I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
First, I declare my interest as a former non-executive director of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and a magistrate member of the Sentencing Council. I also want to thank all those, including Clerks, Whips, officials and the Minister, who helped me to get the Bill to this stage.
I have risen in this House on several occasions to speak about our prison and probation services, and I have paid tribute to the staff working in them, whom I genuinely consider to be the hidden heroes of our public services, but there is an important aspect of our justice system that I have not thus far highlighted: approved premises. Indeed, while many people are familiar with prisons and probation, there is much less awareness of approved premises, yet they provide a critical step in the rehabilitation of offenders. Let us never forget that rehabilitation means there will be less reoffending, and that in turn means fewer victims of crime—something each and every one of us in this House must surely welcome.
Approved premises are essentially hostels which provide temporary accommodation for people who have been released from prison but are considered to present the highest risk to the community. They also house a small number of people on bail as well as high-risk offenders serving community sentences. There are just over 100 APs in England and Wales, with about 2,300 bed spaces between them, and the average stay in them is 12 weeks. The role of approved premises is to ensure that those with the highest risk and most complex needs receive additional, targeted residential supervision and rehabilitative support.
Unfortunately, the number of deaths among approved premises residents has increased over recent years, and many of those deaths are believed to be related to taking drugs. As a result, the independent prisons and probation ombudsman has rightly made repeated recommendations about the urgent need for a comprehensive drugs strategy for the approved premises estate. I am sure that I surprise no one when I say that the use of drugs in approved premises can have a significant impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of residents in both the short and the long term. Of course, drug use also undermines a person’s ability to engage in work or other activities that would help their rehabilitation.
My Bill today is a response to this problem. It would enable approved premises to create a comprehensive framework for drug testing, and it would also bring them in line with the substance testing regime in prisons. This was established by the Prisons (Substance Testing) Act 2021, which was the private Member’s Bill promoted by our greatly missed colleague and my constituency neighbour Dame Cheryl Gillan. I was proud to serve on the Bill Committee for that legislation, and I am delighted to say that it received Royal Assent earlier this year, having been supported by all parties in this House, as I hope my Bill will be.
Currently, residents in approved premises can be tested for drugs only at the request of staff, in accordance with the house rules that are a condition of their residence. Although that provides a basis for drug testing, it does not set out a comprehensive statutory framework for the testing of illicit substances, the scope of substances for which testing can be conducted or the types of sample that may be taken. I submit that that needs to change.
One reason for the need for more formalised and widespread testing is that patterns of drug misuse in both custody and the community are changing. In particular, psychoactive substances have become much more prevalent within the illicit economy in approved premises. These are particularly unpleasant, and one of the most worrying aspects of them is their unpredictable impact on different individuals. Some people become catatonic after taking them. Others suffer convulsions, vomiting or temporary loss of vision. Still others become anxious, aggressive or even engage in extreme behaviours that almost defy the imagination. They can easily pose a serious danger to others and indeed to themselves.