be surprised by that.
I, too, want to get on to the second group, so it is important that we make some progress. Many important speeches have been made this afternoon, in completely the right tone and adopting completely the right attitude towards what we are trying to do, which is protect people. Throughout the Committee stage, I was trying to ensure that we kept why we are trying to do this at the forefront of things. We may disagree about specific parts, as we have heard in the Chamber today, and we may slightly disagree on the methodology on certain parts, but I have a responsibility as the Minister, standing at this Dispatch Box with my colleagues from other Departments. They have worked closely with me, and I want some of them to work even more closely with me as we go forward with the Bill and with the review which we have committed to all the way through.
With that in mind, I will try to deal with new clause 1, then take up some of the issues raised in connection with other amendments and then deal with amendment 5, which relates to poppers. That has taken up most of our time in the Chamber today and, as was alluded to by the Chairman of the Select Committee, it is probably one of the areas where we slightly disagree—and then it is only on how we do it, rather than what we are going to do.
As I said early on, this Bill is not a golden bullet; it is not the be-all and end-all. It is about providing a blanket ban; it is a brand new type of legislation. We have not seen it before in this House, and it needs to be worked through with two or three other Departments. Obviously, the Ministry of Justice must be involved because we are creating a criminal offence—fortunately, I also sit in that Department, which is quite helpful. The Department for Health is also important. During the course of the debate, I was very conscious of the implications for public health. I am also talking about the prevention of diseases, but I will come back to that later. Lastly, as new clause 1 indicates, the involvement of the Department for Education is also important.
I met Ministers, scientists and police in the Republic of Ireland to find out how their Bill, which is close but not identical to ours, worked. One of the biggest things they said was that we need to get the message out there. We should target young people, but not exclusively young people, as we discovered today; I mean no disrespect to my hon. Friend Crispin Blunt when I say that. The matter runs across the age profile. I do apologise if I refer to young people too often.
I will give way, but I will not do it too much, because we want to get on to the next group of amendments.
With devolution, different Governments in different parts of this great nation are delivering programmes. I fully respect that it is very early days. Part of the review that I committed to early on is that we will look very carefully at how we and other parts of the country have done things. Interestingly, we will have better evidence from the Republic of Ireland as well.
When we discussed this matter in Committee, I was aware that the shadow Minister was at times on a very steep learning curve, as indeed was I with regard to part of the Bill. I do think that we can resolve some issues without the statutory requirement in the legislation. The shadow Minister referred to the cost of interventions and education. The latest figure that we have on tackling drug misuse is £341 million, which was, believe it or not, in 2011-12.
Right at the start, I accepted that Frank is not perfect and that it needs to be improved, but I do not want scrap it and bring in something else with a different name. The scheme very much needs to work with the Angelus Foundation and others, because the third sector—the voluntary sector—often knows much better than the Government, which is why the previous Administration and this Administration have used it extensively.
Let me make some progress. If I have time, I will come back to the right hon. Gentleman.
I know from the speech of my right hon. Friend Mrs Gillan that there were concerns that non-psychoactive substances will be pulled in. This Bill is specifically about psychoactive substances. My full understanding is that we will not be including the sort of products to which she has alluded, but we will keep a close eye. Under clause 3, we have the ability to take things out. I must say, though, that that clause is not designed to bring in things, which caused slight confusion during the debate this afternoon. When I come on to poppers, I will explain myself a little better.
No, I want to make some progress if I can, but I will come back if I have some time.
Last night, I had the honour of meeting my hon. Friend Dr Poulter, along with a professor from King’s, to discuss research. We need research not only in matters of health, but in the law to ensure that we are evidence based. I was conscious last night that we needed to ensure that we are not preventing research. The Bill actually makes a provision for it, but the probing amendments of my hon. Friend were looking at the problems around cannabis and how we need to learn about its harms and benefits. I will ask my officials to continue that important dialogue after we leave the Chamber this afternoon.
I had a really interesting time in Committee with the Scottish National party’s Front-Bench spokesperson, Anne McLaughlin. We have had a very good dialogue with Scottish Ministers, particularly on an important provision that makes possession a criminal offence in secure facilities. That was not originally in the Bill, but it was added at the request of the Ministry of Justice and, interestingly, prison officers and some prison groups, because these substances are a menace in our prisons and young offenders institutions. I am quite amazed at some of the hon. Lady’s amendments today, because during our discussions both the Minister and the Cabinet Secretary in the Scottish Government were content for possession in custodial suites to be an offence. I make no comment on communications within the Scottish Administration, but we worked really hard to ensure that everybody was on board with that, so I cannot support those amendments.
The key to the Bill is protecting people. I do not want to criminalise every young person in the country who has been using these substances legally, but dangerously, for a considerable time. However, it is absolutely crucial that we do not get into a situation in which the defence in our courts is, “I bought it for a couple of friends and sold it on to them, so what’s the danger?” It is a danger.
I am more than happy to write to my right hon. Friend with those assurances, so long as we know exactly what those substances are. We need to communicate about that outside the Chamber.
I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but then I will curtail my comments so that the House can make its decisions and we can move on to the next group of amendments.
I am grateful to the Minister. On the question of not wanting to criminalise young people, and in reference to the point made by Anne McLaughlin, is it the case that the Bill will criminalise someone who buys online from overseas but will not criminalise someone who buys in an alleyway from a criminal?
We need to stop these products from being available to young people, middle-aged people and old people like me. It is absolutely crucial that we do that. One of the ways that people can get these products, as we have heard today, is online. We need to ensure that the criminal offence of selling one of these substances will have the penalties it deserves, because there is no point having a blanket ban if we do not actually enforce it.
I will not give way again.
Let me now touch on what is an important, and understandably emotive, provision in the Bill. This relates to amendment 5, tabled by Lyn Brown. I desperately have no intention of making life difficult for any individual group; my sole role as a Minister at this Dispatch Box is to protect. When I first looked at the proposals in the Bill, one of the things I asked straight away was, “Okay, tell me about poppers and alkyl nitrites”—I knew very little about them.
Bearing in mind that my role is to protect people and to make sure that this legislation does its job, one of the first things that was put in front of me is the fact that since 1993 these nitrates have been mentioned 20 times on death certificates. Then after that—quite late on, to be fair—I started to listen to other groups, because it was the first time they had asked me to do so. The Bill had gone through the Lords and started its Committee stage when, in Committee, I offered to meet, as I always do, any group that wanted to come and see me. Groups that were going to be affected by the poppers ban came to see me and started to give evidence that these substances were not as dangerous as I had said—and have probably just said again.
With that in mind, I went away to look at this, and, with the help of the Home Secretary and others, came up with a compromise and a plan. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mike Freer in this regard. As he said, I have different types of evidence being put to me, so let us, for once, have an evidential base for this. Stage 1, which will start immediately after this—it has probably already started, in many ways—is that the MHRA will start evidence-gathering. I slightly misled the shadow Minister earlier when I said that it would be the AMCD, although it will obviously be putting evidence into the process.
Stage 2, once the MHRA has gathered its evidence, will be an assessment by an independent—I stress independent—assessor. We will come to a common agreement, probably with the help of the Select Committee, as to the identity of that independent individual, or individuals. This will not be Home Office-led; it will be done with the Department of Health. Following that, we can come forward with a decision that will be jointly made by the Secretary of State for Health and the Home Secretary. Then, if necessary, we can use the regulations in clause 3 to exempt products. I make a commitment that we will do that by the summer recess. I know that others in the House would like us to do it another way, but clause 3 cannot be used for that. We would have to amend the Bill again.
I think that is a compromise. I have listened extensively to Members across the House in the past few weeks and since the Bill started in the other House. I know that this is going to be difficult for some individuals, and I fully respect their views, but I hope that everybody in the House respects the fact that I am trying to do the right thing to protect people.