HC Deb 22 November 1984 vol 68 cc397-9
13. Mr. Eggar

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the increase in drug trafficking and usage.

Mr. Mellor

The Government give high priority to measures to combat drug trafficking and misuse, the increase in which is a matter of grave concern to us all. A ministerial group has been established to co-ordinate and develop strategy, as part of which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that 160 more customs officers will be provided to counter drugs smuggling. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Health has also announced a major education and prevention campaign and the provision of more resources for prevention, treatment and rehabilitation, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has decided to introduce a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for trafficking in class A drugs.

Mr. Eggar

Is my hon. Friend aware that the country will welcome the strong measures that have been taken? Does he know that it is rumoured that over 200 lb of heroin are finding their way into London every week? Can he assure the House that if there is a demand for more police and more assistance to combat this appalling crime he will make them available?

Mr. Mellor

There is no doubt that a large quantity of heroin is being brought into the country. The precise amount is not clear, and some extremely unfortunate statistics are being bandied around, which have no foundation. I can tell my hon. Friend, and I think that this will encourage him, that in the first 10 months of this year the Customs and Excise seized 257 kilos of heroin, as against 212 kilos for the whole of last year, and the Metropolitan police have seized some 28 kilos of heroin in the first 10 months of this year, as against 5.7 kilos for the whole of last year.

Mr. Coleman

Does the Minister recall that during the Conservative party conference the Home Secretary announced that there would be legislation to deal with this? Why did this promise not appear in the Queen's Speech?

Mr. Mellor

Because there is not room in the Queen's Speech for everything. The Government intend to introduce an increase in penalties at the earliest convenient moment. If a private Member successful in the ballot were minded to bring forward such a measure, we would give him every support.

15. Mr. Favell

asked the Seccretary of State for the Home Department how many of those convicted for offences involving the unlawful supply of drugs received prison sentences of five years and more in each of the last six years for which figures are available.

Mr. Mellor

Taking all offences relating to controlled drugs, including the unlawful import or export of drugs, the figures for the years from 1978 to 1983 are as follows: 1978, 71; 1979, 69; 1980, 69; 1981, 116; 1982, 123 and 1983, 238.

Mr. Favell

Is my hon. Friend aware that many courts regard the supply of relatively small amounts of drugs as a relatively minor offence? As the suppliers are an essential link in the chain leading to the misery of drug addiction, does my hon. Friend share that view?

Mr. Mellor

No, I do not. Of more relevance to the courts is the fact that the Lord Chief Justice does not share that view, and following his guidelines on sentencing policy for drug offences in December 1982, in the case of Aramah, the number of drug traffickers sentenced to more than five years' imprisonment increased from the 1982 level of 123 to 238 in 1983.

Mr. Alton

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is some relationship between the reduction of 3,500 customs officers in the past five years and the number of unlawful drugs on the streets? Why do we have to wait for two years before drug pushers can be put in gaol for life?

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman keeps banging on that point, although he has nothing to back it up. In 1980 the customs seized 38 kilos of heroin, and I have just given the figures for the first 10 months of this year, when 257 kilos of heroin were seized. The reason for that increase is that static, predictable checks are not the way to stop drug smuggling. Doubling the number of special investigators into heroin, which is what we have done, is the way, not only to seize more drugs, but to catch more of the Mr. Bigs, rather than needle-in-haystack operations to catch couriers.

Mr. Hayes

Is my hon. Friend aware that the problem of drugs goes well beyond the courts and that there is a serious drug trafficking problem in Her Majesty's prisons? Will he give an undertaking that his Department will review the training given to prison officers in the detection of drugs, as at the moment it is inadequate?

Mr. Mellor

I do not know whether my hon. Friend is right in saying that. Certainly it is the case that we are looking at the problem of drugs in prison. In so far as my hon. Friend is influenced in asking his question by the report from the Prison Officers' Association, it has been invited to substantiate the assertions contained in that report and has thus far failed to do so.

Mr. Ryman

Does the Minister appreciate that many police officers, in both the CID and uniformed branch, think that a great deal more could be done to apprehend criminals pushing drugs if they did not have to spend so much time bashing pickets in the coal-mining areas?

Mr. Mellor

There is one simple answer to that. The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends should stop the violence on the picket lines and then the police would go away.