It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I also look forward to serving under Sir David’s chairmanship. Thank you for setting out so concisely how the Committee will proceed.
I thank Her Majesty’s Opposition and the Scottish National party for being so supportive of the principle behind the Bill, on which there was extensive discussion in the other place. One area that was discussed extensively in the other place is the use of psychoactive substances in prisons and other custodial places. The Lords sought to address the issue by amending clause 6 to make the supply of psychoactive substances, and offers to supply psychoactive substances, on prison premises a statutory aggravating factor. On reflection, we are content with the Lords amendment, not least because the governors and the Prison Officers Association support making possession a specific offence.
We also support the Lords amendment following the campaigning by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who has spoken to me privately about this matter on more than one occasion—I can see the shadow Front-Bench team nodding. He really understands the matter and has been campaigning on it for many years, and it would be inappropriate if we did not acknowledge that.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester is a member of the Committee. He knows all too well that the substances are a dangerous and pervasive problem in prisons and other secure estates, not only for prison officers but for other staff and prisoners. Having reflected on the Lords amendment we are content to retain it; Government amendment 7 simply makes some drafting improvement so as to ensure that the measure is tight and, in particular, to provide a definition of a custodial institution.
We have concluded, however, that we need to go further, with new clause 2 introducing a new offence for a person who is in possession of a psychoactive substance in a custodial institution. I think everyone agrees that the use of psychoactive substances needs to be addressed, and it is not about just prisoners; it is about other staff who may, sadly, wish to bring such substances on to the premises, and visitors. The safety of visitors, prisoners and staff is, of course, paramount.
The introduction of a possession offence in prison would enable the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to pursue cases of prisoners, visitors or staff being found with small quantities of psychoactive substances in prison, and would support the stance that psychoactive substances are not to be tolerated in prison. The measure is fully supported across the House, by all the experts and panels, and within the Prison Service and other custodial suites. The measure concerns not just prisons, but any form of custody, particularly immigration detention centres and youth detention centres. I hope that in that way, along with the help we have had from the Lords, a simple case will be made about the possession of a psychoactive substance in prisons and other custodial centres, as opposed to in the community where it is not an offence. That is needed, to make a difference. We have listened carefully, and that is exactly what we will do.
Mr Howarth, I look forward to serving under your chairmanship and receiving your guidance. This is my first outing as a shadow Minister on a Bill, and I know that I am sitting under two experienced Chairs who will make my life so much easier than it might otherwise have been. That is a plea, in case you had not worked it out.
As I made clear during my speech on Second Reading, we support the Bill’s principles and general approach. The 2015 Labour manifesto included a commitment to ban the sale and distribution of dangerous psychoactive substances. A blanket ban with listed exemptions appears to be the most effective means of beginning to tackle the serious public health problems that the drugs have brought about. During the Committee stage, we will look at the weaknesses in the drafting of the Bill, and will table amendments to try to improve it. I hope that the Government take our critique and suggestions in the constructive manner in which they are intended. We want to work with the Government, through the Committee, to make the Bill as effective and robust as possible.
The Government have elected to insert a new clause into the Bill, which will make it an offence to possess a psychoactive substance in a custodial institution. The new clause amends clause 1, which is consequential on the new offence. The Bill already contains offences of supply, and of possession with intent to supply, psychoactive substances, which apply to prisoners and staff as much as to the rest of the public. The new clause makes it an aggravating factor to supply such substances in or around a prison, meaning that the only new power would be the ability to further punish those involved with psychoactive substances. Although I share the Government’s concern about the problem of such substances in our prisons, I am not convinced that we lack enough statutes to bring charges against prisoners, staff and visitors.
I also assume that many of the prisoners in possession of and taking psychoactive substances in our custodial institutions are likely to be addicted and are possibly in prison because they needed to feed their habit. It would perhaps be better to treat such instances as a health issue rather than one of enforcement. As I have said, the Bill already contains offences of supply and possession with intent to supply in or near a prison as an aggravated offence, so I am not convinced that the addition of possession is necessary.
As I said on Second Reading, I am concerned by the findings in the prisons and probation ombudsman’s report of July of this year that new psychoactive substances had been a factor in at least 19 prisoner deaths between 2012 and 2014. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons’ annual report was just as concerning. It found that the availability of new psychoactive drugs has
“had a severe impact and has led to debt and associated violence.”
New psychoactive substances are undoubtedly a real problem for our prisons, which I am sure is what motivated the Minister to table the amendment. However, neither of the reports asked for legislation to help deal with the problem. Indeed, the drugs that the reports mention as causing problems, Black Mamba and Spice, are already controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, meaning that possessing the most problematic substances in our prisons is already a crime. In addition, the Prison Service already has powers to discipline and punish prisoners for possessing psychoactive substances though prison rules.
Both reports stress that better detection mechanisms for new psychoactive substances need to be in place. HMIP stated that many new psychoactive substances do not show up in mandatory drug tests, making it difficult for prison officers to know what they are dealing with and the scale of the problem they face. Too few drugs tests are taking place, due to inadequate staffing. The prisons ombudsman highlighted that the sniffer dogs used by prisons to detect drugs often could not identify new psychoactive substances, and that it was still waiting for X-ray body scanners to detect substances concealed in body cavities.
I understand that the prevalence of Spice in prisons can be high. Will the legislation have a deterrent effect? Is it practically possible to enforce, or will it be like handing out speeding tickets at a grand prix? Will the Minister explain what prompted his desire to introduce criminal sanctions for possessing a psychoactive substance in a prison? Does he genuinely feel that the prison system has enough resources to tackle the direct supply and demand of such substances? It does rather feel that the amendment has been tabled out of a desire to do something about the problem in our prisons because the Minister and the Government have not been able to do the right thing, which is to address the staffing and resources issues raised by HMIP and the prisons and probation ombudsman.
During my Second Reading speech, I stressed that we have to reduce supply and demand for such drugs, meaning that we need to focus on education, including education for prisoners and, I suggest, their families. The Minister’s letter to the Chairs of the Committee states that the new offence provided by this amendment will complement the work of the National Offender Management Service to
“educate prisoners, staff and visitors.”
Will the Minister update us on what changes the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice have made to the drug education strategy since July, which is when the prisons and probation ombudsman report recommended that the Prison Service should put in place a specific education programme about the dangers of psychoactive substances?
In conclusion, I am unconvinced that the new offence would provide any useful tools in tackling the problem of novel psychoactive substances in our prisons. It is already against prison rules to possess a psychoactive substance. It is also against the law to possess Black Mamba and Spice—the NPS that currently cause the most damage in our prisons. They are already banned. Custody professionals seem clear that the priority needs to be ensuring that prisons have the resources to deal with these substances and to educate their staff and prisoners. I think that makes sense and I agree with them.
As I said in my Second Reading speech last Monday evening, there is unquestionably a huge problem in the secure estate. I referred to the work of RAPt—the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust. Before the debate, that excellent organisation sent hon. Members a research briefing, “Tackling the issue of New Psychoactive Substances in prisons”. It lays the situation out pretty starkly. As I did not last week, I will not pull my punches now. RAPt says that NPS use has quickly become widespread among prisoners. The annual report from NOMS affirms that increased NPS use among prisoners is generating high levels of debt, intimidation and violence between prisoners and is likely to be the main catalyst for the recent rise in attacks on prison staff. I will come on to my constituency experience of that in a moment. RAPt says on the scale of the problem:
“The number of prisoners using NPS varies across prisons”— across the estate—
“but some estimates suggest as many as 60% to 90% of the prison population use, or have used, NPS.”
As the shadow Minister said, Spice seems to be the NPS of choice at the moment. It is also known as Black Mamba—I cannot ever say that without smiling—or Clockwork Orange. Some of the quotes in the report by RAPt are shocking. They include the following:
“Prisoners who had used Spice described it as being ‘like a crack addiction’ or ‘like cannabis, just a lot stronger’…Others have seriously injured themselves head-butting mirrors thinking they were being attacked…One prisoner had witnessed ‘someone bury a knife in someone’s neck [on Spice] ’cause they were paranoid’…There is also a game that is becoming popular in prisons”— this has been reported to me—
“It is often called the…50 pound challenge. In the game, prisoners are challenged to smoke £50 worth of Spice. If they manage to smoke it all before breaking down or passing out, then they get it for free. If they fail they have to pay for it.”
We can see how this is becoming the new currency in prisons. When I first started going into prisons for my work on the Justice Committee and in my constituency, tobacco was the currency, but without question NPS are becoming the currency. I have Her Majesty’s Prison— and young offenders institution—Winchester in my constituency. As I said on Second Reading, Dave Rogers, who is a very good governor, is struggling to deal with the effects of Spice at the moment inside Winchester prison. He told me that last month there were three ambulances on the estate at one time for three prisoners who had taken NPS in the exercise yard and were unconscious. That is gravely concerning to me.
The shadow Minister says that we currently have powers. Under the Bill, simple possession of a psychoactive substance in the wider community is not criminalised, but the Government have rightly concluded that the problem is such that it requires a different approach in the context of the secure estate because it is particularly destructive there. All my experience of working inside and outside prisons is that control and order is fundamental to prison life. When that breaks down, we have anarchy and people unfortunately die. People are dying in prisons at an alarming rate. There are many and varied reasons for that, but they are dying under our care. The state is their guardian and they are dying under our care.
I completely agree with and want to restate this point made by the Minister in his letter to us:
“The introduction of a criminal offence for possession…in a custodial institution would complement the continuing work by the National Offender Management Service to educate prisoners, staff and visitors about the harms caused by psychoactive substances and…enable firm measures to be taken to punish those who possess psychoactive substances in prison.”
The shadow Minister is right to say that at the moment there is an offence that can add 42 days to an offender’s time in custody. [Interruption.] I think that the Minister agreed from a sedentary position. However, this measure takes that on much further and sends a much clearer message.
I completely agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. I want to ask him, however, about education. If we are going to deal with individual prisoners for possession rather than supply—pushing—I am absolutely with him, but surely education and treatment would be more beneficial to not only the prisoner but the community at large.
I was just about to come on to that; the shadow Minister is a visionary. I want to have my cake and eat it too; I want to strengthen the law in this area, but the wider challenge, as the governor at Winchester prison said to me, is that the debate today is not only about making NPS illegal and changing the law on possession in prisons. In my experience, prisoners will always want to use illegal substances. They will always want to get “loaded”, as I said on Second Reading, whether that be through a class A drug, a class B drug or NPS.
The challenge is supporting prison governors and staff to help those who want to kick the habit, which the vast majority of prisoners want to do, in my experience. Prison services are being hugely stretched. Punishments need to be substantial—those were the governor’s words—but the trick is to be careful that the clause does not incentivise more bullying and coercion to convey on behalf of prisoners, given that this is now quite an expensive currency within the secure estate.
I could not agree more with the shadow Minister’s wider point about tackling drug use. The Prime Minister said in his conference speech in Manchester last month that we need to get away from the “lock ’em up or let ’em out” mentality, to which I nearly stood up and said, “Hallelujah!” That would not have been a fantastic career move on my part, so I said it internally. The shadow Minister mentioned the detection of drugs, whether NPS or any other substances, as they come into prison. I said last week on Second Reading that the drug dogs we use in my constituency prison and across the estate are not trained in detecting NPS. They are highly intelligent creatures but do not spot those substances, so we have a problem.
We have a problem with drugs getting into prisons. Anyone who has worked in prisons knows the incredible ways in which prisoners and their families get drugs into prison and the risks they will take, often involving children and relatives. For most of my constituents, it beggars belief that we have a drug problem in prison at all. They are secure institutions, but the problem is a massive one, and we must do an awful lot better. The Minister for Prisons, Probation and Rehabilitation, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), to whom I speak regularly about this, is acutely aware of the issue.
I mentioned what the Prime Minister said because of the much wider point of prison reform. When I was on the Justice Committee, we went to Texas. People always laugh when I say this, but we went to look at how Texas do criminal justice. Actually, Texas do criminal justice in a much more enlightened way than we do in this country. The guy in the state legislature who was behind the Right On Crime initiative said that of the people in prison, we are scared of 30% and mad at 70%, and that we need to get a bit smarter about the people we are mad at and ensure we lock up the people we are scared of. That sums up the philosophy we should have in this country.
I was incredibly pleased to see that the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice recently went to Dallas and Houston to look at the work being done there, in terms of drug courts and getting much smarter about how we tackle abuse and addiction in our society. Abuse and addiction in society will ultimately end up in the secure estate, because the secure estate is merely a reflection of our society, whether we like to admit it or not.
We have to get smarter about how we use criminal justice and correctional facilities in this country; that is the wider point. Amending this piece of legislation on possession in prison is the right way to go, but it is just the icing on the cake. The much bigger picture is dealing with the cake itself, which is who we lock up, why we lock them up and what we do when they are in there. At the moment, they are bored to tears; half the reason they are bored to tears is that they have nothing to do, and the devil makes work for idle minds. Without going into a Christian diversion—I can see I have already tested your patience, Mr Howarth—there is a huge dark side in our prisons, and right now, this is the greatest manifestation of that inside the secure estate. I therefore support the clause.
I, too, appreciate the opportunity to participate in the Committee. This is my first time, so please bear with me. My party has also tabled amendments, and I look forward to discussing them. I welcome, as do others, the fact that there is broad agreement on many aspects of the Bill. We all want to point in the same direction but the issue is how we get there.
I echo much of what the shadow Minister said, in absolutely recognising both the need for action to be taken on prison estates and the challenges that involves, but I am not yet entirely convinced that the measures will achieve the outcomes we want. My party certainly does not oppose the amendments at this stage, but we wish to see further consideration on Report.
In many ways, the issues regarding prison estates are slightly different from the wider issues covered by the Bill. There is an absolute need for a greater education programme, to ensure an awareness of the effects of NPS. In its evidence, the Trading Standards Institute made a point about testing. How can systems be put in place to ensure that substances that enter prisons can be identified as psychoactive and then isolated and taken out of the equation? I again echo the shadow Minister in saying that in the prison estate the need for treatment is even greater than elsewhere. For those who find themselves in a secure estate as a result of an offence caused by NPS addiction, treatment is critical because removing the addiction is the only way to start to take the substances out of the equation—to remove them as today’s currency of choice.
I will be brief at this point, but I again state that we want to see a far greater focus on education and treatment while recognising the need to take action that focuses on prisons in particular.
I fully understand many of the points raised by the shadow Minister and other colleagues. The measures are not a silver bullet; I think we all accept that. Action needs to be taken in the context of better treatment programmes. We are starting to understand that. Addiction to NPS is a particularly difficult matter. The action taken categorically has to be about education, and in the prison estate it also has to be about detection.
The blanket ban helps. We spoke earlier about Spice and Black Mamba. Those are generic terms for a substance that is tweaked by chemists every time we chase the matter. We are here now because we have not been able to get on the front foot, in front of the people who are trying to destroy others’ lives and, frankly, make a small fortune as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, and the shadow Minister, rightly pointed out that there are already sanctions, but they are fairly limited within prisons, to be honest. We need to listen to the experts, to the people who deal with secure estates on a day-to-day basis. If they say that the substances are a major issue not only in that they are a currency in the estates but because of the safety of staff, visitors and prisoners, we need to act. We have tabled the amendment and are making an exemption regarding possession within prisons because that is what we have been asked to do. My Prisons Minister has told me that it is what is being asked for. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester has spoken to some prison governors and I have spoken to others. They have asked for the measure. Is it the only answer? No. NHS England in our part of the world, NHS Scotland and NHS Wales need to step up to the plate and do some more work, because they run the treatment programmes within the prisons.
The director general of NOMs is specifically chairing across groups to make sure that we get a better understanding and better education for staff and visitors. The best option here is not actually to convict anybody but to convince people that they should change their behaviour; but we live in the real world and I acknowledge that that is not going to happen. Nevertheless, we have to send a message. That message was sent to me as the Minister from the people on the frontline that they needed this, and it is my job to make sure that they have it, so I hope that we will approve it.
The Government made a commitment in the other place during the Bill’s passage there to review the existing exemption for research activities and to strengthen it. That commitment was important and we shall push forward with it now, as we would all agree that bona fide research is a vital area. In doing so, we are following the consultation of the Academy of Medical Sciences and others, and we are confident that this exemption is necessary, sufficient and robust.
The new schedule also provides an exemption for healthcare-related activities, which I think we would all support. That is obviously very important. We do not want to make a problem for individuals. We see that this exemption has a complement in the exemption of medical products in schedule 1. In providing the new exemption we are going for a belt and braces approach, and we fully accept that that is what we are doing. I think that is very important.
New clause 3 enables the Home Secretary to add and vary a list of exempted activities in a new schedule. This regulation-making power replaces that in clause 10 of the Bill which covers the same ground, so we will effectively be removing clause 10 and replacing it with new clause 3. In the light of what we have seen in the other place, we felt that that is important. When we get to clause 10, obviously we will not move it. Hopefully we can move on, because I think this is an agreed part of the Bill. It is important that as different substances become available, the Home Secretary has the powers to add to and vary the list.
Government amendment 2 is consequential on later Government amendments, providing for exceptions for medical and academic research. One of the concerns raised by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was about the impact of this legislation on legitimate scientific work. As the ACMD made clear, in the original drafting there was an exemption for clinical trials but no mention of exemption made for laboratory research in academia or industry.
The Academy of Medical Sciences also wrote to the Home Secretary to raise its concerns. An example picked out by the AMS is that the Bill could criminalise neuroscience researchers using psychoactive substances as experimental tools to help us better understand the causes of some mental illness. Several Members of the House of Lords raised that as an issue prior to Report in that place. Lord Rosser, who led on the Bill for Labour in the House of Lords, highlighted on Second Reading that it is of vital importance that the Bill does not
“inhibit or restrict important medical research that will help us to improve our knowledge of drugs and their impact”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 June 2015; Vol. 762, c. 1964.]
I thank Lord Rosser for highlighting that, and for seeking assurances from the Government that the original clause 10 of the Bill will not inhibit or restrict legitimate research by the terms of the Bill. I also thank him for emphasising the need for procedures relating to medical research to be made exempt under the Bill. Without his diligent work, the Government’s new clause, which deals with many of the inadequacies of the original drafting, may not have been possible.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, who spoke passionately on Second Reading about the need for clearer exceptions for medical research. He was absolutely right to raise concerns that the vague definition of psychoactive substances in the Bill will impede legitimate research.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s flattering remarks. The United Kingdom is a world leader in research of this kind. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the unintended consequence of parts of the Bill may be to inhibit some of that research? We need to ensure, therefore, that the Bill is absolutely tight, so that that research can continue.
I certainly agree. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend said:
“Would it not be a tragedy if the United Kingdom, one of the leading research nations in the world, avoided finding a cure for some awful psychiatric disorder due to our failure to include the appropriate exemptions for scientists?”—[Official Report, 19 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 779.]
Thanks to pressure exerted on the Government, Lord Bates, who led the Bill through the Lords for the Government, wrote to Lord Rosser and other peers to state that the Government were actively considering the issue and were in discussion with the ACMD. He pledged that the Government would table amendments addressing concerns about medical research during the Commons Committee stage. His colleague, Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen, stated that the Government have no intention of stopping “bona fide research”. I am glad that the Government listened to Labour’s concerns and have delivered on Lord Bates’s promise by introducing a new clause that will specifically exempt academic activities. I absolutely support the amendments.
However, I cannot help but feel that the Government could have avoided the need hastily to draft the amendments and table some significant information if they had properly consulted the ACMD before they produced the first draft of the Bill. This has been a very quick—I would not say rushed—Bill. We had Second Reading in the Commons a week ago and here we are in Committee, and there are still issues that are yet to be completely ironed out in Committee to make the Bill enforceable in our courts of law.
We need to take into consideration organisations such as the ACMD, which consists of leading experts on drugs, many of whom work in academia. If they had been consulted on the original draft of the Bill, they would undoubtedly have spotted the problems with the Government’s original plans. The amendment could have been in the Bill from the beginning, and parliamentary time could have been spent more productively in looking at the goals of the Bill and how well the Bill will help the Government to achieve them.
At the outset, I want to say that legislation is passed in Parliament by introducing a draft Bill, which is then scrutinised. I welcome the scrutiny that took place in the Lords. The reason why the Bill started in the Lords—this is probably above my pay grade—is that there are so many genuine experts there. Perhaps if it had started in this House the same amendments would have been introduced by colleagues on both sides of the House. I do not mind that; colleagues who know me well enough know that I am pragmatic.
I have a couple of points about the shadow Minister’s comments. This should have been done years ago under previous Administrations—I think we all know that. For every day that we do not do this, people are dying. I accept that it is rushed, to a degree—there was a huge gap between the Bill being in the Lords and coming to us—but it is right and proper for this House to expedite the Bill, while doing everything possible about any anomalies that generally concern groups of people, in particular on the research side. If there were any such anomalies in the legislation, I would let no one prevent us from changing things. That is why we have tabled the amendments. Unashamedly, I have already mentioned belt and braces. If we need to amend things further as we go on, we will do so, so that we do not prevent research in such an important area.
I wanted to touch on the scrutiny work done in the other House. I sat in on the debate on Second Reading and Report, on the steps of the Throne—it is a great honour to be able to do such things—and it was fascinating. One group of people was fundamentally opposed, as in our House, but it was a tiny group. We got around bits such as “Will this affect people in churches with incense?” and, once we had got rid of that stuff, we could actually ask, “Does the Bill do what it says on the tin?” and “Does it allow the research to continue to take place?” which is absolutely vital. New clause 3 would improve the Bill, and that is why we can take out clause 10. That is because we were listening, and this is the way forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.
The Committee has the benefit of a two-for-one offer from the official Opposition: we have not one shadow Minister, but two. We feel strongly that we are dealing not only with a home affairs issue but a public health one. As Labour’s shadow public health Minister, I think it is important for us to have a health voice in Committee.
I will not test your patience, Mr Howarth, by going over what we discussed in detail on Second Reading, but I want to make it clear in the clause stand part debate that we support the general aims of the Bill. The Labour party committed to banning legal highs before the last election, and we do not shy away from that commitment today. On Second Reading we pointed to evidence from the Republic of Ireland and it is true that the only way to draft an effective Bill is to include a blanket ban. Most if not all Members of the House of Commons—
Absolutely, Mr Howarth. I was only stating our agreement. The clause constitutes the overview of the structure of the Bill and creates a blanket ban on the production, distribution, sale and supply of psychoactive substances in the United Kingdom. That is why discussion of the blanket ban was relevant to the stand part debate.
We have to place it on the record, however, that we recognise the need to control the production and supply of such substances, and the need to educate young people about the real nature of the drugs, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said. The Minister was right that drugs such as Black Mamba and Spice are already banned, but they can be tweaked and we need to be on the front foot. We also need to look at the health of prisoners, which is why I am pleased that the Minister has tabled the Government amendments. I am pleased that the issue of research has been clarified, because that situation needed fundamental improvement in the Bill. I am satisfied that the Minister has committed to further improvements on Report, if necessary. We will hold him to that. With that, we fully support the Government’s aims and intentions to ban legal highs.