HC Deb 28 March 1985 vol 76 cc637-9
1. Mr. Sackville

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will consider the setting up of multi-agency task forces dedicated to the prevention of illegal drug importation and distribution.

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

We have no plans to establish a task force of this kind. There is already very close and successful co-operation between Her Majesty's Customs and Excise and the police in combating drug trafficking, through the central drugs intelligence unit and in other ways. But I shall certainly look closely at American experience of its task force programme in the course of a visit which I shall be paying to the United States in a few weeks' time.

Mr. Sackville

Does my hon. Friend agree that often the major drug traffickers can be indentified only by their assets and banking transactions? Will he and his Treasury colleagues devise some formal structure to enable the Inland Revenue to share information with other agencies so that those investigating drugs and other organised crimes do not continue to operate with their hands tied behind their backs?

Mr. Mellor

As my hon. Friend knows, we are considering giving the courts improved powers to confiscate the assets of those convicted of serious crimes, including, of course, drug trafficking. The availability of information about financial matters and the stage at which that information can be made available will be a key part of that process.

Mr. Corbett

As there has been an increase of about 65 per cent. in the last three years in the number of registered addicts, apart from those who are not on the register, how can the hon. Gentleman be so indolent about the matter, remembering that 1,000 Customs officer posts have been got rid of in the last five years?

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman falls below his normal level in what is a travesty of the situation. We have tried to ensure that the register of drug addicts is an accurate reflection of the number of people who are addicted. Indeed, we have been encouraging family doctors to notify addict numbers. It turns logic on its head if, as we seek to improve the accuracy of the register, we are criticised for the number of persons on the register, many of whom will have been addicted to drugs for some years.

As regards Customs officers, the hon. Gentleman well knows that there is all the difference in the world between manpower reductions on static checks and an increase in intelligence. For example, there has been an increase of nearly two thirds in the number of officers engaged in intelligence work on heroin. That has led to a dramatic increase in the number of seizures of drugs and convictions of drug importers.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Is my hon. Friend aware that we are approaching the season of festivals, open-air concerts and similar gatherings and that drugs are often distributed at such events? Does he agree that chief constables in areas where such festivities take place must co-ordinate their activities to deal with the problem?

Mr. Mellor

I am sure that chief constables, whose duty it is to do what my hon. Friend asks, will take careful note of the commonsense point that he raises.

Mr. Alton

Given the success of the Department in sequestrating the funds of the National Union of Mineworkers, is it not time for the Government to apply the same rigours to sequestrating the funds of those who sell and ply heroin, who cause enormous misery, yet who are able to salt their money away in safe havens and who often avoid extradition from countries, such as Spain, where extradition agreements are non-existent? If the Minister agrees that it is time for a rigorous attitude to be taken, when does he intend to introduce legislation?

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman's supplementary question would have been more pertinent without the rather shallow simile that he applied at the beginning. I understand that always he finds these temptations hard to resist. He has put to me the idea of improving procedures for the confiscation of assets as if that were a new thought. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has been saying for 12 months now that we are working actively on finding a new power. Twelve years ago the House thought that it had solved the problem. It is clear now that it had not. We are now considering the Hodgson report. The hon. Gentleman will know — [HON. MEMBERS: "Too long".]—as should one or two of those who seem to be involved in organised barracking on an important topic—

Mr. Kilroy-Silk


Mr. Mellor

—that it is much easier to define a problem than to resolve it. We are working hard on the problem.

Mr. Ashby

Will my hon. Friend do something about the internal battles which are carried on between the police and Customs and Excise in the investigation and prosecution of drug offences?

Mr. Mellor

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. As far as I am aware, there is good liaison between Customs and Excise and the police. I believe that some accounts to the contrary are overdone. He may be interested to know that about six months ago the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis set up a high-level committee to further that liaison between the police and Customs and Excise. I believe that that committee is working to good effect.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Is it not right that the Government must take a major share of the blame for the substantial increase in drug addiction that has occurred every year since they came to office? The Government have reduced the number of Customs officers, allowing more cocaine and heroin to enter the country. They have failed properly to co-ordinate the activities of Customs and police officers. Most importantly, they have created the social conditions, in terms of unemployment, which have allowed drug abuse to flourish. How does the hon. Gentleman feel as the Minister who has presided over the largest ever increase in drug addiction, deaths and destruction of young people's lives?

Mr. Mellor

Perhaps it was an improvement when the hon. Gentleman was saying "Nonsense" from a sedentary position instead of rising and engaging in an all-purpose rant that will not enhance his reputation in this place. However, if that helps him with the Knowsley, North reselection procedure, we shall not mind too much.