HC Deb 09 November 2001 vol 374 cc475-550

[Relevant documents: The Second Special Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2000–2001, on Drugs and the Law: Government Response to the Police Foundation's Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, HC 226.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell]

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

The House knows that the Home Secretary has called for an adult debate on drugs and recently announced in evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs his intention to ask the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review the arguments for reclassifying cannabis from B to C under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This is a timely moment for Parliament to have a direct opportunity to participate in that debate, and to listen to the views expressed on the issue and the wider subject of drugs policy.

Drugs misuse poses serious problems for society. It causes misery for the users and their families and can destroy communities. It stops many young people reaching their full potential in life and fuels much of our crime. It is estimated that up to half of all property crime is committed by users of heroin and cocaine. The cost to the criminal justice system is estimated to be about £1.2 billion a year. There are the costs, too, of related ill health, absenteeism and social problems, to say nothing of the cost to individuals, the wasted lives and the lost opportunities.

The causes of drugs misuse are complex and deeply rooted and there is no simple solution. Our strategy therefore recognises the need for action on a wide front. Experience in other countries supports that. National drug policies and strategies have developed according to local needs and priorities, but in general the trend is to a balanced approach, in which supply, demand and harm reduction strategies are all important components. The differences between countries are not as great as is sometimes suggested. For example, much is made of the strong harm reduction orientation of Dutch policies, but the Dutch have not legalised the use of any controlled drug. Like us, they prioritise their enforcement effort against the drugs that cause the greatest harm.

Our strategy has four main aims: first, to help young people resist drugs misuse so that they can achieve their full potential; secondly, to protect our communities from drug-related antisocial and criminal behaviour; thirdly, to provide treatment services to help people with their drugs problems; and, finally, to attempt to disrupt the supply of drugs.

We recognise the scale of the problem we face in tackling drugs misuse. We also know that there are no quick and easy answers. That is why our strategy is supported by major long-term investment that is focused on proactive measures to tackle drugs misuse directly. The main aim of the strategy is to stop people taking drugs in the first place. However, there will always be some people who continue to take drugs even if they are aware of the dangers. We therefore have a duty to ensure that they have as much information and help as possible to reduce the risks that come with that behaviour, such as providing information on and services for needle exchanges and making people aware of the dangers of injecting and using shared needles.

Much good work has been done at national, regional and local levels. We are reaching out to young people in a variety of ways. Some 93 per cent. of secondary schools and 75 per cent. of primary schools now have a drugs education policy in place, compared with 86 per cent. and 61 per cent. respectively in 1997. The positive futures initiative set up in March 2000 aims to divert vulnerable young people away from drugs and crime through involvement in sport. So far, 24 projects have been set up. The initial results are encouraging, showing reductions in criminal activity and truancy and improved community awareness.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Can my hon. Friend give an example of an anti-drugs education scheme on either legal or illegal drugs in any country in any century which reduced drugs use?

Mr. Ainsworth

It is difficult to single out an issue, but I have little doubt that unless we manage to get an effective message through to young people, drugs use will increase. A large part of our motivation is to improve the message and our ability to get it across, which is one reason why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary decided to reclassify cannabis.

The Connexions initiative, which was set up in March 2000, provides a service to all young people aged 13 to 19 to help them to achieve in education and to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. All drug action team areas are developing young people's substance misuse plans based on central guidance to ensure that all young people requiring drugs services receive them.

We are clear about the need to warn young people that all drugs, including cannabis, are dangerous, but that class A drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, are the most harmful. Experience shows that preaching to young people does not work. The message must be credible and informative if they are going to listen. A communications campaign will be launched in December to spell out the risks and dangers of taking drugs. It will highlight the national drugs helpline, which provides young people, their parents and carers with access to straightforward, clear and credible information. The campaign will also support existing work being done to help young people tackle problems of drug misuse.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

The Minister rightly points out that all drugs are dangerous, particularly if taken to excess. That might include cannabis, too. However, does the hon. Gentleman believe that the message to young people that cannabis taken in excess might be dangerous would be more credible if it were conjoined with the message that taking alcohol and tobacco.—they are also drugs.—is equally, if not more, dangerous when they are taken in excess?

Mr. Ainsworth

I have little doubt that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need to get the message through to young people that taking any of those substances in excess is dangerous. It will put them at risk in the short term, because of the intoxication that results from taking cannabis or alcohol. It can also seriously damage their health over the longer term. Nothing that the hon. Gentleman says is outwith Government policy or, indeed, previous Government policy in that regard.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

My hon. Friend's response to the intelligent question asked by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) was acceptable. Alcohol is probably the single most dangerous drug for young people. However, although my hon. Friend is trying to spell out the Government's strategy for certain types of drugs, is not the fact that an alcohol strategy is not in place and will not be for some time a major failing in marrying together the attack on all drugs?

Mr. Ainsworth

My hon. Friend is right. We need a strategy for alcohol and we are working with the Department of Health to produce one. We hope to go to consultation on such a strategy in the spring of next year. We need it to underpin and provide focus to our work in explaining the dangers of alcohol.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Will my hon. Friend comment on my belief and that of many others that the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse should take all substance abuse, including alcohol and tobacco abuse, under its control? Is it not time that we brought everything together?

Mr. Ainsworth

We now at least have the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse. I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that it represents a potential major step forward. We are looking to it to increase the amount of expertise that we have on the issue of drugs. Many people who work in this sector have also advised us that, if we try to deal with drugs in isolation from alcohol, the potential for failure will be greater. Such issues need to be debated, and my hon. Friend has considerable expertise in the subject.

Research shows that for every £1 spent on treatment, £3 is saved in criminal justice expenditure as a result of reduced drugs use leading to reductions in crime. The challenge of breaking the link between drugs and crime is to identify drug users earlier in their drug-using career and to get them effective and appropriate help.

We have good evidence now that treatment can work and is cost effective in achieving a reduction in drugs use and related offending. It can also improve the health of drug users. We have developed a number of interventions in the criminal justice system to maximise engagement with drug misusing offenders. Our most recent intervention is the new drug testing powers introduced by the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. That allows for the drug testing of persons aged 18 and over for specified class A drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine, when they are charged with trigger offences such as property crime, robbery or class A drugs offences. It also provides for the probation supervision of offenders under drugs abstinence orders. The new powers are being piloted in three sites—Nottingham, Staffordshire and Hackney—until March 2003.

The annual increase of 8 per cent. in the number of people attending treatment services is encouraging. We established the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse in April this year to expand drug treatment services and to ensure the delivery of high-quality services across the country. At the point of arrest, arrest referral schemes seek to reduce drugs-related crime by encouraging problem users who are arrested to take up appropriate treatment. The schemes now cover 86 per cent. of all police custody suites across England and Wales.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

In the light of what the Minister has said about the piloting of drugs treatment and testing orders, will he at least be prepared to consider the views of the many commentators who, since the Home Secretary's sudden announcement to the Home Affairs Committee about the reclassification of cannabis, have suggested that it would be much wiser for reclassification to wait until the results of the pilots and of the policing changes in Brixton in south London have been assessed?

Mr. Ainsworth

I am a little confused by the hon. Gentleman. The three pilots are concerned with two class A drugs—cocaine and heroin—where there is a proven link between the use of those drugs and acquisitive crime. I am not certain how that connects with a decision to ask the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—ACMD—to advise on the reclassification of cannabis. I accept that that decision has a far closer correlation with the trial on policing that is taking place in Brixton, but that is due to conclude at the end of the year. A full evaluation will be available in February. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary did not announce to the Home Affairs Committee the reclassification of cannabis; he announced that he would ask ACMD to consider its reclassification. All that, and the debate that we are holding, are going forward in tandem. There will not be a definitive decision on the reclassification of cannabis—if that happens—before Easter next year.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

The House welcomes this debate, because it is sensible to hold it while the Home Affairs Committee is carrying out its work.

I do not want to press the Minister to move other than gradually, but are the Government prepared to recognise that policy to date has been a total failure? We have had some of the harshest policies for drugs misuse in Europe, but drugs use has increased more and is at a higher level than almost anywhere else in Europe. Although it is true to say that no other countries have legalised drugs, they are increasingly decriminalising them. If we spend far more on prevention than we do on the criminal regime and do far more to help addicts than to punish them, we might have a far more comprehensive approach than the Home Secretary's rather limited response so far.

Mr. Ainsworth

I am not prepared to accept that. The hon. Gentleman has given us a caricature of the Government's policy. There is a lot of good work, and the targets in the drugs strategy debate have enabled people to focus on the need to work together to achieve their aims. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that there will be dramatic changes in a relatively short time or that there is a magic bullet to solve the problem, he is deluding himself, but I do not believe that he does think that. There is, potentially, a need to refine and re-balance the policy, but to say that our whole policy is oriented towards criminal justice and crime prevention, and does not focus on health, harm reduction and education, is to give the House a caricature of it.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I am very interested in what the Minister is saying. Does he accept that the evidence from the pilot schemes that he mentioned and the experience of organisations such as Transform seems to show that we should focus more on what drives people into addiction, and less on mere prohibition? To achieve harm reduction, would we not be best advised to find out what it is in people that causes them to become addicts in the first place?

Mr. Ainsworth

The two are not mutually exclusive. There is no need to legalise or decriminalise to try to focus on education and harm reduction. If we are having an adult debate, instead of evangelising or propagandising for a particular point of view, we should note that most countries are moving towards a balanced approach. That includes countries that have been severe in their drugs policies and focused on law and order, as well as those who are regularly held up as being soft on drugs. They are drifting towards a more central position, in which they are taking every kind of action to solve the problem. That is true in Holland, as it is in this country.

Dr. Iddon

May I respond to my hon. Friend's point about the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs? Page vi of the Government's response to the Runciman report notes: ACMD recommended, as the Police Foundation notes in support of their own recommendation, that cannabis should be transferred from Class B to Class C. I find it astonishing, therefore, that the Home Office needs to refer the matter back to the ACMD, which has made the same recommendation as Runciman.

Mr. Ainsworth

My hon. Friend ought not to find that astonishing. Some people would be upset if they thought that the Home Secretary had effectively bounced people into that decision by simply announcing that he was reclassifying cannabis, full stop. He announced to the Home Affairs Committee that he was going to ask the ACMD to consider reclassification. Yes, he did so in the expectation that the council would agree, but it is right that such important decisions are not made on the spur of the moment—everybody must have the opportunity to have their say.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

The Government deserve a great deal of praise for taking a brave step forward in their drugs policy. However, hon. Members have been asking the Minister to acknowledge that, on an evidence base—and new Labour, at its best, is evidence-based—the policies carried out to date are not working. The Home Secretary has acknowledged that, and we are moving towards policies that might work a bit better, as they do in almost every other country in which they have been tried.

Mr. Ainsworth

If we are to say that our policies are not working, we must measure them against policies that would work much better. I think that my hon. Friend veers in the direction of legalisation. I do not know how far he goes in that direction, but if he catches the Speaker's eye, we will hear his views in detail. The Home Secretary has called for a debate, and if my hon. Friend believes that legalisation will lead to lower levels of drugs use in this country, he should use the opportunity of this debate to spell out the logic behind that view.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

The Minister said that, when addressing the Home Affairs Committee, the Home Secretary did not say that he was seeking to recategorise cannabis. However, according to all the evidence and the commentary, including the Minister's comments in this debate, that is the expected policy. What is the Government's policy today? Is it to change the category of cannabis or not?

Mr. Ainsworth

As I have said clearly, and as the Home Secretary said, the policy is to ask the ACMD to consider the reclassification of cannabis from B to C. There should not be any confusion about that. I understand that the media are a difficult animal, and that messages get twisted, but everyone in the House ought to know exactly what the Home Secretary said.

Michael Fabricant

Can the Minister envisage a situation in which cannabis is not reclassified, and remains in class B?

Mr. Ainsworth

There is a theoretical possibility that the council's advice will be that we should not reclassify cannabis. However, given the statements that have been made and the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) about the council's recommendation, I doubt very much that it will give that advice.

Mr. Hawkins

What a shambles.

Mr. Ainsworth

If the Home Secretary had simply said, "That's it; I have decided to reclassify cannabis," the hon. Gentleman would have been the first to complain. However, my right hon. Friend asked the ACMD to look at the matter and it will make a decision after that consideration, to which Opposition Members, along with everybody else, are entitled to contribute.

All prisons in England and Wales now provide counselling, assessment, referral, advice and through-care services, which create a care plan to meet the needs of the great majority of prisoners during their time in prison. More than 37,000 assessments were undertaken in 2000–01. Detoxification programmes are available in all local and remand prisons in England and Wales, and more than 32,000 prisoners entered detox in 2000–01. There has been a significant fall, from 24.4 per cent. in 1996–97 to 12.4 per cent. in 2000–01, in the number of positive drug tests in prisons under mandatory drugs-testing procedures.

Drugs misuse is a threat not only to individuals but to whole communities, because of the antisocial behaviour, crime and fear of crime that it can generate. We are therefore concerned not only to educate and treat individuals, but to empower and strengthen local communities in their efforts to tackle those problems. Our efforts are aimed particularly at those communities where deprivation is most acute and drugs use most firmly entrenched. In tackling drugs misuse in those areas, we seek to integrate action into neighbourhood renewal programmes.

The creation of the drugs prevention advisory service means that local drug action teams, who are at the forefront of local action to reduce drugs problems, can now access a range of expert services developed and provided in response to their specific needs. Through the confiscated assets fund we are supporting a number of projects aimed at providing a bridge between the end of treatment and access to the labour market.

In the March Budget we also provided additional financial support for the Employment Service, to enable it to identify and help claimants with a drugs problem, and to help ex-users to re-enter the labour market once they have successfully completed a course of treatment. I should also highlight an innovative prison-led project that will pilot five post-release hostels for short-term prisoners with a history of drug-driven offending. The hostels will provide intensive support through the crucial period of the first few months after release.

Action to disrupt the supply of illegal drugs remains a high priority. The Proceeds of Crime Bill will enable us to seize more cash from the criminals, threatening directly the profits that motivate the trade. We are bringing together law enforcement and other agencies in a concerted attack on the drugs trade, and we have put in place a comprehensive joint agency strategy to tackle heroin and cocaine supply from the source in countries abroad to the United Kingdom's streets.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones

My hon. Friend is being extremely generous in giving way. On the confiscation of drugs profits, can he tell us how much money has been confiscated? In particular, what proportion of the total profit does that amount represent? Given that the trade in this country is estimated to be worth more than £6 billion, how much of a dent are the Government making in those profits?

Mr. Ainsworth

I cannot give my hon. Friend the figure now, but I can tell him—and I acknowledge this—that it is a very small proportion. That is why we have introduced the Proceeds of Crime Bill. The existing law is disjointed. There is an obligation to prove the origin of the funds—irrespective of whether it is drugs money or the result of other crime—even though that presents a problem to the law enforcement agencies in terms of seizing the proceeds of crime. Confiscation orders can be applied by the courts, but they are not often enforced, so only a small percentage of the confiscation orders that are agreed actually lead to confiscation. All that provides the justification for the Proceeds of Crime Bill, which will be debated shortly in Committee. That Bill is intended to make that process more effective.

Lembit Öpik

On the issue raised by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), what evidence do the Government have to show that confiscation and the prosecution of drugs suppliers have made any difference to the amount of drugs use in this country?

Mr. Ainsworth

As the law to date has been so relatively ineffective, I doubt whether it has made much difference at all, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree that logic points to the need for the Proceeds of Crime Bill—to which the Liberal Democrats gave a reasonable response on Second Reading—and to the principle that attacking the profits made by the organisations that supply our communities with such substances can be a very big tool, which has been massively underused historically in this country.

We are seizing increasing amounts of class A drugs, including multi-tonne seizures of cocaine upstream. Police forces in the west midlands are piloting a project from which we will be able to develop a model for tackling the supply of drugs between the ports and the local communities. The project is funded with money confiscated from drugs traffickers.

We continue to play a leading role in the international campaign to combat the world trade in illegal drugs. We are concentrating on heroin and cocaine as the drugs that cause the greatest harm. During the year 1999–2000, we contributed some £8.5 million to overseas anti-drugs assistance.

As a major contributor to the United Nations international drugs control programme, we support alternative development projects such as those in Colombia. We are working closely with our European partners to drive forward an EU drugs strategy, and we continue to assist EU applicant countries on drugs issues.

Right hon. and hon. Members will know that Afghanistan is by far the largest single supplier of heroin. It produced 70 per cent. of the world's opium in 2000, and 90 per cent. of heroin in the United Kingdom originates there. Although it is true that the cultivation of the opium poppy all but ceased last year in Taliban-controlled areas, levels of trafficking remained high throughout that period and significant stockpiles exist. In the light of the current military situation in Afghanistan, we are keeping a close watch on changing circumstances and the possible effect on supplies of heroin to the United Kingdom. Although some people seem to think that the Taliban's decision to discontinue cultivation was due to some high motivation, there is absolutely no evidence that the amount of drugs leaving the country tailed off during the period when cultivation stopped. That may have been an exercise in getting rid of an over-extensive stockpile.

Paul Flynn

It would be only fair to say that our brothers-in-arms in the Northern Alliance have trebled their poppy and heroin production. Is it not nonsense to believe that if one country's crop of drugs is destroyed,

the gap will not be filled by another's? At the moment, Burma, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan are doing so. If we have a war on drugs, we are in danger of turning central Asia into a vast new Colombia, where warring armies will fight each other in drugs wars. That is what we did in south America, and we are now likely to do the same with a vast area of central Asia.

Mr. Ainsworth

I do not know to what degree I differ from my hon. Friend. I had rather hoped that he would use the opportunity of his intervention to withdraw the allegations that he has made in two letters that he has sent to me since we discussed this issue last time in the House.

Paul Flynn

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ainsworth

I shall give way to my hon. Friend in a moment.

I do not think that what is happening in Afghanistan is the result of the heroin supply trade, but there is no doubt about the misery on our streets currently and for a considerable time. Yes, the Northern Alliance have produced opiates, but since the Taliban have been in control, they have been the major contributor to heroin supply on our streets.

Paul Flynn

The very minor dispute that I have had with the Minister, which I regard as a closed issue, was covered in the letter that I sent to him two days ago. He will note that Hansard editors have agreed to alter the record of what the Minister said in a debate because the Hansard record was different from what he said. My argument was that the words that he actually used happened to be untrue.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. It would be helpful to the House if this debate could be confined to the broad issues, rather than entering into areas to which all hon. Members are not privy.

Hon. Members

Tell us more.

Mr. Ainsworth

If my hon. Friend wants to bandy allegations around, he is free to do so. My boredom threshold has been reached on the matter, so I do not intend to take it any further.

Good progress has been made on programmes and short-term targets that underpin the four strategy aims, but we recognise that there is much more to do. As I have said today, all controlled drugs, including cannabis, are dangerous, and it is essential that we warn young people of those dangers in a commonsense and credible way. We need to focus more effectively on hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, which cause the most harm, and on getting people into treatment. That is why the Government are currently reviewing progress against the drugs strategy targets to ensure that we still have the right balance and focus.

Against that background and the very clear difference between cannabis and class A drugs, the Home Secretary has decided to consult the advisory council about reclassifying cannabis. The council has been has been asked to provide advice within three months, and the Home Secretary intends to take a decision next spring. Some of the coverage of my right hon. Friend's announcement has been quite wrong and confusing—it does not equate to decriminalisation or legalisation. Cannabis, as a class C drug, will remain controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and using it will still be a criminal offence. However, if reclassification is warranted by an honest scientific assessment of the relative harms, it would enhance the credibility of our drugs laws as a whole, and it would help us to deliver our message on drugs to young people and better to align public policy and criminal justice practice.

Tackling drugs misuse is not something that the Government can do alone. We need to engage with communities and individuals across the country. I know that many hon. Members are actively involved in our own communities in tackling drugs misuse, and I welcome the opportunity to hear their views first hand.

10.10 am
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

On a subject as serious as this, it is perhaps incumbent on those who wish to address the House to say whether their professional expertise has involved any contact with the scourge of drugs. During the late 1970s and more or less the whole of the 1980s, I had the opportunity to practise as a barrister in the west midlands, an area with high drugs use, especially in the inner cities. In that time I prosecuted and defended in a great many drugs cases.

The drugs problem has got still worse in our inner cities during my years in the House, and for pretty well the whole of my adult life, and certainly all of my professional career, both as a practising barrister and as a Member of this House, I have regarded drugs as the most serious scourge of our society.

When we consider the possible changes that the Home Secretary is now considering, we must look carefully at the unanswered questions. One of those, which none of the media commentators has focused on, is the fact that the simple reclassification of cannabis would not merely completely alter the sentences of, and the police response to, those found in possession of it; it would have a much more significant effect on the sentencing powers of the courts over those who supply it.

Although the Minister talked in general terms about the need to control supply, he did not advert to the other point at all. The practical effect of the reclassification of cannabis would be as follows. At present, with the current classification, if someone is convicted of the offence of supplying cannabis, the maximum sentence open to the courts is 14 years' imprisonment. There is usually a reduction in the sentence to take account of a guilty plea, but large-scale supplying of cannabis regularly attracts sentences of long years of imprisonment. It is fairly commonplace for large-scale suppliers who are caught and convicted to be sentenced to eight, nine or 10 years.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins

I will give way to one of the two most ardent legalisers on the Labour Benches, but only when I have finished my point.

The practical effect of a reclassification would be to reduce the maximum sentence dramatically. It is most likely that, in return for a guilty plea, even the largest-scale suppliers of cannabis would face sentences of only two years' imprisonment, of which they might serve one year or even less.

That would be a huge change, I do not think that there is much difference of view between the parties about the serious evil of those who supply drugs, especially to young people—although we will hear in a moment whether the hon. Gentleman disagrees. If the result of the change is that many of the large-scale suppliers will serve only about a year in custody, there are serious questions to be answered about whether the Home Secretary's proposed changes will lead to a massive increase in the number of young people subjected to the dangers of cannabis, which everybody accepts can be a gateway to the use of harder drugs.

Paul Flynn


Mr. Jones


Mr. Hawkins

Before I give way to the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), I ask him to say whether he can claim that there is a single user of class A hard drugs who did not start with cannabis.

Mr. Jones

I do not know whether I should thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me, but may I correct one thing that he said? There are more than two ardent legalisers on the Government Benches, and a damn sight more than two on the Opposition Benches behind him.

The hon. Gentleman speaks about the evil of people selling cannabis, but while he was prosecuting them, did it ever cross his mind that there was an enormous hypocrisy in the law that categorised those people as deserving 14 years in jail, while someone who sold tobacco, which kills huge numbers of people, got, if he was successful, a peerage or a Queen's award for industry?

Mr. Hawkins

I know one thing about the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends on the rearmost of the Government Benches—who are sitting so far from the Minister as is possible within the confines of the Chamber that it is clear that they wish to detach themselves from Government policy—and that is that the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for legalising drugs is matched only by his hatred and contempt for anyone who runs a successful business. I do not accept for one moment his totally fallacious assertions.

Mr. Jones


Mr. Hawkins

The hon. Gentleman and I will never agree on these matters, and he knows that. It would be pointless for him to seek to persuade me.

Paul Flynn


Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)


Mr. Hawkins

I give way to the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd).

Mr. Lloyd

There is an important point here about the role of the criminal justice system and the length of

sentences. My experience, as a constituency MP and in life in general, is that the use of cannabis has grown astonishingly during the past 30 years. At what point has the criminal justice system had a real impact on the supply chain?

Mr. Hawkins

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis; one of the reasons why I was happy to give way to him is that I know that he thinks quite deeply about these issues. I take the view that whenever a large-scale supplier of drugs is imprisoned, it takes him off the streets for a long time. I know that those in favour of legalisation will say that someone else will fill the vacuum. That may well be so—

Mr. Jones

It is so.

Mr. Hawkins

Even if it is, if one takes the view that the purpose of the criminal law is to try to catch and punish those who are guilty of serious wrongdoing, serious criminal penalties must be available for those who participate in what most Members, and certainly the vast majority of the public, regard as an evil trade

Paul Flynn


Mr. Hawkins : I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He and I have

debated these issues many times. I know his views. I know that he will never persuade me, and I am aware, from the many times that we have debated the matter, that I shall not persuade him.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)


Lembit Öpik


Mr. Hawkins

I shall give way a little later, but I have already given way a couple of times, and now I want to make some progress.

The view from the Opposition Benches—certainly from the Opposition Front Bench—is that the Home Secretary has to justify, with evidence, the major changes that he wishes to introduce.

In parenthesis I should say that the Opposition are highly suspicious about the timing of the Home Secretary's announcement, and the reasons that underlay that timing. As the Minister will know, the Home Secretary's recent appearance before the Select Committee on Home Affairs took place only one day after a Home Office Question Time at which the Minister himself had given an answer completely inconsistent with what the Home Secretary said the following day to the Select Committee. It was apparent to all of us that the Minister knew absolutely nothing about the Home Secretary's planned announcement.

I do not criticise the Minister for that, because I do not think that the Home Secretary had any intention of bringing forward his announcement to the Select Committee until the Government spin machine realised that on that day the big running story was the appalling e-mail in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—the Jo Moore scandal. That was what the Government spin machine wanted to bury, so the Prime Minister's chief press adviser cast around for an announcement that could suddenly be brought forward that would wipe the Jo Moore story from the media for the rest of the day, and erase it from the front pages the following day. The answer was to ask the Home Secretary to make a startling, half-cocked announcement to a Select Committee that had only just begun an inquiry. That is what the Opposition think lay behind the timing of the Home Secretary' s announcement.

The announcement was bizarre because most Secretaries of State appearing before a Select Committee that is carrying out an inquiry would have the courtesy to tell the Committee that the Government would wait until the Committee had finished its inquiry, that they would consider the report and recommendations, and that only then would they decide whether to change policy.

Dr. Iddon

Those of us who are pro-legalisation of cannabis were utterly dismayed because the Home Secretary's announcement and all other announcements made that day were wholly overshadowed by a much more important announcement, of decommissioning in Ireland.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)


Mr. Hawkins

As my hon. Friend says, that was probably simple double-banking of other stories by the Prime Minister's spin machine. I read the newspapers the following day and listened to the broadcast media for a great part of that day. Only two stories ran: one, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) says, was decommissioning; the other—which took up almost as much space in many newspapers, and more space in some of the tabloids, was the Home Secretary's sudden, half-cocked, rushed announcement. The hon. Gentleman knows the reasons perfectly well, because he has seen the Prime Minister's spin machine in operation—I seem to recall that he has complained about the misuse of that spin machine in other debates.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth

If one believes what the hon. Gentleman is saying, it is possible to accept that the decommissioning of arms was also invented in Downing street. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary wanted to let the Select Committee know what he was minded to do at the outset of its inquiry, so that it was not halfway through that inquiry when the announcement was made. That was his motive in telling the Committee when he did. It had absolutely nothing to do with the cloud-cuckoo nonsense that the hon. Gentleman is coming out with.

Mr. Hawkins


Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hawkins

I think that I should respond to the Minister's intervention before I give way to my right hon. Friend. The Minister's interesting explanation of events that did not conform with the usual process whereby Secretaries of State wait for Select Committee reports before responding to them does not answer the point I made earlier. It was apparent not only to me but to the whole House that the Minister's response to a question only the previous day was entirely inconsistent with the Home Secretary's announcement.

Mr. Lilley

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Home Secretary could and should have informed the House rather than a Select Committee, either the day before at Home Office questions, or afterwards by means of a statement, and so allowed the whole House to participate and cross-question him? I say with all respect to the Minister that it is the Home Secretary who we would like to hold to account, and we should have been given the opportunity to do so. That would also have allowed the Select Committee to cross-question the right hon. Gentleman in great detail the next day.

Mr. Hawkins

My right hon. Friend, who has given long and distinguished service as a Secretary of State, is absolutely right. That reinforces our belief that the previous day the Home Secretary had had no intention of saying what he subsequently said, and that he was influenced by the Government's spin machine, which was concerned about getting rid of the Jo Moore story from the media and the airwaves.

Simon Hughes

I agree with the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) about the process, but I do not accuse the Government of having the motives that he ascribes to them. May I ask the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) two direct questions about Conservative party policy? First, do the Conservatives believe that any drugs should be reclassified as recommended by Runciman—yes or no—and if the answer is yes, which ones? Secondly, do they believe that it should be criminal to possess cannabis for one's own use? [Interruption.]

Mr. Hawkins

As the Minister says from a sedentary position, we are keeping those matters under review. However, it is for the Government to answer the question that we, the official Opposition, put to them: will the Home Secretary's proposed changes result in fewer young people becoming victims of drugs? That is the question that we are posing today. We, the Opposition, are putting the Government under pressure to answer that question and to justify their answer by evidence. In an intervention that made Opposition Members smile, the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central said that "new Labour, at its best, is evidence-based." I doubt that new Labour has a best in the hon. Gentleman's terms, but any sensible Government should ensure that any step that they take is evidence-based.

One of the Opposition's concerns is that the Government do not appear to have taken into account much of the evidence that they have collected of the influence of drugs on road accidents. I hope that those who participate in the debate will consider the fact that all the evidence that I have obtained from the Library, which has been drawn from studies carried out all around the world, shows that all sorts of drugs, both soft drugs such as cannabis and harder drugs, are having a serious and increasing effect on the number of road accident fatalities.

Before the Government reach a final decision on reclassification—the Minister might be rowing back a bit from what the Home Secretary told the Home Affairs Committee—I hope that as well as considering the implications for sentencing for supplying class B and class C drugs, the Government will seriously examine the worldwide evidence of the increasing number of serious injuries and fatalities caused in road accidents which coroners' investigations and police investigations later reveal were caused, or seriously contributed to, by one or both drivers driving under the influence of drugs.

Lembit Öpik

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hughes


Mr. Hawkins

I have given way to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) once and I shall not do so again, because he will make his own speech in a little while. No doubt, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) will simply repeat the questions asked by his hon. Friend, so I will not give way to him either.

The Government have to answer some serious questions. The Opposition will continue to level the charge that Government are not thinking these matters through. They have not addressed the serious concerns that I have raised today. We hope that the Government will stick to the sensible comment that the Minister made at the outset of the debate, that all drugs are dangerous and that all drugs should remain illegal. The Government will have our support only if and when they demonstrate that they have thought through the issues properly and sensibly. We do not think that they are doing so now.

10.29 am
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

I am astonished by the lack of policy detail in the speech of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). Drugs strategy is an serious issue, and it is important that people articulate their opinions and views in debate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on that, because we need to have the education debate for which the Home Secretary has called. Although my views differ from those of the Government in some respects, there is no doubt in my mind that we must start a more efficient debate—one that examines the practical aspects of drugs use and abuse.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the use of drugs makes other activities dangerous. Given the nature of the debate on classified drugs, it is sometimes difficult to debate the issue rationally. I have an anecdote that the hon. Gentleman might find unpalatable. Some years ago, I spoke to a senior police officer about the rave scene. Interestingly, he said that the crashing of cars following raves, many of which were stolen, was not a major issue. His view—I do not know whether it can be substantiated—was that ecstasy was not linked to the rise in dangerous car use. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman is right when he says that we must have regard to the wider consequences of drugs use.

Neither the Minister nor the hon. Gentleman referred to one of the consequences of the black market in drugs —gangsterism. Killings in my constituency and nearby areas are, sadly, a common phenomenon. It is a long time since I have been able to say to people with shock that there has been another death in my constituency, or in Manchester as a whole. Last week, a 36-year-old man was killed. Nobody knows exactly why the killing took place, but the strong suspicion is that it was linked with the drugs trade. Successive Governments have failed to deal with the linkage and have taken a one-dimensional view of the drugs trade.

There is a strong argument that we should try to break the link between the supply of different types of drugs. If we are to have an intelligent debate about drugs, we must consider the dangers of all drugs and accept that the use of all substances in that context is potentially dangerous. We must disaggregate different types of substances, as their impacts are different. If we view legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco as being all right, and all illegal drugs as being bad, we make a profound mistake about the damage that drugs do to society.

Our drugs laws have criminalised a huge section of society. Some of the most ruthless criminal gangs in Manchester and in other major cities are way beyond being driven by the motor of drugs activity. The use of firearms in Manchester, for example, is a direct result of our failure to get to grips at an earlier stage with the way in which drugs are sold. These issues must be taken seriously. One of the problems that I confront in my constituency is the view that anyone who is the victim of such violence is expendable. I have attended too many funerals where mothers have cried about their sons dying, even if those sons were sometimes involved in activities of which I and others would not approve.

Michael Fabricant

The hon. Gentleman is raising some interesting points about gangsterism and drugs. Has he considered the prohibition of alcohol in the United States in the 1930s and the growth in gangsterism? Would he care to draw an analogy between gangsterism in the US and the scene that he is describing?

Mr. Lloyd

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. The history of the United States teaches us that prohibition was ended too late easily to dismantle the criminal problems that had grown from it. Even if we were to alter our controlled drugs policy overnight, criminality and organised crime would still exist in my constituency and in others. As I have said, it goes beyond the drugs trade.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones

Let me take up the interesting point made by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). Is my hon. Friend aware that during the period of prohibition in the United States the murder rate doubled? Immediately after prohibition ended, it went down to its previous level. He might want to consider the effect of the prohibition of drugs in Manchester and in other major cities.

Mr. Lloyd

My hon. Friend is right. When I came to Parliament 18 or 19 years ago, deaths of the sort that I have described were fairly unusual. Unfortunately, some types of extremely violent crime are now tolerated. I blame our drugs policy for the growth of such crime. I wish that we could return to a less violent society, but alas we shall not easily be able to do so. If the motor for drug-related killing were to disappear, it would have an impact on deaths in Manchester and more widely, if nothing else.

Lembit Öpik

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many of the paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland have been directly funded from the proceeds of illegal drugs? That has persisted because the industry is primarily demand led, not supply led.

Mr. Lloyd

I agree. The hon. Gentleman's last comment was the most important. What he says about the paramilitaries applies not only to Northern Ireland but to the rest of the world—for example, Colombia, where the astonishing civil war has displaced 1 million people from their homes. The number of people dying is, by any standards, outrageous. Almost all the violence stems from the demand for cocaine in western Europe and, more importantly, in the United States. Yes, there is such a link.

A central point about drugs policy, which is often overlooked, is that it is convenient to dismiss those who are involved with drugs on the basis that they are on the fringe of society and do not matter. As we invest in attitudes that lead to a tolerance of the most violent types of crime, the issue spreads beyond drugs to wider aspects of society. We must regard drugs as a motor for violent crime and consider how to break the link. The Minister has not dealt with that this morning. I hope that he will reflect on the issue.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth

My hon. Friend makes a serious point. He appears to suggest that the legalisation of certain drugs would do away with the present levels of crime. It is true that certain levels of crime—often serious crime—are associated with the supply of drugs, but a high level of crime is associated with the behaviour of people under the influence of drugs. If we move towards a policy that increases the use of drugs, such crime could well increase.

Mr. Lloyd

I do not follow my hon. Friend's logic. When we talk about drugs users, we are talking not about cannabis, which is probably still the most widely sold illegal drug, but about heroin, cocaine and crack. My hon. Friend referred to cannabis being behind 50 per cent. of the economic crime that is driven by drugs. That figure might be on the low side; it might be as high as two thirds. The pattern probably varies from place to place.

My constituents live in a relatively high crime area of a relatively high crime city. They know that when their homes are broken into, when their cars are broken into and when they are mugged on the street, half the time or more that is the result of drugs use. The Minister suggests that such crime might increase if we were to change policy on drugs, but I do not agree.

I do not advocate the decriminalisation of heroin or crack. Crack is a phenomenally difficult drug, even in treatment terms. There are no easy substitutes for it, as there are for heroin. Heroin is still the biggest motor for such crime, so we should allow regular users to obtain heroin or heroin substitutes—sometimes the most efficient method is to prescribe heroin itself—in a way that takes the dealer out of the equation. In that way, we would begin to remove the economic motor, cutting out the mugging, housebreaking and car theft.

My constituents are not as conservative as society generally is thought to be. They have begun to realise that, even though they may have nothing to do with drugs directly, they have a strong vested interest, as victims of the drugs trade, in a review of policy We need a lot more radicalism in our approach.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath may get very animated about cannabis, but it is a long time since I have thought that it was even worth discussing seriously. I welcome the Home Secretary's moves, but they do not go far enough. Cannabis is not an issue. There is a generation in this country that looks askance at our laws on cannabis and considers them irrelevant. They are not only outdated but honoured totally in the breach.

Mr. Hawkins

I understand that the hon. Gentleman is considering the issues seriously. How does he respond to the Government's drugs tsar, who said: The pro-legalisers who have said that cannabis isn't a gateway drug will have to look at this hard and long. I can say now cannabis is a gateway drug. I have not found any evidence anywhere that cannabis is not harmful, is not carcinogenic, or that its usage will not lead to harder drugs"? The hon. Gentleman supports a Government who gave Mr. Hellawell his drugs tsar powers. Why does he think him so wrong?

Mr. Lloyd

I have enormous respect for Keith Hellawell. I know him reasonably well and have listened to him on many occasions. He says many intelligent things, but no individual is the sole expert on these matters—there are many different views. The argument that cannabis has dangerous physical properties must be taken seriously, but a highly emotive campaign saying that it is somehow on a par with drugs such as heroin and crack is simply misguided, because for the overwhelming majority of people under, say, 45—

Mr. Jon Owen Jones


Mr. Lloyd

Well, I am 51, so I tower loftily above the age division—or perhaps I am a child before my time.

Young people do not regard cannabis as being even remotely on a par with heroin and crack. The more the gateway argument is pursued, the more damage we create in the minds of young people, because instead of having an intelligent debate about the properties of drugs and their potential dangers we suggest that there is a common thrill from all illegal drugs, which is nonsense.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

As the youngest Member in the Chamber today, let me point out that it is when young people go to get cannabis that they are forced into contact with the peddlers of hard drugs. That is a fact. Does he understand that?

Mr. Lloyd

Is my hon. Friend asking me? Yes, I understand it.

Let us talk honestly about dealer mechanisms. Dealers themselves are not all of a kind. There is a world of difference between the Mediterranean "beyachted", ultra-rich centre of the whole operation and some kid on a street corner selling a bit of cannabis to some friends. I do not want to sound like the dealer's friend. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), those of us who advocate decriminalisation are probably the dealers' bigger enemies. Those who want to maintain the status quo are keeping the dealers in business, to be brutally honest.

Drugs are not all the same, and if we maintain that they are, we send out a confused message. The notion that alcohol is less dangerous than cannabis is bizarre. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath invited me to consider the dangers of cannabis as a gateway drug, but the biggest gateway drug is alcohol, which is amazingly easy to obtain. It is illegal to sell it to people under 18, but that law is often breached, too.

The use of multiple drugs exposes young people to dangers that range from teenage pregnancy all the way to death by overdose. We need to disaggregate the debate and educate young people in a way that fits in with their own experience. As long as we continue to say that drugs are undifferentiated, other than illegal ones being bad and legal ones okay, young people will treat our message with contempt, because their experience tells them that the world is not like that.

The Minister talked about dealing openly and intelligently with young people. We know that 1 million ecstasy tablets are taken every weekend. Some of them are cut with substances that are effectively poisons. It would make more sense to get round the problem by allowing the ecstasy to be tested against a proper pharmacological standard and prevent harm from being done not by ecstasy per se but by the things that it is cut with. That is practical, but very controversial.

It would also make more sense to recognise that some heroin users do not present for treatment on the basis that they want to give up immediately. It may make sense to prescribe heroin for the user who would otherwise get it on the street. If we reorder people's lives during a period of crisis, we do a lot to remove both the criminality and the social disruption. We need to consider radical ways in which treatment can be given. It is not all that long since there was moral outrage at the idea of needle exchange, but we went beyond that, because it worked. We have to get past the moral outrage and do what works.

Treatment is still alarmingly patchy in this country and it is still massively underfunded. Some estimates say that we should spend twice as much on it. I urge the Minister to tell his Government colleagues that unless we tackle the role of treatment we will fail in our duty to tackle drug-induced crime and to allow many of our citizens to lead decent, productive lives.

We need the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse to develop a national strategy, delivering treatment where it is needed. I know, for example, that it is very hard for people to get into a detoxification unit in the north-west. Very few people can get into detox units, which gives rise to a serious problem. Heroin addicts have told me that they reach a point in their own use when they want to get out. They want to get into a detoxification unit there and then, but often are told to come back in three or six months, which means that we have invested in a further three or six months of crime, social havoc and disruption. We must deal not only with the patchiness of treatment, but with the lack of resourcing for the key points in the treatment system that will allow us to move people out of drugs use and into a more productive way of life.

Finally, there have been successful experiments in the role of proper rehabilitation—re-education and getting former drugs users into productive activity and work. We need the equivalent of a new deal for drugs users. Conservative Members may not like the term, and it is a controversial idea. Why should that despised minority demand resources at the expense of the rest? The pragmatic response is that is it in the interests of us all to make sure that that despised minority is brought back to a lifestyle that allows them to live in harmony with the rest of society. It would save all of us much heartache and a great deal of crime, and in the end we would he a more decent society.

10.51 am
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), with whom I largely agree. He put the case carefully but persuasively. Like me, the hon. Gentleman represents an inner-city seat where the community is plagued by the drugs menace, and where the hardest and most serious implications of that are the number of people who deal in serious drugs for profit and produce a huge amount of crime and social disruption as a consequence. We share that analysis, and I am grateful that there seems to be increasing agreement about what is going on out there in the real world, on which we can base our policy reactions in Parliament.

On the Liberal Democrat Benches, as the Minister knows, we welcomed the Home Secretary's referral of the cannabis classification issue to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. That was long overdue, but it was none the less welcome in the early days of a new Home Secretary. We believe that that announcement and its logical implication, which is the reclassification of cannabis, is only the start of the reform that is urgently needed. It must not be the end. There is a case for much wider reform as a matter of great urgency. Now that the Government are willing to have the debate that the new Home Secretary called for, I hope that they will listen to the voices and, on the basis of the evidence, move on quickly.

The United Kingdom is increasingly out of step with many neighbouring countries in drugs policy. Much of the world and much respected opinion here at home has moved on in recent years in terms of thinking through responses, but we are only just beginning to have the open and honest debate for which many people have been calling for several years.

As I commented to the Minister, we continue to have one of the most punitive regimes for drugs use in the world, and certainly in Europe, yet our drugs problems continue to get worse, not better, and the law clearly is not working.

We could spend some time sharing facts and experiences, so I shall simply summarise the current British position from material provided by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which has a clear continent-wide view. Its most recent report states that the UK has one of the highest levels of drugs use and misuse in Europe. More than half of our 16-year-olds have already tried an illegal drug. The annual number of convictions for cannabis use has gone up from 15,000 in 1980 to 78,000 just before 2000. Between a third and a quarter of people aged between 16 and 29 have used cannabis in the past month.

More worrying than the cannabis issue—which is why I agree with the hon. Member for Manchester, Central—is the finding that the number of hard drugs addicts has gone from about 1,000 in the UK 30 years ago to more than 200,000 today. The number of deaths attributed to heroin or morphine use in England and Wales has risen by more than 100 per cent. in four years—a terrifying edge to the drugs problem. The average age of heroin users is going down, whereas in many other countries it is going up. The greatest increase in hard drugs use is among the under-21s. If that is not a statement of the need for radical action, I do not know what is.

I reiterate the figure in the recent Library note, which is generally agreed: the drugs market in this country is estimated to be worth £6 billion. Before the drugs tsar was first appointed—when he was still chief constable of West Yorkshire in the mid-1990s—he said: The current policies are not working. We seize more drugs, we arrest more people, but when you look at the availability of drugs, the use of drugs, the crime committed because of and through people who use drugs, the violence associated with drugs, it's on the increase. It can't be working. That has not changed over the past seven years. That is why we need a much more radical response.

I commend to colleagues in all parts of the House—the more people we can carry with us, the better—the work of Drugscope, which is regarded as the most impartial collector and disseminator of information. The organisation happens to be based in my constituency, and is a well known, well established and well respected charity. I hope that hon. Members will contact Drugscope for advice or to check facts and figures.

If we are to be honest and open, we need to look at the difficult questions that politicians have shied away from. We may have to make some hard and controversial choices, but that does not mean that they are the wrong choices. The House must be brave enough to say that, and increasing numbers of voices are doing so.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones

I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, who is laying out the evidence on which we should make our decisions. Further evidence comes from the MORI poll commissioned by the News of the World a couple of weeks ago, which showed that 65 per cent. of the population supported the legalisation of cannabis. As regards the House making brave decisions, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the House has been cowardly, and that it is the public outside who are changing the opinions of the House, rather than the other way round?

Simon Hughes

I agree. Public opinion is clearly ahead of Parliament on the cannabis issue, and the credibility of politics is losing out because we are less and less in tune. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) pointed out that she was the youngest Member of the House. One of the problems is that we are not a balanced Parliament in terms of age. We do not have lots of young people helping in the formal process of policy making. It is therefore even more important that we listen to what they say.

One of the reasons why young people do not vote is that they increasingly think, that we do not understand at all what goes on in their lives. We can change the form of voting and enable people to vote by post or by telephone, but if they do not hear a debate that reflects the reality of a Friday night or a Saturday night on the Old Kent road or in the middle of Manchester, we are not likely to win their respect, their confidence or their participation in the democratic process.

I agree that we must take account of the opinion poll evidence on the cannabis issue, which is clear. There is much other creditable recent evidence, including the two important reports of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Psychiatrists, and the Police Foundation inquiry, now a year and a half old, chaired by Dame Ruth Runciman. A report was published this week by the former chief constable of Gwent, which makes it clear that someone who was a senior police officer believes that the way in which we deal with heroin use has been entirely unhelpful, and that we need to give people legal access to a place where they can go openly and have heroin prescribed, to get them away from the sordid backstreet operation through which that drug has been obtained in the past.

I make a further potentially controversial point, which does not assume a particular opinion on the issue. Parliament came to a view 30 years ago that we had to legalise abortion, not because everyone thought that that was morally right, but because unless we did so, we were perpetuating the sequence through the generations and condemning women who did not want to go through with the birth to being at the hands of the racketeers, the exploiters and those who were not validated as professionally competent.

There is a parallel with drugs. As the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said, we condemn many young people to going to traffickers, dealers, exploiters and pedlars who are not interested in their future. They want only money and reward for their activities, although the result, one, two or three years later, may be pain, suffering and death for those young people. I hope that we establish a policy in this Parliament that breaks the link between the young person who experiments with drugs simply because young people experiment and those who make money, irrespective of young people's interests.

Lembit Öpik

Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is not whether cannabis is a gateway drug but whether prohibiting it leads individuals to be exposed to alternative gateways and to people who can introduce them to other drugs?

Simon Hughes

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow made that point clearly. 1 do not accept the gateway view. To reinforce the point, the person who provides cannabis often wants the purchaser to buy something else at greater cost. People thus become reliant on those who are literally pushers—they push others into buying drugs that make them return because they are addictive. Pushers create a dependency market for which they have guaranteed customers who have less and less money and thus go thieving, burgling and nicking. Serious crime follows: blackmail, intimidation, harassment and the gun crime that has already been mentioned.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

If cannabis is removed from the market, does not the hon. Gentleman worry that more dangerous drugs will be pushed more vigorously?

Simon Hughes

No. The Runciman report clearly states that all drugs are not the same, and we must educate people to understand the difference. Just as the consequences of drinking low-alcohol lager and high-alcohol spirits are different for most people, there is a difference between using cannabis and heroin, and between taking one or two ecstasy tablets and regularly using crack cocaine. I do not accept that using one makes people likely to progress to the other when they can be educated to understand the difference. Education is vital.

A classification system is a good idea. Cannabis has some harmful consequences, but it is not especially harmful. Ecstasy is more harmful. It is a relatively new drug, and we do not know all its implications. However, taking ecstasy leads to a handful of deaths a year, whereas smoking causes 120,000 deaths a year and alcohol-related diseases account for 30,000 deaths a year. We must give people the facts and counter the prejudice. We must also ensure that we have a system that keeps people up to date.

We must establish an authoritative body that works in the open to keep up to date with events. Since 1994, my party has called for such a body. We originally proposed a royal commission, but that is a one-off exercise. We subsequently argued for a standing commission. I hold to the view that we need an authoritative, independent body that can say, "These drugs are available. Ecstasy has just arrived; these are the implications, this is our advice." It should be able to take evidence and give advice. With great respect to Keith Hellawell, whom I do not know well, someone who is under the Government's umbrella and is perceived as a Government person will not have such authority. That is the weakness of such a job.

I accept the policy aims that the Minister outlined. We must help young people to resist drugs misuse and protect our communities from drug-related antisocial and criminal behaviour. We must enable those with drugs problems to overcome them and live healthy, crime-free lives. We must stifle the availability of illegal drugs on our streets.

I do not advocate taking drugs; most people are better off without drugs, and using natural, not artificial remedies. Changing the law does not mean advocating drugs use or making drugs more acceptable, beneficial or preferable.

We should divide society into three groups. We should treat recreational drug users as normal people who use such drugs in the same way as alcohol or tobacco, which are also used, for better or worse, as recreational drugs. We should treat addicts as victims because they need help. That is clear from talking to people who have been to prison for a drug-related crime and have benefited from a regime that has helped them to deal with their problem. The pushers, dealers, profiteers and traffickers are criminals. Like hon. Members from other parties, I hope that, at the end of the review, we will distinguish between those who should be regarded as criminal and those who should not. For example, the personal use of recreational drugs should not be criminal—it is different from dealing in serious drugs, an activity that should be criminal. We must categorise those activities differently.

The key recommendation of the Runciman report is that if differences exist in the amount of harm caused, it is important to educate people about that. There is evidence that cannabis is harmful, but less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. It is therefore not logical to treat the personal use of cannabis as a crime when we allow people to use tobacco and alcohol. Many people now say precisely that and act accordingly, and that brings the law into disrepute. Policies must be credible as well as intelligent.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow has already raised the next point, which I hope that the Government will tackle, and I have no reason to suppose that they will not. We are constrained by international legal obligations. I accept that international conventions require trafficking in narcotic drugs to be regarded as an offence. We cannot alter that unilaterally; we have to work within that parameter. However, the Portuguese have recently decriminalised possession of all drugs. It is therefore possible, even within the international parameters, to treat possession, the personal production of drugs such as cannabis, which can be grown, and social, non-commercial supply differently from commercial supply. The Portuguese have only recently made their decision, and we therefore do not know the result. However, I hope that we will consider policies that are intellectually and practically coherent.

We also cannot say that it is acceptable to use cannabis without an explanation of its source being equally acceptable. That is not sensible law. The weakness of the Government's policy is that they are prepared to change the status of cannabis to a class C drug, but people might be prosecuted for using it, depending on the day of the week, the location and the officer on duty. Someone may or may not be charged. We cannot have an arbitrary policy; there should be certainty and clarity.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones

On the international convention, would the hon. Gentleman agree that a consensus is emerging across Europe and elsewhere—in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, for example—that the conventions should be altered? We drew them up in the 1920s, when we made a list of the drugs that were relatively unknown or not widely used in the west and said that they should be illegal, while those that were widely used should be legal. That was the rationale, and it is time to change it.

Simon Hughes

The hon. Gentleman is a bit like the prompter at the side of the stage, but 1 had not forgotten my next lines. I was going on to say that, although we are constrained at the moment, there are good reasons why we should seek to move on. One is that Europe is moving on, and in the context of the European Union there is an opportunity to consider the evidence, to share the development of the policy and, in some cases, to move from criminalisation to decriminalisation.

An argument also exists for examining the conventions as a whole and considering whether they are still appropriate. I believe—as the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) clearly does—that conventions such as these should not stand for all time; they need to be revisited. It is now time for us to open the debate about whether, in this day and age, with 30 years' extra evidence available, it is appropriate to treat all drugs, from the most serious—the heroins of the world—to the least serious in terms of health effects, in the same way with regard to what countries are required to do.

Commentators regularly get these issues wrong. People must understand that there is a debate about what should be legal, and a second debate about what should be criminal. We must distinguish between the two, but both be on the agenda. It is nonsense to argue that—in the case of cannabis use, for example—we should replace one whole set of criminal sanctions with another whole set of what are administrative sanctions, so that people get a fine instead of other penalties. To replace one by the other would fundamentally change very little.

In relation to drugs such as heroin, I ask the Government seriously to consider the arguments put by Francis Wilkinson and others. Over the years, the Home Office has had pilot schemes at work to give people the opportunity to go to registered, recognised, publicly

available centres—at doctors' surgeries and elsewhere—to receive their supply of heroin, if they are addicted. That seems to be a far safer option.

We must adjust the balance of spend between the two thirds of the money that we spend trying to control the supply of drugs and the lesser amount that we spend trying to deal with people who have become caught up with drugs and become addicts. Any prison governor will tell us that they often have to discharge prisoners who have been inside for offences prompted by drugs without having been able to do anything to deal with their drugs problem. When those discharged prisoners get out, they will say that they have not got the support that they need to be able to return to the ordered lifestyle that they would like, away from the temptations and pressures of drugs.

I do not intend to get involved today in the debate about driving-related issues. Drug-related driving offences must be dealt with in the same way as alcohol-related driving offences. Many people who should not be, are on the roads causing danger and death to other people.

Tinkering with the law is not enough. We need a thorough review not only of classification but of the appropriateness of criminality in relation to various offences. We need to ensure that those who are doing the dealing and distributing are the criminals. We need to educate our young people, in particular, about the differences between different drugs. Above all, we need policies that will be hugely more effective in stopping people getting into regular drugs use in the first place, or, if they do, that will allow them to get out of that afterwards. We could do it, but it will require a bold Government over the next few years, and it will require other people and parties to be equally supportive.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If all hon. Members present are seeking to participate in this quite intense debate, brevity will be their friend.

11.14 am
Paul Flynn (Newport. West)

First, I apologise for the fact that because of a constituency engagement, it will be impossible for me to be here for the wind-up speeches. As an old lag in these debates—I have taken part in every one since 1987—it is pleasant to feel less lonely than I have in some of the previous ones.

These matters are of great importance—they are literally matters of life and death. Because of decisions that we have not taken, and because of acts of omission in this Chamber, there have been at least 5,000 avoidable deaths in the past 10 years, and if we do not alter our policies there will be at least 10,000 in the next 10 years.

Ten years ago, I introduced the first Bill on medicinal use of cannabis. All that was required was a simple change in the law, so that cannabis could be treated in the same way as heroin and prescribed to people on a named-patient basis. Such a measure could have been passed by any Government with an ounce of understanding or compassion. There is no change: Ministers come and go; Governments come and go; and the same delusion goes on, and has done since 1971.

During the past 10 years, the House has imposed quite unnecessary additional anxiety on tens of thousands of people suffering from multiple sclerosis and who are in serious pain. Many of those people have taken cannabis while waiting for the knock on the door, because most of them were growing it themselves and knew that they were—according to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins)—"evil" people who could go to jail for 14 years for what they were doing. Since then, the public, the police, the courts and the juries have said that the laws that we have been supporting command no respect—that the law is an ass.

The control over the laws on cannabis has parted from this House, and it would now be impossible—especially after the announcement on the use of recreational cannabis—for any police force to arrest a seriously ill person for using cannabis medicinally. No jury in the land would convict; indeed, no jury has convicted for the past 18 months. We have allowed the law to pass into disrepute. We now know that the public and the police, who have been leading this move—police in Cleveland and Brixton, and the ex-chief constable of Gwent—are much more far-sighted than many of the politicians here, and particularly any Government. I am optimistic that, having taken this decision to go ahead and change the status of cannabis, we have reached a turning point. We have said that 30 years of prohibition have not worked, and that they have made the position far worse.

I serve as a rapporteur for the Council of Europe's Health Committee, for which I write reports about drugs. I want to reinforce what has been said there. I have examined the policies on drugs in the 43 Council of Europe countries, and carried out a precise analysis of the outcomes in the two most pragmatic countries—Switzerland and the Netherlands—and the two most strongly prohibitionist countries, which are Sweden and the United Kingdom. The picture is clear. Much has been said about the effects of legalisation or decriminalisation, as has happened in Holland. In spite of that, in every category—young, middle-aged and old—in Holland today, there is less use of drugs than there is here. We are by far the worst country in Europe. We have had 30 years of harsh prohibition, while Holland has had 20 years of intelligent decriminalisation.

The hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) asked about people going on to harder drugs. The success of the Dutch scheme lies in the fact that the two markets are separate. Young people can use drugs. They do not have to smoke them—they can take them in safer ways such as in food or drinks. They are not exposed to the pushing of hard drugs users. Another great success of the Dutch drugs policy is that the use of hard drugs has gone down every year for the past decade. Three quarters of the heroin addicts get their heroin in a clean supply from the medical profession and do not have to go on to the streets for it.

Prohibition in Britain is killing young people. The figures vary, but those that I have seen show that before 1971 there were fewer than 500 registered addicts. They were virtually all being maintained by the health service. Many of them, believe it or not, were veterans of the first world war. They had operations on the battlefield and became addicted to morphine. They were supplied with morphine by the health service for the length of their lives and many of them lived to be old contemptibles.

The case of Enid Bagnold is often cited as an example of the old British system. She was the greatly revered and respected author of "National Velvet", but throughout her adult life she injected herself with prodigious quantities of heroin, to which she had become addicted after a hip operation. She died, eventually, a peaceful, serene death at the age of 91.

Last year in this country, in just one incident, 59 young people were killed by prohibition. They were not killed by heroin, because they injected a far less powerful dose of heroin than the one that Enid Bagnold took under the old British system. They were killed because the heroin was contaminated. It was contaminated because the market that supplied it was an irresponsible criminal market and 59 lives were wiped out as a result.

As a constituency MP, I found it distressing when, a fortnight ago, a mother rang me up and said, "I don't know wether you will be shocked by what I say, but I am buying heroin for my son." Another mother said on the "PM" programme that to save her son's life, she told him to go out and commit a serious crime. Those are the actions not of evil people, as was suggested earlier, but of loving parents. They are actions that many of us, if we were in such a dreadful situation, might take ourselves.

In Britain in 2001, we have failed those young people who have the misfortune to be addicted to heroin. Like those who fall into alcoholism, their problems are caused by the way their brains work. Their brain chemistry gives them addictive brains. We know far more now about brain chemistry and we can say that addicts are not evil people. They could be our sons or grand-daughters. They are not wicked or evil people, but people who deserve to be treated as patients, not criminals. More than any other country in Europe, we treat addicts as criminals.

A report in the Western Mail yesterday about Peter Black, the Assembly Member with responsibility for these matters, mentioned an 18-month waiting list for treatment for heroin users. I did not know the wait could be so long, although I knew it could be six months. For those addicted to drugs, it is often a major life event—such as a bereavement, falling in love or relationship breakdown—that gives them an opportunity to get off drugs and break the daily routine of committing a crime to get the money for drugs, taking the drugs, sleeping it off and then going out the next day to begin again. They might get the money through prostitution, mugging or robbery, but the major event gives them the chance to break the cycle. To do so, they need treatment immediately, but they are almost always told to wait for six weeks, or six months, or even 18 months. We should hang our heads in shame that we have a smaller proportion of addicts getting treatment from the health service than any other country in Europe.

A new mythology is growing up about drugs-driving. It is a serious matter and none of us would suggest that anyone should drive under the influence of drugs. However, I have rarely heard such a vacuous speech from an Opposition Front Bencher as that from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, who did not do me the courtesy of giving way. I had thought that his predecessor was as bad a Front-Bench spokesman on this subject as we could get, but the hon. Gentleman's speech was a disgrace.

I urge the hon. Gentleman to consider the conclusions reached by the Transport Research Laboratory on the effect of cannabis and other drugs on driving. Speed improves drivers' perceptions and reactions—it was used for training fighter pilots—but it is dangerous because it also increases their sensitivity to other distractions. It makes drivers worse. Alcohol convinces drivers that they are more skilled, but it impairs their reactions, and that leads to accidents. The effect of cannabis is to impair the reactions of drivers, but it convinces them that they are worse drivers so they drive more cautiously or not at all. That is the scientific evidence.

I do not want to continue the disagreement I had with my hon. Friend the Minister, but we need to consider the world situation. Prohibition started in the 1920s. Virtually every country has an Act prohibiting drugs dated 1921. Thankfully, we did not follow the fundamentalist philosophy that held sway in America and prohibit alcohol, but most countries prohibited drugs. In the 1960s, again under the influence of America, the United Nations spread the view that harsh penalties and imprisoning lots of people would reduce the use of illegal drugs. Very few countries still believe that. The best that we can achieve is harm reduction.

Before the debate, I read what has been said on the issue in the House over the years. We have heard a change of tone today, with a more pragmatic influence coming to bear on the policies, and that is welcome. However, I found a speech by David Mellor, the Minister responsible in 1989, in which he announced to the House: We can take some comfort … from the fact that heroin has moved towards its peak".—[Official Report, 8 December 1989: Vol. 163, c. 593.] It would be a salutary lesson for my hon. Friend the Minister to read the speeches made by his predecessors.

Our record on drugs prohibition disgraces us as politicians. The problem is not the drugs themselves but prohibition. The last two meetings of the Health Committee have been extraordinary. The Government—like the previous Conservative Government—maintained their view of the great dangers of heroin. However, the evidence was rewritten two days later and significant changes were made. The Government were asked to say why heroin was dangerous and they gave a long list of reasons. The worst aspect of heroin is that it is addictive. If it is prohibited, people have to break the law to get it—except the few, barely 300, people who get it from the health service. The list of problems which it was claimed make heroin a dangerous drug included aneurysms and abscesses, but they are all the effects of prohibition.

In Britain, the people who die from heroin use are those who take it in the back lanes, in foul conditions with dirty needles. Under the old British system of health service provision, death from heroin use was very rare. No country's approach is perfect, but other countries in Europe are adopting more pragmatic policies and we are now taking the first steps too. In Rotterdam in Holland, I visited a place called. Paulus Kerche with a journalist and we saw people who had been registered as addicts for a long time getting clean heroin, of a known strength, and clean needles. There was a supervised shooting-up room, but the project also supplied lessons in IT, job interview techniques and CV writing. The community also produced its own newspaper. The addicts were not excluded or despised, or told that they were evil people. They were also given a chance to get off drugs.

We should emulate the practice in other countries. I wish my hon. Friend the Minister well in his task. In his post, he has the ability to institute great reforms that will save many lives and greatly reduce the levels of crime in the country.

11.30 am
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

I too, must apologise to the House, as I have constituency engagements that I must fulfil. Coincidentally, one is at a neighbourhood law centre, where the subject of drugs abuse is almost certain to come up. I shall also visit the local police station, where a similar matter is likely to be raised.

It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), who has long been known for his campaign on drugs. Although I do not intend to follow his path, as I am sure he will understand, I hope that one or two points of agreement will emerge from my brief comments, which are much more related to my constituency than to national policy.

However, I have one point to make on national policy. I should be grateful if the Minister would either put his answer on the record or write to me, as I shall not be present for the winding-up speeches. The debate about cannabis use focuses on the legal and criminal implications, and makes only passing reference to the health implications, The hon. Member for Newport, West referred to the good that cannabis can do for multiple sclerosis sufferers. I hear similar evidence from my friends in the health professions, but they also tell me that long-term cannabis use leads to chest and heart problems, cancer and mental health problems, which is much more worrying.

I seek an assurance that the full weight of medical views on the effect of long-term cannabis use on people's health will be taken seriously into account in any decision by the Home Office and the advisory council.

Michael Fabricant

Could I tempt my hon. Friend to agree with me that, if one or two doctors agree that cannabis should be prescribed for medicinal purposes—I repeat, for medicinal purposes—it should be prescribed now?

Mrs. Lait

I am not an expert, but I understand that a Government-sponsored research programme is finding out what the effects are. I am a great believer in not doing anything until we have discovered all the evidence, which is possibly why I have criticisms of the Home Secretary's statement to the Select Committee, which was perhaps taken the wrong way. He announced a change in drugs policy before all the evidence was properly examined. We must consider the evidence, and I hope that the full weight of the medical evidence on the effects of long-term cannabis use will be taken fully into account in any decision.

The charity ADAPT is based in Bromley. ADAPT is short for "addicts are people too", and it concentrates on long-term, high-dependency drugs users. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), who hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are well aware of that charity. The problem of longer-term, high-dependency users in the current regime instituted by the Home Office is that the treatment they require to stabilise themselves is not being provided.

High-dependency users—there are 45 in Bromley borough alone—have been attending the Laybourne clinic in the east end of London. The clinic has had great success in stabilising those people. As we all know, one problem for drug addicts is their disordered, chaotic lifestyle.

As high-dependency users grow older, they recognise that, to bring some stability to their lives, they need to reconnect with their family and friends and with society in general. They need to be able to write the CVs that will get them the jobs that will bring them back to the mainstream. That requires them to keep their drugs use stable as well.

According to ADAPT, under current Home Office policy, those particular users are often told that they must not only reduce their intake by 70 per cent., but go from injecting to oral intake. That may seem simple to those of us who are not drug addicts, but it is an insuperable barrier for many users, and they go straight back to the disordered and chaotic lifestyle that they have been trying desperately to get out of. Since the Laybourne clinic has lost its inspiring light, Dr. Garfoot—the hon. Members I mentioned may expand on that case—four members of ADAPT have died in Bromley alone.

I want the Minister to give an assurance—I did not hear him do so in his introductory comments—that older, high-dependency, injecting users will also be taken into account in the treatment programmes that are being promoted. All the Minister's comments, with the best will in the world, focused on young people, but this group of older people needs to be treated differently.

On 21 August, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears), wrote to me saying: Treatment is therefore provided on the basis of clinical need. No one argues with that—it is all we are asking for—but the hon. Lady continued: Hence, treatment of adult drug misusers should not vary according to age per se. Therefore, under current Home Office and Department of Health policy, age is not recognised, nor are the needs of longer-term drugs users. Unfortunately, many users who were being stabilised and who were coming back into the community as valuable members have to go back on the streets, and they add to the crime that we all deplore because they cannot get the treatment from the Home Office and Department of Health programmes that is necessary to keep them stable.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth

I shall consider the hon. Lady's comments, but that is not what I am told. I do not pretend that our treatment facilities are adequate, and we are trying to improve them. I am told that they are oriented towards opiate users, most of whom have used those drugs for a long time. We need to develop policies that will reach out to people from ethnic minorities and cocaine users. We have practically nothing in that area, as was exposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd). I am not certain that what the hon. Lady says is borne out by the facts, but I shall certainly consider the points she made.

Mrs. Lait

I am most grateful to the Minister for that reassurance. I was not for a moment suggesting that other groups should not have treatment available to them. All the evidence from ADAPT, of which I am a local patron, is that the treatment those people have been offered is being withdrawn. That is the crucial point.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend, who has made an excellent point. Is she aware that there were 270 patients in the Laybourne clinic a couple of months ago, and between them they had spent 600 years in jail, yet the clinic has a recidivism rate of just 7 per cent. compared with 50 per cent. for the Prison Service? Unfortunately, the clinic is threatened with closure.

Mrs. Lait

I was not aware of those figures, as I have concentrated on the people from Bromley who attended the clinic. However, I was aware of the recidivism figures, and I congratulate the clinic on its success. It is very sad that the General Medical Council struck off Dr. Garfoot.

The Under-Secretary said in her letter that she hoped the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse would soon be in a position to start issuing guidance on model treatment services. If the treatment services have been geared so much to long-term users as the Minister says—I do not doubt him; I am sure he has been advised correctly—why are those users finding that the services to which they were accustomed are being withdrawn? Furthermore, why do I find that four members of ADAPT who lived in Bromley are sadly no longer with us—the ostensible reason being that they took brown heroin as opposed to the heroin needed to stabilise them and allow them to remain in the community?

I hope that the Minister will comment, or write to me, on Government policy regarding the treatment of high-dependency, long-term injecting users.

11.41 am
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

This debate, which I welcome, is the first major drugs debate that we have had since 2 July 1999. Much has happened since then, and I think the mood of Parliament and, especially, the people has changed.

I congratulate Lady Runciman's committee and the Police Foundation. They have, in part, catalysed the change of direction. The Government, fortunately, have accepted 24 of the 81 recommendations, and 20 are still under consideration, including the one on cannabis reclassification. However, I want to move the debate on to new ground, beginning with the proposed legislation arising from the consultation document "New National Minimum Standards for Care Homes", published by the Department of Health last July, and the likely impact of the proposed new regulations on drug and alcohol treatment centres. Because of the summer recess, we have had little time to debate those proposals.

The background to today's debate is the dire shortage of treatment and rehabilitation beds in residential homes throughout the country. I welcome the establishment of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse in April this year, and wish it well. I hope that it will have a major impact not only on the quantity but on the quality of treatment places available.

Single lockable bedrooms, preferably with en suite bathrooms but at the very least with adjacent bathrooms, are proposed as a minimum standard for care homes. Communal facilities for catering and other activities for clusters of between eight and no more than 16 bed spaces are also recommended. The report contains other recommendations, but I shall not dwell on them today.

The cost of treatment is already very high. If those minimum standards are accepted, many homes for the treatment and rehabilitation of drug and alcohol addicts will have to close, at a time of great need. The owners cannot afford the conversion costs, and would price themselves out of the market as a result of the much-increased unit costs arising from such a reduction in the number of bed spaces. It is estimated that 50 per cent. of existing bed spaces would be lost in the sector, and there would be little incentive for the provision of new ones. That is sheer madness at a time like this. Many treatment places are provided by charitable organisations, which already find it difficult to raise the necessary money.

The idea of locked rooms is also unacceptable. The vulnerable people involved might accidentally overdose, or attempt suicide under the pressure of treatment in the centres. Treatment can be very unpleasant, causing the withdrawal symptoms that we know about. Patients and their professional carers therefore prefer at least two people to be in each room, so that one can support the other through a difficult and emotional time. Indeed, sharing is seen as part of therapeutic treatment.

The recommendation for access to visitors to be available 24 hours a day is an open invitation to drug dealers to visit the premises. In any case, it is often better to isolate drug addicts from their peer groups and friends during the detoxification programme. Even close family members are best kept away in certain instances, because they too can exert emotional pressures.

When clients are consulted—we do not consult drug addicts often enough—they are most interested in access to treatment, the quality of staff, structured treatment programmes and well-linked service provision. They rarely mention the quality of accommodation, and the quality of accommodation in this sector is quite high anyway.

I recognise that minimum standards for other care homes will be welcomed, but I ask the Government to think again about the impact of the proposed regulations on drug and alcohol addiction and rehabilitation services. After all, the closure of homes in this sector would have a major impact on the Government's crime reduction strategy. Has my hon. Friend the Minister had any discussions with his colleagues in the Department of Health? If not, may I ask him to do so?

Surely, the minimum standards set out in the consultation document published in July are intended mainly to improve the quality of life for long-term residents in homes, for example the elderly. Are they really meant to affect homes in which people dwell for only a short period? Would it not be better to allow the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse to determine care standards for residential homes in this sector?

It strikes me that drug treatment in the past has consisted of methadone, methadone, methadone, and little else. Although methadone is useful as an opiate substitute, I have long argued that addicts should be given a choice of treatment. I am told that methadone is often harder to give up than heroin. For many years, I have advocated the use of other opiate substitutes such as buprenorphine and LAAM—laevo-alpha-acetylmethadol. Fortunately buprenorphine, the drug of choice in France and Australia and easier to give up than methadone, is now more readily available on prescription in this country than it used to be. I have also advocated the availability of abstinence programmes such as the 12-step programmes, and the use of clinically pure heroin—or diamorphine, as the medics prefer to call it—for long-term addicts who have developed high tolerance levels to that addictive drug.

As has been said, the former chief constable for Gwent, Francis Wilkinson, published a paper only this week in which he suggested that we should try to secure clinical treatment with pure heroin for as many as possible of the estimated 300,000 heroin addicts in order, initially, to stabilise their lives before offering further treatment or even detoxification. That would constitute a return to the old British system that we left behind in 1971, under pressure from the Americans, when there were far fewer heroin addicts than there are today. In 1960, for example, there were only 685 registered heroin addicts in this country.

When he bravely announced the reclassification of cannabis, the Home Secretary gave notice that he would make an announcement in the spring about heroin prescribing. Let us hope that he sees a role for the registration and treatment of heroin addicts in the same way. That would constitute a huge harm-reduction programme, not to mention the serious impact that it would have on criminal behaviour. I estimate that up to 70 per cent. of crime in metropolitan areas is drug related.

As other Members have said, the current war on drugs is not working as a strategy. I am pleased that the Home Secretary is prepared to review it, and to think radically. None of us are soft on drugs, but some of us believe that the time has come—as in other European countries—to conduct some experiments in policy.

With regard to the amendment to section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, many of us who are interested in drug addition were concerned about the outcome of the so-called Winter Comfort case in which John Brock and Ruth Wyner were imprisoned for allowing drugs to be used on premises that they were running in Cambridge to help drug addicts. The verdict has had a ripple effect throughout organisations that have known drug addicts on their premises on a care basis, including housing authorities. Since then, section 8, which deals with drug-related incidents on premises, has been amended by a section in the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, although I understand that no guidance has been issued by the Home Office on that change. It would be helpful if the Minister were to update the House on that.

The Government say that the amendment of section 8 is unrelated to the conviction of the Cambridge two and that it was introduced to deal with crack houses, which are prevalent in London. There are several concerns about that amendment, but shortage of time allows me to refer to only a few of them briefly.

If, as in the case of several European countries, we eventually introduce supervised consumption of heroin for known addicts, which some hon. Members have called for today, the amendment could conflict with that policy. If possession of cannabis is to be a non-arrestable offence and the amendment to section 8 is implemented, ironically the owner of the premises on which people are in possession of cannabis could be arrested, but not the person in possession of the cannabis, which is silly.

The amendment to section 8 conflicts with the Government's policy of reducing drug-related deaths because drug users will he driven out of premises and forced into the open air to inject where they are known to be at greater risk. In addition, providers of supported housing are unlikely to provide such housing for vulnerable drug addicts under those circumstances.

My final point relates to something that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) said. I was recently made aware of a number of doctors who have been subjected to disciplinary action in relation to their treatment of drug users. Those doctors fall into a group of people who believe that drug addicts are victims and need specially tailored treatment and counselling, rather than criminals who should be punished. They are something of a rare breed because the majority of general practitioners—94 per cent. in fact—are unwilling to treat drug users, which leaves the addicts with no alternative other than to continue to use street drugs. Indeed, budding doctors in our medical schools get little training in drug addiction.

I have been closely involved with the case of Dr. Adrian Garfoot, who has long been treating long-term drug addicts in London, many of whom were extremely chaotic and even dangerous when they approached him for help. He has treated such people for more than 24 years. In 1991 he opened the private Laybourne clinic. which has also been mentioned. His method of treatment involved prescribing pure substances such as injectable methadone at an adequate level so as to enable the user to move away from the street drugs that can have a detrimental effect on the user's life.

A new patient would be subjected to a series of tests to determine their individual tolerance level. The prescription would be dispensed on a weekly basis. Throughout the treatment, the drug users would become more stable because of the regular supply of the drugs that they desired. As the prescribed drugs were of a purer form, they were not subjected to the differences in quality of street drugs. As their treatment progressed, it was often possible to reduce the level of drug use. In addition, as the addicts were attending a clinic on a regular basis it was possible to assist with the treatment of drug-related illnesses, such as those caused by HIV and the hepatitis C virus, from which many addicts suffer without their knowledge.

Most of Dr. Garfoot's patients have been able to lead normal lives again following their stabilisation. Many have worked and many have rejoined their families. Without his or a similar doctor's help, a considerable number of them would be dead. I am not a great fan of private medicine, but the public sector seems unable to cope with those long-term patients. I never thought that I would live to see the day when I would be defending private medicine in the House, but since 1982 Dr. Garfoot's activities have been scrutinised by the Home Office drug unit, now known as the action against drugs unit, because he was found consistently to be prescribing high levels of drugs to his patients. For the majority of doctors, that would be seen as irresponsible prescribing, but it is important to remember that his patients were long-term and often chaotic addicts with a high tolerance threshold that required a high dose. Had he prescribed smaller doses, his patients would have gone out on to the streets to top up to get the same high.

Dr. Garfoot was eventually brought before a Home Office tribunal in 1992. The process from inception to a verdict took five years and the conclusion was reached that he should be cleared of wrongdoing. A verdict of abuse of process was recorded in 1997, the last time that that Home Office procedure was used. Since then, such disciplinary investigations have fallen under the remit of the General Medical Council. I recently asked the Home Office in a written question why its procedures were no longer in use. Its response was: They are cumbersome, time consuming and inflexible."—[Official Report, 24 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 287W.] However, the measures introduced by the GMC in the wake of the Harold Shipman case would be draconian by comparison if applied to doctors such as Dr. Garfoot. I understand the Government's concern when such doctors lose a patient or two because of an overdose—usually, incidentally, by topping up from suppliers outside the clinics—but that is not a reason to consider them in the same light as a Dr. Shipman. Far more of their patients die on the streets when they are not receiving any treatment.

Mr. Bellingham

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in the Garfoot case there was no evidence of any diversion of drugs from patients or of any harm that came to patients? The hon. Gentleman made a good point about GMC procedure. Is he also aware that under the old Misuse of Drugs Act tribunal procedure the punished doctor could go back to his mainstream GP practice? The new GMC procedures mean that he cannot do that and is, struck off for perhaps five years and loses his livelihood.

Dr. Iddon

I am aware of those issues.

The sweeping new measures that operate through the GMC's interim orders committee have allowed it immediately to suspend or put sanctions on a doctor who is suspected of misconduct. Dr. Garfoot was subjected to that procedure after it was discovered that he was prescribing high dose levels to his patients and was accused of irresponsible prescribing. The IOC ruling meant that he was forced to reduce the number of patients he was treating and could not accept new patients. In the aftermath of the decision, taken only a few weeks ago, two of the doctor's patients have died, and I heard today that it could be as many as four. Of the cases which I am aware, one died from an overdose after being forced back on to the streets, and another tragically committed suicide.

The GMC's case against Dr. Garfoot dates back to 1996. Since then, he has been subjected to two preliminary conduct committees, three interim order committees and one professional conduct committee. That is the harassment of a doctor who is trying to do good deeds in the community. In any case, such a legal process is incredibly costly; I believe that a similar case cost £500,000 to conduct. As the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said, the procedures are not simple. The appeals process leads to the Privy Council, so the cost of an appeal must be prohibitive.

John Marks practised the old British system similar to the Garfoot treatment in Widnes. His practice was forced to close in 1995, and by 1997—just two years later—40 of his patients had died. That is an incredible indictment of our drug policies, and it also shows the level of dependence that the addicts have on such doctors.

I am aware that 15 doctors have now been subject to such procedures. And what happens when they are struck off? Some 200 to 300 addicts are precipitated on to the streets of our major towns and cities, and, as the House has heard, many of them die.

When John Marks practised in Widnes, the local crime rate went down by an astonishing 50 per cent. He was driven out because health authorities refused to fund him, and he had to go to New Zealand to practice the old British system.

Dr. Garfoot has helped 1,200 addicts, and I submit to my hon. Friend the Minister that many them would have died if Dr. Garfoot had not been allowed to treat them. Indeed, may I be so bold as to request my hon. Friend to seek a meeting with his counterpart in the Department of Health so that they can review the General Medical Council's procedures as they affect doctors who are willing and able to treat long-term drugs addicts who no other general practitioner and not even the health service are willing to take on board?

When the Home Office special tribunals were set up, James Callaghan, who was Home Secretary at the time, spoke of irresponsible, careless, or negligent prescribing or unduly liberal prescribing with bona fide intent, which may justify curtailing the doctor's authority in relation to controlled drugs in order to stop a supply for misuse, but not justify the drastic course of disqualifying him altogether".—[Official Report, 25 March 1970; Vol. 798. c. 145.] I have been in contact with the GMC to express my concern about the way in which the interim order procedures are currently implemented and to ask it what alternative arrangements it is making for the 200 to 300 patients who have to resort to street drugs when doctors are struck off. I am sad to say that no arrangements are being made, so I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to examine that issue.

I have tried to show how Government policies across the different Departments of State can have an unexpected impact on the way in which we deal with drug addiction if those policies are not thought through carefully. I hope that my contribution has been constructive and that my hon. Friend will take account of my points.

12.2 pm

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

The Garfoot case is, indeed, a scandal. I hope that the Minister will examine it in much more detail.

This has been a particularly informed debate. Although it is invidious to pick out individual contributions, those of the hon. Members for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) and for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) were especially valuable.

I am afraid that I have to leave the Chamber at about 12.30 pm, for which I apologise. I have a constituency engagement and there is a lack of trains to Lichfield. I hope that I will be in the Chamber to hear the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) but, if I am not, I promise him and the Minister that I will read their remarks in Hansard.

The Minister said that he welcomed an adult debate on the drugs issue. He was right to say that, and this has been an adult debate. Drugs are a dreadful scourge, and not just in Manchester, Central; they are a problem even in the leafy lanes of Lichfield. Market traders there have told me that syringes are often found first thing in the morning in the city square. The scourge faces us all nationally.

We are debating not whether drugs are a scourge, but how the problem can best be dealt with. It is revealing that when the hon. Member for Newport, West asked the Minister which of the Government's strategies have worked, he was unable to answer. That is simply because there is evidence that prohibition in the broadest sense does not work.

I asked earlier whether an analogy could be drawn between prohibition in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s and the prohibition that exists now in the United Kingdom. I do not advocate that we lift the prohibition on all drugs because I do not believe that we know what the consequences would be. From now on, I shall address my comments solely to soft drugs, and cannabis in particular.

I reiterate my earlier point that all the evidence shows that prohibition in America in the 1920s and 1930s bred not only gangsterism but alcoholism. If one were to draw an analogy with the United Kingdom, one could strongly observe that, under prohibition, gangsterism in drug pushing has led to greater numbers of people taking drugs and becoming addicted. The Government and academic bodies need to consider that in far more detail.

Lembit Öpik

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one could extend the analogy and observe that, under prohibition, unregulated production meant that the alcohol itself caused death, as well as blindness? Are there not strong parallels between those circumstances and the present situation in Britain?

Michael Fabricant

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. We have heard about the number of deaths caused by people taking impure ecstasy. I am not advocating the free availability of ecstasy, but clearly one could argue that if it were available under controlled conditions, at least deaths would not be caused by contaminated tablets.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth

Nobody would argue with the assertion that prohibition in America had dreadful consequences, but, in the interests of a serious debate, may I ask where the hon. Gentleman acquired the evidence that alcoholism increased during that period? Instances of liver cirrhosis fell considerably, and although the alcohol consumed was probably stronger than before because hard liquor was easier to smuggle, overall alcohol consumption fell too. I do not deny that prohibition caused massive problems, but from where did the hon. Gentleman get his evidence?

Michael Fabricant

From the United States Senate inquiry in 1941, and I refer the Minister to its report, which supports my argument. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman and I are arguing about the general principle of the issue, but there are important analogies to be drawn.

If we had known hundreds of years ago of the consequences of consuming alcohol and tobacco, might we not have made those substances illegal too, because it is becoming clear in this debate that they are also drugs? It was said earlier that cannabis can be a gateway to harder drugs. One could argue that the gateway exists because cannabis, like harder drugs, is illegal, and alcohol and tobacco are not necessarily gateways to harder drugs simply because one can acquire them legally and does not have to come into contact with pushers. The House and the Government must consider those arguments in detail.

The Minister rightly, said that the Home Secretary's announcement during evidence to the Home Affairs Committee did not constitute an official change of policy, although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) that its timing was very suspect indeed.

The Minister was also honest, as is his wont, in answering my question. He said that he would perhaps be surprised if cannabis were not reclassified—I think that I summarise his words correctly. In the light of that perfectly legitimate answer, it is worth stating the present position on taking cannabis.

I shall quote a Drugscope briefing paper, which several hon. Members have been given. Interestingly, it states: Britain still has some of the toughest drug laws of any European country. Britain also has one of the biggest drug problems and the highest addiction rates. Sadly, it states: Around half of young people (16–24) have tried illegal drugs, 29 per cent. in the last year. Over a third (34 per cent.) of all adults (16–59) have tried drugs, 11 per cent. in the past year. The key point is: Cannabis is the most widely consumed drug in all age groups and 70–85 per cent. of offences against the Misuse of Drugs Act are cannabis related—mostly possession. As we have heard, some constabularies have chosen to take a view about how they will handle people found in possession of small amounts of cannabis that is solely for their own use. That is an enlightened and important policy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath, who speaks from the Front Bench, spoke about road accidents. I agree that it is wrong to drive a vehicle when under the influence of alcohol or any other drug, including cannabis. I hope that the Minister will say how the Home Office will assist police forces to detect those who drive under the influence of cannabis, just as they are equipped to detect those who drive under the influence alcohol. I strongly believe that there is no defence for driving under the influence of any drug, be it alcohol or cannabis.

I simply want to say in conclusion that I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) only on the medicinal prescription of cannabis and other drugs. I understand her argument that a review is being undertaken of whether drugs should be prescribed for specific purposes, but we should not hide behind that. Some health authorities hide behind the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. In south Staffordshire, anti-tumour necrosis factor drugs are not being prescribed to people with rheumatoid arthritis because it is argued that the issue is currently being investigated by NICE. That is an excuse: those drugs are not being prescribed because South Staffordshire health authority does not have the money to do so; other health authorities are prescribing them, even though NICE is reviewing their use.

Similarly, we should not use the review of whether doctors should be allowed to prescribe certain drugs for medicinal purposes as an excuse not to consider their use. Overwhelming evidence shows that those who suffer from multiple sclerosis and certain forms of cancer benefit medicinally from being prescribed those drugs. It is absolutely wrong that people who suffer from such diseases are threatened with criminal prosecution, as are their doctors for making the drugs available to them. I would be prepared to say that if we are to be cautious, perhaps two general practitioners should sign the prescription.

I urge the Minister to ensure that, as quickly as possible, the law is changed, or guidance issued to police forces, so that if two doctors believe that any drug ought to be prescribed to alleviate suffering or to cure people of drug addiction, they are allowed to prescribe it now, without fear of prosecution. I do not believe that the House—or even the Home Office—knows better than medical practitioners.

12.15 pm
Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

Why is this debate so important? It is because, as we all know, drugs misuse ruins lives and fuels crime and anti social behaviour. In Tower Hamlets, where I live, everyone is affected by drugs, whether they have ever taken a drug in their lives or not.

The starting point is clear—how do we protect individuals and communities against drug abuse? We must take an evidence-based approach that prioritises harm reduction above everything else, and that means putting harm reduction above our human tendency to moralise and judge.

I want our drugs policy to target the drugs that harm us most and cause the greatest destruction in our communities. Which drugs harm us most? Every year in Britain, 10 people die from taking ecstasy and 2,100 from taking other illegal drugs; 30,000 die from alcohol use; and 120,000 die from smoking. No one in Britain has ever died from taking cannabis. It is instructive to consider the fact that although cigarettes kill the most people, they do not destroy our communities as some other drugs do. In my view, the drugs that do most to destroy our communities are heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol. Those are the drugs that we need to do most to deal with, using well thought out and well funded harm reduction strategies.

I was pleased to hear the Minister say that supply, demand and harm reduction strategies must be more balanced, and that that is what the Government are trying to do. He also said that we must get an effective message across to young people. Again, I am pleased that since 1999 the Government have increased the proportion of secondary schools with drug education programmes from 86 to 93 per cent. Sadly, however, we have to accept that the drugs policies of successive Governments have sabotaged the attempt to send an effective message to young people. Worse than that, they have criminalised many young people, 42 per cent. of whom have tried cannabis at some point.

I cannot help mentioning the glaring contradictions raised by the speech of the Conservative shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). Since entering the House, I have not heard such a weak speech from any Front-Bench spokesman. That genuinely saddens me, as on this subject we need strong and intelligent debate. The hon. Gentleman's speech showed a complete absence of intellectual rigour. He spoke with passion about cannabis suppliers getting up to 14 years in jail, but completely failed to answer the telling point that those who supply drugs that cause much greater harm, and kill far more people, often end up with a peerage instead of a jail term. Why is that? Mainly, it is because most members of the establishment choose to relax with a glass of wine or a cigarette. They do not, on the whole, roll themselves a joint. Their choice of recreational drug is considered acceptable, but the choice of millions of other people in Britain is criminalised.

The problem was well set out in an extremely thoughtful speech by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). He points out that the problem is not recreational drugs use, whatever drug is used, whether it is alcohol, tobacco or even cocaine—although not crack cocaine. It is not recreational drugs use that is the problem; it is addiction.

Mr. Prisk

Despite not being a member of the establishment and therefore not knowing whether or not they gently roll a joint, or whatever the terminology is, may I ask whether the hon. Lady thinks we can ever strike a balance between what she defines as recreational drugs use and addiction? Where would she draw the line? Where does recreational drugs use end?

Ms King

It is not possible to draw a line in the sand. I consider that if I have had more than three glasses of wine, I have crossed the line and tipped from recreation into drunkenness. That is my view, but down in the Bars I regularly see many other Members of Parliament tanking up on pint after pint or bottle after bottle of alcohol. There will never be an obvious or simple answer to that question. The question to ask is, when does drug use start to ruin one's life? When do one's usual daily activities start to suffer? At what point does one become unable to carry out other functions?

I pay tribute to two organisations, Addaction and Transform, and to the authors of the Runciman and the Police Foundation reports. Everyone involved with them has argued for an evidence-based approach, so let us look at the evidence.

There is a strong relationship between hard-drugs use and crime. It is estimated that between 50 and 70 per cent. of street and house crime is drugs related. Nowhere is the effect more devastating than in an area such as Tower Hamlets; no one suffers more than low-income groups. A Home Office study revealed that 13 per cent. of criminals in custody were convicted of drugs offences—that is twice the proportion recorded 10 years ago. Of all those arrested, 65 per cent. tested positive for one or more drugs. It is estimated that goods to the value of £1.3 billion are stolen each year by people who use class A drugs.

Given those facts, it is easy to understand the temptation to try to deal with addiction from a criminal justice perspective, but I believe that sending people to prison is not always the best answer—although, obviously, it depends on what else they have done. Sending people to prison does nothing to rehabilitate them or to protect society. Of all male offenders aged between 17 and 21 who were discharged for original drugs offences, 49 per cent. were reconvicted. That is a stunning indictment of the system. The evidence shows that the system does not work. It is estimated that one in five inmates take drugs in prison. Mandatory drugs testing revealed that 18.3 per cent. of inmates use drugs inside prison, and many experts fear that in some prisons the proportion is nearer 60 per cent. The drugs treatment strategy in prisons has been reviewed as part of the Government's 10-year strategy and more money is being directed to treatment in prisons, but I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister stated in his closing remarks, or in writing, what further measures the Government will take to improve treatment and rehabilitation in prisons.

I want the House to reflect on the situation in what has been described as the heroin capital of London. I and other residents of Tower Hamlets are greatly distressed that the borough in which we live and which has so many positive characteristics has acquired that terrible tag. The price of heroin in Tower Hamlets is the cheapest in London. There are kids in Tower Hamlets who can buy heroin for less than it costs them to buy chocolate. Drugs agencies in Tower Hamlets have seen a 50 per cent. increase in heroin abuse in two years. The greatest increase in that abuse has been within the Bengali community, where drug use has risen from about 10 per cent. of those coming in to 40 per cent. A further rise is expected.

Previously, hard drugs abuse was mainly confined to young white men. However, the situation is changing rapidly. Is our response changing rapidly to deal with that? More than 50 per cent. of the increase in heroin smoking among the under-20s can be attributed to the rise in the reported incidence of drugs use in the Bangladeshi and Asian community. There is speculation among service providers that that could be an underestimate of the true picture.

The influence of ethnicity on illicit drugs use is an under-researched topic. I ask the Minister to take that up when he replies. There is a degree to which ethnicity overlaps other social variables such as unemployment and deprivation. I understand why there is that correlation, but we must undertake further research. Black and minority ethnic drugs users are less likely to use drugs agencies. Their reasons include a lack of awareness about the agencies. They complain that there is little cultural sensitivity or understanding once they get to an agency. Another factor is the ethnicity of the drugs agency staff. In particular, there is a lack of provision for women who may have a drugs problem. The number of women in that position is set to increase.

The national context is one of increasing drugs use among black minority ethnic communities. That is not unexpected given the concentration of these communities in areas of high unemployment and deprivation, coupled with experience of both overt and covert racism. However, that is not the issue with which we wish to concern ourselves today. We want to think about how we can help such people break drugs addiction.

We should consider how other European countries are dealing with the problem of drugs abuse. It is obvious that we have much to learn. We have the highest level of drugs use and misuse and the largest prison population in Europe. In contrast to our policy, many other EU countries have effectively decriminalised the possession of all drugs to focus resources on treatment and the supply side. Logic dictates such an approach, and I support it.

The average age of heroin users in the Netherlands is 36, and rising. The average age in the UK is 26 and falling. The Dutch are widely and wrongly believed to have legalised cannabis. In fact, cannabis is illegal in Holland. The Dutch policy has, in effect, created a regulated market for the small-scale supply of cannabis to adults through coffee shops. The Dutch have a similar level of cannabis use to other countries but there is a lower prevalence of the use of cannabis than in the UK, especially among young people aged 16 to 19.

The Dutch have a stable population of problem drugs users with a rising average age. A high proportion of those users are in touch with treatment agencies. The ratio of drugs-related deaths to other deaths is the lowest in Europe. I want our ratio of such deaths to become lower.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham)

We can all trade figures on drug use in the Netherlands. Is the hon. Lady aware that there was a 50 per cent. increase in heroin addiction in the Netherlands between 1988 and 1997 and that the level of cocaine use by Dutch people aged between 14 and 16 is the highest in Europe? The evidence that she is presenting about the benefits of Dutch policy seems to be in doubt.

Ms King

I see the former Cabinet member, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), shaking his head and suggesting that the hon. Gentleman's figures are wrong. I cannot respond to them here and now, but let me repeat that the proportion of people suffering drugs-related deaths is lower in Holland than here. That is something we should want to replicate.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth

Does my hon. Friend at least accept that the argument is more complex than is sometimes acknowledged? For instance, someone said earlier that we and the Swedes had the most restrictive, law and order oriented policies in Europe, and cited that as the reason for our high levels of drugs use, but Sweden has lower levels than Holland.

Ms King

Of course, I take my hon. Friend the Minister at his word, and I would want to consider that evidence. The whole point is that we need an evidence-based approach, and we have not had that up to now.

We can draw important lessons from how other European Union countries have dealt with the problem. There is benefit to be had from treating demand problems as primarily health problems and minimising the social exclusion of young people through drugs offending. It would also be beneficial to separate the market for cannabis from that for heroin. If those members of the establishment about whom we were talking earlier—Members of Parliament must accept that they are in the establishment—had to go to a heroin dealer to get their glass of port, they would be extremely distressed.

Finally, I want to consider the issues of addiction and treatment. In Britain, on average, drugs use commences at the age of 15. It becomes a problem at 17, but help is not sought until 22. It is in that window between 17 and 22 that the drug users lifestyles deteriorate and problems become monumental, putting the users and others at risk. They may enter a life of crime to feed their addiction or compromise their health by using non-safe injecting practices, resulting in hepatitis C or HIV infection. Their behaviour will have led to a loss of stability, of family and friends, and the natural maturation processes are slowed. Many put themselves outside the normal routes to progress through stability in family life and through education and work.

The Government have invested substantially in treatment services and believe that treatment works, but will they consider changing the proportion of spending on treatment and on prevention? Unfortunately, the money spent on prevention, sending messages to young people like me throughout the 1980s on campaigns such as "Just say no"—I do not know whether it was Nancy Reagan who put us off—was simply wasted. It did not work. The Government still spend a lot of money trying to get the message across, but young people simply reject it. They do not believe the message, because their personal experience shows them that part of it is flawed. Cannabis is not good for you, but they cannot accept that it is worse than cigarettes or alcohol, so they throw the baby out with the bathwater.

My plea is that we tackle drug abuse from a health rather than a criminal justice angle. In so doing, I believe that we will reduce crime and restore some integrity and security to the communities that need it most.

12.34 pm
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and I largely agree with what she said so lucidly. I shall endeavour to be brief, as I know that other hon. Members who have taken a consistent interest in the subject for longer, perhaps, than I have, wish to speak.

I was reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) that I raised the issue of alcohol prohibition in my maiden speech, when I quoted the shortest-ever maiden speech to the House, which was given during the 1920s, when prohibition was in force in the United States. It was made by a Labour Member representing a coal-mining constituency, who was incensed by Lady Astor banging on from the Conservative Benches about the need to ban the demon drink and outlaw the sale of alcohol. Eventually, as I said in my maiden speech, he could stand it no more, so he leapt to his feet, caught the Speaker's eye, and in six brief words gave his maiden and only speech: No bloody beer, no bloody coal."—[0fficial Report, 24 November 1983; Vol. 49, c. 498.] Then he sat down again. I cannot promise to be that succinct, but I shall try to be brief.

One thing I learned when I was in the financial markets that is true also in the political world is that when something is inevitable, it happens sooner than one expects. In July, I published a pamphlet that began with the words: The decriminalisation of cannabis is inevitable". I should not have been surprised that the Government made a move in that direction rather more speedily than most people thought likely and than I expected. I give due credit to the Home Secretary for that move and for having the courage to eat not only some of his own words, but a large meal of the Prime Minister's words in making that U-turn. It is welcome as far as it goes, but I shall explain why it does not go far enough.

First, however, I shall explain how I became convinced that reform of the cannabis laws was both inevitable and desirable and, discuss the extent to which the change announced by the Home Secretary will end the damage done by attempts to prohibit the sale and use of cannabis.

The subject is characterised by a threefold confusion, between the immoral and the illegal, use and abuse, and soft and hard drugs. On use, I should say that I have never used cannabis and have no desire to do so. As far as I know, I am the only Member of either party who has been a Front Bencher who has emphatically and convincingly denied ever using cannabis. That is probably why 1 have a clear enough head to realise that the attempt to prohibit it is inevitably doomed to failure.

On a more serious note, with reference to morality and legality, as a Christian, I have a profound moral objection to drug abuse, by which I mean abuse of anything, be it alcohol or cannabis, to the extent to which it deprives one of one's self-control and undermines one's conscience, thereby leading one to other acts that may be damaging to one's neighbour or ultimately to oneself and society as a whole.

There are many things, however, that are immoral but not illegal and which it would be foolish to make illegal. Adultery is immoral, but none of us would seriously suggest that the state make it illegal. If we were more willing to teach and do what the Minister said we should not do—preach what is right and wrong and what is moral and immoral—we would need less recourse to the law and have a freer and more responsible society.

Before I thought through all those arguments, I used to rehearse fairly mechanically, as one does, the line to take and the arguments for the status quo in constituency meetings with young people and their parents and grandparents. I hope that I am so sufficiently convincing and experienced an apologist that I convinced some that the status quo was sustainable, but each time I became less and less convinced. The arguments seemed to crumble in my hands when I was faced with the evidence.

The two main arguments that have been used to sustain the policy of prohibition are that cannabis is damaging to one's health and that it is a gateway drug. I read a great deal of medical research on the health issue. Instead of relying on my assessment, I quoted The Lancet review of the evidence in my pamphlet, which is available from the Social Market Foundation at £5 or from my website free of charge. The Lancet published the evidence in 1998 and concluded: On the medical evidence available, moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill effect on health, and decisions to ban or to legalise cannabis should therefore be based on other considerations. I have argued that in public, and the comeback was similar to Hegel's response when his disciples pointed out that his theories were refuted by the facts. He replied, "So much the worse for the facts."

There has been a tendency to dismiss the evidence. People say, "That's just The Lancet; I found an article in an obscure journal that says there is such and such a health risk." I prefer to rely on a review of all the evidence, published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal, rather than picking a study by a lay person who has not subjected it to peer review. Almost all the comprehensive reviews of the evidence, not only that by The Lancet, show that the health risks of moderate use are not great.

I do not want simply to win the argument. In the past two or three months, I have tried to single out the most difficult arguments to tackle, and I shall speak about the two strongest counter-arguments. The first concerns schizophrenia. There is evidence that cannabis can precipitate psychotic episodes in those who are liable to schizophrenia, but it is disputed and not strong. It is based on the medical records of Swedish army conscripts, and half those heavy cannabis users who were subsequently diagnosed schizophrenic had taken amphetamines, which are known to precipitate the condition.

Schizophrenia affects only slightly more than 1 per cent. of the population and appears to be genetically preconditioned. Those who rely on the evidence I described effectively acknowledge that the health risks for 98 per cent. of the population are those that The Lancet found. However, there is a risk to the 1 or 2 per cent. who are liable to schizophrenia. Cannabis use will not cause the condition, but it may induce it earlier.

We must acknowledge that hundreds of mentally ill people die every year from paracetamol and aspirin overdoses. Nobody gives that as a reason for outlawing their sale. I cannot help believing that people seize on the schizophrenia argument to try to outlaw cannabis for the other 98 per cent. of the population. We should make people more aware of the health risks for schizophrenics; legalisation will make that possible.

The other strong health argument involves cancer. As the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) pointed out, no one has died from a cannabis overdose, but if people smoked as much cannabis as ordinary cigarettes, they would probably be more likely to contract cancer than regular tobacco smokers. However, almost no one smokes cannabis as heavily as heavy smokers smoke tobacco, so the argument is somewhat artificial. We must acknowledge that the health risks exist and we should try to ensure that people know about them. That will be possible only if we move to a system more liberal than the current one or that proposed by the Government.

The other key argument is that of the gateway—taking cannabis leads to using hard drugs. There is clearly no chemical predisposition caused by taking cannabis that leads people to take hard drugs. That is essentially the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy that, because people do one thing first and another later, the first caused the second. It is like saying that most people who ride motor cycles previously rode bicycles, but that if bicycles did not exist, they would never have got on a motor cycle or that we could stop people moving on to motor cycling by banning bicycles.

The underlying gateway argument is that cannabis leads to hard drugs and that we therefore need to prohibit cannabis, but that is the reverse of the truth. Making the supply and possession of cannabis a criminal offence drives people through the gates of the law into the illegal world in which they must acquire their supplies from people who may also push heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs.

The simple fact is that, so long as the possession and sale of cannabis remain criminal offences, that reverse gateway effect will apply. Legislation is the only way to overcome it, which is why I propose that we should empower the magistrates in each area to license one or more outlets to sell cannabis in small quantities for retail use to those over 18 from premises which would carry no alcohol, which would lose their licence if there were the slightest reasonable suspicion that they handled any hard or illegal drugs and which would be bound to carry a health warning on what they sold and in their premises.

Unless or until we do that, we shall not break the link between the supply of cannabis and the supply of hard drugs. That has been the great success in the Netherlands and one hears a great deal of information about it. Indeed, people frequently tell me what I must have seen when I went over to Amsterdam with the BBC, but they are wrong. I saw some fairly disgusting sights in the red-light quarter connected to the sale of women's bodies and the abuse of women through prostitution; I saw rather less that had to do with drugs.

Dr. Iddon

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a close link between prostitution and drugs in that many women have to exploit their bodies to pay for their drugs?

Mr. Lilley

That is true, if the drugs are illegal. So far as I know, it is not a correlated factor in the Amsterdam red-light quarter. The two happen to be adjacent because of the layout and policing of the area, just as lots of rather sordid things go on in Soho, and it seems to be traditional that they are linked in that area. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point.

The great success in Holland has been to break the link between the supply of cannabis and that of hard drugs. I visited the police, the drug rehabilitation clinics and the Salvation Army hostel for derelict users of hard drugs, and everyone agreed that going back, criminalising cannabis and restoring the link between the two supply routes would be a terrible loss to Dutch society. It should be emphatically put on record that no one wanted a return to that. In Holland, the age of heroin addicts and those addicted to other hard drugs is increasing, because they constitute a declining pool that receives relatively few new recruits from young cannabis users, who do not come into contact with the suppliers of hard drugs.

The greatest good that could be done by liberalisation is breaking the link between the supply of hard and soft drugs. Sadly, the reclassification proposed by the Home Secretary will not achieve that. It will, however, achieve one and a half of the four benefits that could be obtained by moving to legalisation. The authorities will be allowed to focus on tackling hard drugs instead of wasting so much effort on cannabis. Hard drugs are the real issue; they can enslave through addiction, drive people to crime and kill.

In this country, 80 per cent. of drug use is cannabis use. Most of the £1 billion to £2 billion spent on the attempt to prohibit drug use goes on trying to prohibit cannabis use. Two thirds of drugs arrests are cannabis related and three quarters of drugs seizures, by weight, are of cannabis. The change that the Home Secretary proposes will stop the cannabis tail wagging the hard drugs dog. It will allow us to focus on tackling hard drugs, not only by reinforcing the prohibition effort, but by allowing more creative effort to be put into policy formation and the health of users.

The change will half help in restoring respect for the law. Currently, the law is unenforceable, because it is indefensible. As a result, millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens break the law from time to time and use cannabis. Some 10 million people in this country claim to have done so, with 4 million doing so in the past year and probably 1 million in the past month. Some 100,000 people a year are arrested as a result.

All that increases the contempt for the law felt especially by young people, who see the differential treatment of cannabis, alcohol and nicotine as essentially hypocritical and demeaning. That effect would be diminished by the changes, although the Home Secretary will not alter the fact that the sale and use of cannabis will still be a crime. Those will not be arrestable offences, and that fact was spun to the media to suggest the end of any contact between cannabis users and the police, but they will remain prosecutable offences, although the police will have to prosecute by summons instead of by arresting people on the spot.

The change will mean that the police will have the option to enforce the law, but, in practice, they will not do so. They will no longer have to indulge in 300,000 stop-and-search operations on the street every year as they do at present. Those cause great friction between the police and some ethnic minority communities, which assume that they are being singled out. Only 12 per cent. of those 300,000 stop-and-search operations find evidence of drugs on the people concerned.

We will be left with an improved, but still odd, position, in which the police may arrest people, but will probably just issue a warning that falls short of a criminal caution. If someone is arrested a second time, they will be warned that, if they do it again, they will be warned again. That will still undermine the respect that young people feel for the law.

Pete Wishart

Is it not important to retain some societal disapproval of the use of soft drugs and cannabis?

Mr. Lilley

Society can disapprove of things without making them against the law. Most of us disapprove of adultery, but we do not try to make it against the law. We must end the belief that there is an identity between morality and legality. Only in totalitarian societies is the state seen as the author of the moral law. In free societies, the moral law springs from within our conscience and our religion, not from the state.

The change will improve the situation, but the law will remain in a contemptible state. That will undermine respect for it among the law-abiding, who will ask why we have such laws on the statute book if they are not enforced in practice.

The change will not achieve the other major gain that would stem from legalisation: it will not prevent the enriching and enlarging of the criminal underworld. We have made an important area of economic activity illegal, so the fruits of that activity are enhanced and the profitability increased, and all goes to the criminal underworld. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) pointed out, that also increases violence and lawlessness among those dealing in cannabis.

New studies show that much of the rise in violence that tends to occur when a substance is prohibited—for example, alcohol in the US in the 1920s and 1930s and cannabis in this country—is down to the fact that the people involved in the trade can no longer resolve disputes by resorting to the law, so they resort to the gun and to force. A legalised system would undermine that and siphon off a great source of wealth for the underworld. I hope that, instead of being attracted to such wealth-creating activities, many such people would join the free and legitimate economy, get proper jobs and become integrated in normal life.

Ms Oona King

The right hon. Gentleman refers to the increase in violence and the criminal underworld. In the light of events of 11 September, does he agree that removing the supply side from those groups would undermine their ability to fund terrorist activities, which depends to a large extent on drug supply remaining illegal?

Mr. Lilley

That is a powerful point, although I have focused my attention on cannabis, not hard drugs. There is a distinction between the two, and it would be a much bigger step to legalise hard drugs. We should take the first step and legalise cannabis, but that would not have any impact on the Afghan situation.

Prohibiting the sale of cannabis has an effect on criminality. The counter argument that is always put is that if we stop people selling cannabis they will push hard drugs even harder, but the contention that criminal gangs do not push the high-margin, addictive substances as hard as they can and are distracted into selling cannabis instead is ludicrous. If it were true, we should prohibit the sale of ice cream so they would all be diverted into that activity, but no one proposes it, because it is nonsensical. Those gangs push hard drugs as hard as they can.

The fifth and final benefit to be gained from legalisation brings me back to where I began: it would leave people greater freedom for personal responsibility in these matters. I believe that the state should intervene only when an activity does clear social damage, when there is widespread support for trying to prevent that activity by law and when the law can achieve some practical purpose. None of those three is true in the case of cannabis.

In general, the more responsibility over their lives we give to people, the more responsibly they will behave—not all of them, but more of them. The more we nanny people and treat them like children, the more infantile will be their behaviour.

Mr. Bellingham

Like the Labour party.

Mr. Lilley

That is an important point, but not one I wanted to make at this juncture.

We should err on the side of liberalisation unless there are strong arguments to the contrary. The change proposed by the Home Secretary is welcome, but it is a first chapter, not the end of the story. The right hon. Gentleman will have to move further in due course, and I hope that he will be encouraged to do so by the general tone of this debate.

12.58 pm
Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

I am pleased to take part in the debate. I have learned an awful lot from the contributions of all hon. Members who have spoken. The House is better able to take the drug strategy forward as a result of this proper debate.

I never believed for one moment that a 10-year plan had to be set in stone and never reconsidered or altered. The welcome decision to examine the issues around cannabis is very important. Arguments have been advanced by many organisations that work with people with drug dependency problems, such as Drugscope. They greatly assist the all-party drug group, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), and I am one of the deputy chairs. For a long time those organisations have been calling for a reclassification. They welcome the debate, and I hope that we come to the right conclusion, as I am sure we will.

My interest in drug addiction came from a purely personal interest in the people whom I looked after in my ward when I was a night duty nurse. I was able to spend a long time with people suffering from medical difficulties related to their drug addiction. Profound things have been said by Members about the personal problems of such people, and the humane response that they need from us. That is important, and should be kept at the heart of the debate.

We must never vilify people who run into difficulties with drug addiction. Sadly, too many of us in the House of Commons alone are addicted, I suspect—although we do not know for certain—to drugs, not just prescribed drugs, or to alcohol. It is therefore right for us to give careful consideration to those who have encountered huge drug problems.

In the short time available to me—I know that others are keen to speak; I also know that many of us would like to ramble around the whole issue of drugs strategy—I want to concentrate on my particular interest, which relates to those needing treatment for their drug addiction. Many of us welcome the changes that have taken place. Enormous stability has been brought into the whole issue, and has affected all those involved in helping people with drug addiction. There has been a huge sea change in our approach as professionals, volunteers and politicians to those in our communities. The drug action teams have been instrumental in no small part, sharing good practice, and ensuring that the programmes in our communities are properly validated and are giving the very best service to those who need it.

Let me put a serious point to the Minister. I am involved with several groups, and am keen to support our drug action team in West Sussex—which, incidentally, has achieved beacon status, and works closely with voluntary groups in and around Sussex. What constantly sends us mad is the continual drive to attract money into the service. Programmes may be good and well validated, and I entirely agree that we must be careful to ensure that the work in our communities is valid and having a reasonable effect. We do not expect everyone to be able to come off hard drugs just like that; it is a long process for many people, who may falter and fall several times before managing to remain clean. We cannot expect instant success from such programmes. The need to scrabble around for money and bid for it, however, is a distraction, taking the minds of those involved off the valuable work that they are doing.

I am involved in, and am honorary president of, a group in Brighton called the Oasis project. It is a particularly good project, working entirely for women. Health societies pay for women who have been through the criminal justice system to attend the project. The benefits are enormous: the project prevents women from having to undergo custodial sentences, and allows them to keep their children with them. The children can go to a lovely crèche where they are properly looked after, while their mothers enter a programme that challenges them enormously but also gives them complementary therapies. They are given help and support through information technology and all the other things we have heard about this morning, which are important in allowing people to get back on to their feet and reject drug use. We could debate the legality and illegality of drugs for as long as possible, and this morning's debate has been superb.

When I talked to those people who were addicted to drugs—their lives were chaotic and they had lost their families—it was obvious that they did not want to be taking them. Irrespective of whether their drug use was supported by the NHS or they had to commit crimes to get the money that they needed to feed their addiction, they would rather not be on them. That is very different from how they felt when they started to use drugs. We cannot get away from the fact that the initial experience is good. I am told that the first hit is amazing. How do politicians counter that?

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster)

We all recognise the experience that the hon. Lady describes. I represent one of the few inner-city constituencies held by the Conservatives and I assure you that the concerns of drug-related agencies have been brought to my attention. Does not that undermine what the Government are trying to do elsewhere? The Proceeds of Crime Bill and the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986 are geared towards supply. Much of what you say—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must use the correct parliamentary language. He must not use the word "you." I think that he has finished his intervention.

Laura Moffatt

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment. I suspect that he will realise that I believe that spending on treatment and care for addicts should be increased. I make no secret of that. However, enforcement is important. The drug strategy can be used as a basis, but it should evolve. I hope that the Bill to which he referred will help.

We must ensure that there is stability for those who can be treated in the community. Residential detoxification is important, but people have to return to their communities and the people around whom the drug culture developed. It is important that they are supported. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on supported tenancies. Sussex Oakleaf housing association has a supported tenancy scheme to keep ex-drug users in their own homes. It is crucial to ensure that the bills are paid and they do not go back to chaotic drug use. It is difficult to say that that is necessarily part of a drug strategy, but we should think of the strategy in the context of the wider community.

Other issues also need our attention. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) rightly pointed out what a load of old duffers we are for the most part. Perhaps we do not understand that our well meaning messages are badly received by young people. Will the Minister consider greater use of youth forums to take part in partnership discussions with the Home Office on issues such as the messages that we send to young people on drug education? My main concern is to keep young people safe from drug use. The debate on legality and illegality is important, but safety is crucial. Will the Minister consider using young people to help the Home Office, through its agencies, to get the right message to them to stop drug use starting? We have a chance of doing that if we get the emphasis right.

1.9 pm

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

This has been a fine and informative debate. It is useful that we have used the Runciman report as a reference, but I am surprised that it has not received the commendation that it deserves. It is a fine document that suggests several realistic ways forward.

There is no doubt that drugs are one of the most contentious and eagerly debated issues in society. If the public are asked to name the issues that most concern them, drugs invariably and inevitably come in the top five in any list. However, the debate on drugs is one of the least defined and least informed, and that is surprising because drugs as we understand them in their contemporary sense have been with us for four or five decades. As a society, we are experienced in dealing with drugs, but that experience seems to have taught us absolutely nothing.

In the past few decades, drugs use has spiralled out of control to the extent that drug taking among young people is now almost routine. On the darker side of the drug-use spectrum, the economies of some of our most deprived inner-city communities have become almost completely drugs dependent. Drugs are big business. The revenue generated by the illegal drugs trade accounts for probably more than the GDP of small and even medium-sized nations.

Strategy after strategy has been employed to try to deal with drugs problems, but without success. Targets are set but are never met. We employ drugs tsars to achieve absolutely nothing. New campaigns are launched but are sunk beneath an ever-increasing tidal wave of new and impending problems.

As the Minister and the Secretary of State have suggested, we need—I think the Runciman report provides it—an inclusive debate that takes young people, in particular, on board. We need an inclusive and informative debate to which young people think they can contribute.

Two different debates appear to be happening at the same time. The first is held by adult society and particularly by the politicians, who like to legislate and take decisions. We have our preconceptions about drugs use; we come to the issue in a completely different way. We like prescriptive solutions; we like to make laws, launch campaigns and develop strategies and approaches.

The other debate is held by young people. Their terms of reference are sometimes a million miles away from ours. Their understanding of drugs issues is entirely different from ours. As I said, drug taking has become routine for many young people—it is just something that they do. Some of them are amused at our efforts to legislate, but many are irritated by what they see as the hypocrisy at the heart of our debate. We are prepared to legislate and launch campaigns on illegal drugs, but are not prepared to deal with the much more serious problems caused by alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency. At best, what we do inconveniences young people; at worst, we give them an unwarranted police record. The debate held by young people would probably not even be begun to be understood by the majority of people in the House.

Then there is the sinister side of drugs use. I refer to the drugs use that is fired by desolation, despair and depression; that inhabits our socially excluded inner-city communities; and that finances the drugs economy with all its connections with the criminal underworld. This is the drugs use that is responsible for all the drugs-related crime that affects nearly all communities in the United Kingdom; this is the drugs use that must become our priority because it sucks the life out of our very communities.

Drugs legislation must be determined to deal with such drugs use and strategies arid approaches must be determined to tackle the dangerous drugs that bring so much misery to so many of our communities. Drugs legislation must become focused on the most dangerous drugs and on those that do the most harm.

The idea of forming one all-encompassing strategy to deal with all types of drugs is almost too absurd to contemplate. What we need are a number of strategies to deal with the different drugs problems and issues that society faces. For example, the inner-city despair that heroin causes is entirely different from middle-class after-dinner cannabis use. The routine taking of ecstasy by young people out clubbing at the weekend is entirely different from the desolation and despair of the crack dens. Different problems and different issues require different solutions and different approaches. There is not one distinct problem just as there is not one distinct solution.

To underpin all the different strategies we need a legal framework that is credible, particularly for young people, so that it will not be routinely broken, making the law look foolish. Current drugs laws are not easily understood by young people. They do not understand or are hopelessly unaware of the A, B and C classifications and the legal sanctions and penalties attached to them. For example, cannabis is currently a class B drug, but some cannabinoids are class A, which would seem utterly bizarre to many young people.

Lembit Öpik

The hon. Gentleman's experience is slightly different from mine. I have found that young people understand the categorisations but simply regard them as unreasonable, which is one justification for ignoring them.

Pete Wishart

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remark, but that is certainly not my experience. Young people taking ecstasy in nightclubs are completely unaware of the legal tariff associated with that drug. Ecstasy is a class A drug, which means that we have decided that it is one of the most dangerous, but young people are not aware of the legal sanction that can be applied if they are found guilty of possessing it.

I find little to disagree with in the Runciman report on reclassification. The SNP suggested reclassification several years ago, and we are pleased to see that the idea has been taken on board. An important element of the report, which I mentioned earlier in an intervention, is that we must be serious in expressing our societal disapproval of drug taking. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) gave an example, pointing out that through application of the law on driving offences we express society's disapproval of those offences. That idea is applicable in drugs legislation.

Too often, the debate about soft drugs, particularly cannabis, is a legal one. Should we legalise cannabis or continue to impose legal sanctions and penalties? A possible third way, suggested by the Runciman report and by the comments of the Home Secretary and the Minister, is to consider reclassifying cannabis as a class C drug. We can continue to express societal disapproval without criminalising young people, and we can discourage them from starting a career of drug taking and experimenting. However, we must acknowledge that drugs use is likely to be a feature of our society, so we should offer as safe an environment as possible.

It is a tenable position to question our current drugs laws without giving wholehearted support to legalisation or even decriminalisation. As I said earlier, I would be concerned that if we legalised or decriminalised cannabis tomorrow, the people who supply and push drugs would remain in place and would make more vigorous attempts to sell more dangerous drugs. We should begin to place less emphasis on the legal debate by reclassifying cannabis, and then we could assess whether we needed to go further and introduce full decriminalisation or, indeed, legalisation.

There is an issue of resources. The public would be satisfied if we spent the bulk of the resources at our disposal on the drugs that are doing damage.

Treatment is as important as prevention. In the 1999 Scottish elections, the SNP suggested creating drugs courts for people whose drug taking was out of control and dependent on crime. We looked at successful American models and came to the conclusion that they could be used in Scotland. The Scottish Executive now agree and are prepared to pilot drugs courts experiments throughout Scotland.

Drugs courts are important because they compel the dependent criminal drug user to confront his lifestyle, and the regime includes treatment programmes for drugs problems as well as addressing criminal activity. The courts are not a soft option; the treatment is rigorous. In some communities drug-related crime accounts for almost 70 per cent. of recorded crime, and we need solutions that address that underlying cause. Drugs strategies will not work unless treatment programmes are available to keep problem users on the straight and narrow.

A drugs strategy—or, more appropriately, a series of drugs strategies—should be realistic and achievable. It should be clearly understood and properly defined. We have been told consistently over the past decade that we are fighting a drugs war. If that is so, we have definitely lost. The language of the debate should be changed. Let us enter new territory and have an inclusive debate. Only then we will be able to start to get on top of our drugs problems.

1.20 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)

This is one of those debates in which everything that needs to be said has been said, but not everyone has yet said it, and I want to add my few words to this debate, which, as hon. Members have said, has been very interesting.

I can fairly claim credit for being, I think, the first Member elected since 1983 to suggest in a debate in the Chamber the legalisation of cannabis. I did so by way of an amendment to a criminal justice Bill, some 12, 13 or 14 years ago, when the climate was totally different. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) and I shared the same view when in opposition, but those then on the Opposition and Government Front Benches had a completely different attitude. Those on the Labour Front Bench were terrified because they felt that there was a stigma attached to the issue and that it would convey itself to the Labour party itself. Of course, the then Conservative Government were trying to make that connection. I was faced with Ministers saying, "This is really Labour party policy coming through," which forced those on the Labour Front Bench to jump up and disown me completely.

I welcome the fact that we can now debate this issue seriously. One of the reasons why we can have a proper debate is that, on this issue, the Conservative party has grown up, and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) for escalating the seriousness with which the subject is being taken. Of course, with this issue, it is very true that it is not what is said, but who actually says it. When I said it, such views could be easily dismissed as those of a subversive and somewhat eccentric and outspoken Member.

Mr. Lloyd

Surely not.

Mr. Banks

I am afraid so. When a distinguished ex-Minister says it, commentators start to take it seriously, and a number of commentators and journalists have done so. For example, The Economist has long been a strong advocate for the legalisation of cannabis, and it is good to see that the weight of argument wins through in the end. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to the real world. I wish that I could say the same of his colleague on the Front Bench, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins).

If the hon. Gentleman wants to make speeches against the change in the categorisation of cannabis or against legislation on it, he must come up with a much better speech than the one he made today. A bit of party political knockabout—it was not even good party political knockabout—is no way to address the issue seriously. I say that because I have some regard for the hon. Gentleman.

To those on my own Front Bench, I say that I understand that when one is in office, one sometimes has to trim the comments that one makes. During my short, but distinguished and glittering career as a Minister, I was forced to remain silent on this issue because I could understand how my views would be exploited, but it is good to see that the House has grown up and that we can now discuss an issue that is serious for many millions of our citizens who are law-abiding people in all other respects.

The Government are not going anywhere near far enough—indeed, they are still trying to hold the line. probably because of the Prime Minister's reluctance. I do not know what my right hon. Friend did at university, but he clearly did not get up to any naughty things, and we are all glad about that, of course. There comes a time when we in the House cannot stand against the tide of events. Millions of citizens in this country are doing something that we say is illegal; we are criminalising their personal activities.

I shall finish in a few moments, because I have made this speech several times before. We are trying to stand against the personal choices of millions of our citizens, which is not the role of Government. Indeed, I am a great believer in, and devotee of, John Stuart Mill's attitude: that we should not legislate on that which does not hurt other people.

I have been hurt by drugs, and so have many other people, but it is the violence associated with the trade rather than the use of drugs that hurt me: I was mugged and robbed at knifepoint in my own street. I would like to think that the chaps who did that were trying to raise the money to go and watch West Ham—but I suspect that they were doing it to fund their habit.

A couple of months ago—I was about to say I was knocked up; I should be so lucky—I was woken up at ten-past two in the morning by two police officers saying, "Excuse me, but have you heard any gunshots?" I said, "No, I'm afraid I haven't. What's happened?" Three doors away, someone had been assassinated in a car. It was all to do with drugs, and it was a real assassination, because whoever did it legged it; the police never found them and I do not think they will. The serious crime squad came round, and it was all clearly connected with drugs and yardies.

What really affects us is the impact of drugs on law and order in our areas. That is another reason why I think that the sooner we move—

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Banks

This is a debating Chamber, not a buffet. I have been watching the hon. Gentleman, and he keeps nipping in and out—but I will give way to him, on one ground only: the fact that he has signed my early-day motion in favour of Barney the lobster.

Mr. Rosindell

In view of the appalling circumstances that the hon. Gentleman has outlined, including his own experiences of the violence associated with the drug culture, why does he seek to legitimise it instead of fight it?

Mr. Banks

The violence is not associated with the drug culture as such. The drug culture is the millions of people who use cannabis, cocaine and other drugs. The crime is associated with the drug trade—supplying drugs that are currently illegal. If, for example, the Government were to say that smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol is far more harmful to an individual's health than smoking cannabis or snorting cocaine, they would be right—but they would be mad to do so, because the violence that would then be associated with supplying those substances, which people want but which would be illegal, would be enormous, and would make the present trouble associated with the supply of drugs look like small beer.

It is because drugs are criminalised that violence is associated with them. Extremely violent criminal activity is not associated with the supply of alcohol or cigarettes, yet—I am about to say something that I did not intend to say today—on health grounds one could well argue that nicotine and alcohol should be banned before cannabis or cocaine. That is what the hon. Gentleman has to understand.

There is another point too, which I shall respond to as the hon. Gentleman has raised it, albeit in an oblique fashion. As the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) said, if this is a war against drugs, it is a war that has been lost—probably before we even joined battle. In the United States some of the most restrictive laws are being used against drugs, and the fight against drugs sends people down into south and central America to napalm coca plantations and so on. What is the result? More people are doing drugs in the United States now than ever before, the quality has gone up and the price has gone down.

When people realise that they have gone into a war that they are totally and utterly losing, because they are up against people who simply want to pursue their own habit, they have to start thinking about their tactics and their strategy. That is what I hope the Government will do.

Lembit Öpik

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Banks

No, because I am about to finish.

The Government have to do that, because in 50 years' time we will look back on this and wonder what all the fuss was about. I commend them on the small and timid step that they have taken, and I hope that I can encourage them to go much further in future.

1.29 pm
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks). I was interested to hear his libertarian arguments, which I hope he will now extend to country sports and other such issues.

We have heard a lot about the number of property crimes that are drug related. The chief constable of Norfolk said the other day that he reckoned that more than 70 per cent. of crimes in Norfolk were in some way drug related. We have all had our own experiences. About a fortnight ago, my wife and I suffered a burglary at our house in London: the burglar started to rummage around the house, the alarm went off and—greatly to their credit—Lambeth police appeared within two minutes and apprehended the burglar about 10 minutes later in our neighbour's garden. That happened on a Monday. The lad, after spending two years in prison, had come out of prison the preceding Wednesday, since when he had committed four crimes, all burglaries—ours was the fourth. He is a drug addict. That poor soul needs help, not more prison.

The Department of Health has recently issued statistics on the number of drug misusers in treatment in England and Wales. It says that there are 118,522—a staggering number, although I am convinced that the true number of drug addicts in this country is far greater. The Minister pointed out that the national treatment outcome research study estimated that for every £1 spent on treatment, £3 is saved in the criminal justice system. The NTORS also monitored 276 clients who had been admitted for treatment and found that of those who were treated, 30 per cent. were free from all target drugs a year later. That shows how important treatment is.

One important group of specialists and experts is being largely precluded from taking part in the war against drugs: general practitioners. Of 118,522 misusers in treatment, only 8,180—a paltry number—are being cared for in the community by GPs. The Minister knows that "Tackling Drugs Together" stated: GPs are encouraged to address the needs of drugs misusers", but as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) and the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) pointed out, GPs are being discouraged by the General Medical Council. I would go further and say that, in fact those brave GPs who are committed to helping drug addicts through appropriate prescribing, are being targeted by the GMC.

Currently, 15 GPs are involved in various stages of disciplinary procedures, from preliminary procedures and interim orders to professional conduct committees. All 15 have been arraigned for irresponsible prescribing, but it would appear that no account has been taken of the clinical needs of their patients, many of whom have long and complicated histories of drug taking, as well as dire medical conditions that invariably justify larger prescriptions and sometimes require a combination of drugs.

I, too, wish to talk about Dr. Adrian Garfoot and the Laybourne clinic. Dr. Garfoot originally lived in North-West Norfolk; his father is a distinguished Methodist minister in my constituency. Dr. Garfoot started the Laybourne clinic in 1992. His philosophy, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East says, is to try to return addicts to the mainstream. He tries to stabilise them through a tight prescribing regime, helps to rebuild their self-esteem and works to return them to the community.

In an intervention, I pointed out that Dr. Garfoot's success rate is extraordinary: the recidivism rate among 1,200 addicts in his care was a mere 7 per cent. after two years, compared with 50 per cent. of those leaving the prison service system. His most recent group of patients said that their average daily spend on feeding their drug habit had been £100— money that was raised through burglaries, street crime and other crimes. Seventy per cent. of his male patients have previously spent on average four years in prison.

I have been to the clinic, and it is a centre of excellence that has achieved a remarkable amount in a short period. Many of those receiving treatment were refused treatment elsewhere. They had been to drug dependency units and detoxification centres, which had failed them. As the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East said, it is so sad that the clinic is threatened with closure as a result of the entirely blinkered and short-sighted attitude of the GMC.

Dr. Garfoot has been subjected to two preliminary proceedings and three interim orders, and has recently been before a professional conduct committee of the GMC. He has been struck off for irresponsible prescribing. As I said in my intervention, there has been no evidence of diversion and no evidence of any harm coming to his patients. A doctor of 25 years' unblemished service has now been struck off. It is a disgrace.

As the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East said, two of Adrian's patients have died since the summer. Terry Hold died in August from an injection of illegal street heroin. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham explained that ADAPT is an organisation in her constituency. It issued a press release the other day that makes sad, depressing reading. Terry Hold spent the last moments of his life dumped, like any piece of garbage, in a south London garden. The local treatment unit made no provision for treating this long-term addict. He was denied treatment locally, but he was receiving treatment at Dr. Garfoot's clinic.

Mr. Hold's death was directly attributable to the lack of addiction management provision for chronically long—term drug injecting addicts. Under Dr. Garfoot, Terry had stabilised his drug use. His family life blossomed and he was working and becoming a self-reliant and productive member of the community. He is now tragically dead. A female patient of Adrian Garfoot committed suicide the other day.

As the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East said, Dr. John Marks's clinic in Widnes was closed. Within two years 40 of his former patients had died.

I am concerned about the 270 or so patients in Dr. Garfoot's clinic. I am also concerned about Dr. Garfoot's professional position. As the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East said, his only right of appeal is to the Privy Council by way of petition. He cannot afford to pay the costs of that himself, even though he has raised some private funds for his defence.

Dr. Garfoot applied to the Medical Defence Union. His application was refused and the case is now going to the MDU board of management. When the Minister has considered the details of Dr. Garfoot's case and has read my speech and those of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, I hope that he will see fit to write to the MDU to point out that there has been a breach of natural justice. Surely a man's livelihood should not be destroyed without any right of appeal.

The GMC must be concerned about its professional image. It must be concerned also about its self-policing of the profession. Obviously, an extra onus has been placed on it since the wretched Harold Shipman affair, but I strongly believe that there must be a better alternative for examining the cases of doctors who are accused of wrongly prescribing drugs. There must be a better procedure under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Dr. Iddon

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a procedure, the Home Office tribunal procedure? It has not been used since Adrian Garfoot was before it in 1997. Is it not rather sad that for five years he went through Home Office tribunals but now has to go through the entire saga with the GMC and eventually be struck off? This doctor has suffered for nearly 10 years.

Mr. Bellingham

That is 100 per cent. correct. Under the Home Office procedure, there is an appeal to the advisory body. The key to the argument is that, under the Misuse of Drugs Act, if a doctor is disciplined and prevented from prescribing drugs, he can go back to his mainstream GP practice, but under the GMC procedures, Dr. Garfoot has been struck off and has lost his livelihood until further notice. The Minister must explain why the procedure under the 1971 Act has not been used in the past four years.

I have been reading Hansard and I see that the Bill that became the 1971 Act was first introduced in 1969. In 1970, towards the end of Labour's period of office, James Callaghan referred to irresponsible, careless or negligent prescribing or unduly liberal prescribing with bona fide intent, which may justify curtailing the doctor's authority in relation to controlled drugs in order to stop a supply for misuse, but not justify the drastic course of disqualifying him altogether."—[Official Report, 25 March 1970; Vol. 798, c. 1458.] I urge the Minister to examine very carefully the way in which the procedure is currently being used, and to look into Dr. Garfoot's case specifically.

If we are to win the war against drugs—and we all feel strongly about the appalling harm being done to our youngsters—surely we must harness one of our most obvious and crucial resources: GPs, who are closest to the community and really care about their patients. Far from being encouraged, GPs are being discouraged as much as possible. I urge the Minister to consider our pleas very carefully.

1.42 pm
Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), who delivered his speech with passion and a deep sense of injustice. I am sure that the case deserves to be heard and answered by the Minister. Indeed, it is a privilege to follow so many excellent speeches in this debate. That is the privilege; the downside is that most of the things that I intended to say have already been said, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) said, that does not stop me saying some of them again.

I congratulate the Government on an enormous step forward. The Home Secretary and his team have moved the debate on drugs policy forward after it had been stuck for the past two decades. That has made this debate possible. It is perhaps the Minister's desire that, having made that move, the whole world will now settle down, but, to paraphrase the Prime Minister, now that the kaleidoscope has moved, it will be some time before the colours settle down in a regular pattern. We cannot rely on the most recent change in policy to be the last one, because today's debate has shown that, although we have improved our drugs policy, it still does not meet the demands of evidence or of rational argument.

The least rational argument presented today—it was almost no argument at all—came from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). He did his party a great disservice by the paucity of his arguments, especially as that party has done a great deal in recent years—in the past year, in particular—to open up the debate. Probably nobody has done more than the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). I do not think that she intended the debate to go in that direction, but she certainly made an enormous contribution. All her colleagues who then sat on the Front Bench—some of them still do—and who admitted their cannabis use did us all a great service. I admit that I was cowardly, and it was only after the Tories had begun to admit their cannabis use from the Front Bench that I admitted that when I was a student I, too, took cannabis and enjoyed it.

I am no longer a young man, alas, but I still recall what I felt like when I smoked cannabis as a young man. Almost all the people around me smoked cannabis. I grew up in the 1960s and I was a teenager and went to university in the early 1970s—rather like the Prime Minister. I was keen on popular music at the time, like the Prime Minister—but apparently unlike the Prime Minister, I participated in cannabis use, together with the vast majority of my university colleagues. I thought at the time that those who legislated were entirely hypocritical because of the way in which they tolerated—indeed, promoted—drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, but prohibited the drugs of choice of young people like me.

Mr. Hawkins

I am curious. Is the hon. Gentleman a teetotaller?

Mr. Jones

No, I am not a teetotaller. I do not see the relevance of the question. I am against the prohibition of alcohol as well. My point is about hypocrisy. 1 am not a hypocrite. I do not believe that alcohol or cannabis should be prohibited.

In the early 1970s, I thought that the old people who were the politicians of the day did not understand, and that they were ignorant, which they probably were. We do not have the defence of ignorance, do we? There cannot be any of us under 50 who do not know of people who took cannabis. Where is the testament from those people that it did a great deal of harm to others whom they knew, even if they did not use it themselves? Where is the evidence? We have heard none today.

I have spoken of my personal experience, and I have other personal experience. I come from a small mining village at the top of the Rhondda valley. There was very little cannabis use there when I left, and there was no harder drug use, as far as I knew. Unfortunately, that is not the case now. I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister has a family connection with that mining village. I must tell him that a few months ago I went to visit my elderly mother, taking my three young children with me. One of my children went out to the garden and came back with a used syringe. I tried to hide it from my mother. I then went out to the garden and came back with 12 used syringes.

Some people will want to cast me as some sort of libertine who believes that drugs use is fine. I do not believe that drugs use is fine, but I believe that I must speak out. The evidence has been quoted, and I would have quoted it if that had not already been done in the debate. The evidence is damning, and it could not be clearer about the policies that we have been carrying out in this country and in other countries, but almost uniquely badly in the UK, which has the worst drugs record of any western country. The drugs records of other countries are pretty bad, but we have the worst in Europe.

Our policies clearly do not work. We can all agree that it is dreadful that there are people addicted to drugs which alter their mind, and that in order to feed that addiction they do awful things to get money. The argument must be about what we do to stop that, or at least to mitigate or reduce it. Surely that argument must be based on evidence.

Instead of basing their arguments on evidence, hon. Members on both Front Benches have put up false tests as Aunt Sallies and hidden behind them. The Opposition spokesman said that, just as drinking and driving causes accidents, taking drugs and driving will have the same effect, and that therefore we should not consider legalising drugs. He tried to hide behind that false test. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) dealt with that well by citing evidence on the effects of drugs.

My hon. Friend the Minister used another test. He asked whether legalising cannabis would increase its use. It is possible that legalisation would increase use, but is that the only test of whether a law should be changed? [Interruption.] My hon. Friend says that it is one test, but there are many more. Prohibition may slightly reduce the number of people who take cannabis—we do not know whether it does—but is that a sufficient benefit to justify criminalising millions of people, including those who supply small amounts to friends and neighbours?

Mr. Banks

And family.

Mr. Jones

Yes. Is it a sufficient benefit to give criminal gangs a market worth £1.5 billion?

Lembit Öpik

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument, and I agree with him. Does he accept that, to achieve the outcomes that the Minister rightly said we all support, the Government must consider supply objectively? Decriminalising a drug while supplying it remains criminal deals with less than half the problem.

Mr. Jones

I agree.

The scale of the trade is enormous. It is worth billions of pounds throughout the world, and it dwarfs the budget that almost any country can provide to fight it. To say that is not to be defeatist; it can lead to rational consideration of the problem, the evidence and the possible solutions.

We are currently locked into an international convention that is not based on evidence. Movement in the civilised world is overwhelmingly towards legalisation. I am sure that, without the convention, countries in Europe would have legalised already. Many European countries have all but legalised drugs.

Until now, I have talked about cannabis. I want to consider a different drug. On Wednesday, I had the privilege of meeting several people who had suffered grievously because members of their families had been addicted to heroin. Some families had lost their sons and daughters from the effects of taking corrupted forms of the drug. Others told more heartening tales of going through difficult and testing times but managing to get their sons and daughters off the drug. A few methods had worked, but the main method of getting their children off that dreadful habit was tremendous family support and mothers and fathers going out to buy heroin, bringing it back and giving it to their children in controlled doses, thus helping them to get off the drug. That is what had worked. Those addicts and former addicts told me that the systems that the state uses do not work because it takes so long—six months or more—to get on to the drug rehabilitation programme. What do the drug addicts do in the meantime? Also, the methadone that is prescribed to them can create a habit that is far more difficult to kick than heroin, which is perverse in itself. It is also much more dangerous than heroin and kills proportionally more people.

Why do we not give addicts heroin in controlled circumstances, and try to treat them and get them off the habit? Why can we not do what the families of those lucky ones are doing for them? If we could, we might end up not having the worst heroin problem in the western world, which is what we have now. I say to my own Government: we have been in office for nearly five years and our record to date on drugs policy is nearly as bad, if not worse, than that of the people we took over from, and their drugs policies were rubbish as well. We have made changes. We have to make more, but I welcome the changes that we have made.

1.57 pm
Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

I am aware that time is short in what has been an excellent debate on both sides of the House. I shall do my best to make a number of new points as well as to reiterate some that have already been made.

I particularly want to draw attention to the excellent speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who has shown many of us the way forward on this subject. As a new Member, I have had a number of opportunities since my election in June to learn more about this problem. First, I had the chance to go on patrol with our police in Bishop's Stortford and to see at first hand the problems that they deal with, week in and week out. It is clear to me from that experience alone that it is alcohol that causes the principal social problem, rather than illegal drugs. I saw the very patient and professional way in which those policemen and policewomen dealt with often difficult and antagonising circumstances.

I also had the chance to observe the difficulties that head teachers and teachers face in schools, in holding the line and maintaining discipline. Similarly, a parent whose child has been expelled from a school is naturally anxious about where that child goes and whether he or she might fall even further off the rails.

Perhaps my most important experience in learning about this issue in recent months has been to visit Vale House in Hertford, one of the leading rehabilitation centres in the United Kingdom, which is led by the excellent Chris Hannaby. Every day, she and her team help another person to turn their life around. What struck me as important was that alcohol featured in 42 per cent. of the cases with which her team has to deal. I was impressed by the comments made by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) about the difficulties that would be faced by centres such as Vale House if there were to be an arbitrary imposition of the new rules on independent health care. Many centres would suffer as a result, and the hon. Gentleman made that point well.

At Vale House, I was also struck by how we can move away from the stereotypical image that we all perhaps have of a drug addict. I met a professional man in his 30s, a mum in her 40s and a young man in his late teens or early 20s who had been brought up by parents who were addicts as well. What possible hope does someone like that have starting on the straight and narrow? If I learned anything from Vale House, the police and others, it was just how widely drugs in all forms affect our society. Indeed, the British crime survey 2000 showed that a third of all adults have taken drugs in one form or another.

The debate today is on drugs strategy, but it is not clear that the Government have a strategy. In recent months, we have seen a series of conflicting statements and short-term fixes.

Lembit Öpik

When the hon. Gentleman has finished criticising the Government, could he explain his party's strategy? I understand from the Front-Bench spokesman that the current Conservative strategy is to maintain the status quo.

Mr. Prisk

Our party's strategy is clear: it is to take a long and sensible look at the matter, and not to make instant, off-the-cuff comments in Select Committees. The Government have a 10-year plan, and that is welcome, but three years on, it is not clear whether many of the targets that have been set are still to be met. For example, is it still the case that a strong attempt is being made to reduce the use of class A drugs—perhaps the Minister could tell us when he winds up—or has that target been adjusted or changed?

What caused the demise of the drugs tsar? Was it because he disagreed with some or all of the policies, or was it because he was not involved in many of the decisions that the new Home Secretary and his colleagues have taken? Then we come to the decision to announce a change of Government policy at the Home Affairs Committee, which the Minister was kind enough to try to explain to the House earlier. I shall not rehearse that in detail because it has already been discussed, but it was either slip of the tongue or it was a deliberate attempt to move the debate on without undergoing the traditional consultation process. In any case, it is not the way to develop an effective, long-term and coherent drugs strategy.

In the muddle, the Government are sending out confusing signals to the millions of families involved—I mentioned some of my constituents earlier—about the exact Government policy on drugs. How are the policemen and policewomen in Bishop's Stortford supposed to know where to draw the line on cannabis possession and use? How are schoolteachers and heads meant to be able to hold the line on discipline? What are parents to say to their children about drugs use and possession?

Sadly, the strategy seems no longer to be driven by the long-term needs of our society but by special advisers' need for good news stories in tomorrow's papers. I say that with regret, because drugs are a fundamental issue for all of us. We need to reform our approach to them. Hon. Members have mentioned Drugscope and its extraordinary analysis that the UK has many of the strictest laws on the use of cannabis and at the same time the highest usage. That is an unsustainable position.

What is needed? We have to begin by recognising that good laws will only work because the majority of people naturally accept them. That is why it is right that we should address the hypocrisy—as it seems to most young people—of the way in which we deal with alcohol, prescribed drugs, tobacco and cannabis. We must also ensure that any drugs strategy is founded firmly on a balance between an informed freedom of choice for adults and the promotion of personal responsibility. We need to ensure that people understand the need to accept the consequences of their actions.

If we are to liberalise the laws on cannabis—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden made a powerful case for that—that should be based on robust and independent information about the implications for health, the addictive nature of cannabis and whether it leads to harder drugs, as some evidence in New Zealand has suggested, or whether it is, as some hon. Members have suggested, the circumstances of its current supply that make it a gateway drug.

Most important of all, we need to learn far more about people who have an addictive personality, because they are most at risk. As I said, at Vale House I met three people of different ages, different backgrounds and different circumstances, yet they all had an addictive personality. If we are to reduce the destruction that drugs cause, we should consider much more carefully that vulnerable group and their addictions, whether it be to alcohol, tobacco, valium, cannabis or heroin. What makes someone a natural addict? Is it a state of mind, a biochemical reaction, a personality flaw or a combination of all three? If we can identify those people early on, we can help them to avoid getting hooked.

Drugs in all their forms affect millions of people across our society. To shape a coherent and sustainable strategy, it is essential to balance informed freedom of choice for adults with enhanced personal responsibility, while seeking to protect children and those most vulnerable to addiction. I am in no doubt that it will take time to get the right strategy: it should not be worked out on the hoof. It is worth taking that time, because we cannot afford to get it wrong.

2.6 pm

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham)

In the time left, I want to raise a couple of brief points. The first is about the treatment of drug addicts. There are three Kainos wings in prisons: at Verne, Swaleside and Highpoint. They are run by the Kainos community, and since their creation have been funded by charitable donations. Before the Kainos wing opened in Verne in March 1997, the prison had suffered from one of the highest levels of disruption and problematic behaviour, yet it now scores well in those areas. The governor and staff of Verne are happy to ascribe some of the credit for that to the success of the Kainos wing.

The way in which the wing works is straightforward. Any prisoner can volunteer to move into the Kainos wing, but to do so they must sign a compact that commits them to live by community rules. They include renouncing drug use, which is enforced by a voluntary testing regime. Some rules are simple, such as being polite and respectful to other inmates, but they often represent a huge step forward for the prisoner concerned.

Contrary to the belief of some in the prison sector, the regime does not include intensive religious intervention, but rather encourages inmates to assess their criminal habits, kick their drug dependency and become people with something positive to contribute to society. Since the wing in Verne has become operational, the atmosphere has changed from an unsafe, hostile environment to one that is much more supportive. The wing is free of drugs, violence and criminal damage—that is what all prisons should be. Reoffending rates of those who serve their sentence in the wing are lower than the national average.

It is impressive that Kainos wings are often used as a last resort for the most violent prisoners in the system. Independent research has described the wings as a signpost to the Prison Service in terms of promoting standards of decency, humanity and order in prisons. Therefore it is particularly disappointing that by March 2002 those wings will be closed down at the insistence of the Prison Service management board.

The reasons for that are confused. Lower reoffending rates have been described as statistically insignificant, but the fact that the Kainos wings have only had a short time to work has been ignored. Their purpose seems to have been misunderstood by the Prison Service, although they have received the support of governors, staff, the Prison Officers Association, boards of visitors and inmates themselves, all of whom want the wings to continue their excellent work. I ask the Minister to ask his colleague the Minister with responsibility for prisons, to whom I have written about this, to reconsider. I believe that the wings can make an important contribution to the reform of drug users in prison.

Let me return to the main topic of today's debate—the legalisation of cannabis, about which many Members have spoken. Although the philosophical arguments advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) sounded attractive, there is conflicting evidence about the practical implications of legalisation. We need a proper debate on it before such a move is made; certainly I have yet to be convinced by my right hon. Friend's arguments.

I am concerned about the message that the reclassification of cannabis from a class B to a class C drug would send to young people. It might give the impression that cannabis is safe, and I think that we all recognise that it has its dangers. If we suggest, by reclassifying it, that it is safe, more young people will be encouraged to use it, and more young people will go to dealers. I was impressed by what was said by the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King), who suggested that pushers often deal not just in cannabis but in other drugs. By encouraging young people to go to dealers, having given them the impression that cannabis is safe, we may encourage them to use other drugs as well.

Lembit Öpik

I think there has been a misunderstanding. I was not arguing that that was a reason to criminalise cannabis; I was arguing that we should seriously consider decriminalising the supply side, to maintain consistency in the system.

Mr. Hoban

I take the hon. Gentleman's comments on board. He and I have a difference of opinion on this. My concern is this: reclassifying cannabis as a category C drug, and giving young people the impression that it might be safe to use, may encourage them to use it more often, and to go to dealers who sell more than one type of drug and will introduce them to class A drugs. An unintended consequence of the Minister's proposal to reclassify cannabis as a class C drug may be the ability to obtain class A drugs much more easily.

Mr. Hawkins

For a certain proportion of young people, is not the feeling of doing something dangerous and illegal part of the appeal? Might not the decriminalisation of cannabis tempt more people to go straight to hard drugs in order to have the same feeling?

Mr. Hoban

My hon. Friend makes a valid point.

Members on both sides of the House have bandied figures about, suggesting that millions of people use cannabis. Let us not forget that only 14 per cent. of those between the ages of 16 and 29 used it in the last month. While many may use it once, perhaps to enjoy the experience of illegal behaviour, that may not be a consistent pattern. It may not appeal to all young people. Not all young people are regular cannabis users. What worries me is that decriminalisation, and the sense that the drug might be safe, will cause more young people to try a wider range of class A drugs. We do not want them to do that.

2.13 pm
Mr. Bob Ainsworth

This has been an excellent and well-informed debate, although it was slightly skewed towards the side in favour of legalisation. It would be

difficult for me to respond to all the points that have been made, but I will write to all those who have asked substantive questions that I have no time to answer now.

I do not want to send a message to anyone that we are not prepared to listen to what is said. We have shown that we are trying to lift the debate and to listen as a Government, and today's discussion has, I believe, contributed to that impression.

I want to give the Government's perspective to balance the argument. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) has been involved in the issue for a long time and encapsulated some of the opinions on the Back Benches when he congratulated us on our timidity. We want to keep to an evidence-based debate. He said that if the fight against drugs is a war, it was lost before we started it. He cited the United States and the tremendous effort there to fight the war against drugs, which has been extended to source countries. Someone in the US departments with responsibility for alcohol, drugs and tobacco, the FBI or the CIA might be doctoring the statistics from America. Perhaps there is an evil person in the Home Office who does the same thing, because I have not gone around with a clipboard to compile the figures. According to the statistics from the US national household survey on drug abuse, there has been a substantial fall in drug use in the past 20 years. Cannabis users have fallen from 23 million to 11 million and cocaine users have fallen from 4.4 million to 1.5 million. That is a substantial decline. The figures fly in the face of the arguments that the Dutch model works and the models here, in the US and Sweden, which has far lower levels of drug use—

Mr. Jon Owen Jones

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ainsworth

No, I have little time to respond.

We can all throw around statistics to support our opinions, but we must be careful and ensure that we listen to other people. I just hope that my hon. Friends are as prepared to listen to me as I am prepared to listen to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham also cited a couple of personal experiences that proved to him the need to legalise drugs. Let me tell him about a couple of personal experiences that make me a little worried about that approach. The only time that I was confronted by drug-related violence, I escaped without difficulty because it was not a serious attempt. It had nothing to do with the supply of drugs. I was confronted by someone who was clearly out of their head on cocaine and, as a result, decided to threatened me. It was frightening. That problem would not be solved by the legalisation of that substance.

Many people who advocate decriminalisation and legalisation say that there would be no increase in the availability of drugs, but that is not true.

Mr. Jones

I did not say that.

Mr. Ainsworth

Will my hon. Friend calm down and listen to me, as I listened to him, because that would be conducive to a good debate.

Many people who advocate legalisation and decriminalisation accept that availability would increase. They bluntly say that it would be a price worth paying.

I started to smoke when I was 10 because cigarettes were freely available and I knew no better. I steadily progressed to a serious nicotine addiction that took a great deal to lose. I did not manage that until my mid-20s and in the meantime did a lot of damage to my health.

I know that I grew up in a different age when illegal drugs were not as available as they are now. I take seriously the point that my hon. Friend made about needles in the streets, but if the availability of drugs such as cocaine and heroin increases substantially, the chances of children aged 10 developing the problems with those drugs that I had with tobacco must increase. That is something, although not the only thing, that must be put into the calculation when we consider where and how far we go with any changes in policy that we might want to advocate.

Our drugs policy has been described as an abject failure, but our strategy is relatively recent. People might think that we will get change overnight, but we will not. I have no desire to turn this into a party political issue—Opposition Members made some good speeches—but I remind my hon. Friends that we had a Conservative Government for 18 years. Some of the initiatives that are now being taken were massively underfunded as a result.

I am surprised that, until the past couple of years, no strategic customer group was working on the supply side of drugs to bring together the work of Customs and Excise, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the National Crime Squad and other groups to try to cut off the supply of drugs. That simply did not happen. Relationships between those organisations left a lot to be desired until they began to work together. They have become a bit more effective since.

I am sorry that I have to depart from the main issue before us, but I must deal with the speech of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). He made only two substantive points. The first was that the Home Secretary must have come out with his statement at the Select Committee on the spur of the moment to cover up something else. The hon. Gentleman suggested that that was dreadful and said that no thought or strategy was involved.

The main evidence that the hon. Gentleman had for that extraordinary load of nonsense was an answer that I had given in Home Office questions. He claimed that it proved that the Home Secretary had not shared his idea with me and that I knew nothing about it. Let me make it clear what I said at Home Office questions the day before my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made his announcement. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) asked: What proposals he has to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971". My answer, which supposedly proves the hon. Gentleman's point, was: The Government keep the misuse of drugs legislation under continual review."—[Official Report, 22 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 11.] I am pleased that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is not representing me in any capacity, because that answer shoots a great big hole in his argument.

The hon. Gentleman's other substantive point was about the reclassification of cannabis. He expressed the fear that that would lead to an increase in its use and would damage severely the efforts of law enforcement officers to take effective action against the traffickers of the drug. That is a serious point, which must be considered.

However, a couple of days ago, I answered a written question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West and the figures that came out surprised me. They showed that arrests for purely the possession of cannabis had risen from 14,857 to 22,303 between 1996 and 2000. However, arrests for supplying or offering to supply cannabis went down in that period from 1,559 to 1,001 and arrests for possession of a controlled drug with intent to supply had gone down from 2,765 to 2,194.

As I tried to tell the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, the Home Secretary has several motives for making the change. First, the Government are trying to improve the message that we are sending out. Several hon. Members have said today that if that message is to be credible, it must differ according to circumstances. Young people will not listen to us if we try to tell them that cannabis is every bit as bad as heroin or cocaine. Our message is that although we do not want people to take cannabis, it is much more dangerous to take heroin or cocaine, and we put them in a different category.

A second consideration is our desire to bring the law into line with the practice of police forces the length and breadth of the country. We also want to make the best use of police time and focus their attention on what we consider to be important. Those were our reasons, and they were thought out during the recess, which was why the announcement was made at that time. It was not done on the spur of the moment to cover something up.

Mr. Hawkins

How does it assist the Home Secretary's message if law-abiding members of the public see that, under his proposals, large-scale suppliers of cannabis may face only 12 months in custody, instead of eight years, as at present?

Mr. Ainsworth

The Home Secretary is not trying to bounce anybody into anything. We now have a period in which hon. Members and people outside the House can discuss all the ramifications of what he said and come to a conclusion, and the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman will be part of that process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) made a high-quality contribution, as usual. Like me, he has a significant constituency problem, and I am sure that that is true of many other hon. Members. My hon. Friend urged us to consider, among other things, the availability of heroin prescription. The Home Secretary has said that we want to reconsider the guidelines on heroin prescription, which say at the moment that heroin should not be prescribed unless the doctor concerned has considerable experience of doing so. We want to make absolutely sure that our policy is correct, and that doctors feel able to prescribe heroin where that is appropriate.

I must point out to my hon. Friend that we have not moved away from heroin prescription as a matter of political policy; there has been a move by GPs out in the field towards prescribing methadone. We anticipate that methadone will continue to be the main drug of choice used by GPs in dealing with heroin addicts. However, we want to consider the matter because we feel that a lack of confidence may lie behind the reluctance to prescribe heroin. If the guidance can be clarified, that can only be to the good.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) made points that must be taken up. He described the problems that care homes are facing. I know that he has a number of contacts and a great deal of credibility in that sector, so perhaps he can assist us in considering those problems. I am told by the Department of Health that it has repeatedly consulted on its proposals for care homes, and tried to get the owners to gather evidence so that it can seriously consider their claims. Perhaps my hon. Friend and I can help in that process, so that any decision is evidence-based and its likely consequences are considered.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion of the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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