HC Deb 15 January 1987 vol 108 cc495-502

9.9 pm

Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn)

I welcome the opportunity of this Adjournment debate to discuss the drugs crisis and particularly its Welsh dimension, a crisis which the Select Committee on Home Affairs has rightly described as the most serious peace-time threat to our national well being. The number of drug addicts registered with the Home Office is currently rising at the rate of 25 per cent. a year, and the figure currently stands at more than 9,000. In north Wales in 1978 there were 292 offences relating to drugs, none of which involved heroin. In 1984 there were 956 such offences, half of which involved heroin.

Even the Home Office admits that the figures for registered addicts must be multiplied by five to give an accurate and real picture. Others working in the field go as far as to claim that the figures must be mutliplied by a factor of 10 to get close to the mark. Mr. Dave Turner, the co-ordinator of the Standing Committee on Drug Abuse, estimates the total to be between 60,000 and 70,000.

The serious problem in north Wales is worsened by the fact that the heroin epidemic has raged for five years in the Wirral area, adjacent to my constituency. The heroin problem there is second only to that in Glasgow and it is three times worse than the average for a United Kingdom borough.

In Birkenhead—known locally as "smack city"—a quarter of 16 to 24-year-olds have some involvement with heroin, with "chasing the dragon". Other areas in Merseyside may be as little as 18 months behind the Wirral and parts of north Wales not far behind that.

The scale of the problem is also revealed by the record number of 30,500 drug seizures by Customs and police in 1985. That figure was 8 per cent. higher than the 1984 figure, which, in its turn, was 9 per cent. up on the 1983 figure. However, and this is an extremely important point, the continuing low price and high quality of heroin shows that the available supply on the street has not been dented to any considerable extent. The rule of thumb is that for every seizure nine go undetected. The incentive for traffickers is huge in spite of the passing in the last Session of the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986.

A kilo of cocaine worth £5,000 in Bolivia is worth as much as £180,000 on the streets of the United Kingdom. As if the situation is not already serious enough, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office has warned of the new threat approaching our islands, namely, the threat of cocaine. The lucrative American market for that drug is already reaching saturation point. The danger of cocaine is multiplied many fold through the use of "crack", the cheaper, more immediately powerful and more addictive form of pure cocaine.

The drugs problem cannot be narrowly defined. It affects many Whitehall Departments: the Home Office, with its responsibility for the police, the Treasury, with its responsibility for Customs, the Department of Health and Social Security, with its responsibility for treatment, and the Department of Education and Science, with its responsibility for education. Of course, in addition, it affects the two territorial Departments, the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office.

Two years ago the ministerial group on the misuse of drugs was set up to co-ordinate Government strategy and action. That was an eminently wise decision. The Government have taken strong action to deal with the two dimensions of the problem, supply and demand. I pay tribute to the Government for their efforts to stem the supply of drugs into this country through their contribution of £3.4 million to the United Nations scheme aimed at the eradication of opium in Pakistan and its contribution of £1.5 million to reduce coca production in South America. Although there has been a sharp fall in the amount of heroin coming from Pakistan, large quantities are still coming through India.

After the eradication at source, the second block is at our borders, first through the Customs and Excise. The Government have acted here—although they have come in for much unjustified criticism. The number of customs officers whose main priority is drug detection will by April this year be 500 up on the April 1985 figure. The number of specialist intelligence investigators in the same period will have risen from 121 to 297.

Last year, we saw the clear success of the Government's actions with the breaking up of more than 80 trafficking gangs, most recently and perhaps most dramatically, with Operation Fulman, which broke up the Dye drug ring.

But despite the increase in customs officers, heroin is still coming in in large quantities, mainly through freight imports rather than personal luggage, and that makes it particularly difficult to detect. Organised crime syndicates are estimated to be making more than £500 million a year from drug trafficking. With the cocaine threat looming, the Government will have to consider putting more resources into the customs service. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office has given reassurances that he is keeping a close watch on the number of customs officers and will not hesitate to decide to increase them if necessary.

The block at our borders depends not only on customs but on the police. There are only 60 on the drugs wing within the regional crime squad covering the whole of the north-west and only 10 covering North Wales. In London, where half of the country's hard drug problems are concentrated, there are only 57 officers specialising in drug offences, although that is 19 up on the 1985 total. More resources are needed. This would be an investment in the health of the nation, and we would do well to follow the example of the President of the United States and his anti-abuse programme.

A further way to try to stem the supply of drugs is through deterrence. In the Session before last I was able to steer through the House the Controlled Drugs (Penalties) Act as a private Member's measure. It was supported by all parties, indeed by all factions within parties, including hon. Members from the Militants to the moderates in the Labour Party and from the arid dries to the saturated Wets in our party. It had universal support. That measure increased the maximum sentence for trafficking in hard drugs from 14 years to life. That was followed in the last Session by the Drug Trafficking Offences Act, which will enable the confiscation of assets of those convicted of drug trafficking.

The effectiveness of that measure in the face of the sophistication and professionalism of the criminals trafficking in drugs, particularly in the laundering of the assets of their evil trade, depends on international co-operation. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office emphasised that point when he chaired the meeting of Community Ministers on drugs misuse on 20 October 1986. I believe that there is a need for international co-operation beyond the confines of Europe, and I look forward to further progress on a United Nations convention.

I have discussed in some detail past efforts and current measures by the Government to stem the supply of hard drugs, but we have to face the fact that they are still coming into the country in large quantities. The Government are also rightly trying to remove demand—this is the second dimension, after supply—and to dissuade young people from experimenting with drugs through their advertising campaign. Some £2 million was spent in 1985 on anti-heroin publicity and a further £2 million is being spent in the current financial year on the second phase of that campagn, aimed particularly at parents. I know that £200,000 of that campaign publicity money has been devoted specifically to Wales. Market research shows that the campaign is being successful. Before the campaign was started, 83 per cent. of youngsters said that they would reject an offer of heroin and now that has risen by 10 per cent. to 93 per cent.

All this is encouraging, but there is still a need for more localised advertising campaigns. Professor Geoffrey Pearson, the professor of social work at Middlesex polytechnic, has compiled a report on drugs in the north of England, and he has questioned whether "a blanket advertising campaign" is the best way to deal with the problem. He feels that the Government's campaign should be more geared to local needs, and this has been endorsed by Dr. Howard Parker of Liverpool university, following his work in the Wirral area. I believe that there is room for a distinctly Welsh initiative to put us in the vanguard of education on drug misuse.

During the debate on AIDS on 21 November my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services announced the strengthening of the Health Education Council by reconstituting it as a special health authority with increased resources. This special authority will assume the current responsibilities of the Health Education Council and will be given the major executive responsibility for public education on AIDS. It will be an integral part of the National Health Service within England.

During that debate my right hon. Friend said that the exact relationship of the new agency to health education arrangements in Wales had yet to be settled and he indicated that arrangements may vary in different parts of the United Kingdom. This gives us a great opportunity. The increased resources, the flexibility of the new health education arrangements and the tragic connection between the injection of drugs and AIDS gives us the opportunity, which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will take, for further health education measures on drug misuse in Wales.

Such an initiative should start in our schools with formalised drug education classes on the harmful effects of drug misuse and on the techniques of resisting what is called "peer pressure"—the pressure from older pupils who say to younger ones, "Come on, try it." That initiative must involve teachers, parent-teacher associations and the police.

I believe that it is worth looking at the example of the United States Department of Education's campaign, "What works: schools without drugs".

In the United States, 72 per cent. of primary and secondary pupils now receive some sort of drugs education. One of the more comprehensive programmes is DARE, Drug Abuse Resistance Education, which was begun in Los Angeles three years ago and has since been copied in 62 school districts in the United States. The programme allows for police officers to go into schools on a regular basis for a period of 45 minutes to one hour. They go into a class, with the teacher still there, perhaps up to 17 or 18 times in the academic year.

The education programme must be central to any attack on drug misuse. As Tom Adams, the national director of the "Just Say No" programme in the United States, has put it: The kids under 10 in the States are the only group in which non-use of drugs and alcohol and tobacco is the norm. We, too, in Britain, must grasp the opportunity to keep that age group free of drugs as they enter the temptation-ridden teens.

When dissuasion and prevention tragically fail, we have to fall back on treatment and rehabilitation. An extra £5 million has been allocated by the DHSS to health authorities in England from 1986 to expand the treatment of drug misuse. That is on top of the £17 million already available for local projects such as telephone help lines and counselling services.

I hope that when the Minister replies he can give the comparable figures for Wales. I must confess to being unhappy about the way in which the Government are funding treatment and rehabilitation in Wales at present. In England and Scotland, short-term pump-priming funds have been established, but not in Wales. Instead, the Welsh Office has extended the scope of existing funds for developments in mental health care provided through the NHS to embrace schemes to combat misuse of drugs.

That has aroused the suspicion of health authorities that it is not new money which is being made available but diverted money. I know that the Government have taken the extra scope into consideration and increased the fund from £1 million to £1.5 million, but only £215,000 of that has been specifically allocated for drug misuse. In 1985 in England and Scotland the figures were significantly higher—£6 million and £2 million respectively.

I agree strongly with the Government that primary responsibility for the provision and development of treatment and rehabilitation services must remain at local level. Health authorities will be willing to develop such services if they are given central funding, but they are less willing, almost unwilling, to give priority to combating drug misuse in competition with other local priorities. The Welsh Office should reconsider the funding of drug treatment within the Principality.

In conclusion, William Jones once said: The deadliest enemies of nations are not their foreign foes; they always dwell within their own borders. Drug misuse is the most insidious, all-pervasive, of enemies. It knows no boundaries of class or geography. It is no longer an inner city, a city, an urban, or even a suburban problem; it is prevalent throughout our villages and countryside.

As Brian Arbery, chief executive of the charity Turning Point which runs the Hungerford drug project, says: The current Government has done far more than any other in giving money and high priority to dealing with drug abuse". This debate follows on from yesterday afternoon's debate and it is worth pointing out, sadly in the absence of any Opposition Members, that the Government have once again been in the vanguard of dealing with this national crisis, just as they have been in the vanguard of helping old-age pensioners in the severely cold weather that we have experienced of late. That has already proved that this Government is a caring Government.

Sadly—the Minister may agree with me—the Government sometimes fall short on presentation of what they are doing. That is an understandable mistake because we are doing so much, but we must broadcast what we have done even more. I hope that I can count on the Minister's support in doing that, particularly in the Principality. If we can get the message across, we shall show, as Lord Woolton once said of another Conservative Government: "We not only cope; we care." I know that the Minister may follow that last point in his opening sentence, but I hope that he will also acknowledge, perhaps as a conditional clause of that opening sentence, that he recognises, as I recognise, that if we are to defeat this deadliest of enemies still more must be done.

9.26 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Mark Robinson)

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan) has called this debate tonight. He has gone to considerable lengths and trouble to address the House and to draw attention to an important subject. I particularly welcome the initiative because I share his and the public's concern that new threats to public health do not deflect our determination to defeat the racketeers and pushers.

At the same time, we must do all in our power to help those suffering from drug misuse and those who are in danger or being ensnared by it. That resolve remains undiminished in Wales, as in the rest of the United Kingdom. The effort that forms part of the overall strategy that is not within my departmental responsibilities is nevertheless of direct benefit to Wales, particularly in reducing supplies and thereby protecting our people from its evils.

My hon. Friend referred to the work of the inter-ministerial group on the misuse of drugs under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office. I serve on that group and its work is challenging and extremely important. The work we do in Wales is in the context of the overall strategy co-ordinated by my hon. Friend and I am closely involved in it. There is a comprehensive and developing Government strategy aimed at reducing supplies, improving international action against traffickers, stepping up deterrence, improving the security of illicit drugs and assisting prevention and treatment.

The Welsh Office's place in that relates to health education, treatment, rehabilitation and the security of drugs. Notably, the Department has participated fully in the national public information and education campaign, including the production of media material and leaflets in the Welsh language as well as in English which have been widely distributed to parents and young people. Extensive video training and education aids, for example, have been distributed to professional workers and schools, a high proportion of whom have accepted a free copy of the double tape video.

Those national educational activities have greatly assisted specific Welsh Office action which takes the following forms. First, at the Welsh Office's request, each county in Wales now has an active drugs advisory committee led by the local district health authority and composed of all the statutory professional and voluntary groups interested in combating drug misuse. The Department has kept in close touch with those committees and my impression is that for the most part they are working well together, particularly in Clwyd under the chairmanship of Michael Griffith.

Local planning is the second important aspect. Each drug advisory committee has been asked by the Welsh Office to produce a strategic plan for tackling drug misuse in each county. All plans have been submitted in draft and the Welsh Office has produced detailed comments on each. The counties are now in the process of preparing final versions and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to provide a firm basis for concerted local action over the next three to five years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Delyn referred to improved educational resources, and in the current financial year and the next some £150,000 will be made available to each county in Wales. With regard to health education, the Welsh Office has funded the appointment in each county of a health education officer specialising in drug misuse. They will be encouraging activities in the community aimed at alerting young people to the dangers of drug misuse.

A significant investment has been made in providing advice, guidance and counselling to people suffeing from or in danger of drug misuse. Particular initiatives include centres at Swansea, Bangor, Bridgend, Cardiff and Newport.

As regards treatment, the emphasis has been on education and counselling. In the years ahead, one can expect the development of clinical treatment facilities. Community drug teams have been established, with Welsh Office funding, in Clwyd and Cardiff and they are the out-patient arms of hospital services.

We attach great importance to crisis intervention. We are concerned to provide easy access to help for those people and their relatives and friends who experience a drug misuse crisis. Welsh Office funding has enabled a nationwide Welsh drugs line to operate 24 hours a day. It reaches out to every town, village and hamlet. Although it is still in its early stages, the drugs line handles some 200 calls a month from all over Wales.

We believe that the voluntary sector complements the work of the statutory authorities. It is often in the best position to cater for the needs of drug misusers. In virtually every county the Welsh Office has funded the provision of voluntary sector services. In that regard, the leadership shown by the churches in north Wales and their work with the statutory authorities is especially encouraging. They are being helped by the Department.

All these developments are important in the context of national co-ordination. It is important to ensure that each drugs advisory committee shares its experiences—that is helpful in providing services—and that they co-operate to solve mutual problems. It is also important to ensure that the Welsh Office is well briefed on the experiences and views of those working in the field. Service planners must have ready access to information on Government initiatives.

All those functions are performed by the Welsh committee on drug misuse that met for the first time last month and I was pleased to attend that meeting. The committee is chaired by Dr. John Evans. It has a wide and expert membership, including the secretaries of the Clwyd drug advisory committee and the Clwyd council on drug misuse.

My hon. Friend the Member for Delyn went to considerable length to talk about funding. The comprehensive range of initiatives has relied upon the energy and commitment of a relatively small number of people in each county, and I should like to pay tribute to the effort that they have made. Their work has been made possible by the considerable financial investment from the Welsh Office. As my hon. Friend pointed out, in the past two financial years, the Department has spent almost £1.5 million on national and local initiatives. Much of that money has enabled local services to be provided that are of direct help to drug misusers, their families and friends.

The Department's commitment will continue. Currently we are considering further requests for the funding of local projects, including schemes in Clwyd. I hope to make an announcement about that when the detailed appraisal has been completed and the Welsh committee on drug misuse has been consulted.

In addition to training and information material for teachers, parents and pupils, the Welsh Office has made available £150,000 from the education support grant in 1986–87 and 1987–88 for the appointment of a special adviser on drug misuse in each county. They will be encouraging and assisting the work of teachers in schools.

I assure the House and my hon. Friend that the Welsh Office remains fully committed to the Government's fight against drug misuse. It is working closely with a wide range of service providers to ensure that young people and their parents are aware of drug misuse and that those entrapped by this evil are given the help that they need and deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Ten o'clock.