HC Deb 17 December 2001 vol 377 cc1-3
1. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

What plans he has to focus the drugs strategy on harm minimisation. [21143]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth)

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made clear in his evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the Government will be increasing the focus on harm minimisation within the drugs strategy. As part of the review of the strategy, we are looking at what more we can do to minimise the harm that drugs do to individuals and their families, to communities and to society in general. In addition to the recently published action plan on drug-related deaths, we have set up a group of key experts to tackle the treatment of crack cocaine addiction and, with the Department of Health, we are looking to produce new guidance for heroin prescribing.

Mr. Love

My hon. Friend will be aware of the excellent work done by the drug action team and the crime and disorder partnership in Enfield, using £250,000 provided under the communities against drugs initiative. Apart from tackling criminality, that money is being used for education and early intervention to try to reduce the use and misuse of drugs. But if we are to be successful in tackling drug misuse, surely we must concentrate on the harder drugs, which are currently blighting the lives of 250,000 of our younger people at a cost of over £1 billion to the criminal justice system.

Mr. Ainsworth

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We continue to try to get the message across, so that we are credible with young people when we tell them what drugs will do the most harm. Our response must be proportionate in order to do that. We need police resources to be aimed specifically at the majority of areas that are causing the greatest problems. My hon. Friend is right: the link between class A drugs and acquisitive crime is clear and indisputable.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

While I welcome the Home Secretary's recent move to reclassify cannabis, will that still not mean that people who wish to consume this stuff can only get it from illegal sources because it remains illegal, but that the police will not be able to crack down effectively on the trade? Is this a sustainable position?

Mr. Ainsworth

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's position on the matter is clearly known to the House, as is that of the right hon. Gentleman, who, effectively, advocates the legalisation of cannabis. That is not the policy of the Government. We are trying to encourage the police to aim their resources where they are most needed. The police ought to be looking in far more detail at the work done with regard to class A drugs, which is where most criminality occurs in terms of the acquisitive crime to pay for them. It is not the intention of the Government to legalise cannabis.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

The statement is welcome, but does it mean that we have moved away from the failed policies of harsh prohibition that we, Sweden and the United States have followed for a long time and that we have joined in the policies of harm minimisation—described in the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love)—which have been so successful in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Portugal? Is this a change in policy? Will it be reflected in the evidence that the Home Office gives to the Council of Europe's report on drug abuse that will be considered in January?

Mr. Ainsworth

My hon. Friend studies the problem not only in this country but abroad, and he will know that there is a convergence in drugs policy across many countries. There is no decriminalisation of drugs in Holland. There are differences of emphasis. We are looking actively at renewing our focus on harm minimisation within the drugs policy and strategy in order to be as effective as we can. If my hon. Friend looks properly at what is happening in other countries, he will see that many of the trends are in the same direction as the one which we are looking to follow in the UK.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

Will the Under-Secretary be clear? Is he saying that harm minimisation should be an equal goal in the strategy, as has been argued by many of those who have come before the Select Committee—most recently Mike Trace, who was the deputy drugs tsar? Given the unacceptable number of deaths from heroin overdoses and heroin impurities, should not harm minimisation be as important as the other goals in the drugs strategy?

Mr. Ainsworth

The hon. Gentleman is right. Much work has been done on harm minimisation over a period of time. The Government introduced needle exchanges in the UK in the early 1980s, but a lot more can be done. That is why we have put the emphasis on that area, and that is why the Home Secretary listed it when he gave his evidence to the Select Committee as one of the issues that he wanted examined.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Injecting drug users use an average of only one syringe a day, which forces them to reuse and share their syringes. Are there any plans to review syringe exchange schemes to cut down the spread of infectious diseases, such as the hepatitis C virus?

Mr. Ainsworth

As I said, we are reviewing the whole strategy, and together with the Department of Health, we are looking at the availability of needle exchanges to make certain that we are doing the maximum that can and should be done in that area.