HC Deb 25 May 1999 vol 332 cc161-73 3.31 pm
The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Dr. Jack Cunningham)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Government's anti-drugs strategy.

I am pleased to lay before the House today the United Kingdom anti-drugs co-ordinator's first annual report and plan. No one in the House needs to be reminded of the importance of our fight against drugs. Quite apart from the devastating effect that drugs can have on users, their families and their friends, they have serious implications for all of us in the wider community.

Illegal drugs, particularly heroin and cocaine, are a major cause of crime. A heroin or crack cocaine addict can require an illegal income of £10,000 to £20,000 each year simply to feed his or her habit. As a result, such addicts are responsible for a substantial proportion—some 30 per cent.—of all crime, particularly theft and burglary. Those figures are too compelling to be ignored. The Government are committed to addressing the causes of crime, as well as the consequences. If we can make a positive impact on drug misuse, we can say with some confidence that we will make a positive impact on crime.

The White Paper, "Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain", set out our 10-year strategy for reducing the use of drugs throughout our society. The report published today describes progress during the first year of the strategy and sets targets for the short, medium and long term. I am grateful to Keith Hellawell and his deputy, Mike Trace, for the work that they have done in preparing the report.

There are some positive messages to be drawn from the report. For the first time, departments and agencies nationally and locally are being brought together to work in partnership towards joint performance targets. The focus is on results and on working together across departmental boundaries, which reflects the proposals that we laid out in the modernising government White Paper.

The proposals in the annual report and plan will help us to meet the objectives that we agreed in the public service agreement on drugs. The agreement binds all relevant Departments to work together to deliver a reduction in the proportion of people under 25 who misuse illegal drugs; a reduction in the level of reoffending by drugs-misusing offenders; an increase in the participation of problem drug misusers, including prisoners, in drug treatment programmes which have a positive impact on health and in reducing crime; and a reduction in the access to drugs for young people.

Between now and 2002, all departmental and agency resources and activities against drugs will be increasingly redirected towards those and associated targets, as set out in the national plan. Departments have been allocated an additional £217 million for targeted anti-drugs activities. Existing resources in the criminal justice system will be progressively moved from dealing with the consequences of drug-related offences to programmes that enable offenders to tackle their drug problems.

There will, however, be no let up in our determination to pursue drug dealers. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has introduced a seven-year minimum sentence for third time, class A drug traffickers and we will continue to give the police every support in targeting such offenders.

Drug action teams will have a crucial role in the implementation of the strategy. During the past 12 months, drug action teams undertook a comprehensive planning process, which shows that a great deal of good work is already under way. I pay tribute to much excellent work done at local level by both the public and voluntary sectors. Their contribution is essential to our success. However, we must ensure that they have the support they need to build on that work. That is why we have created the drug prevention advisory service, which will provide drug action teams with an invaluable source of advice and support.

There is a regrettable shortage of reliable information about drug use, so we are putting in place better information systems to show more definitively what the drugs problems are, what works best against them and what is cost-effective. We shall spend an extra £6 million over the next three years to help to fund a major new research programme to establish accurate baselines.

Additional support for the strategy and its objectives will be provided by partnership with the private sector and by channelling the assets seized from convicted drugs traffickers back into action against them and their crimes. I am pleased to be able to announce that £3 million will be available from that source in 1999–2000, which is to be increased in future years. The illegal gains of drug dealers will be used to tackle the problems that they generate.

In line with our commitment under the public service agreement, the national plan sets key performance targets for the medium and long term. For young people, we aim to reduce the proportion of people under 25 reporting use of illegal drugs in the past month and the previous year substantially, and to reduce the proportion of young people using the drugs which cause the greatest harm—heroin and cocaine—by 25 per cent. by 2005 and by 50 per cent. by 2008.

In our communities, we will reduce the level of repeat offending among drug misusing offenders by 25 per cent. by 2005 and by 50 per cent. by 2008. In the treatment sector, we will increase the participation of problem drug misusers, including prisoners, in drug treatment programmes, which have a positive impact on health and crime, by 66 per cent. by 2005 and by 100 per cent. by 2008.

In seeking to limit availability, our aim is to reduce access to all drugs among young people under 25 significantly, and to reduce access to the drugs that cause the greatest harm—heroin and cocaine—by 25 per cent. by 2005 and by 50 per cent. by 2008. Those medium and long-term targets link directly with the strategy's vision of shifting the emphasis from dealing with the consequences of drug misuse to prevention of that misuse. They are supported by a range of shorter-term targets for the next year and the next three years.

For example, by 2002, we propose to reduce the number of 11 to 16-year-olds who use class A drugs by 20 per cent.; during 1999–2000, we will double the number of face-to-face arrest referral schemes and the number of arrestees referred to and entering treatment programmes; during the next year, we will also establish in all prisons a comprehensive treatment framework to improve the assessment, advice and support of prisoners; and by 2002, we plan to increase by a third the amount of assets seized from drug traffickers.

The past year has been about preparing the ground for the implementation of the strategy. The new initiatives and the targets I have announced today show the way forward. I recognise that this is a difficult task, and progress will depend on commitment to the policy and careful monitoring of the outcomes. There are no easy solutions, which us why our strategy is for a 10-year programme. I believe that our targets are achievable. They will help to deliver our society from the problems created by drug misuse.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Conservative Members welcome the publication of the first drugs annual report and action plan by the United Kingdom anti-drugs co-ordinator. I thank the Minister for allowing me to have a copy a little earlier this afternoon: I much appreciated that.

The report sets out targets for the short, medium and long term, and encourages Departments and agencies to work in partnership at both local and national level. It must be said, however, that the very sharpness of the targets in the report contrasts markedly with the lack of clarity in the baseline of the underlying problem.

The whole House remains supportive of the four objectives outlined in last year's White Paper, "Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain": to reduce the use of illegal drugs by young people, to protect our communities from drug-related crime, to provide effective drug treatment programmes and to stifle the availability of drugs on the streets.

The drug problem in the United Kingdom often appears intractable, and, sadly, appears to be growing. The supply of, for example, heroin and cocaine is increasing, while the street price of those and other drugs is falling. In the statement, the Government expressed their intention of focusing more on class A drugs. Will the Minister confirm, however, that they have no plans to decriminalise the use of cannabis or other class B drugs? Will he reaffirm that to take any illegal substance is plainly wrong, addictive and dangerous?

We know that young people aged between 10 and 17 are being targeted by pushers, and that the number of those taking hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine is rising. We support all steps to protect young people from those who peddle drugs—including their contemporaries—by ensuring that they have the knowledge and social skills to withstand peer pressure. Education directed at prevention is vital, and must receive the full support and involvement of parents and families. Does the Minister agree, however, that young people who are older—old enough to vote, for instance, or to leave home—having been taught the difference between right and wrong, must accept responsibility for their actions? The buck stops with each individual, and we must not make excuses for their illegal drug-taking.

We welcome the targets announced for treatment programmes, including programmes for people in prison, bearing in mind that at present there is a waiting time of approximately 15 weeks. Is the Minister confident that sufficient resources are available to deliver those ambitious targets? Will he comment on Professor Howard Parker's observation on the "Today" programme this morning that the new wave of drug-taking was unforeseen, that it would strain the Government's strategy, and that the Government might not reach some of their goals?

I recall that the drug treatment and testing orders were to be in the vanguard of the Government's policy. Does the Minister accept that take-up has been extremely poor? Only 67 orders have been made, of which 10 have been revoked, in the three pilot areas where hundreds, if not thousands, of drug cases have gone before the criminal courts. Is the Minister satisfied that the budget of £40 million for the scheme, when it is fully implemented next year, is enough, given that each order costs approximately £6,000? That means that only about 6,600 orders can be made throughout the United Kingdom.

The availability of drugs on our streets is growing. We acknowledge the Government's action in retaining 300 Customs and Excise officers, but does the Minister accept that there are continuing problems in the service, with a possible reduction of more than 1,000 jobs over the next three years, which will directly and adversely affect drug intelligence and anti-smuggling measures?

The United Kingdom has an advantage in being an island, so that drugs must arrive by sea or air, other than through the channel tunnel. That is in marked contrast to countries in mainland Europe, where border controls are noticeably absent. Customs officers are uniquely placed to detect drugs at ports, airports and around remote coastlines. Minor entry points are receiving a growing share of high-risk traffic. Why, therefore, are there to be reductions in the intelligence unit in the west country, and why is the highly successful Plymouth drug detection dog unit to be closed? Will that not have a direct impact on the growing availability of drugs on our streets?

The right hon. Gentleman asserted in his statement that there would be no abatement of efforts to pursue drug dealers. We endorse that statement wholeheartedly. At least 80 per cent. of intelligence development work is linked to drugs. Is the Minister satisfied that we have enough officers in the field overseas and enough police here to follow through that policy? Police numbers are falling, and that is a worrying trend.

In supporting the Government's objectives, I express the hope that words will be backed by deeds. The perception of people in the United Kingdom towards drugs policy is all important. They want to see effective deterrence to drug use and drug trafficking, and they want tough penalties to be imposed. They want their local communities to be cleaned up. They are looking to the House for a lead to show that there is no soft message on drugs. The war on drugs must be waged with energy, drive and commitment if we are to succeed in protecting our children from their insidious consequences.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful for the hon. Lady's general welcome and support, and I agree with much of what she had to say. There is a problem with baseline information, as I said in my statement and as she emphasised. The information is not available because the situation and policies that we inherited were not focused, not co-ordinated and not based on any hard information. That is the reality that we discovered, and why we have taken time and are investing £6 million of new resources in trying to improve the robustness of the baseline figures.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that it is essential that we do that. None of that work had been done. One of the plus points of developing a new strategy in this area is that we will obtain that information. We do not have robust baselines, but we know what the trends are, and, as the hon. Lady said, they are in the wrong direction. We have some information to go on, but I want to be clear with everyone—as I have been in the interviews that I have given—that I believe that that is not good enough, and that we need to improve the credibility of the information on which we base our plans.

We have no plans or proposals to decriminalise cannabis. The hon. Lady rightly said that the public expect us to take the toughest possible line against drug abuse and the crime related to it. Therefore, I repeat that there will be no softening of policy in this area. She is quite right to say that all drugs present dangers to young people, which is why education, advice and support is so important.

This morning, Keith Hellawell and I visited Camden girls school. I pay tribute to and thank the head teacher, Geoffrey Fallows, and his staff. We saw excellent work being done with young people in this area. That work is essential, so we have allocated an extra £217 million for that aspect, and will progressively shift resources—the £1.4 billion that we currently spend on all drugs-related issues—in the direction of education, information, advice, treatment and rehabilitation and away from dealing merely with the consequences of drug abuse and drug-related crime.

The hon. Lady referred to young people over the age of 18. With their freedoms and rights must come responsibilities; they must face the consequences of their actions. However, the policy must try to prevent them from getting into trouble with drugs in the first place.

As we know, we have some of the toughest custodial sentencing policies of any country in Europe, but we still have one of the worst records on drugs-related problems of any country in Europe. It is not that the courts do not have strong powers; it is not that we have not already strengthened those powers—it is that we are not dealing with the root cause of the problem early enough. That is the biggest single argument for the shift in policy that we are bringing about.

I am pleased that the hon. Lady welcomed the setting of targets. I know that they will be difficult to achieve—no one knows that better than me; I have been looking at the matter for a year. However, without targets and without benchmarks against which we can gauge progress—or not—we will simply remain in the dark. We will not know whether policies are working, whether we need to adjust them, or whether we need to change the allocation of resources. We are taking something of a risk. We are exposing ourselves by setting those tough targets, but we must have something to aim at and against which to gauge the success, or otherwise, of our policies.

I did hear Professor Parker this morning, and there is something in what he says. Unhappily, although seizures of illegal drugs have increased tenfold, availability on the streets has not declined. We know that heroin is available at higher quality, in greater purity and cheaper than ever before. The increasing availability of class A drugs such as heroin poses a real threat to our young people. We have to get to grips with the problem.

Of course, the drug testing and treatment orders are in the early stages—

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

They only scratch the surface.

Dr. Cunningham

That is an absurd thing to say. They have only been introduced relatively recently.

Mr. Clappison

Seven months.

Dr. Cunningham

Seven months, the hon. Gentleman says. How long does the drugs problem in this country go back? What was his party doing for 18 years. We are deliberately piloting the orders so that we can gauge their effectiveness, or lack of it. If they are shown not to be an efficient use of resources, we will have to make changes. The hon. Gentleman's comment demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the nature of the problem and how we are trying to deal with it.

It would be unusual if there were not some major difference of opinion on such a statement between the Government and those on the Opposition Front Bench. I again pay tribute to the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) for her measured response. However, when she said what she did about Customs officers, I parted company from her because it was her Government and her party that supported a reduction of 500 Customs officers and planned a further reduction of 300. It was only this Government, on election in May 1997, who prevented that further reduction. As a result of the comprehensive spending review, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor gave more resources for use in the sector.

As the hon. Lady knows, increasingly the interception of drugs is intelligence led; it is not a matter simply of the number of people on the ground any more. She was right to say that we need to work hard with our partners in Europe and in the United Nations, as we are doing first, to improve our intelligence and understanding of the cartels, and secondly, to eliminate at source the growth in production of drugs.

With that one difference of opinion with the hon. Lady, I again welcome warmly what she had to say about the policy.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. That initial exchange took 25 minutes. I hope that we might now proceed in a much more brisk fashion.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement as clear evidence that the Government are taking very seriously this very serious and debilitating problem, and that they are putting their money where their mouth is. I particularly welcome the proposal to spend about £60 million in prisons, where—as we have a captive audience—there is a window of opportunity to deal with a very serious problem.

May I ask for my right hon. Friend's assurance that all outcomes will be properly monitored? In the past, in relation to community sentences and the Probation Service, one thing that we have discovered is that, of the several hundred schemes in existence, only a handful were able to produce sufficiently rigorous figures for us to make any serious judgment on outcomes—which, given the rigorous targets that he has set, will be essential.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am not so sure about windows of opportunity in prisons, but I agree that we need rigorously to examine all the programmes and schemes to determine first, whether they are working and delivering the outcomes that we want; and secondly, whether we are getting value for money from the schemes. If not, we shall have to change them.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Is the Minister aware that we strongly support the work that Keith Hellawell is doing, and the work that others are doing in co-ordination with him? However, does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the targets—which he has called difficult—even if achieved, pre-suppose a continuing very large drug problem in the United Kingdom? Is he aware that we want to encourage much wider use of drug testing and treatment orders? Indeed, is he aware that we are interested in the idea of drugs courts—which have been quite successful in the United States in discouraging reoffending? We need more drug treatment programmes in the community. Where there is a waiting list for drug treatment programmes, people will get into drug-based criminality sooner.

Does the Minister know that, today, the RAC Foundation has announced a campaign on driving and drugs? Will he give as much backing as possible to that campaign? Many deaths result from drugs and driving, and much could be done about them through labelling and by informing the public. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise how much has been achieved by the hardening of public attitudes against drinking and driving? With the whole drugs problem, is it not true that there will be a very major change only when the public come to recognise and convey to others that the dangers posed by drugs and drugs misuse are such that people should not use them? The change of attitude that has happened on drinking and driving could happen with drugs. Currently, however, any change is not going the right direction.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his strong support for what we are trying to achieve. Of course he is right to say that, even if our ambitious targets are fulfilled, a large and serious problem would remain. I listened to what he said about drugs courts, and he knows that some attention has been paid to the idea.

Drug treatment facilities in the community are not adequate, and there is a danger that people will have to wait so long that they will simply never receive any treatment. We are examining that issue, too.

As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware, driving and drugs is already an offence. We are examining with the police the possibility of roadside testing for drugs abuse while driving a car, but we are not yet in a position to make a statement on that.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

I welcome what seem to be two slight changes of direction in the Government's policy, and in that of all other Governments: the emphasis being placed on treating those who use hard drugs not as criminals, but as patients; and the way in which the Government are placing the greatest emphasis on hard drugs.

Sadly and tragically, however, the Government face the same fate—which is the result of years and years of failure—as every other Government of the past 20 years. In three years, when we face the electorate, the drugs problem will be far worse than it was when we came into office. In Britain, however, one awful new feature of that failure does not occur in any other country—the epidemic of heroin use among teenagers and younger children.

Is not the best way to tackle this not to spend 90 per cent. of our money and police and court time pursuing soft drugs, which the majority of young people use, but to try to collapse the evil trade in those drugs, which is in the hands of criminals? The only way that can be done—and it has been done in other countries—is to replace it with a market that can be regulated, licensed, policed and controlled. In Holland, that approach has spectacularly reduced the use of heroin. Can we not take a fresh look at what is happening in other countries, including Holland and Switzerland? Instead of repeating our old failures, we should imitate the success of others.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful for the first part of my hon. Friend's remarks. We are increasing the focus on class A drugs and on treatment, education, advice and rehabilitation. We think that is the right thing to do.

My hon. Friend says that our policies will meet the fate of all previous ones. I do not accept that as inevitable; it is a defeatist attitude. We deliberately set a long-term strategy—a 10-year programme—in the White Paper and we are at the very beginning of that programme. My hon. Friend may well be right to say that we face an epidemic—a huge increase in the use of heroin—and we must do our best to prepare for that, but I do not agree with him at all that we should decriminalise cannabis. All drugs are harmful and there is plenty of evidence around to suggest that not only soft drugs but alcohol and smoking at an early age are the precursors to later hard drug use among young people.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

Given that over many years under Governments of both parties Britain has developed one of the worst records of drug abuse in Europe, why does the Minister believe that continuing the existing strategic thinking and the presuppositions that underlie current policy will be any more effective in the future than it has been in the past?

Dr. Cunningham

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong. We are not continuing with existing thinking and the policies and assumptions that we inherited from the previous Administration. Precisely because we recognised that they were not working and that changes had to be made, we produced the White Paper, set the 10-year strategy and are changing the emphasis towards education and information, support, help and advice, and rehabilitation; and we are moving resources accordingly. We are doing that because previous policies were not working, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly said.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

I too congratulate my right hon. Friend on shifting the emphasis to treatment and on the proposed concentration of enforcement measures on class A drugs. Is he aware that recent surveys have shown that the number of treatment places has fallen during the past three years, and that that is a real problem? There are just not enough people to deal with drug addicts; even general practitioners are unable to cope with the problem. There is also a lack of available treatment, particularly for under-18-year-olds who are increasingly becoming addicted to substances such as heroin. Will the Government take urgent measures to train people up to deal with what is apparently an increasing problem?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support and pay tribute to his excellent work as chair of the all-party drugs group. The Government issued clinical guidelines which were warmly welcomed by doctors. We are looking at providing more training and bringing together various agencies in local communities with the drugs action teams exactly because we need to bring more concentrated professional attention to these matters.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I welcome the Minister's commitment to better information and draw his attention to the Public Accounts Committee report on drug smuggling that was published last week. The Committee was unpersuaded by the information supporting the effectiveness of the so-called intelligence-led strategy and the prosecution strategy pursued by Customs and Excise. I am concerned that the circumstantial evidence that he mentioned—namely, falling prices and the greater volume of drugs on the streets—suggests that that strategy may not be as effective as we would hope. Loth as I am to recommend another review, I ask the Minister to review the strategy, because that is the only way to stop youngsters getting drugs.

Dr. Cunningham

I have great respect for the work of the Public Accounts Committee and the views of the right hon. Gentleman, who is its Chairman. I freely acknowledged earlier that, although seizures have increased tenfold, the availability of class A drugs on the streets has not diminished. We need to do more if we are to make a significant impact, so we shall keep the issue under review.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

I warmly welcome today's announcement on the first annual report on the drug tsar's work. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the work of the drug action teams is important? I hope that he will congratulate the West Sussex drug action team on its work with voluntary organisations. The fact that an organisation is voluntary does not mean that it is not professional and does not do excellent work. That work needs to be evaluated to avoid duplication. Will the Minister ensure that the work is effective and that there is a proper distribution of work in communities so as to reflect the needs of those communities?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We are in the process of evaluating all drug action teams. Some are excellent, but others are not so good and their performance needs to be improved. We have developed a template of good practice for them all to study and use. I pay tribute again, as I did in my statement, to the excellent work done by some voluntary organisations nationally and locally. They are an important part of our strategy and teamwork.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I join those who welcome the report. We have a growing problem in Northern Ireland, as the right hon. Gentleman is aware. We do not accept some of the direct action taken against drug dealers, including murder.

I have two points for the Minister. Is there a need for a change to legislation so as to prevent drug carriers from being able to insist on not being examined internally, meaning in effect that any doctor subsequently examining them could be guilty of assault? Secondly, the report says that there has been a decrease in the number of treatment centres. Sometimes they are in the wrong place. The need for the prison and probation services to protect funds may not allow enough money to be released to help get people off drugs at an earlier stage. Could more funds be allocated?

Dr. Cunningham

I am not sure about the first point that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but I shall look into it with my colleagues. I acknowledge that there is a lack of facilities in some parts of the country and that in other areas the facilities are subject to such huge demand that people have to wait too long for access to treatment. We have allocated an additional £217 million. We shall shift resources to deal with the problem over time, but I cannot announce any additional resources today.

Mr. David Lock (Wyre Forest)

I, too, welcome the report. I met the police in my constituency on Friday last week. Their drugs arrests are up by 250 per cent. over and above their target. I am sure that my right hon. Friend would like to pass on his thanks to them. Does he share their frustration that, having arrested people for possession with intent to supply or other drugs offences, they are unable to get them on to treatment programmes? That continues the cycle of offending.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the beneficiaries of an increase in the number of treatment programmes would be not only the addicts, but those who would otherwise be the victims of crime? They should be the focus of the Government's policy on drugs.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support and I congratulate his local police authority on its performance. He made the same point as several other hon. Members have made, and I agree that we need to look closely at the availability of drug treatment centres for people, whether they have been arrested or not. We shall do that, and as we are able to move resources we shall continue to focus them on that area of policy. That is the important change in policy that I announced earlier today. We shall ensure that over time more resources are brought to bear on treatment and its availability.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

What proposals do the Government have for dealing with the menace of used needles, which are often found in parks and school playgrounds? They are a problem for those who are not themselves involved in taking drugs. In particular, will the right hon. Gentleman review a number of the so-called needle exchange programmes, which do not exchange needles but simply distribute them? Can the Government do anything to ensure that dirty needles are taken out of circulation?

Dr. Cunningham

I understand that in the best practices needles are exchanged regularly, and we should encourage everyone to follow best practice. I acknowledge that that is not always done and that can cause a risk to the public, in respect of both drug addiction and AIDS. We must continue to encourage the development of best practice on that issue.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich)

May I inform my right hon. Friend that last week in my constituency two deaths were caused by the taking of heroin? Does he share my thoughts at this sad time for those families? I see the work of Customs in my area at first hand, and they—and our local police—do an excellent job of detecting drugs and of educating in our local schools. What more can the Government do to ensure that young people and children understand the dangers and possibly fatal consequences of taking such drugs? Would it be possible to include parents in drug education in schools?

Dr. Cunningham

Of course it is a tragedy when any young person—or anyone—dies from drugs misuse. If there have been two deaths in my hon. Friend's constituency recently, I extend my sympathies and those of the Government to the families involved. That is a graphic illustration of the dangers to people from drugs misuse.

Drugs misuse is not glamorous and it should never be glamorised. It should never be associated with success or with being cool. Drugs destroy lives, they disrupt families and they wreck careers. Drugs misuse almost inevitably ends in disaster for the people involved—sometimes imprisonment and sometimes, as my hon. Friend points out, death. That is the message that we have to bring home to young people everywhere and that is why we are concentrating resources on education, information and advice to the most vulnerable young people in society. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to do so.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

I am sure that the Minister has not had a chance to read today's Yorkshire Post, but the headline reads Heroin epidemic sweeps through rural Yorkshire". Does he agree that until now we have mistakenly believed that the drugs epidemic is something that happens in urban areas, in inner cities and in deprived areas? In fact, it is spreading like wildfire, especially into the more affluent rural areas which do not have the infrastructure to support the clinics or the policing of the problem. I noticed that the Minister's statement did not refer to rural areas specifically, but that is not a criticism of him. Does he have any specific plans to address the deficit in our rural areas?

Dr. Cunningham

On the last point, I did not refer to urban areas either, but was speaking about the country as a whole. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, having represented a remote rural area for 29 years, I recognise that these problems affect communities in all parts of the country. No community, rural or urban, is safe from the drug pushers and traffickers. For that reason, the policies are intended to cover the whole of the country.

I agree that some people mistakenly believe that these are inner-city problems only. They are not. I do not agree that drugs problems are spreading like wildfire, to use the hon. Gentleman's words, but they are serious and we need to be more effective in tackling them. That is what our strategy and the plan announced today aim to do.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

I commend my right hon. Friend on his report, and I commend too all the people whose work he has described. However, is it not the sad truth that much of the work described in the report is undermined whenever the people to whom the young look up, such as pop or sports stars, are found to be users—often conspicuous users—of the hardest of hard drugs? What can he and the Government do to proclaim the message that those who have and exercise responsibility should behave responsibly too?

Dr. Cunningham

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. As I was just saying, public figures who glamorise drug taking, or who falsely present it as a good or fashionable thing that everyone does, perform a very damaging disservice to the young people of this country. There can be no compromise on the very hard line that we have to take with such examples, which of course undermine everything that the Government and the various local agencies are trying to achieve in raising young people's awareness of the dangers that they face by getting involved in the misuse of drugs.

Recently, there has been a series of high profile cases such as my hon. Friend described. I can only say that they are very damaging to the well-being of this country's young people.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I accept that my right hon. Friend rightly wants to reduce the waiting time at treatment centres, which will benefit drug users and the wider public. However, does the report identify where waiting lists are unacceptably long? In which parts of the country are the lists longer than the average to which he referred? Is priority action being taken in those areas to ensure that the health authorities and other relevant local organisations take the action needed to deal with the problem?

Dr. Cunningham

The report does not specify those areas, but we are aware of where the problems occur, and are learning more all the time. We are therefore identifying those areas in which we must concentrate resources and activity. That is the work of the local drugs action teams, among others. As I have said, we are assessing their effectiveness. In due course, we shall produce a report on that work. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that in some parts of the country the availability of treatment centres is inadequate. We need to work hard to improve that.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the vigorous and determined tone of his statement, in relation to both class B and class A drugs. I know that he is a great advocate of joined-up government, and I note that with him on the Front Bench today is my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). My hon. Friend, who is Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, will shortly be going to Colombia, where I was recently. In that country, a multinational industry has grown up in the production of cocaine and, now, of heroin, even though poppies do not grow naturally there.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House and the country that this domestic report is linked to a determination to help the international fight against drugs? That fight is being conducted by bodies such as the anti-narcotics police in Colombia and Europol in Europe, through which new supply routes set up by the Russian mafia bring more and more heroin and cocaine into this country, for use in the domestic market and for onward export to America.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. I can confirm that we are addressing those matters internationally through the United Nations and by bilateral co-operation with, for example, the United States of America in the Caribbean. My hon. Friend is right to point out that we are confronted by huge, powerful, multinational cartels determined, for their own illegal gain, to supply class A drugs to our country and to others. They show no concern for the appalling damage and consequences that will result from their action. Through the Foreign Office, the Home Office and any other body, we shall seek more effective international co-operation.