Drugs

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 28th October 2004.

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Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Assistant Chief Whip, Whips 2:30 pm, 28th October 2004

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills what steps the Government have taken to assess the effect of the availability of illegal drugs in schools on antisocial behaviour.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

Evidence from the Department of Health's survey "Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people" indicates that there is a strong link between truancy and exclusion from school and drug taking. We have made it clear that illegal drugs have no place in schools. We are supporting head teachers and governing bodies, together with local partners, including the police, in their efforts to tackle illegal drugs in schools.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

I thank the Minister for her reply. I apologise for not being here at the start of the sitting and for having to leave quite soon to take part in the debate on the Floor of the House. However, it is difficult to be in two places at once.

There is anecdotal evidence that recreational drugs in particular—ecstasy being one such drug—are freely traded in some schools. School heads and staff are reluctant to involve the police in stopping and searching pupils in the school grounds, because it would give the school such a bad reputation. What advice does the Minister have for head teachers and staff who realise that some of their pupils may be taking drugs or, more seriously, trading them?

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I am quite surprised by the experience in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, because we are encouraging more and more schools to have a police presence on the premises. Indeed, a new school is being built in my constituency that will have a mini police station or a place for a police surgery within the grounds.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

The hon. Gentleman expresses surprise, but I think that it is important to have all those services that support children and families located around the area where they feel safe. Whether it is the police, health and youth services or other services, having them located together is a positive move to encourage positive behaviour, rather than always coming in when things have gone wrong and having to implement measures such as antisocial behaviour or parenting orders.

I am surprised by the comments of Mr. Atkinson. Perhaps he will write to me about the schools where he has had such experience. We are encouraging heads to work much more closely with schools. We are providing a lot of education about drugs and we are training teachers to provide better education to prevent children moving into the drug culture.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

I am slightly horrified by the Minister's last reply. What a state we have got into. I wanted to ask her about cannabis use in the school playground. There is growing evidence of a reaction that can cause mental health difficulty leading to antisocial behaviour among a significant minority of young people who take cannabis. Will the Government look again at the decision that they made some months ago to reclassify cannabis as a class C drug? Was that not with hindsight a rather absurd decision?

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Caroline Flint, who is the great expert on drugs in the Home Office, will deal with that. I want to come back on the issue of whether it is horrifying to have a police presence within a school. [Hon. Members: "A police station."] There will be some police officers based in the school.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

There is a mistaken view being expressed in that horror that the police are not there to prevent crimes but simply to detect them. If we want to build confidence among young people in the police service and if we want to move from always intervening only when things have gone wrong, we cannot keep the police as a separate arm. If we want to build that stronger preventive infrastructure and to prevent children and young people from falling through the net, it is important to have the police service and the whole of the criminal justice system engaged in the support services that we provide for children and young people, whether that is through health services, social care, or education.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I do not agree with Mr. Streeter that it was a mistake to reclassify cannabis. We have classifications to demonstrate the different harms of drugs. It is important that we do that in a credible way. Our polling has shown that the work we did during the reclassification process was successful, because the vast majority of young people continue to believe that it is an illegal drug. Having said that, the whole point of the work that we do for young people on substance misuse is geared to deal with all sorts of drugs—both illegal and legal—that young children can get into a pattern of misusing. We have pooled the young people's treatment budget from a number of different organisations so there is one pot locally. Local people and agencies can decide how best to use that money.

Young people from 10 places are currently involved in drug-testing pilot schemes; even if a person does not test for a class A drug, evidence of other substance misuse will be attended to. This is about the relative harms of different drugs and having credible information with which to engage young people, but making sure that they recognise that all drugs in all classifications do harm. However, that harm is relative.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

That we should have mini-police stations at schools is symptomatic of the dreadful state to which our once great nation has sunk.

On a wider subject and leaving drug abuse to one side, is the Minister not concerned about solvent abuse, which has resulted in more deaths among teenagers than drug abuse in recent years? Is she not concerned that the main thrust of the education programme of the Department for Education and Skills on that front is to do with the drugs themselves and has remarkably little to do with solvent abuse? Will she commit the Government to increasing the amount of education on the subject of solvent abuse?

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

The hon. Gentleman makes a point. Many substances, both legal and illegal, cause huge problems if they are misused by anyone—but especially by young people. Last year, I and my colleagues from the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health started a project called "Blueprint", which is being carried out in years 7 and 8 at about 25 schools. It has brought together some of the best practices in drug education and prevention among young people from around the world.

I was pleased to visit a school in Lancashire, which is looking at a whole range of habits, from illegal drugs to solvents, cigarettes and alcohol—and also prescribed drugs. Some children have access to prescribed drugs at home, and there have been some terrible accidents as a result of children not realising the seriousness of using drugs straight from the medicine cabinet. It is an important issue, and we are looking across the board for better ways to engage with young people, in order to explain the consequences of taking substances that could have serious effects. Access to solvents is also a problem for young people, and legislation has been enacted to deal with that matter. However, we have to be vigilant about those who might be disruptive by allowing youngsters access to solvents.