Illegal Drugs

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 21st March 2001.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mrs. McGuire.]

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 9:30 am, 21st March 2001

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue, which I know is in many ways a cross-party one. I know that there will be much consensus about what I am about to say. Many hon. Members have approached me in the past few days, since I won this spot in Westminster Hall, to say that they would be interested in contributing to the debate; several others who unfortunately cannot be here today have also shown an interest in it.

It is widely accepted that illegal drugs are the scourge of modern society. They ruin lives and leave behind not just death, in many instances, but family break-up, and they are one of the major causes of crime not just in this country but throughout the world. Drug-related crime is conservatively estimated to cost the country £2.5 billion--I have heard much higher estimates. Almost two thirds of criminals test positive for one or more drugs.

Drug use among our youngsters is also worrying, although I stress at the outset that the vast majority of young people do not take illegal drugs. There is a perception that it is the norm for anyone under 25 to do so, but it is not. That should be stressed time and time again. However, a recent study by the Alcohol and Health Research Centre confirmed that teenagers from Britain are more likely than are most of their European counterparts to have taken drugs. The report's author, Dr. Martin Plant, said:

"One of the problems we have is that drug taking has now become so commonplace that it is widely regarded as socially acceptable." The report found cannabis use--that is, the percentage of those who had used it at least once--in Britain to be 35 per cent., in France 35 per cent, in Ireland 32 per cent., in Sweden 8 per cent., and in Greece 8 per cent. So we can see that we have a real problem compared with our European neighbours. The percentages of respondents aged between 16 and 59 in England and Wales reporting the use of cannabis, cocaine and heroin in the British crime surveys of 1994, 1996 and 1998 show an upward trend. Again, we have a real problem: the number of those admitting to taking illegal drugs has increased.

Deaths from hard drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and Ecstasy, have risen dramatically during the past six years. Since 1995, cocaine-related deaths have risen fourfold in England and Wales, while Ecstasy has featured in two and a half times more fatalities. Heroin or morphine-related deaths have risen by 110 per cent. from 357 in 1995 to 754 in 1999. It must be noted that that Office for National Statistics study did not include deaths registered as having been caused by drug overdoses.

Drugs are now commonplace in all parts of our society. More and more companies are testing their employees for drug use. British Airways recently announced that its crews were to face spot tests for drink and drugs--I think that we would all welcome that.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. Does he agree that the taking of hard drugs appears to be getting disproportionately worse in rural areas? The figure for hard drug addicts in Gloucestershire has risen from 28 in 1997 to 112 today. Does he agree that one of the best methods for combating that menace to our society is to have a proper preventive education programme? Only four police officers are dedicated to that task in Gloucestershire. Should not the Government wage war in that respect? Although they have announced a small amount of extra money for the drugs and alcohol action teams, should not they fund more dedicated police officers for a preventive education programme?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Like my hon. Friend, I represent a rural constituency. There is a perception that the drugs problem exists only in big cities and large towns. The Minister will know that that is not the case. There is a drugs problem in rural areas, and because the areas that we represent are so rural and so large, it is difficult to police them. We need to redouble our efforts on prevention, and education is the key. That is how we can get the message across to young people, especially in small rural schools, and we have to do it as early as possible. It is never too early to start.

I welcome the announcement that British Airways is introducing drug testing in the workplace. Doctors and nurses, too, will face random testing for drink and drugs under proposals that are being drawn up by the NHS trusts. The General Medical Council and the majority of medical students back the proposals, although the Royal College of Nursing would prefer the scheme to be voluntary. If we are to be treated by doctors and nurses, we want to know that they are not suffering from the effects of drugs.

Yesterday, we heard that the British Army is reputed to be relaxing its rules against drug use, in order to ease the shortage of recruits. More than 2,300 soldiers have been discharged since drug testing was introduced in 1995. In 1999, 485 soldiers tested positive for illegal drug use. In the last 10 months of last year, 580 tested positive, so the problem is getting worse.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I am most interested in what the hon. Gentleman says. Will he extend his enthusiasm for drug testing to tests for legal and illegal drugs on parliamentarians and civil servants?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

The hon. Gentleman's views on this issue are widely known and sincerely held. I disagree with him on many points, but I agree that we should consider the possibility of extending drug testing into key areas--for instance to pilots. I should not like to be on an aircraft where I thought that the pilot was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The same would apply if I were going into hospital. Drug tests are being used increasingly in many areas of work, particularly where machinery is used. [Interruption.] No, the issue must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. I am not going to rule it out, and I am not going to rule it in.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Surely it is a matter of the greatest seriousness if people are inebriated--and their judgement is therefore affected--when they are in charge of a country, in charge of a legislature, or in charge of a foot and mouth outbreak.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case. His suggestion should be looked at, but on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps the Minister will consider it.

The message for new recruits, according to a headline in the Evening Standard, is that the Army seems to be going soft. I am sure that the last thing that the Government would like is to be seen as a soft touch on drugs. I hope that the Minister will refer to this new policy so that we can find out where the Government stand. A record number of British people are being held in jails abroad, which demonstrates that the problem is still with us, and that it is on the increase. We must be vigilant in all areas, including rural areas, as Mr. Clifton-Brown has said.

My hon. Friend mentioned education, which is how we can make the greatest inroads. The classroom is an important tool in getting the message across to our youngsters as much as possible. The simple fact that we declare substances illegal does not mean that people will immediately be influenced not to use them. We know that the reverse is often true. The chief rabbi wrote a piece in The Daily Telegraph today along those lines.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me again, especially as I am afraid that I cannot stay for the whole debate, as I am due elsewhere. Does he acknowledge that the Cotswold objective group on the role of drugs and alcohol in crime and disorder recently introduced a good initiative in the form of a needle exchange? Not only did many users come forward, but it was discovered that the youngest user in the first week was as young as 12. Does that suggest that the problem is becoming more serious in rural areas and affecting our youngsters at a younger age? We must pay attention to that.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

There is no doubt that people are getting older at a younger age--if that makes any sense; I hope that it is the most illogical statement that I make during the debate. We would all be depressed by the knowledge that people as young as 12 were injecting themselves with illegal drugs. I hope that the support that they receive, in a voluntary or a professional capacity, will be sufficient to wean them off drugs. It is appalling and chilling to think that lives are blighted and wasted before they have even been lived. I shall say a little more about treatment shortly, and I hope that the Minister can respond positively. That 12-year-old should be in the classroom, but I suspect that he rarely visits any classroom, which is absurd. I hope that teachers will receive full support to help and assist that child.

All children and young people have role models. Everyone seems to be dazzled by the glitterati and the soap stars these days. The photograph of Daniella Westbrooke, a former "EastEnders" star, that showed that her nose had been eaten away by cocaine addiction, was one of the most horrifying pictures that I have seen in a national newspaper. I could barely look at it. As most youngsters look towards soap stars as examples that they would like to follow, I suggest that we use that photograph in any advertising campaign. If it cannot put people off snorting cocaine, I do not know what can. I read that she is trying to free herself from her addiction, but, sadly, is regularly relapsing. Few of us understand the pressures of addiction to cocaine and how people free themselves from it. She is certainly no role model for those who look up to people on television, although there are some good role models.

Another celebrity who is no role model is Eminem, about whom there was much publicity when he came here from the United States. There was an investigation following his performance in Manchester, as he was reported to have not only taken drugs on stage in front of 15,000 fans, but encouraged many of them to take Ecstasy and other illegal drugs. I suspect that there were many youngsters, perhaps people as young as 12, in that audience.

I do not know what stage the police investigation has reached. I hope that if it is proven that Eminem, from the stage, encouraged 15,000 fans--some of them may have been children--to take Ecstasy, the Minister will consider the incident seriously and ensure that the information is passed to the Home Secretary and that Eminem is forbidden to come to this country to play here again. It is appalling for someone like that to encourage our young people, who look up to him as a role model, to take drugs. The United States of America has a strong policy on admitting people to the country if they are known to have taken drugs. I hope that we will take an equally hard line and prevent a United States citizen who has so much influence to spread such a message from coming here.

Many others act as role models; I think of Ellen McArthur, Tracey Edwards, Colin Montgomery, Steven Redgrave and David Beckham, who walked out of the Eminem concert with his wife--good on him! He was disgusted by what he saw--Denise Lewis, Tim Henman, Lennox Lewis and Michael Owen also show that young people have many role models.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend has been generous in giving way. Does he agree that the courts have a role to play in deterring those dealing in drugs with intent? A teenager in my constituency on his way to a night club recently was found to have 12 Ecstasy pills. That was far too many for his personal consumption, and he was convicted for dealing with intent. He was sentenced to 20 hours, community service. Does that not send totally the wrong message?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Absolutely. It is a joke. Whenever they can, the police put a lot of effort into cracking down on drugs, but for courts to impose such sentences must be morale-sapping for them. I suspect that no hon. Member would want that.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Given that a thousand times as many people are affected by tobacco, and have their lives wrecked and their health destroyed by it, than are affected by cocaine, and that even more are affected by the abuse of alcohol, will the hon. Gentleman set an example by ending the sale of tobacco and cigarettes in his shop in Swansea?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I would be more than happy. I also sell alcohol, so the hon. Gentleman could get me on that as well. However, he knows that we operate within the law on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol, and I would back a Government advertising campaign that spread information about the dangers of drugs. I happen to own a convenience store--

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

The hon. Gentleman is a drug pusher.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I own a convenience store, and tobacco is one of the many products that we sell. I agree that we need to educate people away from cigarettes and restrict their use of alcohol to a moderate intake. If the Government ever decided to make cigarettes illegal, I would stop selling them immediately. The emphasis is on the Government taking action.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

Following that train of thought, we know that alcohol and tobacco are widely used, including by many hon. Members. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when parents have a cigarette or a glass of whisky to help them unwind at the end of the day, they may give their children the message that it is okay to take drugs to relax or unwind, but that the youngsters may then decide to take another drug that is not as dangerous as alcohol or tobacco?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Yes, that may be the perception, but I do not agree with it. Those who have a gin and tonic to unwind at the end of the evening do not do so to get stoned, but people who take cannabis do. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady is falling into the trap of thinking that cannabis is not so bad, that it is a drug for younger people to use instead of gin and tonic, and that such drinks are only for the grey set. I totally disagree with her. In a moment, I shall cite what Professor Henry says on the subject, and I hope that she will keep an open mind.

I congratulate our teachers. I have spoken to a number of teachers in Ribble Valley over the past couple of days to find out what work they are doing, not only for children but for parents. I understand that it is now the policy for schools to educate parents in how to recognise whether their children are taking drugs. It cannot be an easy job--they are not skilled in it--and teachers would welcome whatever support can be offered. Teachers certainly appreciate life education. I am a Rotarian, and we do a lot to support life education vehicles throughout the country, which spread the message to young people about all substance abuse--not only drugs, but all substances, including glue, over-consumption of alcohol and cigarette smoking. I congratulate the people involved on what they do. I believe that they now have more than 50 mobile classrooms.

There were mixed messages from the Runciman report. I congratulate the Government and the Home Secretary on standing up against its recommendations on reclassification of some drugs. My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold has talked about sending the wrong messages. What message would have been conveyed by reclassification of those drugs in a way that made them appear more acceptable?

I congratulated the Government on establishing the post of drugs tsar, which was a good idea. I hope that the drugs tsar will keep his messages straight and clear. There should be as few mixed messages as possible. When he talks about cracking down on hard drugs he must emphasise that it cannot be inferred that he will therefore be relaxed about soft drug consumption.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has presented a seven-point plan on drug taking. There is not time to list those points now, but it is vital to give head teachers the freedom to implement anti-drugs policies in schools and allow them to exclude pupils when they judge it necessary. There should be an emphasis on education. An emphasis in schools on the illegality of drugs will not have the desired impact. They should emphasise drugs' effect on people.

Professor Henry, a toxicologist who sees accident victims in the course of his work in the accident and emergency unit of St. Mary's hospital, wants more research to be done into the long-term effects of taking so-called soft drugs such as cannabis. I urge the Government to re-examine the need for that work. There is a perception that soft drugs, are not as bad as alcohol. Much research has been done in the United States of America, and we should follow suit, as well as sharing information as much as possible.

I welcomed drug testing and treatment orders when they were introduced, but they have not been as successful as they could have been. I believe that the drop-out rate is 50 per cent., which is far too high. I ask that they be re-evaluated, to ascertain how they can be made more effective.

I have received a letter from the Rev. John Garfoot, a Methodist minister in Norfolk, about treatment of addicts. He wants more Government action, and I agree with him. He writes:

"The basic that drug misuse is treated as a crime problem not as a health issue. Seizures are commendably up but still massive quantities of illicit drugs are getting through to the streets. Arrest referral schemes are good but the damage is already done. What is needed is to attract into treatment drug misusers before they reach this stage. As it is, the only way many can get treatment is to commit an offence and be arrested. So treatment, treatment, treatment should be the watchword." I agree.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the doctor whom he mentioned just now has not only been under investigation by the Home Office in the past, but is currently under investigation by the General Medical Council for prescribing high doses of drugs to the most chaotic addicts? If he is banned from practising, hundreds of the most chaotic drug users in London will be released onto the streets. No other doctors will take them up. Does the hon. Gentleman regard that as serious?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I am not aware of the case that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, and I hope that he will have an opportunity to make his own contribution to the debate. We must ensure that people with a problem receive treatment as early as possible. Banging up some of those drug users in prison without treatment is useless. Forcing them to commit crimes to get treatment is the wrong approach. I hope that the Minister will give close attention to what the hon. Gentleman has said. He is chairman of the all-party group on drugs misuse and takes the issue very seriously.

A legal loophole exists with respect to crack cocaine. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, it is illegal for the owner or occupier of a property to allow cannabis or opium to be smoked on the premises, but the law does not cover crack cocaine, which had not really been heard of when that Act was introduced. I understand that when raids are made, people need only to throw away the drug and they cannot be touched. Please will the Government look again at that?

I turn finally to drug driving, which is a real problem and is on the increase. As the Minister will be aware, I raised the issue on 5 February during Home Office questions, and I urge the Government to consider a four-point plan. This would include, first, a national campaign to highlight the dangers of driving while under the influence of drugs. That should take the form of a high-profile television and poster campaign. Secondly, the highway code should be redrafted to contain more information on the dangers of drug driving. Learner drivers must be expected to know about the dangers. I have a copy of the section of the highway code that deals with alcohol and drugs, and it is so small as to be almost useless.

Thirdly, it should be compulsory to be asked about the issues surrounding drug driving in the driving theory test, and drivers should not be allowed to progress to their driving test unless they have answered the questions correctly. Fourthly, information should be given out when anyone applies for a driving licence, or with other correspondence sent out by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, telling people about the ill effects of alcohol and drugs.

The four-point plan is straightforward. I know that the RAC wants more to be done about drug driving. Indeed, a letter from the RAC states:

"An estimated eighty-five per cent. of 22-25 year olds believe that their peer group regularly drive after taking drugs. Drug driving could be more prevalent than drink driving within this age range." The letter continues:

"Unlike alcohol, most respondents attached little social stigma to driving after having taken ecstasy. One respondent described: 'No, it's not shunned as such. There isn't anybody I know who'd get into a car with somebody that is drunk, but there is an awful lot of people I know who would get into a car with someone who is on E.'"

We must do a lot more. I know that the Home Office recently announced the introduction of roadside tests to find out whether people have taken drugs. I welcome that, as far as it goes, but it seems to go no further than did our attempts to deal with alcohol consumption 20 or 30 years ago. More research is required into effective ways of testing for drugs. Please will the Minister consider the idea of an advertising campaign, and of rewriting the highway code to ensure that it contains much more information about the effects of drug and alcohol consumption on drivers? Will he make certain that the theory test will include questions about alcohol and drug taking, and that anyone who answers those questions incorrectly will fail the test? The problem cannot be over-emphasised.

Someone in my office spoke to the question bank manager at the Driving Standards Agency. He wants the highway code to include more information about drugs, because that would make it possible to question people in more detail about the problems of driving under the influence of drugs or drink. Any action taken by the Government that helps to educate youngsters about the problems of taking drugs will receive full support from the Opposition. We have a common battle to fight, and I want the Government, of whatever political colour, to get on with the job.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West 9:58 am, 21st March 2001

There have been two reports on drugs in the past 12 months. There is the "United Kingdom Anti-Drugs Co-ordinator's Annual Report 1999/2000", which is vacuous piffle, unscientific, self-admiring and useless. Perhaps that is too generous--I tend to be mealy-mouthed whenever I talk about the drug tsar's report. Then there is another report--"Drugs and the Law: Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971"--which is scientific, authoritative, independent and practical. It was written over two years by a group of policemen and scientists, and it comes up with solutions. The sad thing is that the first report represents the policy both of the Opposition and the Government, and the second does not.

I have listened to Mr. Evans with some interest. All drugs are damaging, and one should always make one's own position clear. I am a user of drugs--I am devoted to wine and beer, in modest quantities. They add a great deal of pleasure to my life and help me to relax.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

All drugs are potentially damaging, but they are all part of nature, and gifts from God, to be used in either a detrimental or a beneficial way. On the subject of medicinal drugs, I must repeat that I have never taken an illegal drug in my life--and although I have had arthritis since I was a child, I have not taken any medicinal drugs for the last 25 years, and I do not intend to start doing so.

In considering the drugs problem, it is completely distorted to talk about the harm caused by a small group of illegal drugs and ignore the enormous damage to lives and health caused by legal drugs. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley, as I mentioned earlier, is a purveyor of tobacco and cigarettes, and of alcohol. He might also be a purveyor of medicinal drugs. The number of deaths caused by Ecstasy has been mentioned. Over recent years, the average number of such deaths, which were all terrible tragedies in themselves, and devastating for the families concerned, has been seven. The number of people killed by anti-depressants during every one of the past 10 years is between 400 and 500. More than 1,000 people are killed by analgesics every year, 120,000 by tobacco and 40,000 by alcohol. The costs that follow from all the other problems caused by those drugs are also high.

The hon. Gentleman has outlined the conventional, timid politician's approach, which is inexcusable. We should blame politicians. The hon. Gentleman told a story of failure. The turning point in British drug law was on 27 May 1971. The Misuse of Drugs Act is nearly 30 years old. All the parties agreed about it. The Act started out as Labour legislation and was subsequently taken up by a Tory Government. The result of that legislation--the result of policies the same as those presented by both the Government and the Opposition this morning--has been a 2,000 per cent. increase in drug harm in Britain. We are the worst drug users in Europe. We have more deaths, and they are increasing at a steeper rate, than in any other country in Europe.

For the past 18 months, I have been writing a report for the Council of Europe, as rapporteur for the Committee on social, Health and Family Affairs, which has looked at drug use in 43 countries. There has been a mountainous increase in all drug use in England and Wales--the part of the UK for which there are figures. How dare we, with this record of continuous failure by all Governments, dare to preach at other countries? How dare we reject this independent inquiry, which suggests reforms? Instead of reforming, we fall back on the comfortable, self-admiring report produced in Whitehall, which simply says that we should carry on, appear to do something and throw money at problems. We set up organisations and we create new bureaucracies so as to give an appearance of activity.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley mentioned drug education. That is a fascinating subject. There are incontrovertible reports of drug education leading to increased drug use. However, I know of no case, and I would challenge anyone to produce one, in which anti-drug education has led to a reduction in drug use. We used to talk about Operation Charlie.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's point. Does he agree that more sex education has led to more sexual activity among the young, especially the under-age?

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

That is true, although hon. Members are shaking their heads. That is the effect of the way in which such education is given. If it is merely a damage limitation exercise, which is so often the case with sex education, and, in some cases with drugs education, one will get Mr. Flynn described. However, a genuine drug prevention programme, sustained over a period of time, gives different results, as has been shown in America and elsewhere.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I ask the hon. Lady, as I have asked Governments of both political colours over the years, to give me an example of a scientifically examined anti-drug programme that led to a decline in drug use. Sex education certainly does not have much effect. Most young people in this country have been at it for a long time before sex education arrives in their schools. If we want an example of excellent sex education, we should look to the Netherlands and its remarkably low rate of unwanted pregnancy and abortion. That is the model to follow.

I do not want to take too long, but the hon. Lady should consider what America did in the 1950s, when anti-drugs groups were sent out to tell young people not to do drugs. They told young people that drugs were wicked--which is exactly what young people wanted to hear--and that their parents would not like them to do drugs, which presented them with another challenge. All young people want to do things differently from their parents. The groups also said that drugs were dangerous, but all young people are risk takers and believe that they are immortal. The anti-drugs groups sent out a message that was irresistible to young people, so drug use followed that drugs education programme as surely as night followed day.

There was once something called Operation Charlie, which other hon. Members may want to mention. Again, a tiny piece of drug education that involved 40-odd children for a brief period proved absolutely nothing, but we used it as a basis for our beliefs about what the way out should be. The Government refused to consider the practical policies that have reduced drug harm in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Italy. We should consider fairly what is happening in those countries, which are all moving away from the idea of prohibition, and what is happening in Sweden. Its policy of strict prohibition is similar to Britain's, and drug use there is rising rapidly. Of the 43 countries in the Council of Europe, the two countries with increasing drug problems--although Sweden starts from a low base--are the two most prohibitionist countries. Countries with policies based on intelligence and pragmatism have fewer and reducing problems.

The speech by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley was the traditional one that we have heard many times. He referred to the Rev. John Garfoot. I had a case in my constituency of a young man who had reached the point in his life--as many addicts do after a bereavement, the loss of a relationship or another major event--at which he wanted to kick his drug addiction. That feeling does not always last long. Within a fortnight, he might have changed his mind, but when he came to me, he wanted to get off drugs. Could I, as his MP, or anyone else get him on to a course? I could not. I had to tell him that the only practical way of getting on to a course of treatment for his drug addiction was to commit a crime that was serious enough to put him in prison, and he would receive treatment straight away. That is exactly what happened with the son of a woman who bravely went on Radio 2 and said that she wanted her son to live. That is the current position in this land.

We are going down that road because of political cowardice and our failure to face up to the practical ways of helping people. We, as politicians, must take some of the blame. We cannot blame drugs, because they are inert substances, with which mankind can do as it wishes. By refusing to take hard decisions, we in the House are responsible for drug deaths. If present trends continue, there will be at least 1,000 avoidable drug deaths in Britain during the 10 years of the policy in the document, and we will be to blame. We can try to blame drug pushers, but why do they exist?

There is an illegal drug trade, and drugs empires, because we have prohibition. We are following exactly the same policies of prohibition that were followed in America in the 1920s with alcohol, and we are therefore having the same experience. The only way to start to get control of the drug problem and reduce it, instead of increasing it every year, is to collapse the illegal, criminal and irresponsible black market and replace it with a market than can be licensed, controlled, policed and regulated. At present, there is not a child in this country, of almost any age, who cannot get hold of a soft drug. If we had a licensed market on which soft drugs were available, people who sold drugs to children would lose their licences and go out of business.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

The hon. Gentleman must be aware of the enormous amount of smuggling in cigarettes and alcohol from the continent to this country that is taking place now. Does he not realise that, if we have the licensed system that he suggests, white van man will come into this country with truckloads of illegal, or licensed, substances, and children would have access to them, too?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Where does the hon. Gentleman think white van man is now? How does he think uncontrollable amounts of drugs are getting into Britain now? The price of heroin has hardly changed in 40 years; there is no problem with the supply of drugs coming into Britain, as there is an open door for drugs. In a legal market there could be some control over the sale of drugs, but there is no control over an illegal market. There are other advantages, too: if people use the drugs legally they can take them without having to mix the soft drug cannabis with the terrible, addictive, killer drug tobacco, which the hon. Member for Ribble Valley sells in great quantities. People could take soft drugs by other means--by eating, by drinking, or through inhalers, for example--which are far safer than smoking. They could also take milder forms of drugs in a market where they were not prohibited.

In the United States under prohibition, the alcohol that was sold was distilled spirit, which was concentrated and easy to transport, but the alcoholic content was difficult to control. In this country now we have drugs and their lethal and addictive products in their most concentrated form. If there was a legal market for cannabis, the situation would be the same as it is in Holland, where people do not set out to get stoned; the hon. Member for Ribble Valley is entirely wrong about that. They have a choice of perhaps a dozen different forms of cannabis that they can smoke, or take in drinks or in a cake. In a legal market, the great majority take the mildest forms of drugs, as most of us drink wine or beer rather than spirits.

The responsibility is on us, as parliamentarians, to look fairly, intelligently and rationally at the drugs problem. The main difficulty is our own political prejudices and our fear of being pilloried as drug pushers by the popular press. It is the job of politicians not to follow what the tabloids tell us, but to give a lead; that is the only way for us to reduce drug harm.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

I shall call the party spokespersons no later than 10.30 am. I should be grateful if the remaining two Back Benchers could divide the time left until then between them.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East 10:12 am, 21st March 2001

I congratulate Mr. Evans on securing a debate on this important topic. In 1999, when Keith Hellawell published his first annual report, we had a major debate on the subject that took an entire Friday afternoon. I had hoped that that exercise would be repeated last year, and I asked the Leader of the House to secure such a debate, but one was not forthcoming. I hope that the Minister will take note of that, because drug misuse is Britain's number one social problem and all hon. Members should be given the chance to debate the anti-drugs co-ordinator's annual report when it is published.

When the Government took office, we were spending about £1.75 billion annually on tackling the misuse of drugs. Since then, the figure has increased several times, most recently in the March Budget. Will the Minister give us an up-to-date figure on what all the Departments are spending on tackling the issue?

When the Government began their work in 1997, most of that money was spent on enforcement, but little treatment was available for addicts or those who were affected by drugs. Since then, I have pressed the Government to move more closely to the treatment end of the spectrum. I believe that drugs misuse is a health issue with criminal consequences, rather than a criminal issue with health consequences. However, until recently, the increased sums devoted to tackling drugs issues have been spent at the enforcement end of the spectrum, and we have left it rather late to increase treatment provision.

I am worried that people who enter treatment via the Government's enforcement measures will gain preferential treatment over those who have not. Mr. Flynn illustrated that problem with an example. Surely it should be the other way round: those addicted to drugs or who have a drug problem should be able to secure preferential treatment without entering the criminal justice system.

I stress from the outset that I strongly deplore the misuse of all substances, including alcohol and tobacco. Ultimately, however, prohibition will not work. It is a complex issue, and I am pleased that we are able to debate it today. As it is difficult to collect data on such illegal activities, we do not know the scale of the problem. However, I congratulate the Government on devoting more money, which is long overdue, to researching drugs misuse. We must understand what drives people to the brink and how to stop them taking that path. Health and treatment must be available at the time of need.

Last year, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs published a report, "Reducing Drug-Related Deaths", which I recommend to right hon. and hon. Members. It states that alcohol is responsible for 28,000 to 32,000 deaths per annum, and that smoking kills about 120,000 people per annum. We also know precisely how many deaths--580, in 1998--are caused by paracetamol. Unfortunately, we do not know precisely how many deaths are caused by illegal drugs--or even by legal ones such as methadone, an opiate substitute.

The report provides two figures for deaths by drugs overdose. On page xii, the 1998 figure is quoted at between 1,076 and 2,997, but, on another page in the main body of the report, the figure of 2,300 is given. That illustrates how we do not know the precise number of deaths attributable to drugs. Thousands of deaths are also caused by infection following the injection of drugs as a result of HIV and the hepatitis B and C viruses.

The report refers to the failure of coroners' offices to challenge death certificates signed by doctors before they forward the data to the Office for National Statistics, in London. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell us what action the Government are taking to implement the recommendations of that excellent report?

Page xx of the report states:

"We conclude that the current system for collecting and reporting of drug related deaths in the UK stands in need of considerable amendment and strengthening". I urge the Government to take note of that advice.

It is not only illegal drugs that cause deaths. The benzodiazepines are responsible for an ever-increasing number of deaths, especially when taken with other drugs such as alcohol. According to the dance magazine Mixmag, which takes a responsible attitude to drugs misuse, GHB--or gamma-hydroxybutyrate--is becoming an increasingly used so-called "recreational drug". If the chemistry is understood, it can be manufactured in the kitchen sink. We do not need to import drugs from abroad on to the dance scene. Irresponsible people--some of whom have had no training in synthetic chemistry--can make them in the garage or at home. We must get across to young people the dangers of using this veterinary anaesthetic, especially at the same time as alcohol consumption, when it can be fatal.

The drug pushers recognise that fashions and drugs change to suit the mood of the day, especially on the dance scene. Unfortunately, "brown and white" has now entered that scene; drug pushers are dangerously mixing brown heroin with white cocaine and pushing it to young people as a new substance without telling them the main constituents. There is therefore a new danger of poly-drug use, which has become a mega-problem in Britain.

Hon. Members might be surprised to learn that, according to coroners' reports, the hotspots for deaths from drug use are Blackpool and the Fylde, Brighton and Hove, inner London north, Lincoln, Peterborough, Norwich, Pembrokeshire and Reading. Some of those towns and cities would not be uppermost in our minds as hotspots of drug misuse and death.

Loss of tolerance to opiates is the principal cause of death, especially for prisoners who have served relatively short sentences. During that time, they may have largely abstained, thus developing a reduced tolerance to the opiates that they were taking before entering prison. Therefore, proper aftercare for prisoners is essential if we are to avoid their deaths through overdose on release. So far, however, aftercare has been fairly pathetic.

We must also consider the impurity of street drugs. When one young person died from one ecstasy tablet, the world lit up with headlines about it. Sadly, last year, when almost 50 people, mainly in the Glasgow, Merseyside and Greater Manchester regions, died from injecting biologically contaminated heroin into muscle tissue, those events were, by comparison, hardly mentioned in the national press. It was a great tragedy that went unnoticed.

I cannot understand why we do not return to the system of positively encouraging heroin addicts to register at clinics and prescribing them clinically pure heroin until we can wean them off it. That happened before 1971, and I urge the Government to re-examine the idea. It would take heroin addicts off the streets and away from the dangerous street heroin, and treat them as people whose health is at risk.

The debate will continue, and I hope that it does so in greater depth than we have time for today, because it is important to talk about social problem number one. The illicit drugs trade is one of the largest industries in the world--larger than steel or automobiles--and represents 8 per cent. of world trade. It is a pyramid selling racket that not only damages our health, but severely damages the economy. No tax is paid to the Government, and most profits leak out of the country to end up offshore.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Labour, Kilmarnock and Loudoun 10:22 am, 21st March 2001

I congratulate Mr. Evans on securing such an important debate. Mr. Flynn and for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) demonstrate the complexity of the issues that are involved. The extent of the problems that we have discussed so far perhaps shows that we should have had the debate on the Floor of the House. Certainly, enough is said about how important and difficult the issue is and how it is one of the greatest challenges that faces our society, but we do not seem to debate it much.

At the risk of encouraging my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West to suggest that I am just reinforcing failure, I will speak about the extent of drug trafficking and dealing in our communities. I recently spoke to the deputy divisional commander in my constituency, who told me that the police estimate that 80 per cent. of crimes of dishonesty--excluding car crimes--in my constituency are committed to fund a drug habit. An article in The Guardian on 10 July 1998 stated that the Office for National Statistics estimated that total consumer spending on drugs in Britain is somewhere between £4.3 billion and £9.9 billion.

Undoubtedly, illegal drugs and their abuse destroy families, lives and communities. One of the greatest obscenities, particularly in some communities in western Scotland, is that criminal dealers flaunt their wealth and power in the communities that they destroy. Throughout the land, individuals with no visible means of support enjoy life styles that belie their legitimate status. Not only does their trade destroy those with whom they live, but they rub people's noses in their manifest wealth--their life style often includes large cars and houses, foreign holidays and ostentatious spending.

There has been a manifest failure to reinforce the message that crime does not pay. The 1998-99 report of Her Majesty's chief inspector of constabulary in Scotland states:

"An important dimension of impacting on drug traffickers... is the money they derive from it. Confiscating their assets is increasingly seen as a vital part of the law enforcement effort. Despite legislative advances and focus by police and the Crown the end results remain disappointing. About £630,000 is the total of orders made and the monies actually collected can be less. This is significantly disproportionate to the money made from crime." For about 12 years, a substantial body of law, designed to help confiscate the assets of crime, has been in place. It has the stated objectives of punishment: denial of access to funds to resume criminal activities, deterring others and taking criminal money out of circulation--but they are just not working. In Scotland in 1999-2000, confiscation orders amounted to £822,270. To put that into perspective, the report from which I gleaned that information estimates that the current cost of the financial investigation in Scotland by police forces was, in terms of staff alone, £900,000. We are still only reaching the tip of the iceberg, yet we are spending more money than we can ever hope to recover. In 1995, research for the Home Office concluded that as much as £100 million from drug trafficking was likely to be available for confiscation--so why are we so poor at it?

Apart from the underlying philosophy about legislation of illegal drugs, it is clear that the legislation fails because it is possible to confiscate only where there has been a conviction. Even then, the courts are not obliged to confiscate the proceeds of crime; they only "may" do so. That contrasts with the effective use of legislation for civil confiscation and forfeiture in the Republic of Ireland--I had intended to speak in detail about that, but I shall pass over it quickly. The police themselves conclude that in Scotland there is a disparity between forces and their approach to asset confiscation. Senior officers lack commitment to that; it is seen as ancillary to core police work and there is a preconception that criminals have no assets worth recovering.

It is interesting, in the light of the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, that agencies--this includes government agencies--do not always work effectively together in sharing information. They are hidebound by legal and procedural constraints that allow the sharing of information and intelligence only in circumstances that prevent, or help to detect, crime, that help to apprehend offenders, or that allow the assessment or collection of duty or tax. Another report mentioned a case study that is relevant in that regard:

"The police were investigating and ultimately arrested an individual whom they suspected of trafficking in drugs. During the course of the investigation, documents in possession of the Inland Revenue were turned over to the police. These documents revealed that for the past 10 years, the defendant had reported to the Inland Revenue that his earnings rose from his activities as a drug trafficker. Since he always paid a substantial tax Bill, the Inland Revenue did not complain."

There is a lack of general awareness among the community at large of the importance of whistleblowing and suspicious transactions. The evidence suggests that money-laundering legislation works well in the financial service industries. Indeed, there are regularly about 14,000 disclosures per year to the National Criminal Intelligence Service economic crime unit. A straw poll in my constituency of businesses who must trade with people who deal in drugs revealed a total lack of awareness of obligations in that regard. The Government are working on that, and have announced a major initiative in the draft Proceeds of Crime Bill, which will introduce civil confiscation, tighten up on money laundering and implement the second European Union money laundering directive.

In Scotland the report of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary has helped significantly to improve the work of the police in this area, as has the setting up of the Scottish Drugs Enforcement Agency. There have been additional resources. We must increase awareness both among the public and the business community of their responsibilities. Again at the risk of bringing my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West to his feet, I shall mention the fact that as a consequence of the deaths in the west of Scotland that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East spoke about, our tabloid newspaper, the Daily Record, has run a persistent campaign to empower communities against drug dealers. I unequivocally support that campaign, because communities are being destroyed not just by the presence, but by the activities of those people.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Labour, Kilmarnock and Loudoun

I will not on this occasion, as I am concerned about the time.

Finally, there is no reason why we cannot empower our communities to deal with this, but parliamentarians and the Government have an obligation to put in place the framework for a confiscation programme that shows people that crime does not pay.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

Before I call Jackie Ballard, may I ask the three party spokespersons to respect the convention of speaking for only 10 minutes each?

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton 10:31 am, 21st March 2001

At the beginning of the 20th century a professor of physic at Cambridge university wrote in a standard medical text book:

"The sufferer is tremulous and loses his self command, he is subject to fits of agitation and depression. He has a haggard appearance, a renewed dose of the poison gives temporary relief but at the cost of future misery." The professor was talking about coffee. As Mr. Flynn said, no drug, either legal or illegal, is totally harmless. Alcohol and tobacco are responsible for many deaths and the related illnesses put high demands on the NHS. So does tranquilliser addiction. Dr. Iddon gave us some figures for that.

Ideally, none of us would use any kind of drugs except for medicinal purposes, but it is not an ideal world. For reasons of low self-esteem, stress, boredom and unhappiness, many people take drugs to help them to relax, unwind or escape from life's pressures. We have all, I expect, met someone whose life has been blighted by drugs. My father died of cirrhosis of the liver, so I know from close hand the impact that alcohol can have on an individual and on the family. I recently met a 17-year-old who had been involved in crime since the age of six. He started burgling people's houses when he was six because he was small, and the older boys with whom he hung out gave him crack cocaine as a reward. His life has followed a fairly disastrous path ever since. He had written himself off at the age of 17, as having no hope of redemption.

A young man from my constituency was convicted of dealing in Ecstasy at the age of 18. He was a university student and his case may have been similar to that described by Mr. Evans. It was his turn to get the Ecstasy for the others in his flat, and he therefore had more in his possession when the flat was raided than one person would be expected to need or use. He was convicted of dealing and ended up spending two years in Strangeways prison. That obviously has had a major impact on his life. He has not only experienced imprisonment, but acquired a criminal record. A criminal record for drug dealing will affect his ability to travel to other countries for the rest of his life.

There is no argument between us about the fact that drugs of whatever kind are harmful and can damage individuals and society. The big question is what can we do about it. In 1994, the chief constable for West Yorkshire said:

"The current policies are not working. We seize more drugs, we arrest more people, but when you look at the availability of drugs, the use of drugs, the crime committed because of and through people who use drugs, the violence associated with drugs it's on the increase. It can't be working." That chief constable was Keith Hellawell.

One member of the Conservative party has advocated the legalisation of all drugs as a liberalisation issue, arguing that it should be of personal choice. Many former chief constables support the legalisation of all drugs on the grounds that it would cut off a large income supply from organised crime. Some people say that legalisation of cannabis alone, for example, would send a more credible prevention and education message about the more harmful hard drugs. It would also allow for regulation of the quality of drugs, thus reducing health risks. That is an argument for legalising all drugs. I am surprised by the number of young people who are, say, vegetarians or vegans, and check the labels on every product that they buy in the supermarket, yet will buy tablets in a nightclub. They have no idea of the content or purity of those tablets.

Prohibitionists argue that cannabis is a gateway drug to harder drugs, which are more damaging to society because of the cost of addiction and the associated crime. When I recently visited a drug treatment centre at a prison in Devon, I was shown statistics on gateway drugs. Without exception, all the hard drug users who had gone through the treatment centre had started by smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol when they were very young. Desperation and diminishing returns had encouraged them to move on to harder drugs. Some of them had not even tried cannabis, and only a tiny fraction of the 6 million people in this country who have used cannabis move on to harder drugs. Many drug addicts are also alcohol-dependent; their problem is one of dependency. Because cannabis is illegal, users have to resort to dealers to buy supplies, and of course, it is in the dealer's interest to try to introduce them to harder, more lucrative and addictive drugs. Some people argue that legalisation of cannabis would break that link and, rather than leading to increased hard drug use, would reduce it.

Some people say that cannabis could, in effect, be decriminalised simply by non-enforcement of the law. That already happens in many police force areas. The percentage of people dealt with by cautioning in 1988 was 25 per cent; in 1998, 39 per cent. This is another example of a postcode lottery: in some areas, people are given a caution; in others, they go to court and receive a fine or even risk imprisonment. The Police Foundation report, which was mentioned earlier, recommended that drugs classifications and penalties should be adjusted to reflect current scientific understanding of the relative risks that different drugs pose. I will not go through the report's recommendations; I am sure that hon. Members who are interested in the subject will have examined them. However, Dame Ruth Runciman said:

"We have concluded that the most dangerous message of all is that all drugs are equally dangerous." Not all drugs are equally dangerous, but all drugs are dangerous to some extent.

Much more needs to be done to provide treatment for people who have an addiction. Other hon. Members mentioned the difficulty of getting treatment. I recently received a letter from a parent in my constituency whose son, a heroin addict, has been committing burglaries to support his habit. The father desperately wanted treatment for his son but was told that the burglary offences were not serious enough for automatic treatment referral. The suggestion was that the son needed to commit some more serious offence.

The lack of residential treatment facilities is a huge problem. People who have been through drug treatment units in prison often need follow-on residential facilities when they leave prison, but those are not there for them.

In my view, prohibition has not kept the number of users down. It uses valuable resources and criminalises large sections of the population. It is time for us, as politicians, to catch up with the debate--we are not leading it; many national newspapers and members of the public are ahead of us--and to stop being politically timid. We must develop an effective drugs policy with the objective of reducing the harm caused to society and individuals by drug misuse of all kinds, whether legal or illegal.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton 10:39 am, 21st March 2001

I congratulate Mr. Evans on introducing tMr. Flynn has been as consistent as ever--we expect nothing less--but I must point out, in response to his scathing remarks about education and prevention, that drink-driving education has actually worked. Dr. Iddon made the point that we should have a full day's debate on drugs. I second that, and also his comments about immediate treatment programmes for all those who need Mr. Browne made a thoughtful contribution, predominantly about drug-related crime.

It is obvious to everyone--this was remarked on earlier--that the Opposition support the Government in their overall policy towards illegal drugs. From time to time, we have made constructive suggestions. For example, we believe that there should be greater emphasis on tackling the supply side. The work of customs officials, National Criminal Intelligence Service personnel and others involved in the struggle to prevent drugs from reaching the United Kingdom should be highly valued, not least because those people are becoming ever more successful in preventing huge shipments from reaching our shores. However, we all know that the amount of drugs that enter the country illicitly continues to cause concern. How can we best ensure that people, especially the young, are aware of the nature of those substances? What can we as a society do to protect the vulnerable from succumbing to peer pressure, and possibly ruining their lives by taking drugs?

In February, the drugs tsar, Keith Hellawell, said that:

"we need to discriminate between different drugs and the relative harm caused." That is right to an extent, and explains why the Government have concentrated on heroin and other class A substances. However, it would be a fundamental error to ignore class B substances, especially cannabis, for several valid reasons. We all know the cannabis problems that face us at the moment. So many members of the public, especially the young, do not know that the drug has psychological and physical side effects, some of them serious.

The main psychoactive ingredient, THC, has certain psychological effects, which is why there is widespread, so-called recreational use to experience highs, altered states of consciousness characterised by emotional changes such as relaxation, altered perception and heightened sensory experiences. Not many people are told of the possible unpleasant psychological reactions to cannabis intoxication. Evidence supports the occurrence of more serious, although rarer, psychological problems. Dr. Andrew Wilski recently wrote:

"Today in my work as a consultant psychiatrist, I would estimate that 75 per cent. of the young people I see suffering psychotic illness have a history of cannabis abuse". That is a telling figure.

Cannabis also has a more subtle, universal effect on concentration, memory and co-ordination, which I would have thought was not frightfully good for students. Another concern is the effect of cannabis on psychomotor functions, which has implications for driving, when perceptual accuracy and attention are vital. There are comparisons with intoxicated drivers who cause accidents. That serious problem was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley.

There can also be physical side effects, including increased heart rate, lower blood pressure, damage to the respiratory system and development of lung cancer. There is a 20 to 30-year latency period between the initiation of regular smoking and the development of cancer. Decriminalisation of cannabis will hugely increase the numbers of people who smoke on a regular basis. Thirty years down the track, we will see further lung cancers. THC promotes tumour growth. Well-documented research points out that cannabis can affect fertility, and when used in pregnancy can impair foetal development.

There are also worries that cannabis is a gateway to other drugs. Hon. Members have talked about the serious consequences of the use of hard drugs. Many cannabis users do not go on to use harder drugs--but studies have found links between cannabis and heroin, and I do not think that any user of heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy or other drugs has not begun by using cannabis. One reason advanced for that is that using cannabis puts young people in contact with users and sellers of the drugs, increasing the risk that they will be exposed to, and urged to try, more drugs.

Last February, the drugs tsar and the Minister for the Cabinet Office agreed that the Government should turn a blind eye to soft drugs. Now, however, Keith Hellawell appears to have changed his mind. Research in New Zealand found that young people who had smoked a joint once a week were 60 times more likely to take hard drugs in future. As a result of that finding, he stated:

"The pro-legalisers who have said that cannabis isn't a gateway drug will have to look at this hard and long."

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Forgive me, but because our time is so restricted, I must proceed. Keith Hellawell continued:

"I can say now cannabis is a gateway drug. I have not found any evidence anywhere that cannabis is not harmful, is not carcinogenic or that its usage will not lead to harder drugs."

More than half of all young people have not taken drugs. Of those who do, many resist moving on to other more harmful drugs. We must support those young people, but it is vital that Ministers send out the right message. To support young people, it is important that we have a national campaign. The drug action teams, which were set up to deliver drug treatment and prevention programmes locally, obviously cannot introduce a national campaign, which must be introduced by the Government, the drugs tsar, or a combination of the two. The same constructive message must be reinforced by schools, Churches, parents, people in sport, people in the music and entertainment industry, and any individual or organisation with influence over the young. We need such a sustained campaign, not to preach at our young people but to explain why, in their own best interest, they should stay off drugs, including cannabis.

I for one could never go down the path taken by the Liberal Democrats, or by others in the Chamber who have said that they believe that decriminalisation would solve the problem. I deplore some press statements, and some articles in what I would usually call responsible newspapers. I think it almost impossible that if we decriminalised, we could ever reduce the number of drug users. That point of view is seconded by the deputy administrator of the Drugs Enforcement Agency in the United States, who said:

"Whether all drugs are eventually legalised or not, the practical outcome of legalising even one, like cannabis, is to increase the amount of usage among all drugs. It's been said that you can't put the genie back in the bottle."

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I invited the hon. Lady to come to the Netherlands. She would find there that decriminalising cannabis, by separating the two markets, has meant that young people can use soft drugs in safer ways and less harmful forms, and not be exposed to the hard drugs market. The result of 20 years of decriminalisation of soft drugs in the Netherlands has been that use has reduced to a fraction of what it is here. Why does the hon. Lady persist in the nonsense of saying that decriminalisation would increase use? It does not.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Gentleman always makes that point. Of course, more factors than decriminalisation are involved, as he knows. I mentioned, for example, the difference in the number of abortions and single mothers in Holland, and the difference in the number of young people who do not take drugs of any description. That is partly because the family situation in the Netherlands is much more supportive than it is here--in fact, our traditional family has broken down. Other factors are involved, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Netherlands is the drugs centre of Europe. There is manufacturing and growing there; we import Ecstasy and other things from the Netherlands.

Indeed, if the hon. Gentleman lived in the outskirts of Amsterdam, he would not like to see the pimping and other activities that feed on the drug taking there. I am sorry, but far more factors bear on the problem in the Netherlands than those that the hon. Gentleman--disingenuously, as always--picked out from his bucket of reasons. I disagree with him. He may be able to live with the consequences of decriminalisation, if it ever happens--but I could never bear to take that risk, and would not want it on my conscience. I believe that many other people in this country feel the same way.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office) 10:50 am, 21st March 2001

I congratulate Mr. Evans on securing this debate and thank him for his bipartisan approach to such an important and serious issue, which affects all our communities. As can be seen from the piles of paper under which I am almost buried, it will be impossible for me to answer all the points raised in the debate, but I will write to hon. Members whose questions I do not have time to deal with.

The emphasis in the debate has varied between the view that this is a health problem with criminal consequences, and the view that it is a criminal problem with health consequences. It is actually both, which is why the Government's policy on drugs has four prongs. First, we intend to provide education to help prevent young people, in particular, from becoming drug users. The second prong is treatment. The third is to cut off the supply of drugs, and the fourth is to protect communities, which are often badly damaged by drugs. I thank hon. Members who have given their support to that approach today.

All communities are affected by drugs. One of the earlier contributions to the debate emphasised that drug abuse is a problem that is increasing more in the countryside than in urban areas. I thank Dr. Iddon for providing some extremely interesting statistics about the areas where unlawful drug taking has the worst consequences. However, the problem is not just rural or just urban; it affects all our communities.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley talked about the Eminem concert. Clearly, I cannot comment on that because the police are investigating the matter. However, it is worth saying--although it is an obvious thing to say--that the law should be applied to everyone equally, whether they are pop stars, footballers or anything else, and whether they are encouraging people to take unlawful drugs or inciting violence against certain groups.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley made the case for his four-point plan to deal with drug driving. He mentioned that he had raised the matter at Home Office questions. I am aware that he has also been in correspondence with Lord Whitty on the matter, and I want to quote briefly from Lord Whitty's letter to the hon. Gentleman, because it deals precisely with the sort of education campaign that he suggested. Lord Whitty wrote:

"The Department is working on the question of an appropriate publicity campaign. One of the key questions for an effective campaign is the precise nature and extent of the problem because all the professional advice we have tells us we would need to target the campaign accordingly (as demonstrated by the success of the drink-driving campaigns). We would need to give positive advice informed by research and for enforcement to be backed up by reliable detection methods. We do not believe that a generalised campaign (or generalised information such as you have suggested) would necessarily reach the right people." Lord Whitty recognises that there is a problem, but we need to think more about direct use of resources to target the problem. A specific approach, rather than a more generalised campaign, is needed.

The point that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley raised about the law not covering crack smoking on premises is partially true. The police can take the same action against the owners of crack houses as they would against the owners of pubs and clubs where dealing was encountered. We are considering whether the relevant provisions of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 need to be updated, but in considering whether to extend the scope of the existing offences we are mindful of the concerns of voluntary organisations that work with drug misusers. They are extremely concerned about their own liability to prosecution.

It is possible to become extraordinarily depressed when some hon. Members say that the problem is always growing worse. We have a 10-year strategy, and the targets that we published in the second annual report are being met. In response to Mr. Clifton-Brown asked about young people taking drugs, I must point out--although I do not want to over-emphasise this--that according to research by John Balding, the number of 14 to 15-year-olds who experimented at least once with illegal substances fell to about 26 per cent. in 1998, from 32 per cent. in 1996. That is a glimmer of hope, and although it does not mean that the problem is solved, it is an important statistic.

If there was a common theme or question between those with a belief in liberalising the drugs regime and those who support the bipartisan approach of the two Front Benches, it was that there should be no criminal gateway to treatment for drugs problems. We all agree about that. The Government strategy is aimed at providing treatment for all who need it. The investment in treatment is almost doubling, from £234 million in 2001-02 to £400 million by 2003-04. That was announced as part of the spending review settlement. We are setting up a new National Treatment Agency to bring about a step change in treatment services, based on that major new investment.

I do not want hon. Members to think that we are complacent. The situation is not satisfactory.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Is there any Government research into the effectiveness of different forms of treatment? Are the programmes good value for money, and do they produce the results that the Government want?

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I can take this opportunity to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East and the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) that programmes are assessed for effectiveness, and that we need to improve our empirical and evidence base on what motivates or drives people to take drugs.

Mr. Browne, who talked about recovering the proceeds of crime, made his points extremely well. The answer to his question is similar to the one that I gave to the hon. Member for Congleton. Several proposals in the draft Proceeds of Crime Bill would undermine criminal markets. We have increased the amount of assets being seized, but it is not sufficient at present. Making the law more effective will satisfy the objectives of one of those four prongs, which is to destroy supply lines and stop people making a profit from the drug market. I do not have time to say more. I thank the hon. Member for Ribble Valley for initiating the debate.