HC Deb 31 January 1973 vol 849 cc1524-36

11.53 p.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Nottingham, South)

I rise in this post-Cinderella period to say that debates in the House on policy on crime are very rare, and when they occur they are usually initiated by a back bencher. There is nothing like the annual review given to defence policy and expenditure. That is a pity, because policy in this area should be put under a much greater scrutiny than it is. That is why I welcome the opportunity of this small debate. It is a narrow debate but it allows us to consider two important units which have been set up in the Home Office to combat two important areas in crime—illegal drugs and illegal immigration.

I believe that this is also the first opportunity that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State has had of explaining the work of these two units, the Central Drugs Intelligence Unit and the Central Immigration Intelligence Unit, certainly to the House. The decision to establish these units was announced in a very brief three-paragraph Press release in October, which was not, if the Home Office Press Office will allow me—I am a great supporter of it—one of its most informative efforts. One understands that at that stage it probably was in no position to give more information on illegal drugs and illegal immigration, which are matters of very real public concern, and I hope that the Minister will be able to say rather more this evening.

Perhaps I may deal in turn with these units and the problems which they face. No one who has even superficially followed developments can fail to be alarmed by the problem of illegal drugs in this country. It is a problem which affects many young people in Britain and which poses a very real danger to them. It is a trade in which criminal profits can be very high. Let us be clear about the extent of the problem and the kind of problem which the units and all of us face in this respect in this country. Comparisons are made with the United States, but we in this country have nothing like the size of problems which they have. Neither in total nor in proportion is the problem of the same measure here and in the United States. This is due to the success of the drugs dependence clinics which have been set up. There is, however, a very real British drugs problem.

I would mention one or two facts about it. Between 1971 and 1972 there was a 28 per cent. increase in drugs offences. Between 1971 and 1972 there were 22 per cent. more drug seizures by Customs and Excise. We have reached a position which, according to the reports given at the Interpol conference at the end of last year, means that our problem in this country is the worst in Europe. The position is certainly that in European terms we have a very major problem in this country. It is a problem which covers the whole range of drugs, and it is not my purpose to go into each one of those this evening, but there are the amphetamines and LSD.

There are in particular two trends, two particular drugs of abuse, of which we should take note, and they are Chinese heroin and cannabis. Reading cases over the last 12 months, I do not think anyone can fail to be impressed by the number of them in which these two drugs occurred, over and over again. Therefore, it is primarily in dealing, certainly initially, with the threat posed by those two drugs that the success of the unit which is being set up will be judged.

First there is the problem of Chinese heroin. All our information is that Chinese heroin originates in Hong Kong, that it is processed there, and imported into the United Kingdom by various means. It is not pure heroin. It is heavily adulterated with other substances, often caffeine. Presumably that is a reason for its appeal to the user, who believes that it is less dangerous than the real thing. In fact it is a very dangerous drug indeed, and the users, in particular, should take note of its very real dangers.

Secondly, there is the question of cannabis, and the trade here is very much greater. Whereas the British heroin trade is dominated by the Chinese in this country the cannabis trade is much more pervasive and it is a much more difficult problem for this reason. It is made much more difficult by the very considerable propaganda campaign which has been used in an effort to try to make cannabis taking in this country respectable. The campaign of the various groups that have tried to encourage its use are wrong-headed and positively dangerous. I am glad that the Government have set their face against it. The campaigns make the job of the police more difficult.

Against that background, I want to ask several questions about the Central Drugs Intelligence Unit. I understand that the purpose of the unit is to receive and send out information on the misuse of drugs and on known and suspected offenders. The national unit will contribute information to the individual forces and the individual forces will contribute information to the national unit. That sounds fine on paper, but standards of policing vary considerably. Many police forces have drug squads, but the strength and quality of those squads vary considerably. The ability of police forces to devote resources to drug squads varies with the strength of the forces.

The plan, which I support, is for a national drive against illegal drugs. I do not advocate a national drug squad to be the executive arm. Regional drug squads would be much more effective. A national squad would suffer from the same disadvantages as a national police force. It would suffer from remoteness, and it might not earn the kind of cooperation which has been earned by the regional crime squads set up by the previous Conservative Administration, which have gained the confidence of the police forces. The regional crime squads were set up to concentrate on serious crime, and they have proved their worth The misuse of drugs is a serious crime, and the knowledge, skill and experience of the police is all-important. Specialised regional drugs squads drawing staffs from forces within the region would be the natural accompaniment to the Central Drugs Intelligence Unit. Furthermore, regional squads would ensure a much more even flow of information to the unit than is likely to occur under the present arrangements.

Will the unit have an executive arm of its own? Will it be able to carry out its own investigations into serious drug offences, or will it be confined to a purely advisory rôle? The trend in the police service is to employ some of the most experienced and senior officers in advisory rôles. I would not like to think that the unit, which will have some very senior officers in it, will have an entirely advisory function.

The public would like to know how large the unit will be and what co-operation will take place with Interpol, and particularly with European police forces, The problem with which we are dealing is not so much akin to the situation in the United States, but is a European drug problem. It is essential to have co-operation and links not only with Interpol, but with all European Police forces, particularly now that we are in the Common Market.

What relationship will this unit have with other bodies, especially with educational bodies, in combating the problem of drug abuse by education and publicity? It is surely in that area that some of our greatest efforts are now to be made. We can search for the smugglers or pushers of drugs, but the battle will be won only with the potential users. Therefore, we must give every aid to the various educational campaigns to underline the dangers of drug-taking. This unit fits in well with this kind of idea. It will point to the national pattern and will see any new dangers as they arise.

I hope that such a unit will be quite open about new dangers, for this is not a subject to be cloaked in official or police secrecy. I hope the unit will give information freely and willingly to bodies which have a legitimate interest in fighting and preventing drug abuse.

I turn to the Central Immigration Intelligence Unit which is covered by these items of increased expenditure. There is no question that illegal immigration gives grave cause for concern to many people. There is a worry that the immigration control system in Britain is so obviously under challenge. Illegal immigration is also resented by many of the immigrant community who live in this country, some of whom have relatives queueing to come to Britain. The very fact that such immigration takes place creates suspicion within the community. Illegal immigration also adds to the crime problem, because it leads to blackmail by those who know that a person is an illegal immigrant.

Nobody can give a realistic estimate of the size of the problem, but from time to time there are assessments of the position by those who know because they are close to the scene. I should like to draw my hon. and learned's Friend's attention to a report by the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration, of which I was a member, published last year. The Chief Constable of Lancashire, in a memorandum presented in evidence, said: There is fairly widespread traffic of illegal immigrants who enter the country surreptitiously in many devious ways, mainly Pakistanis. Superintendent Taylor of the Lancashire Constabulary, which is the second largest force in the country, asked about the position of illegal immigration in the Lancashire Constabulary area, said: My inquiries led me to believe that illegal immigration is widespread, and it can cover many aspects such as the man coming into Heathrow Airport, or any airport for that matter, on two months' holiday and then disappearing amongst the large immigrant communities that we have got in this country. It does cause unrest inasmuch as he probably, in some instances, goes to live next door to a person who is making an application for one of his brothers or sisters to enter this country". When asked by one of the members of the Select Committe whether this was an expensive form of illegal immigration, Superintendent Taylor said: It is not expensive if they are going to stay here. You see, I say they come for a holiday and then they disappear, so in fact they are not coming for a holiday, they are coming here to take up permanent residence, and it is quite simple to enter by the method that I have lust mentioned. This is not a survey carried out by a sensational newspaper; this is evidence, presented by senior officers of the second largest police force in this country, which I suggest this House should take very seriously indeed. It indicates that the police, particularly in some areas, regard this problem of illegal immigration as extremely serious.

This is a serious matter because it poses problems not only of crime but of race and community relations in this country.

There seem to be three main methods by which illegal immigration is effected into this country. This new unit that is being set up will be judged on how it deals with those three methods.

First, there are those who try to get into this country by using false papers, documents and passports or try to bluff their way past the immigration officers at the port of entry. Secondly, there are those who come for a holiday and then just disappear, as the evidence from the Lancashire police suggests. They may come as visitors or students. I suggest that in size these are probably the most serious. Thirdly, there are those who enter illegally by boat or private plane. Although it may be thought that they are not the most numerous, they certainly get the most publicity.

It is against this background that we should judge the worth of the Illegal Immigration Unit. I believe that in dealing with the first category—those who attempt to gain entry by the use of false passports and documents—the unit will be of great help. I think that it will develop an expertise in detecting false documents and knowing what to look for. It will be quite invaluable in detecting illegal immigration of that kind.

However, I am concerned whether the Illegal Immigration Unit will be as successful in dealing with the second and third categories that I have mentioned. I suggest that its usefulness may be limited in those areas because there must be a common feature that encourages illegal immigration to this country. Clearly the illegal immigrant must believe that if he manages to enter the country then all is well. He must believe that there will be no overwhelming difficulty in getting a job and settling down. The fact that so many try suggests that they are right. We have very few internal checks. Perhaps our only check is the issue of the National Insurance card. That is the nearest equivalent that we have to the identity card which is issued in many countries, including many European countries. The Department of Health and Social Security does not make anything like the same kind of security checks that are made in the issue of an identity card or even in this country in the issue of a passport. If the man has a job he can get a card.

The Department of Health and Social Security does not regard it as part of its job to carry out security checks of that kind. I do not blame the Department of Health and Social Security. The issue is much wider than that. It has direct relevance to the success of the new unit. Traditionally Britain's control system has put its emphasis on control at the port of entry, at the seaport or the airport. We have never followed the European system of internal controls. But times have changed. We have joined the Common Market; we have joined Europe, and the borders are coming down. Free movement is to be encouraged. That is one of the reasons for the Common Market. A citizen of a Common Market country has the right to settle here in any event.

But there are others in Europe. There is an enormous army of foreign workers now in Europe. The extent of the problem was recently discussed fully, and I thought very well, in two articles in the Sunday Telegraph. The foreign workers in Europe make our immigration population look small. There are almost 6 million foreign labourers working in France and Germany. They come from Yugoslavia, Turkey and the Arab countries. They come to Western Europe to seek work and the prosperity of a Western European industrialised society. It may well be that none of these people will ever want to come to this country, but it does not make a great deal of sense to rely on the fact that that will be the position.

I mention that matter because it seems that we now have a rather curious control system. We have a situation which involves no internal checks. We place our reliance on port checks which are likely to have less relevance as the years go on. Not everybody is satisfied that the present situation, and certainly the way in which it has been applied over the last few years, leads to adequate control. Our new position in Europe indicates that the position might worsen. I ask my hon. and learned Friend, in the light of our new position, to examine the situation and to see whether the present controls that have served us well in the past are relevant as we go through the 1970s into the 1980s, whether they will be relevant as the Common Market expands and the interchange of its citizens continues.

These two units represent valuable advances. It should be recognised that the Government have done a great deal to deal with crime. We have seen notable increases in police recruiting. We have seen increases in the probation service, and we have seen the Criminal Justice Act come into being. These two units will make their contribution in the fight against crime which the Government are pursuing. The emphasis that the Government have placed on fighting crime is altogether right because I believe—and I know that my hon. and learned Friend agrees with this—that the crime area is one of real public concern.

12.21 a.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr Mark Carlisle)

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Fowler) has drawn attention this evening, through the advantage of a debate on the Consolidated Fund, to the two new central intelligence units that have been set up by the police to deal with the problems of drugs and illegal immigration. As my hon. Friend said at the beginning of his speech, this is the first time that this matter has been raised on the Floor of the House and I am therefore grateful to him for giving me the opportunity of saying something about what I agree with my hon. Friend are important new ventures.

The House will be aware, and my hon. Friend reminded us just now, of the serious problems that we face on both these matters, particularly that of drugs. I do not want at this hour to give the House a great many statistics, but I think that one or two figures clearly indicate the nature of the drug problem.

If we consider first the hard, addictive drugs and look at the numbers of those drug addicts coming to the notice of the Home Office during any year, we find that in 1960 that figure was 437; in 1967 it had grown to 1,729; and by 1969 it had grown to 2,881—a substantial, indeed one might say massive, increase over the decade of the 'sixties. Happily, the 1970 and 1971 figures have shown no increase on the 1969 figure.

As my hon. Friend said, it is particularly a youth problem. The increase is accounted for very largely by the increase in addicts under 34 years of age. In 1969, those under 20 accounted for just over one-quarter of the total addicts, while those between 20 and 34 made up more than half, and the overwhelming majority are addicted to heroin or methadone. The only encouraging figure that I can give my hon. Friend on addiction is that in 1970 and 1971 the number of addicts coming to the knowledge of the Home Office slightly dropped. We have the encouraging situation also that whereas in 1969 those under the age of 20 accounted for a quarter of all the addicts coming to the notice of the Home Office in this country, by 1971 those under 20 represented only one-eighth of a similar total.

But, as my hon. Friend said, it is not only a question of addiction to heroin and drugs of that nature. The percentage increase in the number of convictions for offences involving the use and possession of cannabis is more dramatic still. In 1967 there were 2,393 such cases. By 1971 the figure had grown to 9,219. We should do nothing to undermine awareness that we face a serious drug problem.

Mr. Fowler

The figure for cannabis, the increase to over 9,000, is rather alarming. Did the rate of increase continue to accelerate in 1972, or is the number levelling out?

Mr. Carlisle

The 1971 figures are the most recent figures for a complete year that we could yet have. I shall write to my hon. Friend and give him any statistics that I can about 1972, although it will be some months before we are in a position to give the picture for the whole year.

I turn to the question of illegal immigration. The number of offences is nowhere near as massive, but the fact remains that between the passage of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 and 31st December last year 74 cases were brought before the courts, involving 307 illegal immigrants. Those figures are not necessarily reliable as showing the size of the problem. It is of the very nature of illegal immigration that its size can never be adequately predicted, because those who are successful in illegally entering the country do not come within the figure.

We have strengthened the penalities by creating a new offence under the 1971 Immigration Act of assisting illegal immigration, which is punishable on conviction on indictment by up to seven years' imprisonment. We have empowered the courts in certain circumstances to order the confiscation of vehicles, ships or aircraft used for illegal immigration.

It is, therefore, against that background of the numbers involved in drug offences and the serious nature of offences of assisting illegal immigration that one must look at the proposal to set up these two new central intelligence units. While we have done what we can by legislation, it is vital that we do all we can also to see that the law is effectively enforced.

It is of the nature of these problems that they know no simple geographical boundaries. Drug trafficking spans the boundaries of different police areas and, as my hon. Friend reminded us, it spans national boundaries. Moreover, it involves more than one enforcement agency. In combating the drug problem, we look not only to the police but to the Customs and Excise and the inspectors of the Home Office drugs branch. In dealing with illegal immigration, one has the involvement of the immigration service and of the police.

With a number of enforcement agencies at work, it is vital to co-ordinate and direct their efforts to ensure that time and energy are not wasted by duplication and faulty communication, which can operate only to the advantage of the drug trafficker or the organiser of illegal immigration.

All this points to the need for much closer co-operation between the agencies involved and for effective pooling of information. That is the purpose of these new units. Adequate intelligence has always been the life-blood of successful police work. But however good and comprehensive the information gleaned may be, it is of little value unless it can be sent out quickly to those who need it. As I have said, drug trafficking and illegal immigration offences often involve movements over considerable distances, spanning various areas and even national frontiers. Therefore, the need is for a central point the purpose to which is to collect, to collate and to disseminate the information about known or suspected offenders.

It was the decision of the chief officers of police that, to meet these various needs, central intelligence units should be set up. It was agreed that the units should be based in London, in the area of the Metropolitan Police Force, but with half the officers in the units drawn from forces outside the Metropolitan force. This will have the advantage of bringing in officers who have first-hand experience of problems in other parts of the country. They will have an appreciation of the special features of enforcement work in different areas, including Scotland.

Her Majesty's Customs and Excise will have an officer working in the drugs unit, and the Home Office drugs and immigration branches will be closely associated in the work of the units.

My hon. Friend asked me to say something about the size of these units. The drugs unit will be under the command of a detective chief superintendent of the Metropolitan Police. His second-in-command will be a detective superindent from another force, The remaining police staff will consist in the first place of a detective chief inspector and two detective inspectors from the Metropolitan Police and four detective inspectors from other forces. It is clear from that, I think, that it will not have an executive arm as such. Its aim is to collate and disseminate information on the movement of people suspected in these matters.

I listened with great interest to what my hon. Friend said about the case for a regional drug squad. As he probably knows, most of the police forces already have their own drug squads and it is to them that the information collected by the central intelligence unit can be fed. The regional crime squads were set up to combat serious crime. I was glad to hear my hon. Friend say that he believed that they had been successful. Undoubtedly serious drug trafficking would come within the ambit of serious crime and therefore within the ambit of the regional crime squads. But I shall certainly consider whether there is room for the idea he put forward for a drug unit within the regional crime squads.

My hon. Friend then asked what would be the relationship with Interpol. The units are still in their early days. Their formation was announced only last October but I can confirm that the international aspects of drug trafficking and the organisation of illegal immigration will not be overlooked. It is clear that people involved in those criminal activities are operating on an increasingly large scale across national frontiers, and the units will be responsible for fostering the necessary links through Interpol with enforcement agencies in other countries.

My hon. Friend asked what part the units would play in the education, particularly of young people, in the dangers of drugs. I have no doubt that the information collected by the central unit will be of value. But my immediate reaction is to say that the actual lecturing on the dangers should be done by the drugs squads of the forces in their respective geographical areas.

I listened with interest to what my hon. Friend said about the need for the Home Office to examine carefully its traditional practice of control of illegal immigration at the points of entry to see whether it is adequate in the present international situation. We shall look at that. But in both these areas the units will be an essential element in the fight against trafficking, whether in drugs or in human beings. The Government are determined that the police and the other enforcement agencies involved shall have the help they so badly need. The cost will not be negligible, but the cost in terms of human suffering if the problems are tackled inadequately will be incomparably greater. The announcement of the new units was made on 26th October. They are now being set up. They have a skeleton staff in post from the Metropolitan Police.

Applications have now been invited from provincial police forces for posts in these units and I am glad that there has been a most encouraging response. The choice of people from provincial forces to take up posts in the units will be made in the course of the next month and the units will be brought progressively up to full strength. What I said about the strength of the units concerns only the original strength as envisaged, but their future development will be kept under close review both to make sure that they are making an effective contribution and also to ensure that the level of staffing is adequate. We regard these units as a most promising development in enforcement work, and the Home Secretary and I share the hope expressed by chief officers of police that the units will make a really significant contribution in these difficult problems.

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to refer to these units by raising this matter tonight. I have given him all the information I can give at the moment and, as they develop further, I am sure that there will be more information coming forward that I can give him.