HC Deb 08 July 2002 vol 388 cc604-6
9. John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)

What initiatives he is taking to promote drug awareness. [64754]

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

Raising awareness of the dangers of drugs is a main focus of the national drug strategy. Educating young people and protecting them from the risks and harm of drug misuse is a high priority. Most schools now provide substance misuse education and parents are given information about where to get help. In December, I launched the first in a series of drug awareness campaigns promoting the national drugs helpline. The campaign resulted in substantial increases in numbers of young people contacting the helpline for advice and assistance.

John Robertson

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He will be aware that 50 per cent. of 16 to 24-year-olds have at some stage indulged in illegal drugs. As he said, one aim of the national drugs strategy is to reduce drug taking among that age group. Does he agree that former addicts are sometimes the best people to explain—rather than preach about—the pitfalls of taking drugs? Will he ensure that that will become an undertaking of this Government, and that such people will be allowed to go into schools to explain the problems?

Mr. Ainsworth

My hon. Friend hits on a very important area. I do not believe that preaching to young people works or has the desired effect. I know from personal experience, having listened to a former addict explain some of the difficulties that they had experienced and managed to overcome, that such intervention is one of the most powerful weapons. I am sure that people with such communication skills would be happy to help where we could use them appropriately. They could have a great effect on the young people to whom they manage to talk.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

Is the Minister aware that he and the Home Secretary have indeed taken a huge initiative to promote drug awareness? Has not his Brixton experiment promoted awareness among young people that the Government want to send mixed messages on the persistent use of cannabis, and promoted awareness among drug dealers that Brixton is the place to be? How will either of those forms of awareness contribute to reducing drug dependency in this country?

Mr. Ainsworth

We have had quite a debate on drugs over the past year since my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary appeared before the Home Affairs Committee and asked for an adult debate on the issue. In some ways, we have managed to increase awareness of the effect of different substances and the harm that they cause. By misrepresenting the situation in Lambeth, the right hon. Gentleman is not helping the debate at all.

The overwhelming consensus is that both the police and the residents of Lambeth face most difficulty with the class A drug market. We need to take effective measures against that, and we are doing precisely that. There is no mixed message. The message is this: all drugs are harmful but class A drugs are particularly dangerous—and that is where our main attention should be aimed. The right hon. Gentleman knows that and ought to behave responsibly during the debate.

Mr. Letwin

Is there not one other form of drug awareness that the Minister would accept that he and the Home Secretary have failed to promote: the awareness of the public about the true nature of what they are proposing? The Home Secretary has leaked that he will double sentences for cannabis dealers. At present, cannabis is a class B drug, and the maximum sentence is 14 years. If, as leaked, he universalises the Brixton experiment by moving cannabis to class C, the maximum sentence for dealing in it would naturally be reduced to five years. If the Minister multiplies that by two, the maximum sentence will, I gather from mathematicians, be 10 years. Will he explain to those of us who are not mathematically inclined how a move from a 14-year maximum sentence to a 10-year maximum sentence constitutes doubling sentences for cannabis dealers?

Mr. Ainsworth

The right hon. Gentleman ought to try to concentrate on the issues of substance instead of playing games with figures. The position is clear and has been for a long time. There has been an extensive debate in the Home Affairs Committee, in which members of the right hon. Gentleman's own party participated, where evidence was taken from everybody. Advice has also been given by the Standing Medical Advisory Committee, and we shall discuss with the police and announce to Parliament in the near future our exact proposals on reclassification and all its ramifications. I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman making a constructive response to that.