HC Deb 23 June 1998 vol 314 cc861-7

'(1) This section applies where a person aged 15 or over is convicted of an offence which carries a custodial sentence.

(2) Subject to the provisions of this section, the court by or before which the offender is convicted may sentence the offender to a period of custody in a prison or other institution ("a drug treatment sentence").

(3) A court shall not pass a drug treatment sentence unless it is satisfied that—

  1. (a) the offender is dependent on or has a propensity to misuse drugs, and
  2. (b) that his dependence or propensity is such as requires and may be susceptible to treatment.

(4) A drug treatment sentence shall include a requirement ("the treatment requirement") that the offender shall submit, during the whole of the drug treatment sentence, to treatment by or under the direction of a specified person having the necessary qualifications or experience ("the treatment provider") with a view to the reduction or elimination of the offender's dependency on or propensity to misuse drugs.

(5) A drug treatment sentence shall only be passed where the offender signifies his consent to such a sentence.

(6) If the offender fails to signify consent or during the period of the drug treatment sentence expressly or impliedly withdraws his consent, then

  1. (a) if the drug treatment sentence has been passed the Court shall revoke it;
  2. (b) the court shall sentence the offender to a term of imprisonment or detention of not less than three times the length of the drug treatment sentence intended or passed.'.—[Mr. Malins.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following Government amendments: Nos. 47 to 50, 21, 22, 51, 106 and 53 to 57.

Mr. Malins

I begin, as always, by declaring an interest as a recorder of the Crown court and an acting metropolitan stipendiary magistrate.

I shall focus on a problem that was not known to our grandparents or to our parents, but is known to us and will certainly be known even more to our children. Thousands of people die needlessly and in pain every year because of it, and thousands more suffer. The problems of mad cow disease and acquired immune deficiency syndrome may have a higher public profile, but, in the long term, they are insignificant compared with the problem that hon. Members face in the debate. It is the most critical problem in our criminal justice system— addiction to, deaths resulting from and crime connected with hard drugs.

Hon. Members should come with me to one of the courts in which I sit, and I would show them a typical defendant. There he would stand in the dock, charged with burglary. He would probably be about 25, and would have a difficult, troubled background. When he was about 14, he would have begun to experiment with so-called social drugs. He would then have moved on a little and begun to mix with the wrong sort of people. By 16, he would have begun to use heroin, and would also have begun the steep descent to disaster.

By 18, he would be addicted and his problems would have started, because he would need money to feed his habit. He would have turned to crime, and would have had to have burgled between £500 and £700 worth of goods a week, not because he wanted them, but because he needed to sell them to raise the money to feed his heroin habit.

There he would stand in the dock—a person perhaps from a family unconnected with crime, but taken into crime by drugs. In some ways, he is a wicked and evil figure, but, in others, he is pathetic. In many ways, his plight, despite the misery that he has caused, is not his own fault. If they came to court with me, hon. Members could listen to the probation officer standing next to him, who would vainly say to the court, "How can you help?" They could listen to his barrister, who would say, "My Lord, don't send him to prison, because if there are drugs outside there are more inside." It is a vicious circle.

Let me put flesh on the bones of my remarks. Fact: more than 50 per cent. of property crime is linked to hard drugs. At least 25 per cent. of prisoners had taken hard drugs in the month before going to prison, and 20 per cent. of those arrested in London are on hard drugs. This is a cruel and wicked problem, and we must grapple with it and decide on it. Our young man may go to prison. He would cost us £25,000 a year at least, and he would cost the country a lot more in misery. This country should be ashamed that it is top of the league in Europe for young people dabbling in drugs.

I have set the background, and hon. Members on both sides of the House would do well to recognise that the problem of hard drugs and crime, and the link between the two, is the greatest single issue facing the criminal justice system. If it is not resolved, absolute disaster lies ahead.

5 pm

Clause 61 provides for drug treatment and testing orders. I read it with interest. The Labour party has honourable men and women whose intentions are good. Throughout the House of Commons, there is a feeling of unity about the need to tackle the drugs problem, although it may be a question of differing degrees of how to go about it. The clause on drug treatment and testing orders effectively requires a defendant whom the court believes is addicted to drugs to submit to treatment and testing. The key point is that that person would have to attend either as an out-patient at some form of institution—probably a probation hostel or hospital—or would be asked to be resident within such an institution for the purposes of treatment. That requirement does not go far enough.

Ms Keeble

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that he is expressing the view of a lawyer? Some Labour Members will take no lectures from the Opposition because we represent areas that have been torn apart by hard drugs. We need no lectures from lawyers about the consequences for the whole community.

Mr. Malins

I apologise to the hon. Lady for being a lawyer, but I do not seek to lecture her; nor do I think that my judicial experience makes me unqualified to comment. In the same way, I do not deny her ability to comment. She should not misunderstand me, because we are on the same side.

Ms Keeble

We are not.

Mr. Malins

In that case, the hon. Lady differs from her own Front Bench, who have had many constructive discussions with me about the approach to the drugs problem.

I was saying that clause 61 does not go far enough because it imagines a defendant being resident in the community and attending an institution for treatment. One should go to court and look at defendants. A defendant who burgles and robs late at night to feed his serious addiction cannot be allowed liberty. If such a person is put out into society under a condition to attend for treatment, he poses too much of a danger and is unlikely, in the real world, to turn up for treatment. That is a critical failure of the clause.

Thus, my charge against the Government is not that they do not care—they do. It is not that they lack good intentions—they do not. It is that their proposal is not tough enough.

My new clause differs from that of the Government in that it recognises the gravity of the problem and says that where a person aged 15 or over is convicted of an offence which carries a custodial sentence and if the court is of the opinion that the person is dependent on or has a propensity to misuse drugs,… and may be susceptible to treatment that court may sentence the defendant to a period of custody in a prison or other institution".

There is a degree of compulsion and containment, that in that prison or institution the person should accept the treatment offered. If he or she fails to accept the treatment —fails initially to accept the order—draconian penalties will follow: an ordinary sentence of imprisonment of at least three times the length of the drug treatment sentence that would have been passed. It is a way of saying to a defendant, "You will go into custody where you will be treated and if you do not co-operate, the consequences will be severe." I believe that the country would want that.

Let us all work towards a future in which prisons are drug free. I said at the beginning that the barrister in court begs the judge not to send the defendant to prison because drugs are so freely available there. Successive Governments have failed to get a real grip of that problem. Drugs in prison must be stamped out.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

I am a little confused by the hon. Gentleman's argument. I agree with much of what he says, but clause 62(2)(a) requires that drug treatment and testing be carried out in such institution or place as may be specified in the order". Subsection (2)(b) provides that a defendant may be non-resident, which allows for the prospect of electronic tagging or other mechanisms. I therefore do not quite understand the hon. Gentleman's complaint.

Mr. Malins

Let me explain the difference between us. I believe that the toughest approach is needed in terms of drug treatment and testing procedures, and that during those procedures, the defendant should be in custody at a prison or other institution of a prison nature, rather than resident in an appropriate hospital that is not secure, a probation hostel or a similar institution.

My new clause seeks to introduce a little compulsion into the relevant treatment.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

Has the hon. Gentleman had any discussions with those who work in drug treatment about how effectively they could treat someone who might have made a choice based on the threat of a sentence that is three times the length of the drug treatment, rather than on a genuine commitment to take on the treatment?

Mr. Malins

Yes, I have had discussions with those who run such services. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. In certain sections of the public sector that are involved in that work, my new clause has not received universal approval. Some recognise the difficulties of what I suggest, and others support it.

As regards those who support my argument, it was not long ago that the Home Affairs Select Committee had before us a number of experts to discuss the problem of drugs and how addicts should be treated. On a date in March, we had before us a representative of the metropolitan stipendiary bench, a leading clerk to the justices and a leading lay justice. I asked the metropolitan stipendiary magistrate: Do you think that we are moving to a stage where… some form of compulsory detoxification for drug abuse is necessary? He replied: Yes, I think we are. The word that I should use is 'coercion' rather than 'compulsion', but it is a fine line. There are reasons for saying that some form of coercion is necessary. The old theory that you cannot succeed in removing the drug problem unless the individual is willing to co-operate is a valid one but it only goes part of the way. I believe that an element of coercion that is applied to those who either dither or are willing to consider coming off drugs can be applied by the courts. Quite how it can be done I am not clear, particularly in view of the cut-back in drug dependency units and funding.

On the point which the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Mc Walter) and others made about treatment in the community as opposed to in custody, a little later during the same Home Affairs Select Committee meeting, one of the most senior lay justices in this country said: At the moment, one of the problems about the places that are being used for drug-addicted parents who come before the family court is the number of treatments that are begun and then dropped. They hardly get over the first hurdle before they drop out. The amount of money wasted is immense. Very often a place has been found and an interim order is made to see whether it works. The person stays two weeks and then walks out or is asked to leave because it is obvious that he or she is still using illicit drugs. I have no idea to what degree the facilities and the money that is spent on them is wasted, but I imagine that it is substantial.

That is one of my worries about the Bill.

I am also concerned about treatment of hardened criminals in the community. The lady lay justice said that she sits in a court about 15 miles from the centre of London. She said: We have one of the drugs treatment centres in our area… People go there daily for an administered dose of methadone. Some research shows that those people are helped to some extent. The downside is that they attract into the town an enormous number of drug-pushers and a very large amount of drug-related crime. There are those who take the methadone but want to go out and buy illicit drugs, or steal to buy them. It is a big problem. These drug-testing sentences will not be the answer to a maiden's prayer.

It is most unlike me—the Minister once kindly accused me of being a liberal thinker —to suggest such a harsh regime, but the House should consider a measure that would place people in custody where they would be treated almost against their will, and if they did not co-operate their position would be made worse. As the Minister knows only too well, in the United States some people, who are virtually in confinement, are administered drugs to help them get off heroin. An experiment has been carried out with the drug naltrexone. Huge numbers of people have been given that drug compulsorily and have been liberated from their heroin addiction. To liberate people from heroin is one of our great tasks in the months ahead.

We owe society a great deal. We owe that young man a great deal: we owe him the chance to get off drugs. I know the young man who says, "I want to be cured. I am going to try to go to the centre for treatment. I'll do my best, but it's not easy." I have seen him dozens of time in court. He will probably fail. Young men like him fail because there is no big stick to ensure that they go for treatment. It is sometimes necessary to help people who cannot help themselves.

I tabled the new clause for two reasons. First, we need to have a debate that focuses on this most serious problem in our criminal justice system. It is a good thing to have such a debate. Secondly, I believe that in the months and years ahead we must have a continuing cross-party discussion—there is no residue of wisdom in my party, any more than there is in any other party—to try to win the war against drugs. If we treat the problem as anything less than a war we are letting down not only our people now, but those who are yet to come.

Mr. Michael

The Government amendments in this group enhance the provisions of the new drug treatment and testing order by dealing with some practical issues. I should be happy to go into more detail, but I shall again show restraint and simply commend them to the House. I shall respond to hon. Members who want to raise any queries about the amendments, but I think that they will be agreed to without dissent.

The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) is almost always entertaining and thought-provoking, but today he was slightly confused. He began by saying that the House was united on this issue, and then he attacked and indicted the Government. He said that we were not being tough enough. He is right to say that I expressed some surprise: I heard him in Committee seeking to limit the Government's ability to protect the public and to tackle the problems of anti-social behaviour that damage our communities. The hon. Gentleman is unable to make up his mind whether he is an old softie or wants to be tough on people who cause so much crime.

5.15 pm

The hon. Gentleman should reflect on the point gently put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble). He invited us to go to his court. We should invite him to come to the town and city neighbourhoods and to the housing estates that have been devastated by drug-related crime. We need no persuasion about the social damage caused, which is why we have given such priority to the problem of drugs and drug-related crime, and why we have proposed the treatment and testing order.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the failure of treatment in many circumstances. It is because of that failure that we have introduced the drug treatment and testing order. By contrast, the hon. Gentleman's proposition is not practical, although I understand the motivation behind it. His new clause would introduce a totally new concept in sentencing. It would add an additional requirement to a term of imprisonment, and if that requirement were not complied with, it would lengthen the term of imprisonment.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's intentions. He attempts to replicate in the prison setting our plans for a drug treatment and testing order in the community. Unfortunately, that will not work. The drug treatment and testing order will rely for much of its effectiveness on the likelihood that the offender will be sent to prison if he fails to comply with the drug treatment requirement. We seek the offender's agreement, but the testing is compulsory and he knows that the courts will take a dim view if he fails to comply with the requirement.

If the offender is already in prison that incentive does not apply. The new clause attempts to solve the problem by threatening to make the length of the sentence at least three times as long if he does not comply with the treatment requirement. Unfortunately, that approach will lead to staggering injustice. Suppose someone is sentenced to seven years for a drug trafficking offence and he does not give or withdraws consent to treatment. Under the new clause, the court must resentence him to 21 years in prison. That means an extra 14 years imprisonment for failing to take a course of treatment. Does anyone seriously consider that that would be a proportionate response?

I firmly believe that the way forward lies with drug treatment and testing orders. The Prison Service has produced an imaginative and new strategy to respond to the needs of those drug misusing offenders whose crimes are so serious that a custodial sentence must be passed. Treatment is available in the prison setting. Offenders have many incentives to benefit from it, including the chance of becoming drug free and the prospect of family life and employment after release.

Much still needs to be done to tackle the problem of drugs in prisons. The Prisons Minister is pursuing this matter with vigour. Prison staff take drug misuse in the prison setting very seriously. Almost 13,000 prisoners were referred by staff to be drug tested last year because they were suspected of misusing drugs.

The problem with the new clause is that it is unjust, unworkable and unnecessary. I know that it is not the hon. Gentleman's intention, but it would be wrong of me to ask the House to accept it. I ask hon. Members to support our proposals as a real and practical way to make progress. This is only one of the many practical measures that the Government want to take to tackle the scourge of drug misuse and drug-related crime.

Mr. Malins

I have listened carefully to the Minister's reply, and do not intend to press my new clause to a Division. I know that the Minister will have taken on board everything that has been said in this debate. I am also sure that he and I will have many dialogues on the matter in future.

On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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