HC Deb 05 December 2002 vol 395 cc1087-157

[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2001–02, on The Government's Drugs Policy: Is it Working? (House of Commons Paper No. 318-I); the Government's reply thereto (Cm. 5573); and the Home Office's Annual Report 2001–02 (Cm. 5406).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, pursuant to Resolution [26 November], That resources, not exceeding £4,651,171,000, be authorised, on account, for use during the year ending on 31st March 2004, and that a sum, not exceeding £4,597,261,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, for the year ending on 31st March 2004, for expenditure by the Home Office—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

I advise the House that the 15-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches comes into operation when the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) finishes his speech.

2.32 pm
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

That makes a pleasant change, Madam Deputy Speaker.

May I start by welcoming the Government's new drugs strategy, which was published recently? I am glad to see that it now contains some more realistic targets, with one notable exception: the suggestion that opium production in Afghanistan can be reduced by 70 per cent. in five years and entirely eliminated in 10 years. I think that that is what Sir Humphrey would call "a brave decision, Minister".

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)


Mr. Mullin

At least the Minister has the comfort of knowing that, when the day of reckoning comes, he is unlikely to be still in the post that he now occupies.

I particularly welcome the increased emphasis on harm minimisation, the commitment to increased resources for treatment and to making heroin available on prescription to chaotic users. I am grateful to the Home Secretary for having taken seriously the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I hope that he will give further thought to our proposals regarding safe injecting houses.

I have been a member of the Home Affairs Committee for eight of the past 10 years, and I think I can say that our inquiry into drugs policy was one of the most detailed that we have conducted during that time. I would also like to think that, in due course, our report may prove to be one of the most influential, but the jury is still out on that. We held 11 oral evidence sessions with 45 witnesses, including experts from the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland and, besides their evidence, we also took into account over 200 written submissions.

As we quickly discovered, there is no one true path. On the contrary, there is an absolute difference of opinion among experts of every relevant profession— doctors, police and social workers. Opinions, all advanced with equal passion, range from those that argue that prohibition has failed and therefore should be abandoned to those that argue that because all drugs are harmful—and they are—existing bans and proscriptions should be maintained or, indeed, tightened. In between, there are many shades of grey.

May I thank all those, from whatever side of the argument, who helped to guide us through that minefield? In particular, I thank Ruth Runciman, who provided us with valuable help and advice at an early stage in our inquiry and whose report for the Police Foundation on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is essential reading for serious students of drugs policy and proved extremely helpful to us during our deliberations.

Perhaps it would be helpful if, at the outset, I were to place on record a few basic facts about drug abuse in this country. First, all illegal drugs and most legal ones are to a greater or lesser extent harmful. That message cannot be repeated too often. However, it is a mistake to pretend that all drugs are equally harmful; they are not, and most young people know that, even if we do not.

Secondly, legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, are responsible for far greater damage to individuals and to the social fabric in general than illegal ones. To take only the most obvious example, about 120,000 people a year die from tobacco-related diseases compared with about 1,600 who die each year from illegal drug abuse. In addition, an unknown number of injecting drug users die prematurely from HIV and hepatitis C.

Thirdly, although a substantial number—about half—of our young people dabble in drugs at some stage in their lives, they usually use so-called soft drugs, and happily most of them soon grow out of it. So more than 2 million young people in any year use drugs, usually cannabis or ecstasy. Fourthly, there are about 250,000 so-called problematic drug users in this country—the highest level in Europe—and they are responsible for about half of all acquisitive crime in this country.

Heroin users are by far and away the biggest problem. They destroy not only their lives, but those of their families and their communities. Despite the best efforts of police and customs, the number of heroin addicts in this country has risen remorselessly over the past 30 years. In 1970, there were only about 1,000; today there are around 200,000. Let no one argue that our drugs policy over the past 30 years has been such an overwhelming success that all we need to do is carry on down the same old road.

Most of the remaining 50,000 problematic drug users are addicted to crack cocaine. Unlike heroin, which dumbs down people, crack can lead to violent and unpredictable behaviour and is responsible for a growing amount of gang warfare in London and elsewhere.

Once those basic facts have been digested, certain conclusions are inescapable. First, a policy based upon retribution alone will not work. Given, as I said, that more than 2 million young people dabble with illegal drugs in any year, it is obvious that they cannot all be locked up or even fined. In any case, what is the point of criminalising tens of thousands of young people who are in every other respect law abiding, most of whom are unlikely to inflict lasting damage on themselves or anyone else—although some do—and who will grow out of it anyway in due course?

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

I wonder whether my hon. Friend watched television last night and saw a remarkable young man, destined for great things—perhaps he will be Prime Minister one day—Master Will Straw. Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that, in the opinion of some hon. Members, the best thing for Master Will Straw, as a supplier of what will now become a category C drug, would be for him to spend a very long period in jail? What good would that do?

Mr. Mullin

As I think my hon. Friend wants me to say, it would do no good at all. As I recall, however, Will Straw's father took the appropriate action at the time, which, I hope, put him on the straight and narrow.

Secondly, law enforcers should overwhelmingly target those who deal in drugs for profit, especially those that cause the most harm—heroin and crack cocaine.

The third inescapable conclusion is that drug addiction is overwhelmingly a health problem and should be treated as such. It is now widely recognised in this country and others that harm minimisation is a thread that should run through all policy on drug abusers, concentrating in particular on those who are doing the most damage to themselves and to society. Overwhelmingly, that means heroin users. The prize for society as a whole is large. If we can reduce the number of heroin users, we will reduce the amount of burgling and mugging by addicts seeking to fund a habit. Research conducted for the Home Office shows that for every £1 spent on treatment, about £3 is saved in costs to the criminal justice system.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us his view or that of his Committee on whether the experiment in Lambeth produced the right response from the authorities—concentrating on the hard end and not spending time and effort on soft drugs? Does he accept the view of the Home Office research study, which shows that cannabis, on the balance of the evidence, is not a gateway drug, and that little evidence exists to suggest that somebody who starts on cannabis moves automatically or naturally from there to other more serious drugs?

Mr. Mullin

I have not read the research to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I agree that cannabis is not necessarily a gateway to other harder drugs; it is in some cases, but cigarettes are just as likely—in some cases, more likely—to lead to harder drugs. With regard to the Lambeth experiment, I have no detailed knowledge of it, except to say that one of the effects of conducting such an experiment in isolation in one borough is to pull in so-called drug tourists, which somewhat skewed the way in which the experiment was viewed. It must be right, however, to focus remorselessly on those who deal in the hardest drugs and those that cause the most damage to society as a whole.

My fourth inescapable conclusion is that harm minimisation means that we need to be realistic about the relative harm caused by different types of drugs. At present, the law is an ass. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, ecstasy is classified alongside heroin and crack cocaine as a class A drug, supply of which attracts a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, and possession of which attracts a maximum sentence of seven years. Furthermore, existing law makes no distinction between dealing for profit and so-called social supply: a group of young people sharing among themselves. The Select Committee concluded that the law should recognise such a distinction. Purely on the basis of the science, we also recommended—as did the Police Foundation previously—that ecstasy should be reclassified from class A to class B, for which, incidentally, substantial penalties are still available. I am sorry that the Home Secretary did not take that up.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

I wholly agree with the Home Affairs Committee's conclusion that it is absurd for ecstasy to be grouped with heroin and cocaine, because that diminishes the arguments against heroin and cocaine. Does not the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that it should not be included in class B with amphetamines and barbiturates? Did the Home Affairs Committee consider broadening the bands and having wider categories for all illegal drugs?

Mr. Mullin

What the hon. Gentleman says sounds as if it makes sense, but I would want to study the matter further before venturing a firm opinion. I am in no doubt, however, that drugs need to be categorised according to their degree of harmfulness. After that, it becomes a scientific issue. On ecstasy and perhaps one or two other drugs, the science is clear.

The logic that applies to ecstasy applies to cannabis, too. The Committee therefore welcomes the Home Secretary's proposal to reclassify cannabis from class B to class C. He has since said that he proposes to extend police powers of arrest not just to cannabis users but to all other category C drugs. At first glance, that seems to be a step backwards rather than forwards, and I should be grateful if the Minister would address that point when he replies.

A policy of harm minimisation requires realistic, honest education targeted on those at most risk. It should address the harmful effects of all drugs, including alcohol and cigarettes. On illegal drugs, it should focus on those that are most harmful, which, in most cases, means heroin. The message needs to be simple and unambiguous: heroin is a loser's drug. That message should be directed at communities with the highest incidence of heroin abuse, and at the most vulnerable young people, who are often underachievers and school drop-outs, and those from communities in which work for the unskilled has collapsed, as it has in some of the ex-pit villages of Nottinghamshire, south Yorkshire and County Durham. In that respect, I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) in highlighting the problems in his area. Above all, the education message should be delivered by people with street cred—not by men in suits—and ideally by recovered addicts.

In conclusion, I should mention that some people believe that we ought to go further. We took a good deal of evidence on that. Some of those who gave evidence to us argued that we should decriminalise all drug use, concentrate law enforcement entirely on dealing, and, for users, concentrate only on education and harm minimisation. That is more or less what has already happened in countries such as Portugal. We rejected decriminalisation because, apart from the obvious political realities, we thought that it would send the wrong message to the 50 per cent. of young people who at no time in their lives touch illegal drugs, many of whom, according to research, are deterred precisely because drug taking is illegal, and, of course, because they care about the effects on their health. Nevertheless, we should study carefully what is happening in Portugal and elsewhere to see what we might learn from it.

Others argue that all currently illegal drugs should be legalised and regulated in the way that cigarettes are. Some surprising and serious people hold that view, including a former chief constable, a former British ambassador to Colombia who had first-hand experience of the devastating impact of the American-sponsored war on drugs in that country, and Mr. Fulton Gillespie, a most impressive witness, whose son had died of a heroin overdose, and who believed that his son would still be alive today if heroin were legalised and regulated. Their arguments were that prohibition has failed, that most of those who have been killed by heroin died because it had been adulterated by criminals or because they had taken the wrong dosage, and that we need to get the trade out of the hands of criminals.

All those arguments have a certain logic. We rejected them because they ask us to gamble gains that are at best theoretical against the inevitability of a significant increase in the number of users, especially among the very young. The one question that the legalisers could not answer satisfactorily was what they would do about crack cocaine, which as I have said, leads to violent and unpredictable behaviour. Those arguments will not go away. We should be under no illusion: if existing policies fail to stem the tide of heroin—past policies have utterly failed, as the street price of heroin, although stable now, is as low as it has ever been—new ones will have to be tried. Some old arguments will have to be revisited and some old prejudices set aside in favour of what works.

For now, however, the path is clear. Our policy must be based on three clear pillars: prevention, treatment and harm reduction. That is what our report recommends, and I am glad to see that that is the direction in which the Government are moving.

2.49 pm
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

A number of different issues need to be considered in relation to the Government's drug policy. I want to start, however, with what has been noticed and commented on widely this week in the media. We have seen headlines such as "Labour drops key target on drugs". The accompanying article said: More than four years into a 10-year strategy to tackle drug misuse the Government yesterday conceded that it was too ambitious. Ministers set out an 'updated' strategy that abandoned almost all of the original targets. The strategy then went on to outline a new national action plan. Anyone who has examined in detail what the Government promised to do when they appointed the drugs tsar, Keith Hellawell—with the huge fanfares that everyone who follows the issue will recall—will recognise what has happened. The Government have conceded that everything that they were trying to do and that they told everyone that they were going to do has failed.

I do not blame the Minister personally. I know that he works extremely hard and is very diligent. However, I urge everyone who follows our proceedings to note that the Government have abandoned the targets and are starting again only a few years after they announced with such a fanfare what they would do. They must therefore face serious criticism.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)


Mr. Jon Owen Jones


Mr. Hawkins

I will give way much later to the arch-legalisers from south Wales. We have crossed swords many times and I have told them before that I will never agree with their views about legalisation. I may give way to them much later on one or two points of detail. I shall start by considering what the Government are doing before I deal with the crackpots on the Labour Back Benches.

The Government suggested that Keith Hellawell would be the answer to the nation's drugs problems. When I saw Mr. Hellawell reacting on television to questions about the Government's new announcement, he described it as all spin to cover up failure. That is the Government's much-heralded drugs tsar talking. His words should be taken seriously.

Fortunately, police forces and media commentators still listen to Mr. Hellawell. He is still the authority—and is treated as such—that Ministers from the then Home Secretary downwards praised so highly when they appointed him. We had a change of Home Secretary and we all know that the new Home Secretary fell out with the drugs tsar. As with so many much-trumpeted Labour appointments, the drugs tsar paid the penalty for falling out with the new Home Secretary. The Government's failure has been made clear by their drugs tsar.

We have seen other descriptions in the media of what the Government are now saying will be their revised targets. We have seen them described as "tough love" and as the "national heroin service". Addicts will be given free drugs even though that policy has failed before. Press commentators are right to warn all law-abiding members of society about the dangers of drugs and about the dangers of weasel words.

Two of the weasel words that the Government repeat constantly refer to so-called "harm minimisation". I have considered these matters for four years as a member of the Opposition Front-Bench team, and for many years before that, including those years when I prosecuted and defended drugs cases in some of the most deprived areas of the east and west midlands. I have seen the way in which weasel words are used. Harm minimisation is often treated by campaigners as code for giving up and as code for legalisation. We must start using clear facts in the terminology that we use.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) who opened this important debate, and to the work that his Select Committee has done. As he rightly said, it produced an extremely thorough and detailed piece of work. All parties and those outside the House have benefited hugely from the detail of that investigation and from the evidence that the Committee collected. However, those of us on the Opposition Front Bench do not have to agree with all the Committee's conclusions, and I know that the hon. Gentleman, who takes these matters as seriously as I do, recognises that fact. He also recognises that I and my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, have repeatedly said that we welcome what the Home Affairs Committee did in investigating the matter so thoroughly. There are conclusions, such as the fact that certain drugs should remain class A, with which we entirely agree.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)


Mr. Hawkins

We also agree, as the hon. Member for Sunderland, South and the Minister know, that clear emphasis should be placed on intensive rehabilitation. Like the Home Affairs Committee, we have called for a huge increase in the amount of rehabilitation available, particularly for those addicted to class A drugs.

John Mann (Bassetlaw)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman after I have given way to my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). However, I should pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who is a relatively new Member of the House. He has done much valuable work that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset has also publicly praised.

We want any changes to the law or to the Government's targets to be evidence based. I know that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South and his Select Committee would be clear in saying that there should not be a rush to judgment on such important matters.

Mr. Cameron

Does my hon. Friend not think that there is some cause for celebration? Following the Select Committee report, which puts a great emphasis on treatment, both sides of the House are emphasising treatment. The Government are doing that through the ditching of their many targets, and we are doing so through the talk of mandatory treatment. Is that not something to celebrate as we go ahead to deal with this difficult problem?

Mr. Hawkins

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He is a member of the Select Committee that produced this valuable report. We need to ensure that we have real treatment. In answers given to me and to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset at recent Home Office questions, the Government have used the wholly misleading figure of 118,000 people in contact with treatment agencies. The Chairman of the Select Committee and I know perfectly well—evidence to the Select Committee makes it clear—that being in contact with a treatment agency is vastly different from receiving the intensive rehabilitation that my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, many other members of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset and I are talking about. We mean real intensive rehabilitation for many more people.

John Mann

I am a little confused, because the Conservative party website says that the Government's treatment plans seem to echo our own proposals". Precisely how much residential rehabilitation does the hon. Gentleman think should be provided? The Leader of the Opposition suggested that it should be available for everybody and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) suggested, in response to me, that it should be provided to many. How many residential rehabilitation places does the hon. Gentleman think should be provided?

Mr. Hawkins

We have made it clear from the Dispatch Box—in particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset has done this—that, as a start, an incoming Conservative Administration would increase tenfold the number of real intensive rehabilitation places from whatever figure is inherited at that time. A tenfold increase is an exponential increase, and that is what is needed. In the end, any Government addressing the problem of people seriously addicted to class A drugs will have to ensure that they work towards intensive rehabilitation being available to everyone who needs it.

John Mann

I have a copy of the Conservative implementation paper on home affairs, and it specifies in the small print that the 10 per cent. relates only to juvenile class A drug addicts. That is obviously a much smaller figure than the one that the hon. Gentleman quoted. He mentioned a 10 per cent. increase—I am sorry, a tenfold increase—on the current figure, but the small print to the document states: We have assumed that half the in-patient places are for young people. It therefore assumes a fivefold increase. I seek clarification. Are we talking about a fivefold or tenfold increase? Is the document or the hon. Gentleman right?

Mr. Hawkins

The hon. Gentleman became confused between 10 per cent. and tenfold in his second intervention. We have said tenfold, and we have also said—this is common ground with the Minister—that there needs to be a particular focus on young adults because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset has put it, they are joining the conveyor belt to crime. It is most important that the number of those addicted to hard drugs should not continue to increase, because they are so disproportionately involved in acquisitive crime to fund their drug habit.

Another issue on which the Government need to do much more is that of drug drivers. The Minister knows that I have been pursuing that for some time. Last week I was fortunate to be to invited Hampshire constabulary to speak at the launch of their Christmas and new year campaign against both drink drivers and drug drivers. They had seen my speeches on drug drivers, our work on getting information from all police forces in England, Scotland and Wales and the work by my researchers, Rhiannon Sadler and Anarkali Moonesinghe, on getting information from coroners. All the police forces and coroners said that insufficient information was collected nationally about the number of deaths and serious injuries that are caused by those who drive when addicted to drugs.

Sometimes it is a matter of trying to disentangle whether someone has been drinking and taking drugs. We have at last acquired a clear picture, which is, I am afraid, that the Government do not have enough information. There is also a clear lack of joined-up government. Whereas the old Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions had acquired a well written report from the Transport and Road Research Laboratory at Crowthorne, just up the road from my constituency, on the huge increase in the number of fatal and non-fatal accidents caused by drivers under the influence of drugs, the Home Office did not use that information as an impetus to start collecting figures. Almost every coroner who responded to my office said, "We need more information. It has to be collected centrally. Only the Home Office can do it."

Some police forces, such as Northamptonshire and Strathclyde, are involved in pioneering work and have started their own projects. Hampshire police were launching their new Christmas and new year campaign called "Are you FIT to drive?" FIT is an acronym and refers to the test that the Hampshire police will use, which they demonstrated to me and the media. What was most moving about the launch at the Hampshire county constabulary headquarters at Netley last week was the contribution by the victim of a drug addicted driver. She had made a remarkable recovery thanks to her courage and her family's support and was prepared to appear before the media—television, radio and the press—to say what had happened to her when she was unwise enough to get into a car driven by someone who was under the influence of drugs. The driver had also had vastly insufficient sleep, having been up for days at the Glastonbury rock music festival. As a result, people in the accident were killed.

The young lady who spoke at the launch was lucky enough to survive and I was impressed by the courage she displayed by standing up and saying, "I want to persuade other people not to have anything to do with drug drivers." That is fine in terms of influencing passengers of drug drivers, but what about those entirely innocent victims who are driving lawfully along a road and are hit head on by a drug abusing driver? They have no opportunity to avoid the problem but are nevertheless the casualties of it.

The Government have presided over a huge increase in drugs use, as confirmed by their figures. It is clear that something is going wrong. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South referred to a consistent failure of policy since the second world war. I agree that the figures speak for themselves. Drug use has increased tremendously over those years. In recent years, however, it is not so much a case of things being tried and found wanting, but of things being found difficult and not tried properly. That is where I part company with the hon. Gentleman and his Committee's report.

When the hon. Gentleman talks about the reclassification of ecstasy, he should ask the parents of the late Leah Betts and the relatives of the other victims of ecstasy what they think.

Mr. Mullin

I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman took the subject seriously. I think made it clear that the arguments about ecstasy—whether one thinks it a good or a bad thing—are based purely on the science. We have taken the advice of scientists on which category it should fall into. Were it to be reclassified into class B, the penalties available would still be great and would leave those who use it in no doubt about society's disapproval.

Mr. Hawkins

I assure the hen. Gentleman that I take the issue seriously. We will have to beg to differ. Unfortunately, reclassification sends the wrong signals. I think he will agree with me on one thing at least. When we talk about sentences available, we are, of course, referring to maximum sentences. He will appreciate that my practical experience in the courts is that people rarely get the maximum sentence. We are dealing with signals that the Government have sent.

Simon Hughes

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Home Affairs Committee recommendation is worthy of support because we need to ensure that the relative harm is understood? The evidence shows that heroin and crack cocaine are the big killers. They are the nasties. Ecstasy occasionally kills people. Cannabis has killed no one. The logic of the Committee's recommendation and the logic of the view taken by the Liberal Democrats, which I hope will eventually percolate through to the Conservative Benches, is that it is nonsense for ecstasy to be in the same league as heroin and crack cocaine, or for cannabis to be in the same league as either.

Mr. Hawkins

The hon. Gentleman knows that I do not agree with him. The signals that we send to young people are important. I have just talked about those who suffer death or serious injury as a result of drug induced driving. He says that cannabis has killed no one, but there are many cases in which the person responsible for a fatal accident committed the driving offence as a result of the use of cannabis alone.

Mr. Cameron

I had to think long and hard about the problem when I served on the Select Committee. Does my hon. Friend accept that the signals argument goes both ways? What signal does it send to young people that ecstasy is in the same class as heroin and cocaine?

Mr. Hawkins

My answer is straightforward: it sends a valuable signal. I have no desire for our opposition, which is based on the tragic experience of people like Leah Betts' parents, to change. We do not want to send out the signal that heroin is less serious now.

The Government have to take notice of what the respected schools health education unit has discovered as a result of the Government's signals. The Minister will be aware of the media surveys that show that almost every young person who does not follow politics or take note of the details of what we say in the House thinks that cannabis is legal. They have seen the general message. The figures from the unit confirm a huge jump in the use of cannabis.

The number of boys in their early teens who smoke cannabis has rocketed in just two years since the Government started to give every young person the impression that cannabis is legal. Some 29 per cent. of those aged 14 and 15 said last year that they had tried the drug compared with only 19 per cent. who admitted using it in 1999. A large-scale research project found that school children are increasingly likely to believe that cannabis is safe and has no down sides. The 10 per cent. jump in young drug users reversed a previous decline in drug taking by school children which was reported by the same research group in the second half of the 1990s. That was when Conservative Ministers were trying to clamp down hard on crime in general. Indeed, crime had dropped for the first time since the second world war as a result of tough anti-crime policies.

The Government's mistaken signals have reversed that. There has been a huge increase in crime, much of it drug related. The Prime Minister said, in his much vaunted soundbite, that he would be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", but the biggest single cause of crime is the use of drugs. The greatest single cause of crime stems from those who are addicted to drugs and are funding their drug habit by acquisitive crime. The Government have not been tough on the causes of crime.

Nearly 16,000 pupils were asked to complete questionnaires at 334 schools.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We were told at the beginning of the debate that there was a 15-minute limit on speeches following the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). It seems that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) is being given a great degree of leniency.

Madam Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) is not being given any degree of leniency. The 15-minute limit applies only to Back-Bench Members. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) was exempted from the limit because he is the Chair of the Select Committee.

Mr. Hawkins

You will confirm, of course. Madam Deputy Speaker, that I had confirmed with you in the Chair what the position was before I rose.

As I have said, nearly 16,000 pupils were asked to complete questionnaires at 334 schools. The responses showed a similar boom in girls using cannabis. In 1999, 18 per cent. of girls aged 14 and 15 had smoked cannabis. However, last year the figure was 25 per cent. The survey covered 15,881 pupils aged between 10 and 15. The findings are severely at variance with what was said by the Prime Minister and other Ministers when they first came to office, proclaiming their commitment to the so-called war on drugs. Instead, the figures have gone dramatically in the wrong direction.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham. East)

I hoped to bring the hon. Gentleman out of his fantasy world into the world of reality. He talks about the majority of crime being committed by drug users and refers to it as acquisitive crime. Yes, that is true. However, the Committee did not discover that those who took ecstasy were among that group. The hon. Gentleman must think seriously about the findings set out in the report and about the scientific evidence. He must think again about placing ecstasy in the same class as heroine and crack cocaine. Ecstasy is qualitatively different.

Mr. Hawkins

I entirely disagree with the hon. Lady. She talks about science, and I shall quote once again from one of the reports on the recent figures in the recent survey. It states: The terrible irony is that all the while the deceptive message that cannabis is safe has been taking hold among school children because of the misguided approach of Whitehall"— that is a reference to Labour Ministers— and the police. The evidence points increasingly in the opposite direction. Last week"— the hon. Lady is talking about science— three respected scientific studies linked cannabis with the huge increase in the amount of depression and schizophrenia. Another scientific study showed that it is five times more likely to cause cancer than tobacco. The physical and mental health of an entire generation of youngsters is being put at risk because of the Government's willingness to accept the drugs agenda of a small liberal metropolitan elite.

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

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us what his party's policy is on the classification of cannabis.

Mr. Hawkins

The Minister heard me say earlier—I have said exactly the same to him in Committee—that when we come to office, any changes that we make will be evidence based. We believe, unlike the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice), apparently, in examining the science. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset has always said, as has my right hon. Friend the leader of the Opposition, that we will try to do everything on the basis of evidence, and not on the basis of the pro-legalisation fantasies that are shared by a number of Labour Back-Benchers.

I recognise that the Minister takes these issues seriously. That being so, he needs to examine the experience that we have had in visiting intensive rehabilitation clinics in Sweden, where they have managed to create a social consensus that illegal drugs are so damaging to society that all the forces in society need to work together to try to take illegal drugs out of the system. There is a social consensus in which teachers and head teachers, parents and society at large do not tolerate illegal drug taking. As a result of that, there is far less acquisitive crime and far fewer drug addicts. The population is healthier. We need to try, if we possibly can, to use the evidence of what has been done in Sweden and the evidence of the more successful rehabilitation clinics that I have visited in this country, such as the excellent Promise centre in south Kensington, where I met some of the addicts and their families only two or three weeks ago, to ensure that we have a more sensible and effective anti-drugs policy than the Government's failed policy.

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

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and all members of the Committee, for the thorough and thought-provoking way in which the Committee's recommendations were produced earlier in the year.

The report and all the work that went into it has made a crucial contribution to the Government's policy, although we were not able to agree with all of the Committee's recommendations. For example, we have different views on the reclassification of ecstasy. Ecstasy is a drug that has not been misused to the degree that cannabis has, or for the same length of time. Knowledge of the long-term health consequences of the use of ecstasy is not as well founded as it is in respect of cannabis, but people die as a result of taking it. I believe profoundly that much of the harm minimisation work that is necessary to save the lives of those who are abusing ecstasy can still take place without any need to reclassify it. I hope that we proved that when we published the safer clubbing guidance earlier in the year. We were therefore not able and not minded to accept the Committee's recommendation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South is already aware that we did not support the Committee's request that we consider a provision for injecting rooms. However, many of the Committee's other recommendations have been extremely valuable and they have been fully embedded in the updated drugs strategy. For example, the Committee's call for a renewed emphasis on harm minimisation and for the focus of education to be on class A drugs and problematic drug users now stand as central features of the new updated strategy.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

I am not convinced by the arguments on ecstasy. There is a great deal of science available, and it seems that ecstasy damages the brain. Whether that is reversible or irreversible is a point of controversy. Is my hon. Friend prepared, as he has done with cannabis, to refer ecstasy to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for a serious study?

Mr. Ainsworth

We cannot go down that road and we have made it clear that we are not prepared to do so. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has a remit to keep under review the classification of all drugs. It is free to do that and it will continue to do so. From time to time it will make recommendations to which we will have to respond. It will do so with regard to cannabis and ecstasy. There is no need for us to approach the council. The Government's position is clear on the classification of ecstasy. As we do not know what the long-term consequences of the abuse of ecstasy are on individual health, and because it kills people unpredictably, we are not prepared to reclassify ecstasy.

In our new strategy, we will focus on the most dangerous drugs, the most damaged communities and the individuals whose addiction and chaotic lifestyles are the most harmful, both to themselves and others. The misery that they cause cannot be overestimated, which is why, under the strategy, all controlled drugs are illegal and will remain so.

We are making an unparalleled investment to tackle the harm that drugs cause. Direct annual expenditure will increase by 44 per cent. over the next three years, with a total investment of nearly £1.5 billion by 2005–06. The extra resources that we are committing to the fight against drugs demand high standards of delivery. Home Office teams will work with local partnerships and agencies to identify problems and ways of tackling them, including better mechanisms for supporting effective delivery and improved systems for monitoring and evaluating progress.

The strategy is not new—we are not starting from scratch. We are learning from, building on and adapting the 10-year strategy started in 1998. The strategy will be driven by a stronger focus on education, prevention, enforcement and treatment to prevent and tackle problematic drug use. We will deliver that key agenda by using what we have learned over the past four years—what works and what does not. The Opposition spokesman talked about the former drugs tsar and what he had to say. I wish to make it clear that the strategy is not a dog's dinner. It may be more fitting to point out that the dog barks when the caravan moves on.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

Will the Minister put on record the fact that while more young people are taking drugs than ever before, they are still a minority? The vast majority of young people do not take drugs regularly. In his fight to prevent more young people taking drugs, will the Minister pay tribute to the excellent work by voluntary youth organisations and youth leaders, who play a vital role in making sure that the number of young people taking drugs is reduced and does not increase?

Mr. Ainsworth

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is partly why we are not prepared to contemplate, and the Select Committee on Home Affairs did not recommend, going down the legalisation or decriminalisation route. There is evidence that a lot of young people are deterred from experimenting with drugs by the fact that they are illegal. The majority of people do not take illegal drugs, but we should not underestimate the size of the problem. We should pick up what the Chairman of the Select Committee said—for the past 30 years, we have not had a proud record in this area.

We have one of the biggest problems in the world with illegal drug use, and nobody should be proud of Britain's record. The Conservative spokesman has an admirable ability utterly to ignore the facts at the Dispatch Box. To suggest that just a few years ago we were edging towards a solution and that everything is now going backwards is a complete travesty of the truth. Under the Conservative Government, crime doubled, and there is clear evidence that the steepest rise in problematic drug use took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. How on earth the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) can say that the position was anything other than that is strange but, in its own way, admirable. We have seen him take a similar stance on many other issues on many other occasions.

Paul Flynn

Does my hon. Friend recall that when the 10-year strategy was introduced in the House in 1998, it was supported, in every detail and target, by the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats?

Mr. Ainsworth

I am not surprised that my hon. Friend has raised that, as he has long-standing views on the issue. There was a wide consensus in favour of the 10-year drug strategy at the time. We should remind ourselves of the current position. Just because the ex-drugs tsar has made pronouncements for his own purposes in the past few years, we should not forget that, before 1998, there was no strategy at all. Somebody had to pull people together and point them in the right direction. There was no evidence base whatsoever—that was not the tsar's fault, but it can be blamed, if we want to be blatantly party political, on the party that had been in government for a generation. The targets set by the tsar were, I accept, pulled out of thin air and taken from other jurisdictions—they were described by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary as aspirational.

Something has been achieved in the past four years, as we have at least started to build an evidence base and, with support, are pushing our policies in the right direction. It is only right, however, to review the strategy now, refocus it and learn lessons about what has not been working and what is not attainable. It would be irresponsible of us to do otherwise.

John Mann

Nobody in my constituency wants vague targets instead of quantifiable evidence-based outcomes. In that context, will my hon. Friend look at the evidence from my inquiry on the quality and variety of teaching in secondary education? Best practice can affect whether or not young people can relate to a message delivered to them, and is fundamental to whether they hear the message at all.

Mr. Ainsworth

I appreciate the depth of my hon. Friend's analysis of the problem in his constituency. He has made an important contribution to the debate that has opened up over the past year. I hope that he does not think that we have retreated from all the targets in the drugs strategy—we most certainly have not. Treatment is key to whether or not we succeed. If Opposition Members care to look at the strategy, they will see not only that treatment targets are still included, but that they are on course to be delivered and that we have strengthened them—there is now a requirement to look at the quality of the treatment provided and the number of people who successfully complete an entire course of treatment. We have strengthened some targets, but have also got rid of aspirational targets that did not help to motivate people working in this area. It is a case not of abandoning targets, but of refocusing the strategy on what is needed and what, we hope, will make a difference.

Simon Hughes

The Minister will know that we share his view that it is far better to get rid of the huge number of targets that, to use the Home Secretary's words, appear to have been plucked out of thin air and were almost certainly unachievable, and to refocus on a small number of targets which, we hope, are achievable. Treatment issues are key, as we are considering a health issue. A two-week maximum waiting time from referral to receipt of treatment is proposed in the new Government strategy. The establishment of 2,000 more intensive care programmes is also proposed. Are the Government determined to set themselves a date by which at least minimum provision is available along those lines in each part of the country, following the National Audit Commission's recommendation? As the Minister knows, one of the problems has been that people in some places can wait for months or years, while others receive much speedier treatment.

Mr. Ainsworth

We need not only to increase massively the amount of treatment, but to ensure that it is provided in the places where it is needed. The targets are there and the National Treatment Agency has been established to try to ensure that they are met not broadly across the board, but in localities; that a work force are developed who will enable us to meet those targets and get people into treatment on the proposed time scales; and that good-quality treatment is provided. We believe that, by the end of the 10-year strategy, we will be in a position to have doubled the amount of treatment in this country and to have places to get 200,000 people a year into quality treatment—the overwhelming majority of problematic drug users on the basis of the problem as we currently measure it.

I am surprised when Opposition Members talk about treatment, as they are currently suggesting that we pour almost the entire treatment budget into residential rehabilitation that would treat a fraction of problematic drug users. Such treatment would be wholly inappropriate for many of those people, and what would the rest of them be left to do? I do not know about the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, but I know that his right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary is not a supporter of increased public spending. Is he not one of the people who had to be hushed up during the previous election for proposing £20 billion of cuts? The Conservative party will need to explain the suggestion that we can spend the entire treatment budget on providing residential rehabilitation for a fraction of problematic drug users and either leave the rest to fend for themselves or spend more instead.

Paul Flynn

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ainsworth

I want to make some progress, but I shall try to give way to my hon. Friend a little later.

There can be few more deserving cases than those of parents, carers and families. The distress and disruption that drug misuse causes to families cannot be imagined if it has not been experienced. More support will be provided for families and carers so that those affected can easily access advice, help, counselling and mutual support. We will be looking substantially to improve the support given to families locally.

Young people will remain a key priority. We will focus on preventing young people from taking and misusing drugs through a major new education campaign to drive home the risks. There will be support for young people most at risk and increased outreach and community treatment and support. That will include referrals to treatment and care through the youth justice system, so that by 2006, we will be supporting 40,000 to 50,000 vulnerable young people a year.

We will take on the dealers and protect the communities from the harmful flow of drugs on to the streets. That will include strengthening enforcement action at both street level and the middle market level. We will disrupt supplies at all stages in the supply chain. The police need and deserve the full support of the other agencies and partners at a local level. We need coordinated activity by local partners to tackle drug supply at street level and build community resistance to dealers and their crimes.

An awful lot has been said about Lambeth—a lot of factual stuff and also a lot of nonsense. In the past few years, we have managed to put together in Lambeth a coalition of the drug action team, the local authority and the police that has had considerable success against the open crack market that existed in the centre of Brixton. It has shut crack houses, arrested considerable numbers of dealers and pressured people into treatment in order to prevent them from going elsewhere and dispersing the problem to other boroughs. A lot of good work has been done in Lambeth in the past few months and it should be recognised.

Mr. Hawkins

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am surprised that he wants to give such a paean of praise to what has happened in south London. I do not think that the residents see it that way.

I wanted to intervene with regard to what the Minister said about support for addicts. Am I correct in my understanding that part of what the Government are now proposing in their new strategy is that a licence will be issued to hundreds of GPs to prescribe heroin to anyone who is a heroin junky and whom the GP thinks might benefit? Is that the Government's position on heroin?

Mr. Ainsworth

If the hon. Gentleman could shelve his petty prejudices for just a second and participate in a factual debate, we would all be better off, as would his party.

Our policy on the injection of heroin is very clear. We believe that, for serious opium addiction, methadone will overwhelmingly remain at the centre of treatment. It is a drug that the profession is used to working with, and comfortable with. It is also the most appropriate drug in many instances. There is, however, a lack of confidence in parts of the medical profession in regard to the prescription of heroin. In some cases, certainly those in which people have failed to respond to any other treatments that have been offered, it is appropriate. We are working with the profession now, and we have consensus around some guidelines that may give GPs the confidence to use diamorphine when it is the most appropriate drug to prescribe. It would be very sad if the hon. Gentleman were against that. What he has said also seems to go against what the shadow Home Secretary appears to be advocating.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

Since the publication of the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs on drugs, and of the Government's response, the son of a close friend of mine has died in circumstances that suggested that he had been injecting heroin, although that has not finally been determined. May I ask my hon. Friend whose door we should knock on when people with drug problems—and those who are actually addicted—come into our surgeries and we cannot get them into detox centres or get them the treatment that they require?

Mr. Ainsworth

We cannot grow these services to the level that is needed overnight. That simply is not possible. We need to grow the work force and the expertise, and we need to increase the quality of that work force. In the first instance, my hon. Friend needs to talk to his local drug action team. We need to provide the funding to his local DAT, so that it can grow the treatment to deal with the problems that exist in his community and many others. We have established the National Treatment Agency, which will help us to monitor the performance of his local DAT—and the others—so as to ensure it is hitting its waiting list targets, and that it has the most appropriate treatments in place to deal with the addicts in his community.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. That is what annoys me about the policy that is coming across the opposite Dispatch Box, which is that only residential rehabilitation amounts to treatment. In many circumstances, people do not need such rehabilitation, and it would be inappropriate to provide it. Sometimes a drug treatment may be appropriate, sometimes counselling. In the case of really chaotic drug users, it is a question, in the first instance, of getting hold of them, establishing contact and settling them down, so that we can start to deal with their problems. Dealing with addiction is a far more complex issue than the hon. Gentleman is prepared to acknowledge.

Paul Flynn

Is my hon. Friend as puzzled as I was by one of the claims made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins)? We were told, in the all-party group on drugs misuse a few weeks ago, that the estimate of the number of people who had problems with addiction was 320,000—a higher figure than we had ever heard before—and that the number of those receiving some form of treatment was 118,000, also a substantial figure. The hon. Gentleman says that he will increase the amount of people in treatment tenfold, to 1 million, which is three times the number of addicted people. Can the hon. Gentleman be treated seriously?

Mr. Ainsworth

I thought that too when I first heard the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has some figures that are a lot nearer to what the Conservatives are saying, which suggest that the number of people in treatment that they are planning to increase tenfold involves only a fraction of the total. I think that they are planning to increase tenfold 2,000 residential rehabilitation places for young people, which would give us about 20,000 places. I do not know what they intend to do with the rest of the problematic drug users, but those plans are a little different from what I first thought they were, and from what my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) thinks they are.

John Mann

May I assist my hon. Friend with the figures, as I have them in front of me? The proposal involves 8,618 residential places, which would be available only to 11 to 19-year-olds. This is described as a tenfold increase precisely because it applies only to that age range. That figure is taken from the Conservative party's home affairs implementation paper.

Mr. Ainsworth

I am not sure that we should dwell on the Conservative party's policies any longer, because Conservative Front Benchers need to sort out exactly what they are so that they can tell us what they mean by getting addicts into treatment and what is their policy on reclassification. They are certainly not prepared to do so at the moment.

Mr. Hawkins

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ainsworth

I shall give way again later if I can.

The Government will also increase the amount of drug-related criminal assets that we recover as we work to make the UK the least desirable, most uncomfortable and most unprofitable place to deal drugs. We will make full use of the new powers introduced by the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to maximise the recovery of profits from those convicted of drug supply offences. There is no room for the notion that having convicted and sentenced a drug dealer, it would be wrong to confiscate that person's ill-gotten gains. We must drive that idea out of every corner of our criminal justice and law enforcement system.

We will continue to collaborate with other countries, including the Afghan Government, to achieve their opium production eradication targets. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, who has expressed considerable scepticism about that, that Afghanistan now has a Government who are committed to ridding the country of its drug problems. They have set themselves targets and those will be extremely difficult to achieve. I understand that.

We will have to do a lot of nation building before we can eradicate poppy cultivation in that country, but it would be wholly wrong not to send the new Afghan Administration the message that we are prepared to do as much as we can not only to help them to rebuild civil society, but to eradicate narcotics and the terrorism that flows from them, which prevents them from getting a grip of their country and being able to help their own people.

Mr. Hawkins

Some minutes ago, when I first tried to intervene, the Minister was responding to the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) and praising the work of drug action teams. Will he comment on a letter recently sent to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, by the chief executive of a drug action team? He says: Currently the proportion of time spent on planning, commissioning and monitoring provision is out of balance with the longevity of the funding streams and is thus highly inefficient and ineffective". That is the reality of the confused picture that the drug action teams, which can and do provide good work, are finding. Those remarks are from someone who is trying to run a DAT, and the Government are making his job much more difficult.

Mr. Ainsworth

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, never mind consistency of funding—DATs never existed when his party was in power. We need to go down the road of pooled budgets and we need to give people long planning times as well as indications of their budgets. We fully intend to do exactly that.

There will be a major expansion of services to refer people to treatment and support via the criminal justice system. We will use every opportunity from pre-arrest to court and sentencing to identify drug-misusing offenders, engage them in treatment and break the link between drugs and crime.

We will focus on the 250,000 class A drug users who account for 99 per cent. of the costs of drug abuse in England and Wales and who do the most harm to themselves, their families and their communities. We will expand treatment and support services to ensure that people get the help they need when they need it. By 2008, we will have the capacity to treat 200,000 problematic drug users each year.

The evidence that we have received from a number of police forces and treatment agencies suggests that crack cocaine use is steadily increasing throughout the UK. The problems are acute and they demand urgent action. There will be new initiatives to stem the flow of crack to the UK, police action in a number of key force areas to close local crack markets and specialist treatment programmes for crack users.

Treatment and support services will be extended to include a new package of aftercare services to help those leaving prison to rejoin society. We will make significantly more money available to plug what I consider to be the biggest gap in the drugs strategy, and provide through-care and after-care for people leaving prison and ending treatment. If we do not do that we will send those people straight back on to the market—straight back into the clutches of the dealers and straight back into crime, if indeed they do not kill themselves with overdoses. We must plug the gap, and that is one of the most important changes that we are making.

All this adds up to a radical and comprehensive package to tackle drug misuse at all levels. Over the past year debate on the issue has made great strides, with only a few exceptions. Since my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary asked for an adult debate a year ago and since the Home Affairs Select Committee's report on the Government's drugs strategy, we have managed to open up discussion. We have managed to introduce much more common sense into that discussion, and to make room for people to exchange views at every level—from the political level down to the local level. That means that teachers and local practitioners will be more confident about discussing such matters. Only by providing open debate of that kind and giving people that confidence will we be able to make the real difference that will he needed over the next few years if we are to reduce the problem of drug abuse.

3.46 pm
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I pay tribute to the Minister, who, since taking his current position, has been entirely reasonable on this issue, as on others, and has been positive in trying to bring about the sort of constructive debate that is taking place now—with the odd exception. We need to engage in such debate if we are to meet the fundamental target that the Minister identified and reduce the amount of drug use, abuse and addiction, and reduce all that flows from those things. I pay similar tribute to the Minister's colleagues. We welcome the new spirit that has accompanied the arrival of the second Labour Administration, who—I say this straightforwardly—are different from the spirit of the first.

Let me also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and his colleagues from all parties on the Select Committee, including my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). I followed the Committee's deliberations from afar. It took evidence from people with personal experience of, for instance, family bereavement, who reached entirely different conclusions from each other, and who told the Committee dramatic and devastating things. I heard and read about those things. The Committee laboured hard to distil all the evidence and to ensure that it was up to date.

The Committee has done us a service. I make only two exceptions in that regard. My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I support nearly all the recommendations, but we disagreed with one recommendation on cannabis and we did not think that the Committee went far enough in respect of heroin prescribing. The report is very authoritative, and there is evidence of a huge amount of work. I want to thank the voluntary sector, in two contexts. The charity DrugScope is based in my constituency. It conducts evidence-based research, and in seeking to put its case on that evidence base it does us a great service—as do those parts of the voluntary sector mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, including faith groups and the youth service, which try to educate people about lifestyle choices that are better than those leading to addiction. It often does a brilliant job in protecting young people from the peer-group pressures from which they all suffer. In many cases it pulls them back after they have tested the water—as young people always do.

Like the Select Committee, my colleagues have done a huge amount of work. My noble Friend Lady Walmsley chaired a policy committee for a year, which went around the country taking evidence and talking to people. She took the committee's conclusions to our conference in Manchester in the spring. We had a full morning's debate and reached conclusions that, although not everyone agreed with them, followed a democratic decision-making process based on the best evidence available.

We are all trying to get the best answers and I salute the Government on their strategy, which I consider to be much more along the right lines than the last one, not least because they have dropped some of their absolutely unachievable, undeliverable targets and are focusing on the simple message that this is principally a health issue not a crime issue and that prevention and treatment are central to making sure that we break the back of what has become a nightmare in many communities, with addiction leading to crime, illness and sometimes death.

Mr. Hawkins

The hon. Gentleman said that one or two members of his party might not share his view. Would they include, perhaps, Lord Alton of Liverpool, who recently chaired a superb conference in the House of Lords at which my views about cannabis, which are shared by leading members of the National Drug Prevention Alliance, were advanced? It was attended by some of the most authoritative speakers from Sweden, who explained how they have created a national consensus.

Simon Hughes

My noble Friend Lord Alton was a Liberal and a Liberal Democrat, but he left our party to become a Cross Bencher. I do not in any way undermine his view, but I was referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, who takes a different view from mine, as do some of my other hon. Friends. Our views do not follow a pre-ordained pattern. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), who has worked in the health service, believes that we should legalise all drugs. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) who has had international business experience, takes a very different view.

Mr. Cameron

They are Liberals—they do not have to agree with each other.

Simon Hughes

The hon. Gentleman is being unfair; he knows that there are different views in all parties. We must not dishonour the debate by pretending that party allegiance is its most important factor. We must welcome the debate, which should be based on evidence.

In May this year my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) asked the Minister for some figures about the purchase cost of drugs, both now and over the past 10 years. The price of many addictive drugs has fallen considerably in the past 10 years. Between 1990 and 2002, the price of heroin fell from £90 to £63 per gram; cocaine fell from £87 to £60 per gram; amphetamine fell from £13.80 to £9 per gram; ecstasy fell from £18.80 to £7 a pill; LSD fell from £4.20 to £3.40 a tablet; and cannabis resin fell from £91.80 to £77 per ounce. The only price that has remained roughly similar over the past five years is that of crack cocaine. The concern is that, if we are not careful, illegal drugs will become cheaper and more easily accessible than alcohol. Certain drugs might become even more appealing for young people because they will be easier and cheaper to buy than a pint of lager. Drugs are easy to get hold of in normal life—young people do not have to go looking for them. That is why the issue goes beyond illegal drugs and includes alcohol, tobacco and so-called medicinal drugs that can also become addictive, such as amphetamines.

The Minister referred to the UK's terrible record of failure. Over the past 30 years, we have had more addicts than almost any other European country. That is not just my opinion—in my constituency, drug addiction is such a regular issue that I wish I could say anything but that—but is backed up by independent surveys. The Minister will be aware of the recent report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Its summary refers to a significant increase in cocaine and ecstasy use in the UK. It also refers to 44 per cent. of 16 to 29-year-olds having consumed cannabis. Another point in the report is often made by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn)—that the average age of heroin users is going down, whereas in other countries, such as the Netherlands, it is increasing. So we have a real problem, in that addicts are becoming younger.

That is not mere theory. Almost every week, on going home after a late sitting of the House I see a daughter of a friend of mine—she is in her 20s—sitting outside a late-night supermarket, or standing on a petrol station forecourt. She has been waiting to get money to buy some more drugs. Sometimes, she knocks on my door in the early hours of the morning. Six years ago, that young woman was at home leading a drug-free life; now, she is a prostitute on drugs. People abuse her all the time, and almost all of her family relationships have broken down. That is a tragedy. We have all met such people in our surgeries. If she survives, it will be almost a miracle.

A friend of mine who is in his 30s—he is a constituent who came to my surgery a year ago—went through 14 years of addiction to heroin and alcohol. He is now clean and doing well, so there are good news stories, but he went through a terrible period, and we should never underestimate how awful such experiences are. Another friend went through a period of going clubbing and taking ecstasy every weekend. I could see what was going on. Mondays and Tuesdays were bad, things improved a bit by Thursday, and he was ready to go clubbing again by Friday. There is, of course, a risk; every year, a few people die as a result of ecstasy use. Mercifully, in his case he grew out of it. It may have lasting effects, but the reality is that it does not pose the same addictive risk as serious drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine.

These issues confront us all, which is why this debate is hugely important. Interestingly, it has moved from the side courts to the centre court. The last time that we had such a debate, it was held in Westminster Hall; today, it is being held here because it deserves to be. It concerns one of the central issues of health and crime in our society.

Before I set out the key factors as I perceive them, I appeal to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath(Mr. Hawkins) to look at, and to respond to, the evidence rather more readily than he and his colleagues do at the moment. However, he and I are in agreement in at least one respect, in that I, too, believe that we must treat people who are in charge of vehicles and under the influence of drugs in the same way as we treat those who drive under the influence of drink. I think that I know of the family to whom he refers, and the daughter who gave evidence. Many people are injured or lose their lives because we do not yet treat this problem seriously. I ask the Minister to talk to his colleagues in the Department for Transport. We can do more to ensure that similar tests apply to both offences. For example, the old test of whether a person can walk a straight line could be used. It is really important that we send out the message that being under the influence of alcohol or of any other drug is equally unacceptable.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth

As the hon. Gentleman knows, such tests are already carried out. However, we are conducting research that could support the use of a visible test, and we may have something to help the police to test addicts by next August.

Simon Hughes

That is very encouraging news, and many families will be reassured by it. I know of constituents—they have since become friends—who have lost relatives in collisions involving someone who was under the influence. They feel an enormous sense of injustice at the fact that the law has not treated them equally.

Mr. Hawkins

As the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to point out, I have worked on this issue for a long time, and I am delighted that he agrees with me. Indeed, in the end there may be all-party agreement on it; I certainly hope so. We intend to introduce our own Bill during this Session to try to improve the opportunity to collect evidence and to try to give the police the additional testing powers that they need. I am prepared to discuss with him, and with the Minister, how we might take that forward. In other words, there may be no need to wait until August; if all parties agree, we could produce something in this Session.

Simon Hughes

On all such issues, I am entirely happy to collaborate with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, and with the Minister and his colleagues. None of us gains by taking a party political view on this matter. If we can get the right legislation soon we can change attitudes about drug use. Changed attitudes to drink driving and drinking at lunch time have rendered those activities less frequent. If the same thing happened with drugs, that would be very welcome.

One great international point affects us all, and that is that we will not be able to control demand until we control supply. The Minister is right to say that countries such as Afghanistan and those in south America must be the focus of our attention. I know that Ministers in the Department for International Development, the Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and elsewhere understand that. However, unless we can change the agriculture in those countries and make sure that people do not make a living from exporting heroin and other drugs at high prices, we will not be able to deal with the problem. Traffickers come here from the drug-exporting countries, and we know what happens as a result.

The Liberal Democrat party always seeks to respect international law, and the drugs problem is covered by international agreements and Geneva conventions. We are not allowed to legalise the use of narcotics, and my party accepts that constraint. However, the difference between us and the two other main parties is that we believe that the evidence in connection with cannabis, in particular, points to the clear conclusion that personal use and growing for personal use and social supply to another person should not be treated as criminal activities. We agree with DrugScope and other organizations—and by implication with the Home Affairs Committee—that the logic is that cannabis should be downgraded to a category C drug, as the Home Secretary intends. However, it is nonsense at the same time to make the possession of cannabis an arrestable offence for which a person can be imprisoned, as provided in the Criminal Justice Bill that had its Second Reading yesterday. That is a mixed message, if ever there was one. I have said as much to Home Office Ministers, and I repeat it this afternoon. We need the message to be clear. Some drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine, are very dangerous, and other drugs, such as ecstasy, present an intermediate danger. I do not argue that cannabis is not dangerous, or that it may not be proved to be more so, but the evidence shows that it is in a different league. The hundreds of thousands of people who use it every week should not risk arrest for personal possession of cannabis. Anything else is a nonsense.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but I do not accept that the message is mixed. The hon. Gentleman should look at the provisions in the Criminal Justice Bill to facilitate an arrestable offence with regard to class C drugs, and at the guidance drawn up by the Association of Chief Police Officers, to which the police service has a real commitment. The provisions will limit how and when an arrestable offence is used. Such an offence should be used where a public order problem arises, and when there is blatant and continued use of cannabis. Police officers should not expect to have to face people who flatly refuse to comply with a request. That is the intention. Taken together, the ACPO guidance and the proposed new criminal justice framework do not transmit the mixed message that the hon. Gentleman fears.

Simon Hughes

I absolutely understand what the Government are trying to do. I have looked at the ACPO guidance, but I still do not think that the approach will work. People who go around with cannabis are at risk of being arrested and even imprisoned, if only for a short period, as are people who might be thought to be committing a breach of public order offence by, say, winding up the police. To be honest, that represents a misdirection of resources.

It must be better and clearer to say to people who smoke cannabis on their own that that remains a crime but that the policy is one of no arrest, no prosecution. The same applies to people who give cannabis to their mates for nothing, and to those who grow it in gardens or window boxes. However, people who start flogging cannabis on the streets are dealing, and can be prosecuted. People who stand outside school gates and deal cannabis will be clobbered with a severe sentence. Dealing is a commercial activity, and needs to be firmly dealt with.

I know what the difficulty in countries such as the Netherlands has been. The Dutch policy of having legitimate entry by the front door of a cannabis café but illegitimate entry by the back door to the suppliers of the cannabis strikes me as hypocritical. Until the UN convention can allow country opt-out, for which I hope the European Union will push, the best course of action is to keep cannabis use as a crime but have a non-prosecution policy for personal use, not for dealing. I put cannabis into that category for all sorts of reasons: it is widely used, it is the least harmful and there is no evidence of it causing death.

That is why we put ecstasy into the intermediate category and support the Home Affairs Committee's recommendations that it, too, be downgraded. The question that I am always asked is whether I would suggest downgrading ecstasy to the family of Leah Betts. I would and do suggest it to them, because although there are a handful of deaths from ecstasy there are 10 times as many from amphetamines. Of course there is a risk, but the evidence-based conclusion is that ecstasy has nothing like the same risk or addiction as other drugs. I would be happy, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said, to refer this question to the advisory committee so that it can give us its evidence-based view. If its members say that it should be downgraded, we should follow that recommendation. I would be much happier with that than with a party political view.

I understand the media issues; I understand the personal grief and trauma that is involved. No one wants any other youngster to take ecstasy and risk dying, which is why the clubbing guide is welcome. However, ecstasy is not in the same league as heroin and crack cocaine. It is nonsense to keep it in the same category and it should be downgraded.

Bob Russell

Although it is obvious that cannabis is not in the same league as heroin, does my hon. Friend accept that we should not send out the message that it is okay, especially when it is known that cannabis is considerably stronger now than it was 10 years ago?

Simon Hughes

I absolutely agree with that. If we are to introduce evidence-based legislation, we need to be able to change the categories as the evidence changes and drugs because more or less pure or more or less strong. We have to be able to respond to what is happening in the real world where people are flogging drugs.

If cannabis, ecstasy and heroin are put in one rolled-up category, more people will be pushed into the hands of the dealers. If people who use cannabis socially have to get their supplies from someone who wants them as a regular customer, the supplier will want them to buy something that costs more and makes them more dependent. It is obvious to me that addiction lies down that road.

I am no expert on this subject, although, like the Minister, I read about it. I come to this as a lay person looking at the evidence. In its summary, Home Office research study No. 253, headed "The road to ruin? Sequences of initiation into drug use and offending by young people in Britain", says: My interpretation of the results of this study is that true gateway effects"— that is, starting on cannabis and proceeding to other drugs— are probably very small and that the association between soft and hard drugs found in survey data is largely the result of our inability to observe all the personal characteristics underlying individual drug use. The best evidence suggests that people do not go automatically from cannabis to other drugs unless the person who flogged them the cannabis tries to get them on to harder drugs. People are then prone to that happening and are likely to be caught.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. Does he recognise that many clubbers who use ecstasy are polydrug users and that those who sell it to them are polydrug dealers? That is one reason why it would be so dangerous to separate ecstasy and downgrade it.

Simon Hughes

I am with the hon. Lady half way on that. I think that, on the current evidence, cannabis is in one category but that the use or possession of ecstasy should not be regarded as not criminal. It is therefore in that side of the park, beyond which is heroin and crack cocaine. I accept what the hon. Lady says. Cannabis is widely used—although I do not use it and I am sure that the hon. Lady does not—but if we can prevent it from being one of the drugs that the polydrug dealers want to sell and separate cannabis sellers from the people who want to flog ecstasy tablets, heroin and crack cocaine, whom we want to catch and lock up, we should do our constituents a better service.

I agree with the Minister about the Lambeth experiment. I have talked to former Commander Brian Paddick and to acting Commander Brian Moore. They hold the same view on the issue: the experiment worked. I like and respect the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), but she is wrong about this matter. Many people have pretended things that are not true about Lambeth. I live next door to Lambeth and am often in the area. The evidence from Brian Paddick and Brian Moore is the same, although they are entirely different people, with entirely different perspectives on the issue: we did better by not chasing cannabis users and we caught more people dealing hard drugs. Lambeth was not a honeypot for people coming from elsewhere. The police monitored the people whom they picked up and they were not drug tourists. The same people were peddling drugs before the experiment began. During the experiment, the police were more able to catch them because they had more time. I hope we can lay the honeypot claim to rest. The evidence from people on the ground is that the Lambeth experiment worked.

Yesterday, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) pointed out that a distinction might be made, which I hope Ministers will consider, as to whether or not people were carrying drugs for their personal use. There is merit in examining the substantial possession test—as a variant on the suggestion of the Home Affairs Committee—so that we can catch people who are clearly not carrying drugs for their own use because they have such huge quantities that, unless they were superhuman, they could never use them in a reasonable period.

I hope that we are all united in wanting severe punishments for people who trade and traffic drugs and try to exploit people where they are vulnerable, especially outside schools and youth clubs. Such dealers should expect the harshest penalty.

The Minister mentioned people who were leaving prison. Until recently, prison was one of the easiest places to become a drug addict. The Prison Service has worked hard, using sniffer dogs and other methods, to stop that. However, my view—although I took some persuading—which is shared by the majority of my colleagues, is that prison should never be the answer for those convicted only of possession of any drug. Our prisons are full to overcrowded and to lock people up because they use drugs is to criminalise people who should be receiving treatment for their addiction from the health service. I hope that we can get away from the idea of prison, even for people who constantly use heroin. If necessary, we can send them to prison for nicking from houses or cars because they want money for drugs—that is a different matter.

I hope that the Government will not forget about producing their alcohol strategy. On Friday nights, in streets in my area, such as the Old Kent road, more trouble is probably caused by alcohol than by drugs. I think that many of my colleagues have the same experience.

Following the Cambridge Two case, I hope that the Government will accept the recommendation of the Select Committee and amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. People running hostels should not get clobbered when they do not knowingly preside over drug taking and are trying to look after people and help them. We need to ensure that such places work well.

The exercise is not cost free. We are debating public expenditure estimates—the public budget. We are talking not about small sums but about billions of pounds. Will Ministers make it clear that the balance should continue to be tilted towards prevention and treatment rather than towards dealing with people only after they have been caught? I am advised that in the next financial year the proportion of money to be spent on treatment is less than a third of the total allocation. We can sort out the problems only if we spend much more on the prevention and treatment of addiction and much less on enforcement.

The debate is important. We are all united in our objectives. The Government are moving in the right direction and we welcome that. They get seven out of 10 for going the right way, but we hope that they will think again about things such as cannabis and ecstasy: please, no more muddled messages.

4.14 pm
Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

It is a delight to speak in this debate. Having spoken in every debate about drugs in this House since 1987, I know that there is a change today. In every one of those debates, until recent years, there was unanimity in the House that the only way of solving the problems was to introduce more tough policies—and every year it was clear that the policies were not working.

Before 1971 we had a British way of dealing with heroin addicts. There were fewer than 1,000 addicts, there was virtually no drug crime and deaths were extremely rare. That is the system to which we should return. There has been criticism by one of the newspapers suggesting that at that time there was leakage from the system—and occasionally there was, including a case involving two doctors. Because of that, politicians behaved as we often do: babies cry, dogs bark and politicians legislate. We put on the statute book the most damaging piece of legislation on drugs that has been introduced in Europe—the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. According to the National Treatment Centre, we now have not 1,000 addicts but 320,000, and we have 40 per cent. of all the drug deaths in our continent of Europe.

I have had the job of acting as the Council of Europe's rapporteur on drugs for its health committee. I have visited many other countries to see what is going on, and I beg the House to look at what has occurred in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal and Germany; throughout our continent there is a change of view, which has come through to this House.

It is a pleasure to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the other Ministers now responsible for drugs policy, who are the most reasonable that we have had in my time in Parliament. I can remember a debate in the early 1990s when the then Conservative spokesman, Mr. Mellor, said that there was one thing of which he could be absolutely certain—that heroin use had peaked in Britain.

I recall another occasion when the two Front-Bench spokesmen had to leave the Chamber during a debate to go out for a fix because they were both addicted to cigarettes, which are far more damaging than any of the drugs about which they were talking. There is a contrast between the drugs of choice of my generation and those of young people.

It was a shame that we had to suffer the vacuous speech of the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). It was the usual mix of prejudice and ignorance that we have come to expect from him. I appeal to the Conservatives—including the shadow Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who made a distinguished contribution in the Select Committee—to get one of their able and intelligent Members to act as their spokesman if the official Opposition are not to he left behind in the debate.

A tongue-in-cheek award of parliamentarian of the year was made to the leader of my party, who deserves many awards, but perhaps not that one. The person who gave the award suggested that it was given in order to foment trouble between the Prime Minister and his next-door neighbour. However, the award of parliamentarian's parliamentarian of the year should be given to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). I did not attend quite as many meetings of the Committee as he did, but I found those that I did attend an elevating experience because of the quality of cross-examination and the variety of witnesses.

I shall never forget one witness, Fulton Gillespie, who spoke about something of which we all have experience in our constituencies: mothers—it usually is mothers—ringing up to say that their young people are on drugs, asking what they should do, and wondering whether they should buy drugs or find a safe supply for them. I have a case of a mother with two daughters who are prostituting themselves; one has just had a baby who is also addicted to drugs. We feel hopeless in these cases, and I feel especially hopeless when I receive a letter such as the one I received on 28 October from the Gwent healthcare trust, informing me that the average waiting time for treatment is 11 months and the longest waiting time, for the specialist substance misuse service, is 17 months.

This is not a party matter, and people should not reduce it to one. We have had 30 years of monumental failure by all parties, united in error year after year. We are now escaping from it by having, for the first time, a policy of reducing the status of cannabis in law and a policy on the medical prescription of pharmaceutical heroin. That worked well until 1971. Lots of heroin users were veterans of the first world war who became addicted on the battlefield. There was the famous case of the author of "National Velvet"—a distinguished English lady living the life of a country gentlewoman, who took vast amounts of heroin every day in the form of pharmaceutical diamorphine. It killed her eventually: she took more heroin than most people take on the streets, but she eventually died a serene death at the age of 91. That is the alternative.

Fulton Gillespie talked about his son in very affectionate terms. He said what a nice chap he was, and how he loved him. He said that his son was more sensitive than his other four children and got upset about cruelty to animals, the cost of war and the Falklands war. He was not making excuses for his son, who had treatment. I shall explain how his death occurred. He went into prison on remand because he was stealing to feed his habit, but no heroin was available on remand. If he had been put into the normal prison, heroin would have been freely available, as it is in most of our prisons. When he came out of prison he went on to the streets to get his heroin. He took the same strength of heroin as before, but it was contaminated and it killed him. He was killed not by heroin, but by prohibition. He was killed by the fact that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 brought in strict prohibition.

We should not dismiss those people as junkies, as the Opposition spokesman did. That can happen to any family, and they are not some subspecies; they are part of our families and our constituencies, and they deserve the same compassionate treatment as anyone else.

Mr. Fulton Gillespie rightly said that the only answer is legalisation of all drugs. That does not mean a free-for-all, or that we want to encourage anyone to use drugs. DrugScope said in its submission that in all the cases in which there has been a policy of changing the regime on drugs, particularly cannabis, doing so has not led to an increase. That can be backed up by cases from all over the world, from Australia to the Netherlands and Switzerland.

We must make it clear that after 30 years of the harshest prohibition in Europe, Britain has by far the greatest use of cannabis in Europe and by far the greatest number of drug deaths. Yet after 25 years of regulated licensed criminalization—this is not theoretical; it has happened—Holland has split the two markets. It has lower heroin use than this country, one tenth of our heroin deaths and a lower use of cannabis in all sections of society. The main reason why that has happened is the division between the soft drugs market and the hard drugs market. Young people who want to experiment, as they do in this country and other parts of Europe, can do so without being exposed to the pushers of hard drugs.

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Minister about the idea that there are other fixes. We have to look at what has happened elsewhere and imitate the successes. We certainly should not go down the same road as the United States. We are now in the extraordinary position of having 130 per 100,000 of our citizens in jail. That is nearly the highest figure in Europe, and it is double the average. America, with its harsh drug policies, has 700 people in jail per 100,000.

If we want to find a record of failure, which we must not repeat in Afghanistan, we need only look at Colombia. It has been said that we can eliminate drug use in Afghanistan and that we support a Government who will reduce poppy growing there. In fact there was a Government who were reducing poppy growing—they were called the Taliban—but the Northern Alliance was increasing poppy growing. That policy will not work. The result of trying the same policy in Colombia is chaos and continual warfare between three armies, two of which are funded entirely by drug use.

The great danger is that heroin production will not be eliminated by persuasion, bribery or whatever other means without providing alternative crops, because the money incentive is too strong. If it were eliminated in Afghanistan, the drugs would then be grown in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Burma. We are now told that they are grown in North Korea. We cannot stop that supply, and the drugs are being sucked in through this country. We have heard about the drop in price, but drug production and exports to this country are completely out of control.

When we know that there are a huge number of people who become unable to work because they must enter a cycle of getting their drug, committing crimes to pay for it, sleeping it off and going through the same cycle again, do we say to those young people who are blighted by drugs that the only market available to them is a market run by criminals? Is not the only sensible way of dealing with the situation to collapse the evil, irresponsible black market in drugs by replacing it with a market that can be legalised, policed, licensed and controlled? That has happened in the Netherlands, and is happening now in Portugal. The Select Committee gave great attention to the drug users rooms that I have visited in a number of continental countries, which have an immediate beneficial effect. They immediately reduce crime, as they did in Switzerland, and have an immediate beneficial effect on the health of users—

Pete Wishart

The hon. Gentleman is experienced enough in these affairs to know that the regime in Portugal and Holland is decriminalisation not legalisation. Will he make that distinction? Why does he think that legalisation is much more appropriate than what we see in those two countries?

Paul Flynn

I want to make that my final point about what we can do.

The problem at the moment is the 1961 UN convention, which binds most countries in Europe and limits the things that we can do. In Holland it has led to the front door and back door problem in relation to the supplier, which is illogical and causes concern there. We are told by DrugScope that we can do a great deal more than we are doing now within the terms of the UN convention. The important thing is that that convention will come up for reconsideration in 2003, and it is up to us to make sure that we alter it to allow the practical experiments that have been proved to be beneficial elsewhere to be tried throughout Europe. Every country in Europe is struggling with the UN convention.

The explanation of how we got into this position dates back to the 1920s, when America had a Government almost as right-wing as the Government that it has now. That Government were religious-based and believed in prohibition. They introduced prohibition of alcohol and drugs, which spread throughout the world. That was the main cause of the problems that we have now. There was no recreational use of cannabis in Britain until it was prohibited. The argument is that perversely, prohibition increases use, because it creates profits for a group of people, as it did in America, where an empire of crime was established—and illegal drugs have done the same thing.

To return to the system that worked effectively here—as the Government are doing, slowly, tentatively and correctly—and to allow doctors to prescribe heroin will be a major step forward. I commend the Government for taking on the Daily Mail, the Evening Standard and The Daily Telegraph, which for the past two years, before the Government took their decision, had been calling for an intelligent debate on drugs, and pragmatic policies. Three early-day motions were tabled in the last Session describing the encouraging things that they had said about a change of policy. As soon as the Government had the courage to change policy, however, they condemned the Government in terms similar to those used by the Opposition spokesman tonight.

We must congratulate the Select Committee and the Government and acknowledge that we have at least changed directions. For 30 years all Governments have treated each successive increase in drug use with more of the policies that helped to create that increase, with tougher policies and longer prison sentences. For once, we have a policy that should be described not as tough but as what it is: intelligent.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House, if it needs reminding, that Mr. Speaker has put a 15-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

4.29 pm
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

Like others, I welcome the report of the Home Affairs Committee and the introductory speech that we heard from its Chairman. I also welcome the many aspects in the Government's drugs strategy that have cross-party support.

Since I became involved in considering these issues and, in particular, since I published a pamphlet entitled "Common Sense on Cannabis", I have been struck by how the debates tend to be bedevilled by a threefold confusion. First, there is the confusion between soft and hard drugs. Secondly, there is the confusion between the use and abuse of drugs and, thirdly, there is the confusion between what is immoral and what is and should be illegal. I shall say a few words about each of those sources of confusion.

On the confusion between soft and hard drugs, immense harm has been done by the attempt to demonise cannabis and to present it as if it is as bad as and on a par with heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs. Claiming that cannabis is as bad as hard drugs discredits what we say about hard drugs. Therefore, it is sensible in principle to reclassify cannabis in accordance with its true nature. I am predisposed to accepting the Committee's recommendation that it is also sensible to reclassify ecstasy.

The argument that reclassification sends the wrong signals ignores the fact that maintaining an absurd classification also sends a false and misleading message. It sends the message that heroin and crack cocaine are no worse than cannabis and ecstasy. Heroin and cocaine are seriously worse, and we do not want people who discover that using cannabis in moderation has little ill effect on their health to think that, because it is classified in a similar category to more damaging drugs, those drugs will not damage them.

Even greater damage is done by the attempt to confuse the two groups by claiming that soft drugs, while not in themselves as damaging as hard drugs, lead ineluctably to the use of hard drugs—the so-called gateway theory. It is not a valid theory. The fact that most heroin users previously used cannabis is not proof that they were caused to use heroin by their prior use of cannabis. In fact, most cannabis users previously used tobacco, but the simple fact is that most tobacco users do not go on to use cannabis and even fewer cannabis users go on to use heroin. There is certainly no chemical predisposition in the use of cannabis leading one to the use of heroin or cocaine.

If the gateway theory were true and people who used cannabis were led on to hard drugs, there would be a strong case for maintaining the toughest possible sanctions on cannabis to stop people moving down that slippery slope. If it is not true, the effect of keeping cannabis as an illegal drug creates a gateway effect of its own. Cannabis is available only from the same illegal sources that push hard drugs. We are saying to people that, if they wish to use cannabis, they must pass through the supply gateway and bring themselves into contact with the people who may push upon them hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

I fear that the Government are risking getting the worst of all worlds. They are simply reclassifying and reducing the criminal penalties, but are not going the logical step further that is essential if we are to break the link between soft and hard drugs. They are not providing through licensing committees legal outlets for cannabis in each area so that the people who insist on buying this boring and unattractive drug can do so legally without coming into contact with the people and gangs who will push the hard drugs. That would take the supply of the drug out of the hands of the gangs and thereby reduce their empire and wealth.

The second confusion is between the use and abuse of drugs. In "Common Sense on Cannabis", published by the Social Market Foundation at £5 or available free from my website www.peterlilley.co.uk, I argued that cannabis is relatively safe if it is not abused. I quoted The Lancet study of all the medical evidence available which said: On the medical evidence available, moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill effect on health, and that decisions to ban or legalise cannabis should be based on other considerations. I emphasise "moderate" and "little". I am not saying that it has no effect or that heavy and sustained use are not harmful. Indeed, I specifically stated that, although moderate and occasional cannabis use has few ill effects on health, it can be harmful if used heavily and continuously.

Several recent studies have been reported in ways which suggest that that picture has changed. If it has, we ought to accept the evidence. I am an old-fashioned person, perhaps because of my training as a scientist. I think it was Keynes who said, "If the evidence changes, I change my mind. What do you do?" Let us consider the recent evidence. There are number of studies. They all have one thing in common: if there is an ill effect that is causal, it is primarily the consequence of heavy and sustained use, and there is little, or much less, effect from occasional use.

The first study, published by the British Lung Foundation, said that cannabis is more carcinogenic than tobacco. That is not a new idea. The study was simply a review of past studies, most of which were available to The Lancet report when it reviewed the evidence. I quoted The Lancet report as saying: There is some evidence that cannabis smoking may be even more likely than tobacco to generate bronchial ailments and to cause cancers especially if smoked in conjunction with tobacco. There is no reason for us to change our minds on that because we all know and accept that there is a carcinogenic risk. It would therefore be much better to have legal supplies of the substance, which are obliged to carry a health warning explaining that risk and others, as tobacco products do.

The British Lung Foundation also made the point, which has been mentioned, that modern cannabis supplies may contain much higher concentrations of its active element tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC. It implies that cannabis smoking is much more dangerous than it used to be and that although surveys have not found severe ill effects, they will in future. Whisky is much stronger than beer, but few people order it by the pint. I have not tried the stuff, and have no intention of doing so, but I understand that when people have stronger supplies of cannabis, they smoke less of it to get the same effect. So there is also no reason to change our mind on that.

The three other studies were more substantial. An Australian study said that there are risks of depression from heavy and sustained use of cannabis, especially if one starts young and if one is a woman. If I am not misinterpreting the figures, it seems to suggest that sustained use of cannabis reduces the risk of depression in young men. However, it certainly seems to show an increased risk of depression among the relatively small number of heavy female users.

The New Zealand study covers schizophrenia and depression. By contrast, it finds no link between depression and cannabis use, thereby undermining the Australian study. However, it finds a link between schizophrenic-type problems and the heavy and sustained use of cannabis.

The third major study is a reworking of the famous Swedish study of 50,000 people who were conscripted in 1969 and have been followed since. That reinforces previous evidence that suggests a link between cannabis use and schizophrenic symptoms. The Lancet report referred to the earlier reports of the Swedish study and agreed that cannabis could perhaps precipitate and exacerbate schizophrenic symptoms, but it concluded that cannabis is unlikely to have caused cases of schizophrenia that would not otherwise have occurred.

In the light of the latest reworking of the Swedish data, we cannot be quite so certain. Swedish researchers think that there may be some net addition to schizophrenic symptoms caused by cannabis smoking. However, we cannot yet accept that until there is some explanation. If that is the case, why has there not been a rise in the incidence of schizophrenia in the general population in western countries with the increased use of cannabis in recent decades? Unless and until we can explain that absence, we cannot suggest that the incidence will increase. Either way, however, we should discourage those who are susceptible to schizophrenia from taking cannabis, and discourage anybody from abusing it and using it excessively.

There is confusion between what is immoral and what is illegal. There are many who feel instinctively that even if cannabis had no risks to health and was in no danger of acting as a gateway to hard drugs, indulgence in it—and certainly excessive indulgence—would be morally wrong. However, in our modern world there is no greater sin than to moralise. Instead of voicing their moral disapproval of the abuse of cannabis, or explaining why they believe it to be immoral, people express their disapproval by exaggerating the health risks, by reading every conceivable study suggesting that there may be serious health risks, and by fostering the two previous confusions to which I have referred, that between soft drugs and hard drugs and between use and abuse.

I am an old-fashioned moralist. I accept that abuse of any drug to the point of intoxication is morally wrong, whether it be alcohol or anything else. It is degrading to get drunk out of one's mind. It undermines the conscience, and therefore for traditional Christian reasons it is wrong because it opens up the individual to committing far worse sins and evils. I believe that people would be better off explaining those moral consequences rather than exaggerating health and other risks.

In any event, many things are immoral or contrary to the prevailing moral code but are not crimes. Most people consider adultery to be wrong, but we do not fine or jail adulterers. It is bizarre to let people get drunk on alcohol, which is far more likely than cannabis to lead to violence, but to criminalise them for smoking one relaxing joint. A society with better understanding of the moral law and which was more willing to express its moral concerns would he less inclined to resort to the criminal law to solve social problems.

It is a sign of moral decadence to look to the state to uphold, to preach and to enforce what is morally right rather than to look to the individual conscience, to teachers and parents and others with moral standing to advise us on what is right and wrong. If we expect everything that is wrong to be made illegal, we shall find ourselves living in a very unpleasant society. I believe that the greater the freedoms we possess and the more responsibility we are allowed, in general the more responsibly people will behave.

I return to my original argument that both to break the—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman has had his time.

4.44 pm
Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in today's debate. When the Select Committee on Home Affairs decided to undertake an inquiry, we knew that we were treading on dangerous ground. At the end of those eight months, we understood even more the difficulty and complexity of the drugs issue.

As the Chairman of the Select Committee said, we heard from many different organisations and individuals, and heard many different arguments. I believe that our report was balanced, but of course such a report upsets people on both sides of the argument. Members have said today that they would like cannabis in particular to be decriminalised. The Select Committee looked at whether decriminalisation would send a message to young people who do not take the drug because it is illegal, and encourage them to take it. As has been said, there are possible long-term health problems associated with taking a drug such as cannabis so, if that message is sent, more people may suffer from medical conditions in future. I suspect, for example, that we would not legalise tobacco today.

I am pleased that the Government have accepted most of the Select Committee's recommendations, and welcome their commitment to increase funding for treatment, both inside and outside the criminal justice system. It is important that treatment should be available when people are in prison or when courts impose drug treatment and testing orders, but there should not be a perverse incentive for addicts to enter the criminal justice system to receive treatment. We should make sure that treatment is available for people when they want it. Many young people are addicted to heroin, and we see their parents at our surgeries. Not until those young people are willing to undergo treatment can their problems be addressed satisfactorily. They should receive such treatment there and then—they should not have to wait for months.

Drug addiction is one of the evils of modern society. We all know that every community in our constituencies is affected by it, although it obviously has a greater impact in areas of deprivation. However, addiction is also a problem in market towns and villages—we can see it everywhere—and it brings distress to those communities. It degrades users and makes parents desperate. As I said, those parents come to our surgeries, and it is difficult to know how to advise them. We can give the clear advice that the Minister gave earlier and refer them to a drug addiction team to get help for their children, but they are torn between the desire to protect them and getting them to face reality. They see their once-perfect children, who were growing up as caring individuals, become deceitful and fall into criminal activity to feed their habit including, very often, stealing from their own family. Parents are faced with a choice between keeping their children in the family home and trying to protect them—but suffering that thieving—and trying to reject them, getting them to face up to their problems and seek treatment. There is no easy answer for those parents but, as I have said, it is important that treatment is available when required and that there is support for families trying to cope with that situation.

We must aim at prevention in the first instance and our overall message must he that all drugs are harmful. However, we must be realistic, which is why I support the Committee's recommendations on downgrading cannabis and ecstasy. I know that the ecstasy issue is a difficult one, as deaths are caused by them. The overall message must be that there is a danger in taking ecstasy. That must be the fundamental message that we send out, but we must also recognise that ecstasy is not comparable to heroin, crack and cocaine—it is in a different league. We must send out a realistic message to young people, but we will not do so if we do not grade the risks properly.

The overall message must be that all drugs are harmful. Even in relation to cannabis, we have heard hon. Members speaking about the dangers of driving or contracting cancer and possibly suffering brain damage. We have also heard it said that the Government have sent the wrong message over the past year or so. Sometimes, however, it is the media that send the wrong message; it will not necessarily be the Government who do so.

Above all, the worst thing about drugs is addiction to heroin and cocaine. I welcome the Government's initiative to introduce innovative advertising and more measures to tackle crack cocaine, which is one of the neglected drugs in terms of treatment. I welcome the acceptance that we should tailor treatment services to the individual, including harm minimisation, needle exchange, methadone treatment and abstinence treatment where appropriate. I also welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister said about prison-to-home services, which are vital. I know of constituents who have died on getting home from prison and returning to the dose that they were taking previously.

We must tackle drug production and dealing. There is a difference between those who supply their friends with drugs of whatever sort and the big boys who probably never take them, but cripple our communities by dealing in all sorts of drugs. We must also tackle deprivation and the lack of hope among young people. That is where the Government's policy of tackling crime and the causes of crime is important. If young people are given hope, they will be less likely to fall into the habit in the first place.

I welcome the Government's acceptance of most of the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee. We have a long way to go and the problem will never be easy to address, but we have to tackle it in different ways.

4.52 pm
Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

I am delighted to take part in this debate.

Helping to produce the report, and serving on the Select Committee on Home Affairs discussing and debating it, has been by far the most interesting thing that I have done in the year and a half I have been in Parliament. Everyone on the Committee genuinely tried to empty their heads of preconceptions and to look at the evidence and think about it. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who introduced the debate. He chairs the Committee admirably and tries very hard to ensure that we reach unanimity, even if we cannot always do so.

I strongly believe that the report is the right one at the right time. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South spoke about the utter failure of drugs policy in this country over a long period. In the 1970s, there were 2,000 heroin addicts; today, there are 250,000. Cannabis use has consistently increased and 50 per cent. of young people now admit to having tried it. Last year, 3,500 of our fellow countrymen died through drug abuse—a 20 per cent. increase on a decade ago. Another health problem that is not often looked at is the fact that 300,000 people in this country have contracted hepatitis C through drug use, and one third of them are likely to die prematurely.

Before dealing with the recommendations, let me say that I feel extremely strongly about this subject and desperately want to see a reduction in drug abuse and better paths to enable people to get out of it. If one takes a slightly progressive—or, as I like to think of it, thoughtful—view, one can sometimes be accused of being soft. I reject that utterly. Friends and people close to me have had their lives ruined by drug abuse and I want us to tackle the problem properly. That is what the report is all about.

When we boil this report down and look at it closely, we see that its central point is that we must focus on the 250,000 problematic drug users. If we can get them into treatment, there will be a huge prize for this country. First, it would cut crime. The report estimates that 30 per cent. of property crime is committed by drug abusers, although the police in Oxford and many other towns and cities say that that is a massive underestimate. The report talks about each addict needing to steal £16,000 worth of products a year to fund their habit. I think that that, too, is a massive underestimate. If they are stealing from shops, they will often sell the products at a knock-down price. The value of the products that they need to steal is probably nearer to £40,000. Secondly, getting those people into treatment would save us a great deal of money. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said that it was pointless to send heroin users to prison, and I wholly agree with him. It is a waste of money. We must get them into treatment.

As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), I am pleased that some of what we have said has already been accepted on both sides of the House. The Government are placing a renewed emphasis on treatment, and some of the wilder targets of the drugs tsar have been cancelled. The tsar has not yet had the full Russian treatment—he has not been taken out and shot—but I sometimes think that Members on the Treasury Bench might like to lock him up, in true Russian fashion. On our side, policy has been changed—rightly—to give real emphasis to treatment. The proposals on mandatory treatment and trying to find ways of getting young people into treatment put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and the Front-Bench team have been hugely positive.

I would like to talk about two of the report's most contentious recommendations. The first involves the prescribing of heroin—diamorphine—and the second relates to the use of safe injecting rooms. Both those recommendations have the same end in mind, which is to get people into treatment and to make that happen quickly. We have to realise that every day that an addict spends out on the streets funding their habit is a time of crime, of ill health and, possibly, of death. Many people estimate the percentage of property crime committed by drug abusers to be nearer 50 per cent. than 30 per cent., which would mean that every other time someone's house was burgled or their car broken into, it would be drug-related. This provision will be of interest to all our constituents, if we can get it right.

I understand from the conversations that I have had with drug addicts and drugs workers that there is no single method of treatment that always works. We need to have a variety of methods. I plead with the Minister to acknowledge that the voluntary sector is terribly important in providing these services. In the old days, when all that was available was a few detox beds and a psychiatrist or a few junkie doctors, it was actually the voluntary sector organizations—such as Kaleidoscope in south London—that started to provide methadone scripts. Instead of handing out great big doses, they were handing out daily doses. They were socialising the people concerned, and talking to them to make sure that they were in contact with treatment provision. We must do that now.

The person to whom I spoke at Kaleidoscope made the point that there is nothing magic about illegal drugs. We have to try to make treatment attractive. She said that, when we talk to someone who has tried to give up smoking or has been on a diet, they will always say that the way they did it was the best way. It is the same with drug addicts. Someone who has had a residential placement will say how powerful it was, and how they rebuilt their life through the steps process. A similar thing happens when we talk to people on methadone replacement. We need to "let a thousand flowers bloom", if I can put it like that. We must make treatment attractive. Think of all the money that the Government spend on getting people to give up smoking. We have to try to draw people into treatment.

Why prescribe heroin? It has worked overseas; the evidence that the Committee heard on that was compelling. The average age of heroin addicts in this country is, tragically, still going down. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey mentioned that in other countries, such as Holland, it is going up. Furthermore, methadone is not suitable for everyone. Some very chaotic drug users need to be stabilised, and perhaps heroin is the answer for them. The proposal might also help to cut the number of drug-related deaths. The fact that 3,500 people died last year from drug overdoses shames us. Most importantly, whatever treatment is chosen—including heroin prescribing for the hardest cases—at least the people concerned are getting into treatment and making contact with the agencies and the people who can help them. This is a difficult decision for the Government, but I hope that they will make it and persevere with it, because I believe that it is the right one.

When I first heard about the concept of safe injecting rooms, I hated it. I thought the concept of the state providing a room for someone to inject something into their veins awful, but I listened to the arguments and, in particular, to Members such as the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice), who is in her place, and the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean), who has just spoken.

People who live in inner-city areas whose children have to step over drug paraphernalia in the streets and on housing estates deserve a break from heroin use in their communities. That takes me back to the point that safe injecting rooms at least get heroin users to a place where they can be contacted by the treatment agencies so that the work of trying to get them off drugs can start.

The point about contact is hugely important. Everyone says that drugs are not just a crime problem. They are not just a health problem or just a problem of poverty either. They are a social problem in the true meaning of the phrase. If Members talk to anyone who has or has had a heroin addiction problem, they will find that there is always something else wrong with such people's lives. That is where the voluntary sector in particular can help to pick them up and turn them round.

I hope that the Government will be brave. We are seeing some progress, although they are, I am afraid, sometimes fond of using tough language on subjects such as crime and asylum. This is not a time for tough language; they must just get it right. The Home Secretary called for an adult debate and I welcome that, but I did not welcome his response to the report, as he immediately ruled out one or two recommendations. We had spent hours thinking, debating, arguing and considering the evidence, but he seemed to dismiss those recommendations in a matter of minutes. Rather than rejecting them so hastily, it would have been better to spend time reflecting on them.

I shall make a number of suggestions based on my constituency experience of talking to people who have to deal with the problems of drugs. The first is on the system of DATs, or rather DAATs, as Oxfordshire has a drug and alcohol action team, which is headed by Bill Holman. He made the point to me that the Oxford coroner does not record drug-related deaths properly, so I would be grateful if the Minister looked into that; otherwise, we shall have no baseline for the target and no way to measure it.

The next point is on the structure of DATs. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) made a good speech in Westminster Hall about that, which I read as, sadly, I could not be present. There is a bit of confusion here. DATs are non-statutory bodies and in many cases most of the employees work for different agencies. In Oxfordshire, some are employed by the youth service, some by social services and some by the primary care trust. Although I am always against creating vast new bureaucracies, DATs need more clarity in how they are set up.

We should consider DAT funding streams: something comes from the Department for Education and Skills, something from the youth offending team and something from the Department of Health. On the whole, we should give those bodies the money and let them get on with the job. Social services rather than the DAT tends to commission residential care places. If we are to give DATs more power and more influence, we need to let them get on with it and commission a full service of education, prevention and treatment.

My next constituency point is on education. I would recommend to all Members that they sit at the back of a secondary school class when a drugs education programme is being conducted. I did so when a group of former addicts called Energy and Vision, which is part of the voluntary sector, was involved. It does education programmes across Oxfordshire, which are incredibly powerful. They are information based and nonjudgmental, and they provide proper information for the students, who were gripped by what they were told. That, however, was not namby-pamby or soft.

The ex-addicts described how their experimentation with drugs had led them down a dreadful path to losing their homes and friends, breaking up from their families, prison and the collapse of their lives. They had credibility and their programme had power, as they were not the men in suits referred to by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South.

We must be frank about education. Of course we want it to reduce drug use, but reducing drug abuse is key and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) made that point with great power. We know the figures—50 per cent. of young people try certain drugs—and it is most important that they understand the real risks of their experimentation and the risks of getting into drug abuse.

I want to make a point on policing. I met the police in Oxford, who are responsible for an active drug treatment and testing order programme and trying to get addicts into treatment. They included assistant chief constable Steve Love and Jim Trottman, who is in charge of policing in Oxford city. A point was made to me then that I consider important: I hope that the Minister will take it on board. Apparently, the police and the probation service do not always follow the same track. The police want to target the most prolific offenders and ensure that they are the subject of DTTOs, while the probation service is rewarded on the basis of the number who go through the system.

We must also consider the speed of the process. We all know about delays in the court system. The trouble with DTTOs is the need to wait until an offender who has carried out burglaries or car crimes, but is also involved with drugs, goes to court. Could treatment, or at least being referred for treatment, be a condition of police bail? If the arrested person rejected that condition, there would be an even faster track to court.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth

The updated strategy contains a proposal to pilot refusal of bail to those who are not prepared to accept treatment. We will consider early interventions of the kind that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Cameron

I am pleased to hear it, and I look forward to seeing whether the system works.

A common theme features in what has been said to me by those involved in education, by the police and by the DAAT. When things go wrong, treatment services must be available. They must be attractive, access to them must be quick, and we must ensure that they work. As others have said today, that means that there must be more places. Although residential places are not the only answer, there are not nearly enough. According to a written answer given to me, there are only 1,900 in the country, and I support the proposal of my Front-Bench team to increase the number, while retaining all the existing treatment options.

Let me end with a plea to the Minister. This is an incredibly difficult subject. It is impossible to control from Whitehall the number of drugs that will be taken, what new drugs will appear and what will happen to the figures. If the figures do not do the right thing, I ask the Government not to return to retribution and war on drugs. That has been tried, and we all know that it does not work.

I think we are making progress. Of course, anyone who takes part in a debate like this is in danger of being called soft. Following the report's publication I was introduced in this way by a local radio station: "Now we will hear from a Conservative MP who thinks that heroin addicts should be given prescriptions for ecstasy". That was a tough one; it was difficult for me to explain my way out of it.

I think, though, that if we get this right we will have a chance to cut crime, save money, improve the health of the country and even save lives. That is definitely worth a brickbat or two.

5.7 pm

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

I am pleased to be able to contribute, and I will try to be brief.

Let me make a confession to my colleagues on the Select Committee, and to the Chairman in particular. I was a relatively new member when the Committee decided to look at the Government's drug policy. In fact, I was an entirely new member: it was at the first sitting that we drew up the topics that we wanted to investigate.

I remember the occasion well. When a colleague suggested that we investigate drugs, my immediate reaction—which I did not share with the Committee—was "Why? Do we not all know where we stand? Drugs are a bad thing; we are all against them: people who take them are stupid or inadequate or easily led, and we know that those who sell them are horrible criminals who ought to be banged up for as long as possible". At any rate, my views were close to that. I was not looking forward to an investigation that seemed to have no real purpose. I had already made up my mind: I took a very hard line, and no one was going to make me deviate from it.

After a thorough and at times difficult series of evidence sessions, I was forced to reconsider. I still think all drugs are bad and I still think drug pushers should be given the heaviest of sentences, but I no longer believe that we have been tackling the scourge of drugs in our society in the best way possible. So I would say to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), who has just left the Chamber, that I do not mind being called radical, but I draw the line at being called liberal, for a variety of reasons.

Simon Hughes

Not related to this debate.

Ms Prentice


The most obvious failure in the Government's drugs policy is that young people, who are the customers of the drug dealers, do not believe in the current strictures. That is not to say that they do not believe that drugs are bad for them or that they are wrong; they simply do not believe the message as we present it. They have seen their friends take cannabis and survive; they have even heard the arguments about the beneficial aspects of some drugs and they do not consider it to be such a big deal. They also know about the downside of alcohol and tobacco, so they think that those of us wearing suits are just a tad hypocritical when we go over the top about cannabis. Indeed, had we known earlier what we know now about tobacco we might have banned it. I believe that the Government's change of tack on cannabis is right. It should remain illegal, but it should not be such a serious offence as it was, and it should not be classified the same as harder drugs. That change is logical and understandable and is much more likely to be accepted and understood. If a law is consistently flouted, it becomes useless.

We also felt that a similar change should be made in respect of ecstasy. I heard my hon. Friend the Minister say why he believes that cannot happen. We thought long and hard, but we felt that the evidence from parents and others persuaded us that ecstasy should be reclassified. The Government have set out guidelines for clubbing, so they clearly realise that ecstasy is different from heroin and cocaine.

Heroin and crack cocaine gave rise to the most frightening problem, which was examined in probably the most difficult and stressful Select Committee sittings: namely, whether those giving evidence were users or whether their families had suffered. Initially, the families suffer most. They have goods stolen from their homes; they have to face the shame and the blame in their local communities when the addict steals from others to pay for his habit; they experience the despair and degradation of witnessing the drug take control of their son, daughter, brother or sister; and, finally, they suffer the sorrow and pain when a son or brother dies from an overdose or from using impure drugs. We would all agree that, for parents, watching a child die a painful and horrible death that they can do nothing to prevent must be a most harrowing experience. The parents who have been mentioned today, Tina Williams and Fulton Gillespie, helped me understand why we had to change the policy. I believe that it is right for the Government to concentrate their resources on the 250,000 or so chaotic drug users and at the same time bring down the full force of the law on those who traffic drugs and prey on those drug abusers.

I read the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on heroin use. It is a brave report and I understand many of the pleas that he makes. I was particularly concerned by his constituents' negative response to the National Treatment Agency. I hope that that is not typical around the country.

An even greater concern is that there are simply not enough agencies around, which is why it is right to concentrate on prevention and treatment. Some GPs have little understanding of or sympathy with drug users and need training to ensure that they approach the problem more positively and help young people. That is why drug abusers are often alienated from their GPs. They are very reluctant to come before certain professionals because they do not believe that they will get an appropriate response. I therefore hope that the Government's changes in respect of prevention and treatment will make a big difference.

In telling us about the lack of available treatment, Tina Williams described her son, who is a heroin addict: He has no veins left in his body; all his neck veins went; all his groin veins went. However, it did not make any difference, there was still a five month waiting list. There is no such thing as an emergency. I do hope that the philosophy that now underpins the Government's strategy will ensure that Tina Williams' experience will not be repeated.

I want to underline the plea from the Chairman of the Select Committee for at least a pilot on injecting rooms. The hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) described the situation in inner cities, parks and open spaces, and on the landings of tower blocks. Finding needles is not the way for young people to learn that drugs are a bad thing, and I hope that the Government will look again at the issue.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said that the original strategy was too ambitious, but in my view it was simply wrong, and the drugs tsar has to take some responsibility for that. The Government should probably be commended for recognising that they were wrong, and for changing course. No one is ignoring the dangers of drugs; it is those dangers that have led the Committee to reach its conclusions. I did not expect the Government to agree with every one of its recommendations—much as I would have liked them to—but I hope that the new strategy will be simply the first update, and that they will return to this issue periodically. In doing so, I hope that they will continue to use our report as a reference point.

I shall finish by briefly quoting Tina Williams again, because it is the families of drug users who really feel the brunt of the problems that arise: If you speak to the family, everybody is affected; my grandson is affected as are his brothers and sisters. There have been no holidays for five years. The home has just really stood there, it has stood still because time has stood still for me. Just like any parent, if you have a child and that child is sick, you drop everything to try and pick that child up. That is why I feel so sad for people who have lost their children and for people who are still dying. In this country, three people die a day from addiction"— drug addiction— and I think it can all be avoided. If the services were in place, then death could be avoided. I hope that the Government's updated drug strategy will give Ms Williams hope, and bring about fulfilment of it.

5.18 pm
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)

The failure of the Government's drugs strategy to date means that our country still faces a very significant problem that affects the whole of our society—the wealthiest, the poorest, and everyone in between. Indeed, I think it highly unlikely that anyone of my generation does not know of someone who has succumbed to the horrors of drug addiction.

This is not just an urban problem. Now, our towns and villages have almost instant access to heroin, cannabis and—increasingly—crack cocaine. That is certainly the case in my own constituency, where there are almost weekly reports in the local papers of drug-related incidents, be it cannabis smoking underneath the skateboard ramps in Godmanchester, or heroin raids in Huntingdon. Indeed, almost every local youngster whom I speak to on the topic knows pretty much instantly where they can purchase drugs, whether or not they use them personally.

While it is clear that the Government have failed to meet almost every one of their targets for controlling illegal drugs, we need to look forward. However, I do not see enough in the new proposals to suggest that we are tackling the root of the problem, which, to my mind, is ultimately a question of addressing cultural values. However, I appreciate the fact that we are having this debate, and I welcome the Select Committee's proactive stance. I freely admit that I am no expert on drugs. However, I recognise that the issue is one of the most important social matters in my constituency. It is essential that hon. Members make it their business to educate themselves about drugs. In that way, we will be able to deal with the enforcement and medical-related factors, and understand the cultural implications.

For most drug takers, drug use is very much bound up with the concept of glamour. They want to be part of a clandestine counter culture, and to be alternative. Education, awareness and, above all, open debate are vital. Discussing the implications of drug use in a wider context would go some way towards breaking down drugs' attractive, private-club aspect and, therefore, their so-called glamour.

Describing crack cocaine and heroin as glamorous is repulsive to me, but the word provides an accurate description of the way many young people approach them. Many people will remember the advertisement that used the image of a young woman crouched dead on the floor with a needle in her arm. Some will have found that shocking, but most young people have been hardened by screen violence, and seduced by heroin chic in the fashion world and films such as "Trainspotting".

I should note that I do not want to denigrate that film, which portrayed reality and showed how heroin can cause people to die sad and lonely deaths choking on their own vomit. However, it also showed how some young people—living on sink council estates or bored in some idyllic country village—can see heroin as a glamorous escape from their everyday environments.

The advertisement to which I have referred failed because it concentrated on the damage that drugs can cause the people who use them, and ignored the wider implications for society, dependants and families. The truly unacceptable aspect of addiction is the destruction of families, and the way in which the houses of family members and neighbours are looted for drugs money.

We should aim to remove the glamour from drugs. We should explain the personal impact that they have on users, but it is also vital that we make children aware at a very early age of the impact that addicts have on the people around them. We must make children aware of their responsibilities towards other people. Instead of showing children pictures of overdosing addicts, I think that they should be exposed to pictures of the victims of drug-fuelled crime, of grieving parents and HIV-infected babies, and of old people on hospital trolleys waiting for a teenager to have his stomach pumped.

The Government's proposal to reclassify cannabis from class B to class C is a mistake. Leaving the technicalities aside, what message is being given to young people? Is it that the Government will take responsibility, and say that using cannabis is wrong and will be punished? No. Is it that the Government will take responsibility and say that cannabis is acceptable, that they will identify dosages and protect people from spiked dosages? No, I do not get that message either.

I believe that the message from the Government is that they want to make no comment on cannabis use. As long as people do not sell cannabis, their use of the drug has nothing to do with the Government. That is the worst of both worlds. As the experience on Lambeth shows, it will lead to a massive increase in the drug's use, and in effect hand control of the situation over to drug dealers.

Paul Flynn

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Djanogly

I should love to, but I am severely restricted for time, and other hon. Members wish to speak.

The position is the same for hard drugs. A few weeks ago, I sat in on a prison drugs rehabilitation group run by the excellent organisation RAPt. I learned a lot from the young men in the group. Normally, heroin addicts are treated by being given methadone. Most of the men in the group had been on 10 or more methadone courses. They all said that the courses had done absolutely nothing for them.

With respect to those hon. Members who have spoken in support of the alternative, those young men did not talk about swapping methadone for prescription drugs or about having access to legal shooting galleries. They all said that the only effective treatment was rehabilitation.

Mr. Cameron

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Djanogly

I would love to, but I cannot.

Rehabilitation is slower, more intensive and more expensive, but it works. The experience made me realise that the policy advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), of increasing rehabilitation tenfold—we can argue about exactly what tenfold means—and giving young people a clear choice between rehabilitation or prison is the right one. I urge the Government to go down that road.

More than 60 per cent. of prisoners in many of our jails take heroin. Drug testing is, if anything, making matters worse—prisoners are switching from cannabis to heroin, which stays in the body for a shorter period. A generation of prisoners is leaving our jails with huge drug debts that force them to reoffend immediately to pay off their debts and feed their habit. In the prison that I visited, only 5 per cent. of inmates had access to rehab, and how grateful they were for being given a new chance in life. That figure must be increased.

Likewise, although excellent work is being carried out in my constituency by groups such as DASH—Drug and Alcohol Service Huntingdon—and DIAL Druglink to tackle drug-related crime, provide counselling, develop employment opportunities and educate children, there are not enough available funds for them. Huntingdonshire primary care trust, with a population of 148,000, provides 1,600 structured counselling sessions a year. However, it calculates that it needs four times that number of consultant sessions to be effective. It is also concerned at the lack of Government understanding of the practicalities for local areas in implementing the Government's compulsory 200-page long treatment notes, given the inadequate space and resources to operate it. It is all very well to come out with new strategies and 200-page guidance notes, but the Government must appreciate that they need paying for, and that is not happening at present.

Finally, I note that not enough is being said here today or generally about alcohol abuse. Several hon. Members have mentioned the connection between drugs, driving and alcohol. There is a lack of clarity surrounding the Government's policy on how drugs and alcohol policy combine. My local PCT has been told that drugs funding is only to be used for drugs misuse, although many drug addicts also have alcohol problems. The two cannot be detached. I ask the Government to look at the issue again.

If this debate is the start of a new mindset for the Government in acting on the massive implications of drugs in our society, it has my full support and I welcome it. However, I do not feel that what I have heard in the Government's proposals so far will be adequate to solve the problem.

5.27 pm
Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West)

I welcome this report and the amount of money that the Government have invested in it. I have always felt that public money invested in an anti-drugs strategy, providing that it is effective, is one of the most cost-effective ways of using such money.

Inevitably, following the report of the Select Committee, the debate has been dominated by the issues involving the appropriate level of criminality of various classes of drugs and rehabilitation. In the short time available to me, I want to focus on effectively breaking into the drugs distribution network. Labour Members agree that all drugs are dangerous, whatever their criminal classification, and that they are promoted and marketed by a network of criminals who are ruthlessly efficient and very effective. There is a real danger that however effective our rehabilitation programmes, this criminal operation will continue to recruit new people to drug-taking, irrespective of our propaganda initiatives.

The Assets Recovery Agency is mentioned in the report. Unfortunately, I feel that its potential in combating drugs use is being underplayed. When the Minister commented on the confiscation of criminal assets, he did not mention that the ARA, set up under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, can target people with a criminal lifestyle, such as drug dealers, even though there is not sufficient proof to prosecute them in a criminal court. Currently, that procedure is under-used.

After all, a drug dealer is fairly obvious. Such people tend to drive flash cars and wear gold chains and designer suits. They are certainly not renowned for squirreling their money away in a stakeholder pension. They like to cut a dash in their local, criminal, youth-oriented community, where they act as negative role models for marginalised young people who want to get in on the act.

It is essential that we tackle the drug dealers. By identifying them and confiscating their assets, the ARA could remove one of the strongest incentives for taking up that activity. The agency could knock out a link of the chain that spreads drugs and the misery associated with them.

I realise that many members of the Home Affairs Select Committee have spoken in the debate. I am a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. We visited Dublin and talked to members of the Irish Criminal Assets Bureau, which does a job similar to that of the ARA. Ireland has a population of only 3 million and the drugs market is much more rudimentary, yet the CAB has achieved remarkable success. Over the past six years, it has obtained £72 million in confiscated assets from criminals in Ireland—a not inconsiderable sum.

In this country, previous legislation on such matters has not worked effectively. A report from the Cabinet Office performance and innovation unit, published before the establishment of the ARA, stated: Specially tasked law enforcement officers struggle to investigate the financial aspects of crime to support this effort, but their effectiveness is limited by their numbers and … training. If the legislation is to be effective, we need to increase considerably the number of officers engaged in asset recovery.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth

I agree with my hon. Friend, but if he feels that we have not yet made a hit of the ARA that is because the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 only became law in the summer, so it is not yet fully established. We have trained 86 extra financial investigators for individual police forces and set up a centre of excellence—so watch this space. We fully intend to use all the powers in the Act.

Mr. Bailey

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments. To a certain extent, they pre-empt my next few points. However, when we interviewed the officials who were setting up the ARA, they said that the estimated number of staff was 100. That compares with 44 in the CAB so, if we bear in mind the fact that the population of Eire is 3 million while that of the UK is 60 million, the evidence that we took in April this year suggests that there is no great appreciation of the potential importance of the role of the agency, despite my hon. Friend's reassuring words.

I hope that the Home Office will take this seriously because it is a way in which we can make a significant impact. We will emerge with a social and financial virtuous circle. As half the money will be put into a recovered assets fund that can be recycled to deal with drug dealing, the more successful we are, the more money we earn to invest in the very processes that have been successful in the first place. There is a financial benefit and there are social benefits that accrue from tackling drugs.

In my constituency, there is a communities against drugs scheme, and I want to emphasise its success. There have been mutterings—I say no more than that—that if local authorities have not spent the money allocated to them in this financial year, they will have it reclaimed. My constituency was slow to get going, but there is now a range of initiatives that are proving effective, including four effectively targeted police operations in which 45 people were arrested, £50,000 was confiscated and £12,000 worth of drugs was obtained. There is a drugs information line that has had 100 calls, as well as parents support groups and school initiatives. I plead with the Minister not to be precipitate in removing any money from such local initiatives because my local authority has ideas, is working on them and will use the money effectively.

5.36 pm
Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

I was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee when it investigated drugs policy. Two weeks before the investigation began, the Home Secretary informed the Committee of his intention to downgrade cannabis from class B to class C. At that moment, I knew that whatever proved to be the outcome of the Committee's deliberations, cannabis would indeed be downgraded to class C; a serious misjudgment, in my view.

I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) for his great patience in dealing with the many amendments that I tabled to the Select Committee report. He will know that I felt unable to add my name to those of the rest of the Committee on the final report. The Committee's investigations, spanning several months, polarised the debate into two schools of thought; the relative importance of harm reduction versus prevention.

Important though harm reduction undoubtedly is, it cannot stand alone as a policy and is doomed to failure without stringent prevention measures, backed up by enforcement. The notion that treatment can be provided to any existing drug addict who either wants it or is prescribed it as part of a criminal sentence, plus unlimited provision for the constant stream of new addicts, is a fantasy and is unaffordable. That is why I contend that of all the strategies available for reducing drug abuse in this country, prevention is by far the most important.

We must prevent the young people of today from becoming the drug addicts of tomorrow and swelling the ranks of those already addicted if the amount of treatment needed is ever to become manageable.

There are many who would say that drug use should be a matter of individual freedom and choice and, indeed, if people were able to take drugs in isolation and without harming anyone but themselves, there might be an argument for that. The tragic fact is that it is not just the individual who suffers. It is also their family, friends, work colleagues and the wider community in terms of drug-related crime and benefit dependency. This is a freedom too far, where the freedom of the individual impinges on the freedom of too many others.

The metropolitan trendy elite might find it amusing to take drugs socially, but they can afford to check in to an equally trendy and elite clinic for treatment whenever they need it. How unlike the residents of council estates who are no longer able to hold down a job because their drug dependence has robbed them of the ability to observe the normal disciplines of everyday life; the motivation to get out of bed in the morning, to arrive on time at work, to carry out the duties of their job and to interact with other people in a socially acceptable way. They so often also lose their moral fibre and turn to crime in the overwhelming need to meet the cost of their drug habits. However, it is not a fair or complete picture that paints drug addicts as simply victims and places all the blame on the dealers.

People who have disregarded all the available education and advice on the results of drug taking must, to varying degrees and depending on circumstances such as their age, take their share of responsibility for that decision, alongside the dealers. The market is demand led. That is why prevention is so important. Proper prevention, linked to proper education in schools and colleges, would reduce demand at one end of the market, while harm reduction reduces it at the other.

The main focus of new drugs policies is on the treatment of existing users of heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine. Those hard drugs do serious damage to the physical and emotional health of the user. However, there is overwhelming evidence—both medical and from the police—that the majority of hard drug users start on cannabis. That is not the same as saying that all cannabis users progress—I suppose that "regress" would be the more appropriate word—to heroin and cocaine, but it is fair to say that most hard drug users arrive there via the cannabis route. That is why downgrading cannabis is wrong. It gives out entirely the wrong message, especially to young people, that cannabis is harmless, legal or both.

Paul Flynn

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Angela Watkinson

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I will not because of the lack of time.

The mind-altering qualities of cannabis are so complex that, despite momentous medical advances, doctors still do not fully understand them. Some 75 per cent. of young people who suffer psychotic illness have a history of cannabis abuse. Even people in robust mental health suffer negative effects from the odd joint. Those effects may include a short-term lack of resolve, a lesser ability to work, drive a car or operate machinery and an unwillingness to make a physical or mental effort.

Beyond that, there is an unknown percentage with a mental or chemical predisposition for psychotic illness, and cannabis can trigger altered moods, confusion, delusions or even hallucinations in those people. Some ethic communities in which cannabis use is endemic suffer hugely increased levels of psychosis—up to 20 times greater than the general population.

Reducing the number of cannabis users would, in turn, reduce the numbers of new heroin and cocaine addicts, thereby reducing demand. Any relaxation of the law that makes drugs more accessible or reduces penalties will result, inevitably, in increased use and marketing, and be counter-productive to a national policy of reducing drug abuse.

The Government publication "Safer Clubbing" contains guidelines on the safer use of ecstasy in nightclubs. The formal acceptance of drug taking as an integral part of a night out is a classic example of the prevention versus harm reduction argument. Such harm reduction includes the provision of chill-out rooms and making drinking water available, giving the impression that ecstasy will be safe if water is drunk. In fact, drinking too much water can be just as harmful as not drinking enough.

The role of the police is now reduced to minimising use and co-ordinating with harm reduction policies. What does that mean in practice? In effect, it means noninterference and acceptance. To prevent more fatalities, we should aim for co-operation between police, nightclub owners and local licensing authorities in working towards drug-free clubs. What we have instead is capitulation on the grounds that offenders are too numerous to deal with under current police resources. If the same policy were suggested for burglary, for example, which is equally prolific, there would be a public outcry.

A drugs policy focused on harm reduction for hard-drug users is destined to fail because of the ever-increasing demand for expensive treatment, which has to compete for national health service funding with the whole spectrum of health issues.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth


Angela Watkinson

I am sorry; I am short of time, and I am reading as fast as I can.

The national drug strategy, published on Tuesday, seems to interpret harm reduction as meaning making it easier for people to take drugs and considering making them free of charge and freely available. That will be an extraordinary policy for any Government to introduce. It involves a removal of sanction or any deterrent and would amount to an acceptance of drug habits and effortless access. What message do the Government think that that would send out? It is like saying, "Don't worry, if you choose to take illegal drugs and develop a habit that ruins your health and your finances, the taxpayer will look after you without so much as a slap on the wrist." It amounts to a total removal of accountability and personal responsibility, and it will do nothing to reduce the number of drug addicts.

The Government must put much greater emphasis on prevention. The first essential in prevention policy is proper drugs education. Some of the literature that is currently in use, which passes for education, is information of the most undesirable kind. Lifeline, a Manchester-based charity, in a booklet about cannabis, shows how a joint is rolled. The first piece of advice in a section entitled How to survive your parents discovering you're a Drug User is, Don't get caught in the first place. Other Lifeline publications are full of four-letter words, shockingly graphic illustrations or instructions on how to inject. One of the favourite phrases is "informed choice". Anyone advocating "informed choice" for other widespread illegal activities, such as speeding or shoplifting, would be severely censured. Why should it be different with drugs? Even if they were properly informed about drugs, and most are not, there should be no choice. Drugs are illegal. Anyway, children are not mature enough to choose. They are not miniature adults. They should never be put in the position of making critical life decisions. In 2000, DrugScope, our largest drug charity, distributed a booklet on cannabis in its "What and Why" series. One of the illustrations shows a young man in the midst of a crop of cannabis plants, wearing a cap that says, "Have fun, Take care". What sort of message does that send to our children?

Harm reduction education does not tackle drugs; it accommodates them. Ofsted inspections must start to address that problem. The majority of teenagers do not use any illegal drugs, and never have done. The biggest weapon that we have in prevention is normalisation and helping those under pressure to see the truth: that their abstention from illegal drugs and tobacco is the norm at any age of childhood, adolescence or adulthood.

The problem is vast in scope, and is a great challenge to the Government, but in making hard drug taking easier and downgrading cannabis—the drug that so often leads to a hard drug habit—the national drug strategy is defeatist and counterproductive. The additional funding allocated to tackling the problem will be as effective as trying to fill a bath without putting in the plug. Prevention is that plug, and it must be given much higher priority. The war on drugs has not been lost; it has never been waged.

5.47 pm
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

If somebody had told me in 1997, when I came to the House, that we would have such a debate just five years hence, I would not have believed them. Only one or two people in the House at that stage were willing to put their heads above the parapet and suggest some of the ideas that have been accepted by the Government recently. We were regarded, if you will pardon the expression, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as crackpots.

I am therefore very pleased to take part in the debate today, and I congratulate the Government on the radical steps that they are prepared to take. Clearly, the current policies were not working, radical thinking was necessary, and development of the policy was essential. That is what we have seen in the last few months. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and all the members of that Committee on their hard work in taking evidence and producing an excellent report, which came on top of the report by the Police Foundation, whose committee was chaired by Lady Runciman.

Not a great deal of time remains, so I shall concentrate on a matter that has not been mentioned in today's debate. Many organisations have written to me in my capacity as chairman of the all-party group on drugs misuse, and I shall start by addressing the question of the guidance notes in a recent consultation on an amendment by section 38 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 to section 8(d) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Following the Wintercomfort case in Cambridge, I raised the possible consequences in a debate in this place on 9 November last year. Since then, guidance notes have been circulated for consultation and section 8(d) is just about to be amended. In fact, the consultation period ended on 8 November this year.

Several organisations are concerned about some of the proposals. Previously, it was illegal for organisations to allow cannabis and prepared opium to be used on their premises. The pattern of drugs misuse since 1971 has moved on and it is admitted that future legislation needs to cover heroin, cocaine and crack, amphetamines, LSD, ecstasy and so on. The reason stated for the change in the regulations is that the police need powers to deal with the closed drug markets, mainly the crack houses and, in particular, the crack houses in London.

Section 8(b) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 already applies to the supply of all controlled drugs on premises, and it has been used. Indeed, a number of authorities in London—for example, Camden, Lambeth and Hackney—have developed policies to deal with crack houses quite efficiently.

Unlike heroin, which is a depressant and for which substitute drugs are available, cocaine either as the salt or the base, which is otherwise known as crack, is a serious stimulant that can make its users extremely aggressive, and no substitute drug is available. Cocaine is the biggest difficulty that we now face in the drug market.

Outside London, cocaine was not a great problem until recently, but concern is growing in large cities, such as Manchester, and even in places such as Bolton, which is part of greater Manchester. The supply of cocaine in the north is being accelerated by the fact that flights from the Caribbean rim now come into Manchester airport. Swallowers or mules—call them what we will—now come into Manchester airport in the same way as they come into Schiphol airport.

I was at Schiphol a few weeks ago, watching the treatment of drugs swallowers. Fifteen drug offenders are arrested each day at the airport and the authorities admit that they miss many more. Forty people came in on a flight from the Caribbean rim recently and they were all carrying up to a kilogram of cocaine in their gastro-intestinal tract.

Organisations working in drug treatment and those working with the homeless, in particular, feel that the proposed changes to the law will be unworkable if they are enacted and will be detrimental to drugs users, voluntary organisations and the public at large. It is feared that the changes will result in an increased number of homeless people on the streets, and nearly all of them will have serious drug problems. They will be unable to access accommodation for a long time and support services will not be readily available to them.

The guidance notes require those who know that drugs are being used on premises to contact the police as soon as possible. I submit to my hon. Friend the Minister that that alone might result in a lack of trust between the homeless people with serious drug problems and the organisations trying to help them. Organisations also fear that police forces will apply the law inconsistently across the country, although there is the backstop of the Crown Prosecution Service.

Agencies whose aim is to get drug users off the streets and stabilised before treatment is possible are particularly concerned by the new regulations, although the Government admit that special measures will have to be made available for the people who welcome in serious drug addicts. However, the proposed consultation document contains no mention of the paraphernalia that drug users use to inject themselves or of the sharps bins that will be required on the premises. Some clarification of that aspect is necessary.

Surely we should welcome it if all serious drug users who live on the streets come inside and at least stabilise themselves, even if they do not offer themselves up for the treatments that will be made available much wider than hitherto. It must be recognised that the only chance of survival for a small but growing cohort of very chaotic drug users is long-term maintenance on heroin or diamorphine. So I am pleased that the Government are to extend the prescribing of clinically pure heroin.

Although the draft guidance notes enable police to take into account harm reduction factors when deciding whether to prosecute, it will remain illegal to allow substance misuse on premises, whatever the motivation. A decision to act illegally would have serious consequences on the charitable status of many organisations.

The organisations are also concerned that if they are caught in the act of helping someone with a serious drug problem and are prosecuted under the regulations, they will lose their insurance. So organisations that help homeless people with serious drug problems face the risk of going out of business.

There are curious anomalies, too, which I hope the Minister will consider. Although allowing the use of cannabis on premises will carry the maximum penalty of five years imprisonment once it is reclassified, the user's offence will carry a maximum penalty of only two years. Who would want to report a drug overdose on their premises if the police are likely to prosecute under the amended regulations? That might encourage people whose friends have overdosed on the premises to remove the body to avoid prosecution.

If enacted in full, the amended regulations might affect parents who buy their offspring heroin so that they can treat them at home. Registered social landlords, such as housing associations, and even private landlords are fearful of the new regulations and may not let drug users take tenancies with them. I urge the Secretary of State and the Minister to consider the proposals in the light of all the comments that organisations have made.

5.57 pm
Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the ongoing debate on what is probably the most intractable social issue confronting our society. Many hon. Members have said that drugs are a massive problem, and there is great concern and anxiety in every community the length and breadth of the UK about them. If we asked the public to name the social issues that most concern them, any survey would put drugs in the top five. The public are desperate for solutions and desperate to make progress.

The public have also heard it all before. There are a few significant differences in the report, but I have a sense of déjà vu. I am a new Member, but I have heard all the arguments before. That might have something to do with the fact that before I came to the House, I served as a director of a drugs charity that considered drugs issues. I was also in the Scotland Against Drugs campaign team. I have, perhaps, overdosed on drugs strategies in the past few years. Although there have been countless strategies, approaches and fresh starts, I am desperately trying to think of one that has made any significant progress on dealing with the drugs menace in our society.

We have set targets that have never been met. We have employed drugs tsars who go off in a huff after achieving absolutely nothing. We have set out new approaches that have been met by a tidal wave of new and emerging problems. What has underpinned successive strategies in the past three decades, as the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, is our unshattering belief in prohibition—that by keeping drugs illegal we will keep people off drugs. If we look at the history of those strategies, we must come to the desperate conclusion that they have been less than successful. Drug use has spiralled almost out of control under prohibition. Drug taking among young people is routine. A black economy has emerged, with associated gangsterism and petty crime, which creates havoc in many of our hard-pressed communities. If prohibition has underpinned so many of our strategies, the drugs war has been its popular cause.

The drugs war is the Vietnam of our social issues because there are so many correlations between them. The drugs war is fought on uncertain terrain, with limited intelligence against an elusive and determined adversary. Like the Vietnam war, the drugs war is well and truly lost. The only people who would go over the top in the drugs war are the Conservative Front Bench and a few of their fellow travellers on the Conservative Benches.

We have continued to overlook the central relationship between drugs and young people. Recognition of that has been lacking during the debate. We still do not understand why young people take drugs. We have had drugs within our society for about 30 or 40 years. As a society, we are relatively experienced in dealing with drugs issues. However, we have learned little from that experience. After 30 or 40 years, we do not know why certain groups of young people take certain drugs. Why is that? The answer is that we have never bothered to ask them in a proper scientific and rational way.

Surely it would be the most obvious thing in the world to ask people why they take drugs and what benefits they think that they get from their consumption. Instead of engaging young people in a proper and constructive debate about their drug use, we bombard them with propaganda. We tell them that essentially drugs are bad for them, that we must educate them off drugs and that they must say no. We try to frighten them off drugs.

Some of the education initiatives probably have had success. I believe that they have probably saved quite a few people from pursuing a career in drugs. However, such propaganda has acted also as a macabre recruiting sergeant for drugs. The propaganda bombardment makes drugs seem dangerous and exciting and they then relate to the morbidity that especially young and middle teenagers experience. We tend to deploy the present strategy because in our adult debate about drugs we like a prescriptive solution. We like targets and strategies. However, that is a million miles away from the debate that young people have about drugs. Young people do not start to engage with our debate and they do not understand it, as we do not understand their debate. All that young people want is to have a good time and to get high.

As well as young people not understanding our debate about drugs, they could not care a whit about the legal status of drugs. If that legal status had any effect or any impact, we would see that in terms of ecstasy, which is a class A drug. If someone is caught in possession of ecstasy, or worse still caught dealing in it, he or she could face a lengthy prison sentence. He or she could face a considerable fine. The result would be a criminal record. However, on any given Saturday evening, about a quarter of a million ecstasy tablets are consumed. So much for the possibility of securing a lengthy prison sentence or a massive fine as a means to depress demand. Legal sanctions are nothing but a passing nuisance for most young people and a source of part of the buzz for others. Such was the fear of the law that even prospective Conservative Front-Benchers smoked their joints without fear of possible repercussions.

Prohibition has been less than a success, but I say to those who advocate legalisation or decriminalisation that those approaches would probably be even worse. Prohibition has not worked and has not underpinned our strategies, but there is no reason to suggest that legalisation would fare any better. We need to focus on the greatest killer of all drugs, the drug that causes us the greater number of problems and poses the greatest associated health risk, and that is alcohol. We know that alcohol has almost a monopoly on the legal drugs market. It is a good example of what would happen if drugs became legal. New products would be developed. Manufacturers of alcoholic drinks compete with one another to try to secure new markets to try to entice new customers. In the past decade, the industry has been especially successful in attracting new customers. We have seen the coming of alcopops for new entrants.

Paul Flynn

I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman's speech enormously. Does he recall that during the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, the form of alcohol concerned was distilled spirit, the most concentrated and deadly form of alcohol that killed many people because they could not control the alcohol content? Illegal drugs are in the hands of criminals and they are being sold in their most dangerous form. If there is a system of licensed regulation, the likelihood is that much weaker forms of the drugs would be available.

Pete Wishart

I am making the point that if we introduce illegal drugs to a legal market, we may see legal drugs competing for that youth market. Manufacturers will try to develop new products to entice young entrants to the marketplace. As well as having alcopops, we might have cannabis candies or ecstasy allsorts. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that that would be a health disaster. Prohibition has not been a success, but legalisation would make matters 10 times worse.

Hon. Members have looked at third ways to solve other problems, so I propose a third way to tackle illegal drugs. To their credit, the Government are crawling towards that, however ham-fisted their approach. We need reclassification to be realistic and credible, especially for young people. It is nonsense to include ecstasy in the same category as heroin and cocaine—that exaggerates the danger of ecstasy but diminishes the danger of heroin and cocaine—but it does not make sense to include it in the same category as amphetamines and barbiturates, as that has the reverse effect. What is wrong with broadening the classifications? Why can we not have more drugs categories, which would make more sense than current classifications?

I said that the Government's approach to drugs is ham-fisted because I still do not know what they want to achieve. Throughout the UK, there is confusion about the Government's strategy. In the Criminal Justice Bill, a great hokey-cokey is going on—one foot is in on the reclassification of cannabis, but one foot is out, as the Government want increased tariffs for class C offences. No wonder no one knows what is going on. It is almost possible to believe that the Government will lead us to the top of the hill on decriminalisation only to take us all the way down again. It is incumbent on them to tell us what on earth is going on.

If there is confusion in England, there is even more in Scotland. Drug laws remain reserved to Westminster, but no consideration is given to the fact that we have our own legal system in Scotland, as well as our own policing arrangements. As for changing drugs laws, the Scottish Police Federation has said that the downgrading of cannabis to class C would make little practical difference. We do not have a system of cautions in Scotland, so people who are found in possession of small quantities of cannabis will still be reported to the procurator fiscal. The change in the law makes no sense to Scotland. I am disappointed that not one Labour Back Bencher from Scotland is in the Chamber tonight. Are they not interested at all in drug laws? It is a disgrace that not one of those 56 Members are here tonight.

In conclusion, I congratulate the Government on attempting to unravel the whole drugs package. There is not one drug problem, just as there is not one solution, and they are beginning to realise that. I welcome reclassification—as early as 1997, the Scottish National party suggested that route. Anyone looking at the issue of drugs will agree that the available resources should be targeted on the drugs that cause the most harm—heroin and cocaine. Harm reduction is the sensible approach, but for goodness' sake, the Government must ensure that they achieve clarity in their approach or the strategy will go the same way as the many others before it—forgotten and irrelevant.

6.7 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)

I warmly welcome the updated drugs strategy, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and his Committee on their report. It is a robust and valuable contribution, and has opened up the debate.

My office, too, has been looking at the problems faced by drug addicts—we have been talking to them and doing some research which, frankly, has been distressing. The average age of the addicts we spoke to was 22. Ninety per cent. of them had no educational qualifications and 80 per cent. left school before completing their education; 60 per cent. had suffered a family breakdown or serious family bereavement. All of them had been on soft drugs, which they had used before going on to heroin. Most were addicted to more than one drug, not just heroin. Several of them were using crack cocaine and emphatically told my researcher, Declan McHugh, and me that after using crack they used heroin to bring them down. Their situation is therefore extremely distressing.

More than 60 per cent. of those addicts admitted to committing a crime to feed their habit, and more than 50 per cent. said that they had lost their job as a consequence. All of them were unemployed. More than 30 per cent. had been in a state care home. They were tragic cases, feeling that no one wanted them then and that no one wants them now—that was a desperate thing to come to terms with. Many of them said that they no longer got a buzz from heroin and that that had gone a long time ago. They said that they simply needed heroin and that without a fix, they began to rattle and could not survive. Our research told us clearly that young people use this stuff out of desperation. Sometimes they start because it is a bit of fun or because their friends are doing it, but they soon become controlled by it and desperate to get away from it.

If the policy is to be effective—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has been very warm to my constituents who have spoken to him about the issue on a number of occasions—it has to start with what we know about the problem of use of drugs. If we do not understand that, we simply will not get it right. When we did our research, people constantly said that they needed heroin to block out their lives. They told us that it eclipsed their minds, that it was the only substance available to them and that there was nothing else that could block out reality. It was a desperate experience to listen to them. One or two of the younger ones were in such terrible turmoil when they spoke to us about their habit that they found it impossible to continue and left the room. We were very uncomfortable and depressed about opening a door by encouraging them to tell us their life histories without necessarily being able to close it with effective treatment.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that this is a matter of urgency and a serious issue for us to get our heads around. Hon. Members have suggested that we must get real. When the people involved are young, vulnerable, very poor, coping with tragedy and are often without families, and are living rough, in care homes or on deprived estates, that is getting very real. That is the reality in my constituency. When we put money in for regeneration, we must see that our aims will not be achieved if we do not reduce drug dependency, as both issues are tied together so closely. The matter is not exclusively one for the Home Office or the Department of Health; it is also a matter of employment and most definitely relates to local government and housing. All those issues are impacting on the lives of the young people involved. Building on that knowledge and acknowledging that the needs of individuals are different in every case tells us that, if the policy is to be effective, we need not only to build on our knowledge about the problem of use of drugs, but to accept that the policy must be flexible to need and respond to the needs of individuals. The more we do that, the more we will have a chance of achieving success.

I am very pleased that there is a robust determination to help people to cut the dealer out of their lives. Our taking that stance is long overdue. The young people who spoke to us said that the dealers were like crows on their shoulders wherever they went. They said that if they had money in their pockets, the dealers were there and wanted to sell to them. We must cut the dealer out of their lives. The prescription of heroin in supervised conditions with careful treatments that are part of the overall process is very valuable. I interviewed people in their mid-30s and early 40s who will be permanently on heroin. We must come to terms with that fact. I do not want such people permanently to be dependent on heroin and committing crimes to feed their habit. We must allow them to control their habit and we must provide support, and prescription gives us the opportunity to do so.

I am very pleased that we are focusing our attention on the problematic drug user. Such a person will be devastating his or her family's lives and the community in which he or she lives. The policy is beginning to resonate and to show that it is one that we can deliver.

I should like to persuade my hon. Friend the Minister that the updated drugs policy needs to widen opportunities and increase services, which must be available 24/7 if they are to be effective. Inevitably, there will be a problem with having enough professionals quickly enough to allow us to respond now to the needs of our communities.

I would also like to persuade my hon. Friend to look at an example in my constituency. We have a group of parents called Parents Against Narcotics in the Community—PANIC. They have coped with these problems and enabled their children to survive heroin and crack cocaine dependency. They have expert knowledge second to none, and they can tell us all. They do not need to read the book; they have lived the experience. They are delivering a service to a group of people in my constituency and I recommend them as a model for others. If we cannot train enough professionals or get the supply of support and services in place quickly enough, let us use the network of support that is already there.

I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) talk about Tina Williams, a first-class female who has coped robustly with her own family and is now determinedly coping with the problem on a much wider scale. It is a joy to hear the young people speak of this female. She gives them hope and a hot meal, and their only opportunity to have a wash and brush-up and to feel decent and human. She makes them feel human. This woman needs all the commendations that we can give her. I am delighted that she is in my constituency and that she is running PANIC for the people of Stockton. They say that, without her, they would be desperate. So, let us use the resources that are there for us. Parents and grandparents want to help; they are there. Ex-addicts want to help; it makes them feel that they are giving something back when so much has been given to them.

I also want to ask the Minister to consider the question of employment. Drug addicts need to feel wanted, for the sake of their self-esteem. They need to know that their talents and skills are recognised. Progress to work is excellent, but I want to persuade my hon. Friend to look at the Asian experience. There, employment is central to all treatment for drug addicts, and the success rate in getting addicts clean, involving employment, has been staggering. If they can do that in India, we can do it here.

The updated drugs strategy is first class. Individual treatment and support are crucial, and the prescription of heroin will cut out those disgraceful, disgusting dealers who are earning £8 billion a year in Great Britain selling the stuff to our youngsters. Cutting them out is long overdue. Well done!

6.17 pm
Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)

Listening to the first two hours of this debate, one might be forgiven for believing that there was consensus in the Chamber. The last few speakers, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), proved that that is not the case, however, and I believe that their views are far more representative of the British people at large, as are those of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). I make no apologies for adding my views to the arguments that they have put forward.

It is time for hon. Members to speak up for the vast majority of decent, law-abiding people who will never have any desire to take part in this sick culture in our society. In my experience, the perception is that the war on drugs is not being lost, but purposely undermined by continual talk of decriminalisation, legalisation and reclassification. The Home Affairs Committee report has, sadly, added to that perception. In fact, the situation seems so bad in new Labour's Britain that I would not be surprised if a drug dealer were to be arrested for selling the substances in ounces, rather than simply for selling the substances.

Mr. Mullin

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rosindell

No, there is very little time, so I intend to make as much progress as I can.

From the outset, I want to make clear my opposition to every strand of thinking that tries to make excuses for those who take or deal in drugs, whatever the so-called classification of the drug, or the amount involved. If the Government are to have any credibility on this issue, and if anything at all is to be achieved, there must be a clear line: drugs are simply wrong. They kill our children, destroy the fabric of our society and have much wider effects in terms of financing international terrorism.

Two weeks ago, I spent my Saturday night accompanying the police officers of Romford's crime and disorder unit around the town centre. Among the horrendous sights of that evening, we encountered a man who had been using cocaine. He was unable to control his actions and posed a clear danger to himself and members of the public. There is no justification in our society for peddlers of that evil drug to be free to walk the streets of my constituency, and those of other Members, and supply substances of that sort. We need the police to be given the resources to stamp such behaviour out completely.

Equally, there is no excuse for tolerating those who take such substances. To those who argue that drug taking is an issue of freedom, my response is simple: I believe in freedom too. I believe in the people of this country being able to do as they wish, but that freedom comes with responsibility—the responsibility not to behave in a manner that is detrimental to others and that of playing their part in ensuring that the fabric of society is not ripped apart.

Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rosindell

As I have said, I want to make progress as there is little time left.

The taking of drugs breaks that responsibility. That was best put by the Honourable Asa Hutchinson, the administrator of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in a recent lecture to the Heritage Foundation: Drug abusers become slaves to their habits. They are no longer able to contribute to the community. They do not have healthy relationships with their families. They are no longer able to use their full potential to create ideas or to energetically contribute to society, which is the genius of democracy. They are weakened by the mind-numbing effects of drugs. The entire soul of our society is weakened and our democracy is diminished by drug use. On that night in my constituency, that man found that he was exercising his freedom. He was also participating in the slow destruction of our society, not to mention the devastation that he must be causing, not only to himself, but to his family and friends.

Drugs do not just harm the health of the drug user. They also lead to many related crimes, particularly in terms of violence, theft and, of course, road accidents. Drugs are a sickening culture in our society. Despite the domination of the debate by the liberal class, on cannabis I appeal to the good judgment of every Member of the House not to be taken in by the nonsensical and easily discredited arguments of those who support reclassification.

The Christian Institute's May 2000 pamphlet, a copy of which I gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), is entitled "Going Soft on Cannabis". It outlines the counter-arguments to those often given for reclassifying that drug. I shall not go into detail, but for those who are interested the full document can he found on the Christian Institute website at www.christian.org.uk.

Drug culture apologists often claim that cannabis is not a gateway drug to harder and more dangerous substances such as heroin or crack cocaine. However, the Christian Institute points to a series of studies that revealed that most abusers of hard drugs started their drug abuse career by smoking cannabis: 90 per cent. of those who had used it more than 1,000 times had used other illicit drugs, but only 6 per cent. of those who had never used cannabis had used hard drugs. Children between the ages of 12 and 17 who had smoked cannabis were 85 times more likely to end up using cocaine than their non-cannabis-smoking peers.

Others try to claim that cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol. In 1995, an American study discovered a frightening statistic: 30 per cent. of a group of convicted murderers who were high on cannabis at the time of the homicides said that the crime had occurred because they were on cannabis.

Another argument that is often advanced is that the current laws are not working. Why bother keeping them, those people ask. In fact it is not the laws that are wrong, but the soft approach taken by the Crown Prosecution Service, the police and the Government. They seem to have given up on the idea of prosecuting cannabis users, and now let them off with a caution. The proportion of cases dealt with by caution rose from 3 per cent. in 1982 to 55 per cent. in 1998. No wonder the law is not working, if no effort is put into maintaining it.

The arguments for going soft on cannabis are all so easily defeated. I urge the Government to reconsider before giving the green light to thousands, if not millions, of young people to destroy their lives. I call on the Government and indeed the whole House, to reflect on the words of Nancy Reagan, which are etched on the wall of the Drug Enforcement Administration museum in America: Drugs steal so much. Every time a drug goes into a child, something else is forced out, like love, and hope, and trust, and confidence. For the sake of our children, I implore each of you to be unyielding and inflexible in your opposition to drugs. I agree with Nancy Reagan. We cannot be flexible in our approach to drugs. The Government of this country must be resolute and firm.

Drugs are simply wrong. They are killing our nation's children. They are funding those who wish to attack and take away our freedom. They are breaking down our society. We must act now with a comprehensive zero tolerance strategy. I fear that otherwise we will let down future generations and our nation, and will bitterly regret it in years to come.

6.27 pm
John Mann (Bassetlaw)

I fear that Nancy Reagan did not bring up her own children well enough for them to avoid drugs.

I have much to say about the general issues, but no time in which to say them. I commend the Government's excellent document, the basis of which I wholeheartedly endorse, but I would waste more time by simply repeating what it says. I therefore intend, in the few minutes available to me, to make some points about what I would describe as the war on drugs that I think should be considered.

Another good document was published last February—"Changing Habits", produced by the Audit Commission. In its conclusions it referred to one of the key problems that I encountered in my drugs inquiry. As I told the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart), it is mentioned on my website, johnmannmp.co.uk. It involves 150 case studies. I have spoken, in great depth, to heroin addicts and their parents, and I agree with many of the Audit Commission's findings.

A critical issue, which the Government should address, is that of unco-ordinated assessment in relation to treatment. There are multiple referral routes, which is a core problem. The Audit Commission says that current assessment practices often do little to secure either rapid access or appropriate treatment". There are "limited treatment options", as I was able to demonstrate effectively in my constituency. The commission also says that the type of support offered by community drug services reflected staff mix and that areas heavily reliant on specialist support frequently struggled to meet demand". Those problems all occur in my area, but the inconsistency of approach across the country has to be tackled. The ethos within the drugs treatment service has led to something of a Cinderella service. As the example of cancer and Macmillan nurses shows, there needs to be a point of reference to direct people into treatment. Hon. Members have made comparisons with the rest of Europe, but the statistical base—ours and theirs—is not particularly reliable, so the fact that there are 118,000 drug addicts in treatment is not a meaningful statistic when it is extrapolated down to my area. We need to quantify what is working and what is not. I have taken the trouble to write to the Minister and I shall publish my 20 specific questions on what needs to be quantified and how that should be done. It is at the core of the issue. In regard to ministerial and Government responsibility, and given the ethos in the National Treatment Agency, there is an urgent need to hold those responsible to account by quantifying successes and the failures and doing so honestly.

I hope that in the coming months the Minister will challenge the notion of addicts having to present themselves for treatment. I find that a strange notion, but it runs through all UK drugs services and it is one reason for the confusion over what is treatment and who is in treatment and who is not. In my opinion, the notion of presenting needs to be knocked on the head, and I have many case studies—collected over a year, not a few weeks—to back that up. Some of them are cited anonymously and are ongoing. What does that mean in terms of people getting treatment when they want it and the availability of different forms of treatment. Thankfully, Opposition Front Benchers are now backing down, but when I challenged the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), at column 652 on 20 November, to quantify his evidence in relation to residential rehabilitation, he said that a considerable number should be going. We now have only a very small number. The right hon. Gentleman cited the Netherlands and he may well have visited the Parnassia Institute, where only 3 per cent. of clients are in residential rehabilitation.

"Changing Habits" goes into great detail about the different options that are available. I would like a proper menu of treatments to be available in my constituency and I am sure that other hon. Members share my view.

Another issue that needs to be examined is what I would describe as the incestuous nature of treatment services. For example, the very good chief executive of my local drug action team is also a non-executive director of the National Treatment Agency and the eight reference groups. The fact that one organisation presents the statistics is also part of the problem. That needs to be knocked on the head. The statistics need independent validation. The absurdity of joint commissioning in my area is that the patient care trust, which has to deal with the biggest problems of heroin addiction and drug addiction, is not represented on the joint commissioning group. I am glad that that is now being challenged, and if there are further problems I shall draw them to the Minister's attention. However, it demonstrates the mish-mash that has continued for many years in the UK. European comparisons are not particularly relevant. I would suggest that most countries are behind us rather than ahead of us in terms of treatment.

I now turn to another problem. In The Guardian this week there are job adverts for drug treatment workers. The Prison Service is giving people permanent, well-paid jobs in drug treatment. The Stapleford Centre is recruiting a nurse practitioner on a salary of £33,000 to £36,000 and a medical officer on £65,000 to £77,000. Conversely, Turning Point in Sheffield employs drugs workers on one or two-year contracts and pays them £16,000 to £19,000 a year. Those are the extremes, but there are problems in relation to the lack of continuity and the inability to get the best-qualified people in areas where they are most needed. This may be controversial, but I would put it to the House that the best drugs workers should be working not in prison, but in the community. I would like the sentiment and some of the detail in the report to be taken to its logical conclusion. Young heroin addicts in my constituency are committing crimes; I have met only one who is not. I want them to be offered the option of being treated at the point at which they are arrested and enter the criminal justice system, rather than their simply going through the system and ending up in prison. Let us save the legal aid bill for defence costs, which, as the Audit Commission has shown, is the same as that for treatment. Let us recycle that money by treating young addicts at an early stage. That would make a fundamental difference.

I have two final suggestions, the first of which is the integration of police files and health files. The Parnassia Institute took that incredibly important step seven years ago, so it can be done. My own chief constable is keen to follow suit. In analysing criminal activity, he cannot tell who the heroin addicts are. Similarly, the drugs services do not know who the criminals are. The two systems need to be merged. The Derbyshire drugs market project is a good example of how the effective collation of such information can be used to disrupt the drugs market and to get those people out of crime and into treatment, where such services exist.

My final suggestion consists of a plea to the Minister and the Government. The Home Secretary said that starting from next year in the highest crime areas with the worst drugs problems the Government will roll out a comprehensive end to end approach. In quantifying the areas with the worst drug problems, I hope that the artificial boundaries that have dissipated the problem throughout my area will not be used. East Bassetlaw does not differ greatly from the Nottinghamshire county average. It is the same as any other rural area, but in the area of west Bassetlaw, Worksop and the mining villages, the problem is very significant; in fact, it is ten times as bad. We want to be one of the pilots, and I trust that the Minister will give that suggestion proper consideration.

6.36 pm
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

I want to talk about two of my constituents, Mick and Pauline Holcroft, of Ledbury, who have allowed pictures of their daughter, Rachel Whitear—Mick Holcroft is Rachel's step-father—to be used in an anti-drugs video for secondary schools. They say that they want to "make people think" about the dangers of heroin, and to challenge stereotypes of drug abusers, because if it can happen to Rachel, it can happen to anyone.

Rachel's mother and step-father believe that she first took heroin when she was 18, after being introduced to it by an older boyfriend who was an addict. At first, she kept her habit under control and was accepted by five universities. However, her addiction continued and her parents noticed that her personality had changed from fun-loving and outgoing to unhappy, insecure and unreliable. She died of an overdose in rented rooms in May 2000, aged 21, just days after phoning her parents to say that she was leaving her boyfriend and coming home. Her body lay undiscovered for three days. The police photographs show Rachel's body keeled over on the floor, with a hypodermic syringe in her hand. The photographs of Rachel after her death are pretty harrowing.

If one were trying to put together an ideal background for a young person to grow up in, and in which to be happy and successful, the Holcroft family would be it, but even in that environment it was possible for this tragedy to happen. Mrs. Holcroft said: I think Rachel really hated what had happened to her. But you can't take heroin one day and suddenly decide to stop. Rachel's step-father, Mr. Holcroft, said: There'll be a point in a child's life when someone says 'try that'. They'll be put into a circle where they are encouraged to try things and experiment. I think that I speak for the whole House when I say that we would all like that temptation to be made as difficult to encounter as possible. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

I sought the view of the Police Federation, which is the representative body of all police officers in England and Wales below the rank of superintendent. According to it, a large majority of such officers believe that cannabis should not be legalised or decriminalised. The role of the police is to enforce drug laws effectively. As we move further into the performance culture, their ability effectively to police the misuse of drugs will increasingly depend on working with other agencies. Those agencies will need to have complementary objectives and targets.

Widespread concern has been voiced about the unavailability of appropriate treatment for drug users. The current position is unacceptable. More than 70 per cent. of crime is believed to be drug related. Between 70 per cent. and 80 per cent. of criminals in prison have drug problems, yet they leave prison without receiving treatment. It is unacceptable that the police should be held accountable for crime levels when treatment that could have a real impact on the commission of crime is not provided.

The advocates of legalisation or decriminalisation present the apparent failure of the criminal law to prevent increased use of illegal drugs as a powerful argument for their cause. The same argument could be used to justify decriminalising burglary and assault and sweeping away all road traffic laws, but it is not. In recent times, a number of criminal offences, such as attempted suicide and homosexual acts between consenting adults, have been abolished. That was done because it was believed to be inappropriate to treat such acts as criminal, not because the criminal law had failed to prevent their occurrence.

Legal prohibitions on tobacco and alcohol have not prevented young people below the statutory ages from smoking or drinking, but there is no responsible body of opinion that would justify decriminalising those offences. We do not believe that there is an overwhelming body of public opinion that favours the major relaxation of current anti-drug laws.

I do not believe that we need a change in the law or in drug classification to change police priorities. Police officers use their discretion daily. The so-called Lambeth experiment was nothing new: police officers prioritise their work every day.

There is no real contradiction under current legislation between a lenient police attitude towards possession for personal use and the continued targeting of criminals who import and distribute the drug. Advocates of the decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis choose to ignore the fact that the drug's THC content—the active ingredient that encourages physical and psychological dependence on cannabis, and which is highly abusable—has risen from less than 1 per cent. in the 1960s to as high as 30 per cent. today.

There is evidence from other countries—in particular from south Australia—that a more liberal approach to drug legislation results in an increase in petty theft and petty crime. The liberalisation lobby also claims that legalising drugs would end the black market and the activities of organised gangs. That assumes that the powerful international drug cartels would simply fade away into the night. The more likely scenario is that they would fight to maintain their lucrative street trade.

The advocates of change do not say how they would control drug manufacture and supply. Presumably, the enormous cost of legalising the drug trade would be offset by tariffs and taxation. Once they were introduced, smuggling would follow and the illegal traders would be back in business.

Some argue that the decriminalisation of drugs would destroy the criminal empires of those who currently make fortunes out of drugs. They often cite the end of alcohol prohibition in the US, and suggest that that ended the era in which criminal gangs exploited prohibition. The historical facts are different: gang crime in America soon recovered, as the criminals concentrated on other racketeering.

The Government are right to reject the calls of those who urge the legalisation or decriminalisation of so-called soft drugs. There is no evidence that that would lead to a decrease in the numbers of people using drugs. Worrying as the overall increase in the numbers of young people who have taken drugs may be, those numbers would be even higher if the criminal sanctions were removed.

The siren calls for decriminalisation and legalisation are not cries for reality. They are the voices of surrender and despair. I hope that the House will bear in mind the bravery displayed by Rachel Whitear's parents, and especially by her mother, Pauline Holcroft. If we can learn anything from that tragedy, it is that the fight against the evil of drugs in our society must continue unabated.

6.44 pm
Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough)

I listened to the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) with great interest because I too am a dad. If I were asked what I wanted for my three children, I would not answer that I wanted them to grow up to have fantastic careers, or even stable happy family lives. I would say that I wanted them to grow up to avoid hard drugs. If they do that, everything else becomes possible for them, according to their talents and efforts. By contrast, if they do not avoid hard drugs, it is much more likely that their lives will be ruined.

Yet if we are truly to tackle addiction and the crime to which it leads, we have to understand three critical truths, two of which have been understood by the Home Affairs Committee. First, all drugs are harmful but some drugs are much more harmful than others. Secondly, addicts are ill and need treatment, not punishment. Thirdly, prohibition does not always work. I believe that by their recent announcements, the Government have indicated that they have also understood at least the first two of those truths.

All drugs are not equally harmful. Heroin and crack cocaine are desperately addictive and extremely dangerous, but other drugs are less so. Indeed, some prohibited drugs are less harmful than drugs that are legal. Alcohol is addictive, leads to violence, is damaging to health, and kills between 5,000 and 40,000 people every year in England and Wales—yet it is lawful to buy, lawful to sell and lawful to use, subject only to constraints on age and access.

Tobacco is lawful too, even though it is addictive, causes cancer and kills 120,000 people every year in the UK. We do not like it, we cannot advertise it, we say that tobacco companies cannot sponsor sports—yet we cannot stop people using it. In the year 2000, only 11 death certificates in England and Wales even mentioned the word "cannabis".

If we tell our children that cannabis is as harmful as crack and heroin, they simply will not believe us. Why should they? If they do not believe that, why do we expect them to believe us about crack and heroin? We should downgrade cannabis, because the message that that carries is not simply that cannabis is less harmful than crack and heroin, but that crack and heroin are killers and desperately dangerous.

There is a second reason why we should downgrade cannabis: the simple fact that we want to be tough on crime. When the police are not chasing people who are smoking a relatively harmless recreational drug, they can start targeting the crack and heroin dealers in death. We should all applaud that.

The second truth is that addiction to hard drugs is a sickness and, like all sick people, addicts need treatment, not punishment. At present, however, the treatment they get is all too often woeful. It takes my constituents months to get on to a rehab programme, which is why, like everyone else in the Chamber, I welcome the millions more to be spent on rehabilitation. It is why I also welcome, alongside the extended methadone treatments, the schemes for prescribing heroin.

It is stupid to refuse to prescribe heroin to long-term addicts who need it, and who otherwise will rob others to feed their habit. I have been to a clinic in London; I have seen a doctor prescribe to addicts. One was a middle-aged mother, happily married for many years. Why on earth should we force her into the arms of a dealer when she can attend a clinic instead? Another was the wife of a man in his sixties who had injected opiates for 30 years. Do we really believe that he will ever stop injecting opiates? He did not even stop when he could no longer inject into his veins. He simply injected into his muscles instead.

We have to change our approach to prescribing. Too often, treatment is restrained by moral judgmentalism when it should be dictated by medical expertise. As I understand it, the current advice from the Government is not to maintain the patient but to reduce his or her dependency by prescribing ever-decreasing amounts. As a result, because addicts cannot get enough methadone from their clinic, they top up by buying street heroin from their dealer. In what other medical discipline would a doctor determine how much of a drug someone needed and then deliberately prescribe less? I do not believe that that is good medical practice—I believe that it is medical cruelty.

I accept that there is a risk of abuse if higher amounts are prescribed. I know that, and so do doctors. They are well aware that there will be those who seek more than they need so that they can sell the excess. However, we can monitor the doctors and the doctors can monitor their prescriptions and their patients to ensure that the risk is minimised. They can see for themselves whether a patient is capable of injecting safely. They can test patients to see exactly what their tolerance is. They can test their hair samples to see exactly what they have taken and whether they are topping up or selling the excess on the street.

That is not to say that we should never try to reduce dependency on drugs. Of course we should, but we should seek cleverer ways of doing so than simply prescribing less of the drugs that people need. My hon. Friend the Minister knows that there is a drug available—Naltrexone—that blocks the effects of heroin altogether. That means that there is no point in people mugging an old lady for 30 quid to buy a fix, because they will not get a buzz from the fix.

The trouble with Naltrexone is that it is principally available in tablet form. Addicts will not take it in that form, because taking the tablet takes away what is often their only pleasure in life. There is a solution: implants that can wean the addict off for weeks are available, yet they are not licensed on the NHS nor routinely used in our prisons. That is absurd.

Why do we not make better use of Naltrexone implants? Why do we not make wide use of them in the judicial system? Why do we not urge courts to offer drug-addicted criminals an implant, as part of—or even instead of—imprisonment? Why do we not offer them to prisoners before they are released? I understand that at present prisons offer Naltrexone only in tablet form—and only in a third of men's prisons and not at all in women's prisons, even though heroin addiction is rife in all of them.

We reduce a prisoner's dependency and then we kick them out into the street—the same street that they used to live in, next door to the same dealer from whom they used to buy. By then their tolerance is lower, so when they buy from that same dealer, they overdose and die. What is the alternative to Naltrexone? Is it to detox addicts in prison and then retox them ready for release? That is absurd.

There is a third truth—unpalatable to many—but it arises from everything that I have said: prohibition does not work. It did not work when it was applied to booze in the USA; it merely handed the trade to the mafia. It is not working at present in respect of drugs worldwide. The global trade is worth up to $1,000 billion a year; it is worth £8 billion in this country—little wonder that drug-related crime is up.

Things do not have to be like that. We can encourage heroin addicts into the arms of doctors instead of the arms of dealers. If we were brave enough, we could take the trade in cannabis away from criminals, license it, regulate it, tax it and make it safe. Of course there would still be some street trading, but there would be less. Furthermore, there would be no mixed messages for the police, because anyone dealing with drugs on the street would be a criminal.

If we want to drive down street crime, we have to do more than police aggressively in areas where it is endemic. We need to do more than sentence punitively our most serious and recidivist offenders. We must also focus our minds on the causes of crime when a more liberal touch may be more effective.

6.52 pm
Mr. Mullin

The debate has been excellent. We have heard many original and thoughtful speeches from Members on both sides of the House. I thank especially colleagues on the Select Committee for their contributions both today and during the course of the inquiry. One of the great strengths of the Select Committee system is that it is possible to hold a mature discussion on issues that cannot always be discussed maturely in other parts of the political process—let alone in the media.

I was disappointed with the contribution of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), the Conservative spokesman. I felt that it did not quite rise to the occasion. I was especially disappointed by his abuse of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). We might not necessarily agree with him, but we must recognise that he is one of the few Members of the House—with the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley)—who were prepared to discuss this subject when nobody else would. My hon. Friend was prepared to challenge deeply ingrained prejudices, and although I do not necessarily agree with him about everything, we should acknowledge that.

I agree with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath on one point: it is important to take the damage done by people who drive under the influence of drugs as seriously as that done by people who drive under the influence of drink.

As I listened to some of the later contributions to the debate, I had to pinch myself occasionally to remind myself that, as I made clear in my opening remarks, the Select Committee actually came out against decriminalisation and legalisation. We emphasised from the outset that all drugs are harmful, as I think we all agree—but that the degree of harm varies.

Although the Committee had a number of things to say about the classification of cannabis and ecstasy, we should not get too distracted by the arguments over that. Yes, both of them are bad for people. Any sensible person would acknowledge that. However, the key issue is that they are not the main cause of the problem. Most people who take ecstasy or cannabis grow out of it fairly quickly and go on to lead useful and productive lives.

Those drugs are not, on the whole, addictive. It is true that people die from taking them; I would not wish to be misunderstood. We all understand that all drugs are harmful. It is just that some are more harmful than others. Once we have worked that out, we come very quickly to the idea that the cause of almost all the drug-related chaos in society arises from the abuse of heroin and crack cocaine. About 99 per cent. of drug-related damage comes from those two drugs.

Once that essential point is grasped, one or two other things become obvious. One is that we must try to persuade the 200,000 or so chaotic users of heroin—who are responsible for about 50 per cent. of acquisitive crime and who damage not only their own lives but those of their communities and families; we have heard harrowing examples of that today—to seek help to stabilise their lives. Until we do that, we cannot even begin to address the problems that they are causing. It is true that some are well beyond the point at which their lives can be changed; they will not change and become clean and good citizens. However, we can stabilise their lives and stop them mugging, burgling and doing more damage to themselves and the people around them.

That brings us inevitably to the fact that we need the controlled prescription of heroin and diamorphine. I am glad that the Government are facing up to that issue. This is not rocket science, and it has been done with great success in countries such as Switzerland and the Netherlands. We heard from experts from those countries who told us how it was working. One caution; there has to be tight control of the system because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) said, we do not want leakage on to the streets, which just exacerbates the problem. That was one of the reasons why the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was brought in. The system must be strictly controlled.

One of the problems that became apparent during the inquiry was the disappointing lack of interest from members of the medical profession. One can understand that a GP will not want his surgery clogged up with addicts, but we have had great difficulty in extracting from the British Medical Association any evidence at all on the issue. When we insisted that it make some sort of contribution, it consisted of less than a page, two thirds of which was about what the BMA stood for and did. That was a problem.

One doctor who gave evidence said that only half an hour out of seven years of medical training had involved dealing with people on drugs. We are getting better at this and I know that there are many dedicated members of the medical profession who are engaged in dealing with drug addiction—

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Mullin

We have one not too far from me. However, the medical profession could do more in encouraging and training its members in this regard.

Finally, I repeat what I said in my opening remarks. There is no "one true path" in this matter. I am envious of the certainty of the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell), but—if I might say so, with respect—people who have given more thought to this matter than he has have worked out that there is no perfect solution to a problem that is serious and out of control. We are on a learning curve and feeling our way forward, but there is a certain amount of experience in the world. One can look abroad; foreigners can make a contribution to the way in which we deal with our problems, on which we can build.

The way forward is clear for the foreseeable future. It is along the road of prevention, treatment and harm reduction. That is way that we are going. The path is set for the foreseeable future, but it is not set in stone.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I compliment the hon. Gentleman on his timing.

It being Seven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded to put forthwith the Questions relating to Estimates which he was directed to put at that hour, pursuant to Standing Order No.54 (Consideration of estimates, &c.).


That resources, not exceeding £4.651,171,000, be authorised, on account, for use during the year ending on 31st March 2004, and that a sum, not exceeding £4,597,261,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, for the year ending on 31st March 2004, for expenditure by the Home Office.

It being after Seven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded to put forthwith the Questions relating to Estimates which he was directed to put at that hour, pursuant to Standing Order No.55 (Questions on voting of estimates, &c.).