HC Deb 13 July 1984 vol 63 cc1441-56

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Mather.]

9.35 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

I am glad that it has proved possible for us to find time for a debate on drug misuse so soon after the announcement of the interdepartmental working group of which I am chairman to develop our policies on this crucial subject. All of us who are interested in what is happening in our society today are bound to recognise that drug misuse is a continuing and growing problem. It is one to which the public and the House are rightly giving increased attention. I therefore welcome the opportunity to set out the Government's contribution to tackling drug misuse.

The first point that needs to be made is that what we can so easily describe in three short words as "the drugs problem" is, in fact, a complex matter. It involves the abuse of a wide range of substances, not just heroin. It involves a long chain of events leading from cultivation, processing or manufacturing, importation and/or distribution, culminating in sale and abuse.

If we are to achieve the breakthroughs that we all want, we cannot merely breast-beat or posture in general terms. Anyone can strike attitudes and declaim that something must be done. There may even be some of that later today. To achieve any success and to build on the success that we have already achieved, we must immerse ourselves in the detail of the problem and consider each link in this complex chain of circumstances to arrive at those interventions that will help and not hinder the management and control of this problem.

We start at a disadvantage because, despite the considerable amount of research into the reasons why people misuse drugs, no single cause or consistent pattern of multiple causes for drug misuse has been indentified. Whatever the cause, the consequences of harmful misuse are disastrous, not just for the misuser but for society as a whole. The undeniable rise in drug trafficking is making heavy demands on our Customs, police and criminal justice system as well as on the agencies whose task it is to care for the drug misusers. I welcome to the Front Bench my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security because the involvement of the DHSS in these matters is, of course, crucial.

Desperate addicts are aware that drugs can be obtained from legitimate outlets by theft, forgery of prescriptions, and so on, and there is evidence that major criminals are turning to drug trafficking because of the easy profits to be made from the misery of addiction. No clear line can be drawn between crime in general and the promotion of drug distribution in particular. People are moving in and out of this business as seems to be appropriate to their needs and lust for money.

The increase in drug misuse over the past few years is an international phenomenon. Few countries have been immune from the increasing availability of hard drugs and the inevitable consequences of higher levels of drug addiction. I must give the House some disturbing and distressing figures. In the United Kingdom, the total number of addicts known to the Home Office during 1983 was 10,270, an increase of nearly 30 per cent. Within that total 4,200 new addicts were notified to the Department —a 50 per cent. increase compared with the previous year. According to recent research, those notifications probably represent only one fifth of those dependent on opioid drugs because many do not seek help from doctors. Therefore, all the indications are that there is a significant increase in drug misuse among teenagers. That is one of the matters that my new group will consider urgently.

What is particularly alarming is the growing popularity of heroin among young people, who inhale the fumes in the practice known as "chasing the dragon". There is a widespread misconception that, absorbed in that manner, heroin—or "skag", as it is popularly known—is far less harmful than injecting the drug. The reality is that that practice is just as addictive.

To deal effectively with the problem of heroin, all of which is imported, it is necessary to have particular regard to seizures. There has been a marked success in seizing large quantities of heroin before it can be sold and abused. In 1980, some 38 kilos were seized. By 1983 the figure had increased to 212 kilos. This year alone, after only six months, the level of seizure, at 193 kilos to date, has nearly surpassed the 1983 figure. In May and June alone, nearly half the amount seized in the whole of 1983 was seized by Customs investigators. I warmly acknowledge that that is a real tribute to the Customs and police in their efforts to seize increasing quantities of that drug. I know that the whole House will want to join me in congratulating them on their success. That in turn reflects the wisdom of our decision to double the number of specialist Customs investigators dealing with heroin smuggling, because only after careful investigation and collation of intelligence can those sophisticated conspiracies be broken up.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)


Mr. Mellor

I should like to finish my point. I may be about to make the point of which the hon. Gentleman wishes to remind me.

We must also acknowledge that the figures are also an indicator of the dramatic increase in the amount of stuff that people are trying to bring into the country. The fact that the purity of street-level heroin is high at about 40 per cent. to 50 per cent. and that prices have remained stable or even decreased in real terms makes it apparent that heroin is entering the country in alarming quantities. I want to face that fact squarely today. I shall give way now to the hon. Gentleman if I have not answered his point.

Mr. Alton

I am grateful to the Minister. I thank him for his candour in making his remarks. Will he confirm that between 1979 and his decision to increase the number of Customs officials there was a reduction by about 1,000 of people working in our ports of entry, for example, and that that is probably one of the reasons why such substantial amounts of heroin have been able to come so freely into the country?

Mr. Mellor

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right. With the amazing perception that I try to bring to these matters, I had anticipated that point. If the hon. Gentleman would contain himself for a few more minutes, I shall come to it, but I shall give way if I have not dealt with the matter appropriately.

It is important that the debate should not revolve merely around heroin. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville) is in the Chamber. He has played a valuable role in presenting to the House the difficult problems involved in illicit amphetamine manufacture and subsequent abuse. We must also recognise that, alas, one of the more unfortunate habits imported increasingly from the United States is the misuse of cocaine. Last year the Customs seized more than 70 kilos, five times as much as in the previous year. Therefore, we face problems on many fronts.

In the face of those disturbing figures, it is time for all of us who are concerned with the problem to reassess the way in which we should deal with it. We need to do so not only to prevent the misery that addiction plainly brings to misusers, their families and neighbourhoods—although that is reason enough in itself; we must also get to grips with the evil involved in exploiting human weakness through illicit supply and trafficking, and break the links that are increasingly being developed between drugs and both petty and organised crime. Those objectives underlie the Government's strategy for tackling drug misuse. I recognise that the Government must develop policies and lines of action that have an impact upon particular aspects of the drug problem. That is what we have been seeking to do; we shall continue to do it with renewed vigour.

I am glad to see the House well filled for this important debate. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh, but the House is well filled for the not very elevated standards of a Friday. I am one of those whose performances in this place are confined primarily to Fridays for reasons that are becoming increasingly apparent, and I welcome the fact that there are perhaps two dozen of us here for this important debate.

There is no room for any of us to be conceited about the role either of politicians or of Government. Government alone cannot resolve the problem. They can and must give a lead. They must fix the framework. However, by far the greatest impact comes from agencies and people outside central Government. If we are to tackle the problem effectively, many individuals and agencies will have their own part to play, whether as parents who provide a supportive family background where drug misuse will not be countenanced, as teachers who guide young people away from the dangers of drugs, as doctors willing to treat those in need of medical help, as police officers concerned to track down the pushers and guide misusers to the necessary support facilities, or as magistrates or judges providing exemplary sentences for those who deal in drugs. The list is endless. We must engage the enthusiasm of the whole community to tackle the problem, not just parts of it, if we are to have any chance of success, because this increasing menace is a threat to the whole community, not just sections of it.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The Minister is right about the groups in the community that must be involved. However, does he know of the remarks made by my local police commander in Southwark, who says that there is a link between drugs, crime and unemployment, and that if we do not deal with the unemployment problem many youngsters without jobs will more easily become victims of drugs and crime?

Mr. Mellor

There are several causes of drug misuse. There is no evidence that unemployment is any more significant than many other factors, but I do not pretend that it is irrelevant. I hope that that question will not be a lead in—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not use it as such—to just another tiresome debate about whether any Government would control the problem of youth unemployment. If we are realistic, we are aware that that problem has been increasing over the past two decades.

Plainly the constructive use of leisure and giving people meaning and purpose in life is of the essence. Often a rebellion against the life that people lead and life in the community leads people into the problem. That is why engaging the sympathies of teachers, parents and those who work with young people, and better co-ordination, is so important, as the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs stated in its splendid report on prevention. I hope that the House will study it. It makes it clear where the way forward lies. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that politicians alone cannot tackle the problem. There must be an attempt to steer people into much more positive avenues than the negative attitude involved in drug abuse.

The media also have a role to play by ensuring that drug misuse is presented in a responsible manner but without the sensationalism and scaremongering that sometimes colour reports in broadcasts on the subject—although I commend the recent "Panorama" study of the drugs problem as being one of the more serious, valid and worthwhile programmes that I have seen on the subject. I say to some of those who, I fear, have exaggerated the problem that there is no need to exaggerate it. It is serious enough without recourse to exaggeration.

Care also has to be taken that, in giving space to the activities of some media personalities who take to drugs, the media are not unwittingly giving encouragement to young people to emulate those idols with feet of clay.

While it is misguided to look to the Government to provide all the necessary solutions, we have to provide the framework and the overall strategy in which the activities of the various agencies can be co-ordinated effectively and made to mesh one with another. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary set out his strategy in a major speech delivered last December to the London Diplomatic Association. It may be convenient if I set out the major components of the strategy and identify the progress that has been made in carrying it forward.

The principal elements in our strategy comprise action to reduce the supply of illicit drugs from abroad, tighter controls on drugs produced and supplied in this country, more effective policing, enhancement of the deterrent effects of the law and finally, but by no means the least important, effective programmes to treat and rehabilitate addicts and to discourage young people from experimenting with drugs.

I take each theme in turn and describe briefly the action that we are taking. On the international elements of the problem, we all know that drug misuse transcends national boundaries. If it is to be tackled effectively, it demands a high level of international co-operation. For many years the United Kingdom has been a prominent member of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs which is the main international policy-making body concerned with drug abuse. We play an active part in the Council of Europe Pompidou Group, in Interpol and in the Customs Co-operation Council, all of which devote major efforts to combating drug abuse and trafficking on an international scale.

A vital part of the fight against drug abuse is to help those countries where drugs are produced, eradicate the crops, and crack down on the growers and traffickers. Much of the heroin which has reached our shores over the past two or three years has come from Pakistan. We have given every encouragement to the authorities there to curb that flow. But there are real problems in policing the areas where the drug is produced, especially on the north-west frontier border region.

We have been co-operating closely with the Pakistan authorities, and our own Customs and Excise officers are in regular contact with their opposite numbers in Pakistan. We have now stationed a senior Customs officer permanently in Karachi to assist with liaison and drugs intelligence. This posting has already more than proved its worth.

We are also providing the Pakistan authorities with practical and financial aid on a variety of fronts. Earlier this year, we provided £180,000 to buy vehicles and equipment for the drug enforcement authorities. In a few days, a British police officer will go to Pakistan to advise further on appropriate ways of combating drug trafficking at Karachi airport. We are also looking at ways of providing assistance to strengthen the training efforts of the Pakistan drugs law enforcement agencies.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

The hon. Gentleman alluded to the fact that the Government had posted a Customs officer in Karachi and he said that this posting had already proved its worth. How?

Mr. Mellor

It is not for me to give an account of all the intelligence — [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman laughs. I hope that we see him today in one of his more serious moods and not one of his flip ones. It is not for me to go through the central drug intelligence computer and talk of all the reports fed into it. That would give satisfaction to a number of people outside the House, and I feel sure that, even at his most irresponsible, the hon. Gentleman would not want to give aid and comfort to them. The senior Customs officer posted out there is playing an important role in breaking down and providing intelligence about a major source of supply from Karachi to London. We await with interest what is to come from the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk), but this is a serious enough subject to find him in his more serious mood rather than jeering from a sedentary position about a matter that, if ever he moved to the Government Front Bench, he would be no more able to give details about than I am.

One of the problems that the Governments of producer countries face is that the opium poppy is a valuable cash crop in areas where there is not very much to give people a living from the land. To replace it with alternative crops is a crucial part of our strategy, but it is also an expensive business. However, the United Kingdom has entered into a consortium with Italy and the United States to support a development plan for the poppy-growing areas in Pakistan, and we have pledged £1 million as a contribution to this important project.

The efforts of the Pakistan Government, supported by ourselves and others, are meeting with some success. There have been substantial reductions in the amount of opium produced there. But we cannot afford to be complacent. There is always a risk that some farmers, after being weaned off the crop, will revert to poppy production. It is also possible that as one source of the poppy closes another opens, and there are already worrying signs that heroin from the golden triangle area of south-east Asia is again competing for markets in Europe.

Illicit narcotics can be produced in many parts of the world and we cannot hope to match everywhere the action that we are taking to help the authorities in Pakistan. But we are very willing through our foreign aid programme to consider requests for assistance from other developing countries. This is an important part of our strategy.

I deal next with Customs and Excise and the matter raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton). I have paid tribute already to the efforts of the Customs in increasing dramatically the seizures of hard drugs in recent years. That is a reflection of the much greater emphasis placed on specialist investigation and on flexible checks rather than on the traditional static checks at ports and airports, significant though those remain. This has led to some controversy and to some rather overheated allegations by one of the unions involved—which, of course, has an interest in more bottoms on seats—about the impact that the reductions in the number of officers involved in static checks has had on the growth of the drugs problem.

The prevention of importation is one of the two priority areas that my working group will be looking at. All contentions, whether they are in line with current Government thinking or not, will be re-examined and carefully reassessed. But I know of no evidence to suggest that an increase in static checks at, say, London's airports or anywhere else would be of material assistance.

I invite hon. Members to consider the situation at Heathrow and Gatwick. Some 40 million passenger movements occur through those two airports. We could increase the number of static checks fivefold, tenfold or twentyfold. What is the optimum number that our critics want us to provide? But, bearing in mind the wide range of people used as couriers today, who are not hippies returning from India but have included in recent years international beauty queens and famous squash players, it would still be a needle in a haystack operation and still only a small proportion of those passing through our airports could be checked.

I suspect that many of those who clamour for more extensive searching of people and baggage would be among the first to protest at the considerable delays which would result. We have to be realistic about this. Delays already cause anger and frustration at ports and airports. We have all suffered in that way. To increase delays gratuitously without any real expectation of substantial results just so that we could say that we were doing more and that there were more chaps hard at it is to put sloganising above substance. Let others fall into that trap. This Government are into substance.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

There is a good deal of validity in what my hon. Friend says, but does not he also believe that, in effect, the knowledge that there were occasional spot checks in the course of which everyone was searched would be a real deterrent to the villains who come through in large numbers?

Mr. Mellor

Importation is a priority. I say that positively, not as a throwaway line. We shall be examining all schemes — those which fit our current thinking and those that do not—to try to establish better ways of moving forward, if better ways can be found.

Is it suggested that each of the 400 people coming off a jumbo jet should be subjected to searches once in a while? I should not care to be in the seat of hon. Members when the complaints flowed in. Delays already occur at airports. The trouble with static checks is that they are predictable. It is common practice among drug importers to prepare for static checks by, for example, putting quantities of heroin into a contraceptive sheath and swallowing it. Even the most assiduous Customs officer finds it difficult to locate drugs concealed in that way. That is why the emphasis must move to better intelligence and to more flexible checks so that the smuggler does not know when the check will take place.

Mr. Alton

Will the Minister give way before he leaves that matter?

Mr. Mellor

I am not leaving it. Perhaps I might finish and then give way. If the hon. Member for Mossley Hill has a better point to make, I shall try to deal with it as best I can.

We must use Customs officers in a cost-effective way. Large-scale further deployment to yield, at best, a limited increase in arrests of couriers is not cost-effective on any view. We want checks and searches which are unpredictable and for which the smuggler has not made his careful preparation. Above all, we want good co-ordinated intelligence, leading to the smashing of conspiracies and to the arrest of the Mr. Bigs and not just the small fry, who are two a penny because of the level of bribes which are offered to people to bring the stuff through the airports.

I recognise that numbers of officers are important. That is why we have doubled the number of specialist investigators in heroin over the past four years, and why we are recruiting this year a further 60 uniformed officers, mainly to become involved in specialist work against drug smuggling.

Mr. Alton

Does the Under-Secretary accept that the balance of probability is in the mind of the would-be smuggler? If there is only a one in a hundred chance of his being intercepted at the port of entry, he may feel it worth the risk.

The hon. Gentleman stresses that the number of people dealing with drug smuggling at Customs posts has been increased. Does he dispute the figure given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweedale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) on 11 May this year when he was told that in 1979 a reduction of 1,597 staff in Customs and Excise took place? The reduction in 1980 was 412, in 1981 it was 605, in 1982 it was 554 and in 1983 it was 393. That means that 3,561 places have been lost to the service since 1979. Does the Minister believe that that has something to do with the 400 per cent. increase in heroin importation since 1979?

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Member has just made his speech, and probably hopes to make it again later. Whether an intervention can be labelled a speech is a matter of opinion, and I have given my opinion.

The hon. Gentleman has dealt with only one aspect of the reallocation of Customs resources. The figures do not reveal net reductions. He has given me a trailer of the future attraction to come in his speech. I hope that he will tell us the level of check that he thinks will deter the drug smuggler. Is it five in 100, 10 in 100, 20 in 100 or 25 in 100? If a static check merely involves going through cases and deciding whether a person appears to be capable of smuggling, what about the person who has prepared himself carefully, as increasing numbers do, by secreting a substance in his body? A mere static check will not provide the answer.

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that we are talking about a mere Government policy imposed upon the Customs without its consent or otherwise, he is wrong. If he talks to senior Customs investigators, he will discover that the basic policy is to move away from static checks to more flexible and unexpected checks and to place more emphasis on better intelligence and the ability to penetrate conspiracies further up. That is in line with the thinking of senior investigators who much prefer to alert their men at the airport to an expectation that on a particular flight a certain number of people are expected to bring in drugs than to ask officers to conduct a needle in a haystack operation.

Opinions differ, but a serious point must be addressed. Any form of static check unrelated to good intelligence is like looking for a needle in a haystack. The benefit is small compared with the inconvenience caused to people who have to move across barriers and through airports and are tired and frustrated at the end of a long journey. Subjecting them to the painful process of delay and search to no particular benefit is posturing and not substance. I put that to the House with all candour. I assure the hon. Gentleman that if we had evidence that increasing static checks was a cost-effective way of using Customs officers we should not shrink from it. It is a question of finding the best way of tackling the problem. Throwing bodies at the problem is not the answer. The answer is to be found in finding out what is most effective.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

In the Minister's vigorous defence of his policies, can he tell the House the views of the Society of Civil and Public Servants about the number of Customs officers required and how it believes that we can deal with the problem? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if the importation of heroin cannot be reduced we shall end up by pursuing the victims of heroin abuse and drug dependency rather than the people who are making a lot of money out of it?

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) must have been so keen to make his point that he did not listen to me. I have stated the union's policy. It wants more bottoms on seats. To obtain that, it has put out some extremely lurid press releases saying that the presence of 500 more officers would solve the drug importation problem. That does not begin to be a credible assertion. I have explained why. If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence to gainsay that, I hope that he will come forward with it.

The hon. Gentleman said that we were merely passing on the full brunt of investigation to the users. Everything that I have said today has indicated that that is not so. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can lay down his partisanship for this one day of the week. Friday is our day of rest from partisanship.

We are addressing our minds, in the hope of achieving some success, to getting to the Mr. Bigs rather than confining ourselves to the Mr. Smalls who are running the drugs through airports.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

The Government are not doing that.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Member for Knowsley, North is an expert on many matters, and I look forward to hearing how great an expert he is on this problem.

I shall now deal with the question of controlling drugs within the United Kingdom. I remind the House of our support for the principal international agreements on the production and supply of drugs. We have long been a party to the United Nations single convention on narcotic drugs. Last December my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary announced our intention to ratify the United Nations convention on psychotropic substances which provides for the international control of a wide range of synthetic drugs which can cause dependence. We expect to introduce the necessary subordinate legislation next year, after completing our consultation with the trade and professions on the detailed measures needed for compliance.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

My hon. Friend has told the House that the Government intend to ratify the convention, but we have been waiting for ratification for a long time. I understand that it will not take place until next year. For heaven's sake, why not?

Mr. Mellor

The point is that the list of substances proscribed under those conventions are for the most part honoured by the United Kingdom, and most of the drugs listed under the various international conventions—of which this is one—are inserted from time to time into the Misuse of Drugs Act. Indeed, later I shall remind the House of the statutory instrument that passed through the House last month under which barbiturates were added to the list as well as a wide range of other substances. We are committed, of course, to that approach.

Sir Bernard Braine

My hon. Friend's answer clears the air, but will he confirm that he is saying that, although we have not ratified the convention, we comply with the letter and spirit of it? Presumably, for legislative reasons here, we are not yet in a position to ratify. Is that the position?

Mr. Mellor

Those substances that involve any prospect of abuse in this country are regularly listed under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and last month we took that a stage further. We want to strengthen our controls over drugs produced and prescribed in this country. There is no doubt that the inexperience or gullibility of some of the doctors who treat addicts has led to a leakage of pharmaceutical preparations on to the illicit market, and that the lack of satisfactory security arrangements in some pharmacies and warehouses makes them attractive targets for determined criminals.

Consultations have now been completed on the last report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on the security of controlled drugs, which was published last November. We are finally evaluating those comments, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will shortly make public the Government's response to that very important and significant report. Meanwhile, we have been tightening up domestic controls on the supply of drugs by doctors and chemists. On 1 April — this is relevant to the point just made by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine)— legislation came into force restricting the prescribing of dipipanone to addicts to doctors specially licensed by the Home Office. It is perhaps not widely enough appreciated that, after heroin, dipapanone is the most common drug of addiction reported by doctors, and it is particularly dangerous. In 1982 it was identified as the cause of a larger number of overdose deaths than heroin.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is now making increasing use of his statutory powers for dealing with doctors who are found to have prescribed controlled drugs irresponsibly. Last year, directions were made against three doctors, while in the first half of this year action has been taken against a further three doctors for prescribing controlled drugs irresponsibly. As this has been the subject of considerable press comment, I should add that in urgent cases my right hon. and learned Friend is making use of his power to issue a temporary direction to put an immediate stop to such prescribing while the matter goes before the proper authorities.

Although heroin is the most widely misused drug, many addicts will use whatever drug they can obtain. In the past, barbiturates have been widely misused, and, as the House will know, we have recently made the necessary order to control barbiturates under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. That order will come into force on 1 January next year.

Although legislation has an important part to play in our battle against drug misuse, its efficacy is, of course, dependent on efficient policing. The task of the police in relation to drug offenders is not easy, and I pay tribute to the skill and professionalism with which they carry it out. We were very pleased when the Association of Chief Police Officers agreed earlier this year to the posting of a senior police liaison officer to the Netherlands to improve the flow of intelligence about drugs targeted on the United Kingdom. Only this week Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary made clear the police's commitment to dealing with the drugs problem in the following words: The police will continue to give a high priority to drug abuse and in particular to dealing with those trafficking in drugs and will, in the context of their examination of resources, look for and adopt the most effective means of tackling drug offences.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

My hon. Friend is, of course, quite right. I may be able to develop this point later, but in those circumstances why did he reject the recommendations of the police in respect of the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill?

Mr. Mellor

Presumably my hon. Friend refers to the question of searches, but that point was fully ventilated in Committee, and the majority of opinion on both sides of the Committee was against my hon. Friend. We are talking about major structural changes in the role of the police which seem to transcend that matter, although I know that my hon. Friend will remain committed to his point of view —which he is, of course, entitled to do.

The illegal nature of drug misuse, the growing demand for drugs and their increasing availability mean that there is an enormous volume of profits available to those who take part in the illegal drugs economy. Lured by the prospect of those profits, the armed robbers and gang leaders of the past are increasingly turning their attention to drug trafficking. We have seen examples in recent years of criminal conspiracies triggered off by drug trafficking which have led to robbery, vice, violence and even murder. Only in the past few days we have seen the conclusion of a trial involving what the police have described as the biggest drug smuggling ring ever smashed by the British police. The scale of the operation was akin to that of a dynamic business enterprise, with a degree of resources and sophistication that included the acquisition of a fleet of boats and the excavation of an undergound chamber on a deserted beach. When a gang like that can conspire to land tons of cannabis, worth many millions of pounds, it is no surprise that we should find springing up between the major traffickers and the individual misusers a shadowy pyramid of dealers all eager for their share of the profits. They are particularly difficult to detect, because both suppliers and customers have an interest in perpetuating and keeping discreet their activities as middlemen.

Increasingly the police are concentrating the effort of their specialised drug squads and devoting a greater proportion of regional crime squads' time to tracking down the illicit manufacturers, the dealers and the pushers of hard drugs, whose ruthless amoral conduct leads to so much human misery and death. That is clearly right, and the steady stream of prosecutions bears witness to the effectiveness of that approach. At the same time, the police have to deal with the individual drug misuser. The laws on drug possession must continue to be enforced, and the user helped to abandon his or her potentially destructive habit. That dual task is one which may often be best carried out by beat officers with their detailed knowledge of the areas and the communities that they serve. In some areas, the police have adopted a policy of cautioning first-time offenders. Police officers have seized the opportunity to develop a more constructive approach to misusers, for instance, by putting them in touch with the helping agencies which may be able to wean them away from drugs. I am sure that we all regard that as important, and as a further enhancement of the police service's proud history as a caring profession.

Earlier this year I was pleased to attend the annual drugs conference of the ACPO. I was impressed by the willingness of the police to examine closely every aspect of their response to the drugs problem. Indeed, we have given them every encouragement to do so. Police forces throughout the country are reviewing the scale of their effort and considering whether they should be doing more to tackle the problem. They are reviewing their structures to ensure the closest and most effective liaison at all levels — within forces, between forces, with regional crime squads, with the central drugs intelligence unit, with Customs, with the health and voluntary services and with overseas law enforcement agencies. They are reviewing all their procedures in order to keep pace with the growth of this problem.

We are particularly encouraged by the decision of the ACPO earlier this year to set up a working party to examine urgently the case for a regional organisation within the police to combat drug trafficking which will mirror the regional serious crime squads. We wish to assist the police in their endeavours by strengthening the power of the courts where that can help to enhance the deterrent effect of the law against traffickers. Last December, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary mentioned the power of the courts to impose very heavy sentences on those convicted of trafficking, and his decision to restrict the granting of parole in the case of serious offences of drug trafficking. I believe that the public and the House will welcome that approach.

Since then, the Hodgson committee has published its report on forfeiture and compensation. Building upon the proposals contained in that report, we shall be introducing legislation during the present Parliament to deprive major criminals, including drug traffickers, of the proceeds of their crime. I noted the observations, as I am sure hon. Members did, of the trial judge in the recent case of a major drug smuggling ring that I mentioned earlier. He said that he would have liked to make an order depriving one of the principal organisers of more of his undoubted wealth, but could not effectively do so. We shall give the courts the powers that they need in that regard.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

My hon. Friend skipped over the review that his group might be making of the powers of the courts. Will he make it part of the task of that group to ensure that courts have the necessary powers? Some people think that they do not.

Mr. Mellor

We have been looking at tariffs, the length of sentences and the possibility of depriving people of the proceeds of their crime. If someone has stashed away millions of pounds, it might be worth running the risk of a sentence if he could live the rest of his life in luxury on those proceeds. That is why we gave the Hodgson committee every support and why we are committed to introducing legislation on the subject within the lifetime of this Parliament—and earlier rather than later.

I apologise to the House for taking so much time, but it seemed right for me to give as clear account as I could of what the Government are doing and to respond to interventions rather than wave them away. I must take a little time to deal with treatment. Although it comes at the end of the chain, it is vital.

There is an obvious relationship between the extent of the illicit drug market and the availability of treatment facilities. We are determined to succeed in our efforts to reduce the supply of black market drugs, and that will encourage some habitual misusers to seek treatment. Since the publication in December 1982 of the report on treatment and rehabilitation by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, there has been considerable progress towards the improvement of services for drug misusers, including the announcement of £6 million of direct funding by the DHSS, specific details of which were given in a parliamentary answer last month.

It would be better for me to leave the details of this aspect to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, who is to reply to the debate. However, I stress that the fact that I am not spending as much time on treatment and prevention as on other more direct Home Office responsibilities does not mean that we consider that aspect unimportant. It is most significant.

I particularly want to address my mind, with the working group, to whether we can educate people who are vulnerable to drugs away from even experimenting with them in the first place. I hope that hon. Members will address the crucial question whether advertising or other campaigns to alert people to the dangers of drug abuse could lead to increased effectiveness on keeping people off drugs or, as some, including our advisory council, fear, could enhance the attraction of drugs to people who take them as an act of rebellion against what others tell them they must do with their lives.

That is a serious problem. I know that a number of hon. Members have great experience of the caring agencies and the problems of drug abuse—I think particularly of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving)—and I hope that they will deal with that issue. We are particularly keen to reach a considered and sensible view. Taking action could be counter-productive, which is why we need to be careful.

One of the advisory council's major recommendations was that a single Minister should assume specific responsibility for the co-ordination of prevention policy at national level, and that it should he the Home Secretary. It will be apparent from all that I have said that a number of Government Departments are engaged in developing various aspects of drugs strategy. My right hon. and learned Friend agrees with the advisory council that it is essential to bring together the various strands to ensure that action on each is consitent with action on others. That is why he announced to the House on 28 June his intention to set up an interdepartmental group with the task of developing the Government's strategy for combating the misuse of drugs of addiction and overseeing its implementation.

The group will have particular regard to the development of proposals for the more effective implementation of that strategy, to the priorities for the allocation and deployment of resources in the various preventive, treatment and other services that play a part in countering drug misuse, and to arrangements within and outside Government for the co-ordination, development and enforcement of policy on drug misuse.

We wanted the debate to take place as early as possible so that we could take on board, as I shall with great care, the views of the House. I shall ensure that suggestions made in the debate or followed up in the other ways open to hon. Members are carefully considered. It seemed crucial for me to emphasise why successive Governments have taken the views that they have and to provide evidence to support views that have come under challenge —as with static checks. No one will reflect and respond to the magnitude of the problem by being dogmatic. We do not say, "Because we have always done it this way, we must continue to do so."

The central purpose of the establishment of the ministerial group on drug abuse was to re-evaluate our policy, point by point, to take on board the suggestions of hon. Members and experienced people outside and to say, quickly if necessary, where it is important to upgrade or change the emphasis of our efforts. It is in that spirit that we have asked the House to consider the issue. We intend that the group should provide a new mechanism to consolidate existing arrangements and take policy forward. It will also ensure that the Government's strategy is continually monitored and kept up to date.

I regret that, because the debate clashes with the 100th meeting of the Central Council of Magistrates Courts Committees, which I am committed to attend, I shall not be able to stay for the whole debate. That will not be because I am not interested in what hon. Members have to say. It is difficult at short notice to let down groups that are holding special meetings.

I assure the House that I shall give the most careful consideration to what hon. Members say. We could easily have left the debate off the Order Paper. We brought it forward because we want the views of the House. We shall go through our policies piece by piece, assisted by the House, and rigorously analyse them. Stimulated by the advisory committee's report, we shall begin with prevention and will give early consideration to importation.

It is a long chain of events that leads from the poppy fields on the north-west frontier to misery and death on the streets of London. [Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras laughs at a point being made about the effect of heroin abuse——

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

For the second time.

Mr. Mellor

If the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras manages to get through his speech, which I imagine will be as ill-prepared as most of his efforts, without repeating himself at least twice, it will be an achievement which he has not managed previously in his 10 years as an hon. Member.

My heart sank when I saw that the Opposition had entrusted the hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras and for Knowsley, North with the task of replying to the debate.

Mr. Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is a very serious subject. Will the Minister stop indulging in self-aggrandisement and get on with the business? People outside are listening to what is being said in the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

That is not a matter for me.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) has made my point with great clarity. It is because this is such a serious matter that the antics of the hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras and for Knowsley, North, which are more appropriate to a Little and Large television show, are so inappropriate.

No one should be under any illusion about the difficulty involved in breaking the links in the drug abuses chain. We are applying ourselves to the task with determination, because the threat that widespread drug misuse poses to our society must never be underestimated.

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