HC Deb 07 February 1986 vol 91 cc566-70 11.17 am
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement about what action he intends to take in response to the disclosure that cocaine kits are being sold in London.

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

I share the concern that is felt by right hon. and hon. Members over this attempt to make money through the encouragement of drug misuse. I understand that such kits are made up of everday articles, the sale of which is not in itself an offence. The police would, however, respond immediately to any suggestion that illegal drugs were being sold with these kits. I shall review again the practicability of making the sale of these kits a criminal offence.

Mr. Kaufman

The Minister will be aware that the entire nation must have been shocked to see on last night's television news, and to read in today's press, how easy it is to buy cocaine snorting kits in London, following complaints by some of my hon. Friends about a similar abuse in Scotland. Is he aware that my assistant visited Carnaby street this morning and saw displayed in the shop window of an establishment named "Carnaby Centre" several items which could be employed for drug use, together with a promise of more being available in the basement, which is blatantly named "The Head Shock". We note what the Minister has said, but we require some commitment for action.

We ask the Government to consider inserting an amendment in the Drug Trafficking Offences Bill, or a provision in the Budget, or both, to seek to prevent these activities. The Home Secretary is the police authority for London and he will understand that we expect action from him to stamp out this scandal.

Mr. Mellor

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have been extremely grateful to the Opposition, including himself and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), for the assistance that they have given in facilitating the passage of the Drug Trafficking Offences Bill. I should like to have the chance of discussing this matter with him or the hon. Member for Erdington.

It seems that the problem of selecting the right vehicle for changing the law is not the central one. The problem lies in finding a way of penalising the sale of what is a collection of everyday items such as mirrors, which have a normal use. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that at a time when the entire community is outraged by the prospects of drug misuse—we saw on last night's news bulletin the damage that can be caused to newly born babies following their innocence in the womb by cocaine misuse—and the evidence that makes it clear beyond peradventure that cocaine is utterly destructive of life and not a champagne drug. Against that background, we should respond to the challenge and the affront to us all that is represented by the Carnaby street window display. I hope that we can have some discussions about that and bring forward a solution that the House would want to endorse.

Mr. Speaker

I remind the House that this is a private Member's Bill day and, in fairness to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie), I must draw attention to the fact that the statement concerns cocaine kits being sold in London and nowhere else.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is considerable concern in greater London that such kits, which are clearly designed for one despicable purpose, are readily available in shops in greater London? Does he understand that his statement will be warmly welcomed, provided that it leads to prompt and effective action to deal with the problem once and for all?

Mr. Mellor

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

Surely the hon. Gentleman must realise that there is a big difference between items which are sold individually which have all kinds of uses and a pack which is specially produced containing items for the specific use of taking drugs.

Mr. Mellor

That is plainly the point that we must address in trying to see whether the prohibition can apply. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government supported the successful attempt of my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) last year to deal with the sale of glue-sniffing kits, although they contain the substance itself — glue — whereas these kits do not contain prohibited drugs. However, I assure the House that having seen on my visit last April the problems that the paraphernalia cause in the United States, no one is more enthusiastic than me to find a workable way of outlawing it. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall set to the business of finding such an answer with appropriate vigour.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington)

Does not this incident suggest that the Government's approach to the drug menace is not on sufficiently broad a basis and that we should look at dangerous drugs, such as cocaine, heroin and cannabis, to see who is marketing them, to whom and why there is a demand for each of them? Ought we not then to tackle each of the different markets and encourage people to resist the temptation to buy the drugs and not only prevent people from selling them?

Mr. Mellor

That is exactly what we do. The Government have recently announced the continuation of a prevention campaign aimed particularly at heroin, that campaign having had most encouraging results for those most at risk — the teenage population. We have a sophisticated approach which recognises the differences between certain drugs and their attractiveness. I want to make it clear that, although we have focused on heroin as public enemy No. 1 in Britain, cocaine is every bit as grave in its impact and no one should be attracted to taking it by the fact that these rather twee little kits are available both here and across the Atlantic.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Does not the information demonstrate yet again the alarming spread of drug misuse in London? Therefore, is it not sad that the special drugs money initiative launched by the Secretary of State for Social Services has largely bypassed London? Will he now make representations to ensure that facilities in the capital for combating drug misuse are increased?

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in saying that money has bypassed London. It has not. He will know from his own community of the support that is being given to the City Roads project and to other community groups. Indeed, I visited Islington and sought to lend such weight as I have to the real efforts that are being made in his borough. I can assure him that the interests of London are in no sense being neglected.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Will my hon. Friend consider again whether existing powers give him the right to ban the sale of everyday items, bearing in mind that last year the Government used existing powers to ban the sale of 120 million erasers on the flimsy ground that they might encourage children to sniff them? Given the use of the powers then, why cannot exactly the same priorities operate for these kits?

Mr. Mellor

Obviously, as part of looking again at the problem I shall take account of that, but I want the House to understand that this is a matter that the United States has already had to confront. There is no federal law prohibiting the sale of such paraphernalia in the United States because of similar difficulties. A recent development that is of some use is a draft model that has been produced by the drug enforcement administration for use by individual state assemblies. Obviously, as part of our efforts to find an effective way of dealing with the matter in the United Kingdom, we shall want to look at that. However, I urge the House not to think that the banning of items in everyday use such as a mirror, which even hon. Members would acknowledge using occas ionally in private moments, is an easy matter. We must be clear that we have made a distinction between those everyday items when sold together and those everyday items when sold separately.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

The Minister and the Government lay great emphasis on the campaign that they are waging against drug abuse and the related activities, so why has it taken a television programme to highlight the problem in London before steps, in the form described in his statement, are taken? As the Government are taking steps in London, and as the Minister will have seen the early-day motion, will he put pressure on his ministerial colleagues for similar steps to be taken in Scotland as the same problem has existed there for some time now? The Edinburgh study, which I hope the hon. Gentleman has looked at, and the early-day motion, points surely to a causal link between the rising level of unemployment among young people and the rising use of drug abuse in Scotland.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman makes a variety of different points and I cannot deal with them all beyond saying that no link between the taking of drugs and unemployment has been established. The taking of drugs is much more closely linked to pressure from friends and curiosity.

Of course, a television programme was not needed to draw our attention to the problem. I have already made it clear that I have been aware of the problems of paraphernalia from my visit to the United States. But we have tackled the problem of drug misuse by establishing priorities. For instance, a Bill dealing with the important matter of drug traffickers' assets is going through the House. Now that it appears that the paraphernalia problem is likely to be more of a feature in Britain than we expected might be the case, we shall obviously want to look again at the practicality of making it illegal. Not every dimension of a difficult problem such as drug misuse can be tackled at once and priorities have to be established.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

There are Scots in London, and I am one of them. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) specifically mentioned Scotland. May I give some reflection on something which could be helpful?

Mr. Speaker

No. The hon. and learned Gentleman should ask a question, not give his reflection.

Mr. Fairbairn

Then let me ask a reflective question, Mr. Speaker. If a person invites someone into his shop to buy a bank robbery kit by advertising it, that would be a criminal offence at common law. Any assistance to commit a criminal offence is an offence. If someone invites a person into a shop to buy something which will help him to take a drug, that is also a criminal offence. Why are they not prosecuted in London?

Mr. Mellor

I am not sure that my hon. and learned Friend's knowledge of the law of England quite matches his knowledge of the law of Scotland. As I have said, we want now to look at the practicality of making the sale of such kits unlawful. I know that that will receive the co-operation of all parties in the House. If an easy and practicable way can be found, it will be inserted in legislation. It can be said about all hon. Members that we are wising up to the problem only after a television broadcast, but now that the House recognises that this is a problem that may require legislative action we must look with all appropriate expedition at ways in which that might be done.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

I can understand the Minister's difficulty, but will he sit down and look again with the Metropolitan police at the film taken in Carnaby street and decide whether an offence was committed, because some of us believe that it was?

Mr. Mellor

If an offence was committed, I can assure the House that the police will be alerted to that and will need no prompting from me. I saw the film and it caused me considerable distress. I hope that I have shown to the House today that, just as we have tried to tackle with vigour other manifestations of drug misuse, we shall want to look at this one. That is something in which all of us will have a part to play.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

The hon. Gentleman referred to expedition. Will he discuss the problem with the Minister for Health? Cocaine sniffing and use of these kits in London have become socially acceptable. In 1983, there were fewer than 100 deaths from the taking of heroin, methadone and the hard drugs but, in the past three years, there has been a flood. The Minister is right to give cocaine abuse higher priority than all other drug abuses.

Mr. Mellor

The problem in the United Kingdom, as in other countries, is poly-drug misuse. Of the drugs that are misused, heroin is the most prominent, with amphetamines coming second. We have rightly been put on notice about the glut of cocaine available in South America and about the possibility of Europe becoming flooded with cocaine as a result of the drug traffickers' wish to develop a further market.

Although cocaine misuse remains a problem in the United Kingdom, in recent months there has not been the great growth in cocaine misuse that some had predicted. We are not at all complacent about that. Customs has four teams of specially designated officers to deal with cocaine, which has led to remarkable drug seizures. Obviously, we shall continue to look at all aspects of the cocaine drug problem, including this one, to ascertain whether more needs to be done.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that, pending fresh legislation, there are powers under the existing law to deal with this specific case? First, will the hon. Gentleman consider the law relating to incitement? Prosecutions for incitement are relatively rare. The facts of this case may well give rise to a prosecution for incitement. Secondly, will he consider the analogy of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 in the offensive weapons-type case, where a perfectly innocent implement becomes an offensive weapon and the onus of proof shifts? That power might also fit this case. Will the hon. Gentleman consider those two specific proposals?

Mr. Mellor

I know that the solicitor for the Metropolitan police will want to look at all the legal points that have been made. This reminds me somewhat of President Lincoln at the height of the civil war who, on being told how easy it was to deal with certain matters, said, "The trouble is that all the best generals are writing for the newspapers". I know that the solicitor for the Metropolitan police, whose grasp of the criminal law is, no doubt, more than adequate, will want to look at these points. If it is as easy as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, action will be taken. If it is not as easy as he suggested, as I suspect, it may be for us to take action. That is the gravamen of what I have been saying to the House.