HC Deb 10 July 2002 vol 388 cc886-902 3.35 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

With permission, I wish to make a statement responding to the Home Affairs Select Committee's report on drugs. In doing so, I wish to make it clear that I will publish a substantial update of the 1998 drugs strategy this autumn.

On 23 October, in my evidence to the Select Committee, I set out a number of key themes that are reflected in the Committee's report. I am grateful for the excellent work done by the Chair and members of the Committee, and to all who have assisted both the Committee and me, including my drugs unit. I also thank the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and the many agencies and authoritative bodies that have contributed.

I cannot imagine that there is a Member of Parliament who does not wish to ensure that those whom we represent are free of the misery that is caused by drug abuse. Class A drugs are the scourge of modern time, and are potential killers. Over the last 30 years the huge increase in the use of drugs, particularly hard drugs, has caused untold damage to the health, life chances and well-being of individuals. That has undermined family life, fuelled criminality and damaged communities. The estimated social and economic costs of drug misuse are well in excess of £10 billion. Around three quarters of crack and heroin users claim to be committing crime to feed their habit.

I am grateful for the considerable progress made by my predecessors. I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health for the announcement that we are to make today of an additional investment, totalling £183 million over the next three years, in treatment services and harm minimisation.

The number of people beginning treatment has increased by an average of 8 per cent. each year since 1998. In 2000, seizures worth £780 million were made. Last year 3.4 tonnes of heroin and 10.9 tonnes of cocaine were seized, which exceeded the targets.

Today I want to inform the House of the overall direction of the review of the drugs strategy, and the Committee's report. There will be an increased focus on class A drugs. The message is clear: drugs are dangerous. We will educate, persuade and, where necessary, direct young people away from their use. We will not legalise or decriminalise any drugs, nor do we envisage a time when that would be appropriate.

As recommended by the Committee, there will be a better focus on those whose drug addiction causes the most harm to them and to society—those described as problematic drug users. In the last two years we have established the National Treatment Agency, and invested more than half a billion pounds. We have begun to fill the gap in services relating to crack addiction.

We will continue the rapid expansion of offenders' referral for treatment. We accept that expansion in managed prescribing for heroin addiction will be necessary for the most appropriate cases—that there must be the right treatment for the right patient. But more than treatment is required: after-care and rehabilitation must become part of the package of care for those ending treatment or leaving prison. Harm minimisation will be given greater priority. However, in the form in which the term is normally used, we are not persuaded that shooting galleries would be helpful at this time. We will use the powers in the Proceeds of Crime Bill to confiscate the assets of those whose lifestyle depends on the misery of, and danger caused to, others, and to target the regional or "middle" drug market.

We will clamp down on dealers who prey on the young. We will increase the sentences for trafficking and dealing in class B and C drugs to 14 years. This will avoid sending mixed messages to those dealing in more than one drug, and will establish a new lead in Europe-wide discussions. However, we do not agree that it is necessary to introduce supply for gain offences. We will support parents and families to help them cope with the effects of addiction. In line with the Committee's recommendation, we will ensure that carers and families are involved in the development of services.

We will launch an education campaign, targeted at young people, with the message that all drugs are harmful and class A drugs are killers. We are not persuaded that ecstasy should be downgraded: it kills. However, the message to young people and families must be open, honest and believable. That is why I asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review the classification of cannabis. It has recommended that the current classification is disproportionate in relation to the harmfulness and nature of other controlled drugs. It was clear, and so am I, that cannabis is a potentially harmful drug, and should remain illegal. However, it is not comparable with crack, heroin or ecstasy. The council made it clear that greater differentiation between drugs that kill and drugs that cause harm would be both scientifically justified and educationally sensible.

I have considered this advice, along with the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee. I have taken account of the Metropolitan police experiment in Lambeth, which has seen a 10 per cent. increase in arrests of class A drug dealers. The Metropolitan police will today announce that the pilot will be adjusted, and that the new model will be applicable across London in the coming months. I can tell the House that I will seek to reclassify cannabis as a class C drug by July of next year.

Let me be clear: cannabis possession remains a criminal offence. I am determined that the police be able to control the streets and uphold order. That is why I will instate the ability to arrest for possession where public order is threatened, or where children are at risk. The Association of Chief Police Officers will shortly issue national guidance to ensure that in the vast majority of cases, officers will confiscate the drug and use warnings. Police time saved will be refocused on class A drugs.

Where communities are strong, drugs do not take hold. Drug-related crime and disorder devastates communities. That is why last year, we launched the communities against drugs fund, which will provide £220 million over three years to enable communities to become part of the solution. It is the vulnerable who suffer most through drugs, and statutory and voluntary agencies, families and communities all have a role to play in protecting them.

Through education, harm minimisation, treatment, and tough action against dealers and traffickers, we have a winning strategy. It will require positive commitment, rather than grandstanding. Last October, I called for a mature and intelligent debate, and in making today's statement, I hope that we continue that sensible approach. I commend the statement to the House.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

I thank the Home Secretary for his usual courtesy in giving me an early sight of the statement.

The House will recognise that this was an extraordinary statement, made on an extraordinary day. There are two coherent alternative strategies on cannabis, but in his statement today, the Home Secretary has not adopted either of them.

A serious argument can be made for complete legalisation of cannabis, with sale being taken out of the hands of the drug dealers and the substance being treated like tobacco or alcohol—licensed and taxed. Alternatively, as we prefer, policy can be constructed—as it is in Sweden, for example—to make serious efforts to lead young people away from cannabis use. The Home Secretary has not adopted either of those courses. He is giving control over cannabis to the drug dealers, with the police turning away.

This is not just the day on which the Home Secretary has made a statement about a muddled and dangerous policy. Today is also the day when the Home Secretary's chief adviser on drugs, Mr. Keith Hellawell, has resigned in protest at that muddled and dangerous policy, telling the "Today" programme: this is causing a great deal of problem on the streets. It's causing a great deal of problem for parents who just don't know where they are". Commenting later on the Home Secretary's Brixton experiment, Mr. Hellawell went on to say that it has led to an "open season" for those peddling drugs.

There are some hard questions that the Home Secretary needs to answer. He needs to explain to the House whether he intends the police to arrest people who are openly selling cannabis—as they are on the streets of Brixton today—or whether he is asking the police to look away. He needs to explain to the House why, if he is effectively decriminalising cannabis use, he still wants young people to buy their cannabis from criminals. He also needs to explain how it can be right to tell one set of people that it is half okay to smoke cannabis, but to tell another set of people they may be put in prison for 10 years if they sell it. In short, the Home Secretary needs to explain how, with a policy that consists of deeply confusing mixed messages, he can conceivably expect to reduce drug dependency and criminality in this country.

The saddest thing about this policy is that it owes it origins not to the advice of the Government's chief adviser on drugs, not to a well considered examination of the results of the Brixton experiment, and certainly not to the views of people whose children's lives are being destroyed by drugs, but to a political stratagem. The Home Secretary adopted this policy—[Interruption.]—oh yes, and he told people so—because he believed that he could wrong-foot all his opponents, buying off the libertarians with increasing liberalisation, and the anti-drugs lobby with a show of toughness.

However, as his own adviser said today, there is just a sort of repackaging, a respinning of the issue to appear as if something has been done". The Home Secretary's clever stratagem has disintegrated in 24 hours. It has presented the Government with a massive liability. Much more importantly, it will present many of our most vulnerable communities with the prospect of social disaster.

I admire the Home Secretary on many counts. One of his most admirable features has been his willingness on repeated occasions over the past few months to withdraw from ill conceived policies and legislative proposals. It is not too late for him to display that same admirable quality in the coming days. He has time to think again before this disastrous Order in Council is implemented. In the interests of the Government, and in the interests of the young people of this country, he should do so.

Mr. Blunkett

I am very sad that the right hon. Gentleman has taken the view that he has this afternoon. It is right to believe that the issue is not a political football, but he is right to point out that there is a stratagem—as he would have it—from the political right that advocates complete legalisation and a free market. I have read that in the leaders of The Daily Telegraph and elsewhere.

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong to make cheap remarks about policy being withdrawn. Yes, I lost the vote on religious incitement in the Lords and, yes, we have sought to find sensible compromise if we can achieve the same goal by a different route. However, the House should make no mistake that the right hon. Gentleman would be wrong if he thought that he could get away with pretending that a sensible move to protect the lives of young people, and to provide credibility for the educational message to them, can be summed up as a cheap political stratagem. It is not.

The policy has been adopted after receiving the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, scientific evidence, the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee—which has members from all parties and has heard scientific, medical and other evidence over the past six months—as well as advice on what works from those working with young people involved with drugs. Families were mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, and I can confirm that we also listened to families. It was the families who convinced me that the measure would be right. They told me of how they had told their children that all drugs were the same and had the same impact and effect. When their young people had tried cannabis and found that that was not the case, they did not believe their parents when they told them of the dangers of crack and heroin. Families have told me that we need credibility in the message that we give young people. We need to be able to educate them in the dangers that exist. We need to tell them that hard drugs kill but that cannabis, like other class C drugs, is dangerous but not widely dangerous to one's future and mortality.

Let me answer the questions directly. Are we keeping cannabis as an illegal drug? Yes. Are we decriminalising it? No. Do we believe it is harmful? Yes. Are we educating young people to that effect? Yes, we are. Do we think that we can lead young people away from moving on to hard drugs by being honest with them? Yes, we do and so do those who work with young people. Should we malign the police for taking a similar stance in the Met or through the Association of Chief Police Officers? The right hon. Gentleman uses that organisation against me time and again. When he wants me to give them total independence, I am to believe its word, not mine. Let us have some consistency.

That consistency was not exhibited by the former drugs tsar, Mr. Keith Hellawell, who ceased to be the tsar when I took over as Home Secretary. He has been given part-time roles advising on international drugs matters over the past nine months. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame on you."] No, not shame on me. I shall not stoop to argue Mr. Hellawell's case this afternoon except to say this, so that it is on the record. When I told Keith Hellawell last October—not August as he said at lunchtime—that we would refer the matter to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, he agreed that it would be a good idea. We have a minute to that effect. He has changed his mind three times, as he is entitled to do.

I have changed my mind once. Until two years ago, I was against reclassification, but I have been convinced by the evidence, by the need to target hard-drug dealers, and by the way in which we can clamp down on those who are threatening the lives of young people. It is for those reasons that I have chosen to back the police in their request that if people are dealing in drugs, including cannabis, if they are causing or potentially causing disorder by the flagrant use of those drugs, or if they are threatening the lives of young people, they will be arrested. Those dealing will get not 10 years but 14 years, as I said in my statement.

This is a strategy that is aimed at securing harm minimisation, proper treatment and education. Above all, we want to get across the message that we know what we are doing. If young people understand that, they will get the message. Drugs are dangerous, and class A drugs kill. That is the message this afternoon.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

Although there may be one or two differences between my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and me, may I say at the outset that it is obvious that he and his advisers have taken the Select Committee's report seriously? I am grateful for that.

In addition, I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to reclassify cannabis. It is plain common sense, and he should take no notice of the uncharacteristic nonsense from the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). I am sure that my right hon. Friend will not misunderstand me if I say that we must not get too hooked on cannabis. He is right to say that heroin and crack cocaine are overwhelmingly the drugs that cause the most problems. We must concentrate on them, and I was disappointed that the Opposition spokesman had nothing to say about them.

How does my right hon. Friend envisage that the increase in managed prescribing to which he is committed will be achieved? He said that safe injecting houses would not be helpful at this moment, but does that mean that he might be prepared to consider them in the future?

Finally, will he say why it has not been possible to agree that the National Treatment Agency should audit drug treatment services in prisons, as well as outside them?

Mr. Blunkett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) for what he has said. He has worked very hard on this matter, and the Select Committee has taken a lot of evidence, as I said earlier.

The Government are not convinced that shooting galleries, as they have been described, would be helpful at the moment. We want to build a consensus around the rapid development of heroin prescribing for the right patients. We want to do so in association with the country's medical services so that there is confidence in such prescribing. That confidence was undermined when the experiments that began in the early 1970s were misused, and drugs were sold on.

We believe that careful, managed and overseen prescribing will help enormously in reducing the terrible pyramid selling by users who capture others in their lair. Such prescribing will help to reduce the terrible harm and misery experienced by people injecting in the most violent and unhealthy circumstances, and to lessen the harm that that brings to them and to the community.

We are not turning our faces away from providing safe and clean areas: in fact, we are developing, together with the health service, new policies on what is known as the paraphernalia, to minimise the harm that people suffer. However, we need to build a consensus. We must make sure that people are secure in accepting that we are not simply setting up shooting galleries outside clubs, where people can use needles and drugs in an unsupervised and unordered fashion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South made a final point about the audit of drug treatment services in prison. I am very glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is present, as we must ensure that there is a much more coherent approach to health policies in prisons in general. Mental health in particular relates to the misuse of drugs. We must make sure that there is a coherent policy that spans not only what happens to people inside prison, but above all what happens to those who leave prison.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I thank the Home Secretary for his statement. I share his view that drugs policy is a difficult, sensitive but very important issue. If we are honest, we must admit that there are differences of view on the matter among members of all political parties.

Will the Home Secretary accept that, even though hon. Members will not have identical views, it would be a good idea to conduct consultation with people across the political divide over the next few months? In that way, the maximum consensus can by achieved before the strategy is finalised in the autumn, as the right hon. Gentleman said that he intends. I offer the services of the Liberal Democrat party to ensure that that conversation takes place, even if, in the end, we do not agree on all the outcomes.

Although the Home Secretary was right to identify the successes and progress that have been achieved, does he agree that the major national tests show that we are still failing in this area? The statistics show that addiction to drugs is rising, as are the numbers of people for whom drug use brings harm and death. If those statistics are the product of past policy, then the policy must be changed to try to turn matters around.

I think that the Home Secretary was effectively saying that he shares the view that this is a health issue for the user and the addict for which we should seek a health remedy. For the dealer and the trafficker, the appropriate remedy is the criminal justice system—the courts and punishment.

I listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said about heroin, which is hugely important. If he rejects the shooting gallery option, does he agree that we must find a way of taking the heroin addict out of the clutches of the criminal profiteers and into the safe hands of the health service professionals? [Interruption.]

Does the Home Secretary agree with me that all the evidence is that although it is appropriate to lock up dealers and traffickers, doing so is entirely inappropriate as a way of dealing with the repeated habits of addicts? It adds thousands of people to the prison numbers, it is of very little use to them and does the Prison Service no good.

Can the right hon. Gentleman explain the new logic behind having different classifications of drugs yet the same maximum penalty for people dealing in those drugs, as will happen now with amphetamines and cannabis?

The Master of Rolls, among many others, says that the law on cannabis is not working. We, like others, have argued for a long time that cannabis should be reclassified as a category C drug. We also welcome the announcement of a common police response across London. [HON. MEMBERS: "Come on"] However, does the Home Secretary accept that there is a horrible danger of sending a muddled message if the national policy means that people are not normally stopped for cannabis use and possession while if it is a public order matter, it becomes an arrestable offence? That sends a muddled message about whether or not it is acceptable to use cannabis.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman replies, let me say that I was reluctant to interrupt the hon. Gentleman as he is the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman, but I want shorter contributions in future.

Mr. Blunkett

I will try to be short and snappy in reply, Mr. Speaker. For the first time in quite a few months, I agreed with everything that the hon. Gentleman said, except for his final point. If there is a will for people to come together and look at developing a consensus on the attack on drugs and drug abuse, we would be very happy to take that up.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's final point. I do not think that there is a mixed message in saying that if a drug is flagrantly displayed, used to provoke, in danger of causing disorder and makes the police's job more difficult, they have every right to arrest the people responsible. That will also help in respect of dealers. There has been some concern and misgiving about having differential penalties for dealers of different drugs, given that there is often confusion about whether dealers peddle one drug to lure people into taking another. We are intending to deal with the issue by raising the penalty to 14 years. However, we entirely agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says about developing harm minimisation programmes and prescribing for heroin. The real danger in many of our most deprived communities, and the cause of criminality, is the growth of crack. We have a major national and international challenge on our hands, and I think that we should agree to tackle it together.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)

Can the Home Secretary tell the House what implications there are from his announcement for the many multiple sclerosis sufferers in my constituency—some grow their own cannabis while others buy small quantities to relax their muscles—while they await the outcome of the NHS review on cannabinoids?

Mr. Blunkett

The only comfort that I can give my hon. Friend is that the Secretary of State for Health and I have seen the results of the early phases of the tests. They have proved successful and, as with the use in medical applications of heroin derivative, so it will be with cannabis derivative. As soon as the final phase is completed and we have the results, which I hope will be very soon, we will give the Medicines Control Agency the opportunity to ensure that that derivative can be used and the benefits accrued to patients such as my hon. Friend's constituents.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

May I ask the Home Secretary what consideration he gave to creating an offence of substantial possession? If those in possession of cannabis will not now be arrested unless they deal to children or cause a public order offence, what will be the position of those in possession of substantial amounts of cannabis? Where the police do not have quite enough evidence to prove intent to supply and therefore cannot make an arrest for dealing, what is the position of those people? Will he consider the law in those countries that have an offence of substantial possession under which people carrying unlikely supplies of cannabis for personal use can be arrested?

Mr. Blunkett

This is a serious and difficult issue. As with so many issues that, unfortunately, have become adversarial in recently days, there is a very fine line to tread. The fine line in this circumstance is whether dealers distribute and therefore disseminate small amounts of the drug to avoid being arrested as dealers and therefore whether a specific amount of the drug would be a reasonable trigger to determine whether they are dealing or merely possessing the drug. The jury is out on that. We are not convinced that it would be wise to create such an offence at the moment, but the right hon. Lady has hit on a reasonable point. If we and the police became convinced that it would help, we would certainly consider such an offence.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

Many hon. Members will welcome my right hon. Friend's statement today, but I have to tell him that I am not one of them. I very much appreciate what he is seeking to do, but I am very concerned about the mixed messages coming from today's statement. May I raise an issue that has not been mentioned so far? The greatest killer drug in this country is tobacco. Young people are becoming increasingly addicted to tobacco, and that is a great problem for all parents. If we make it easier to consume cannabis, the only way to consume cannabis is through tobacco, so there will be a greater temptation for younger kids to try cannabis by smoking cigarette tobacco. That can be more damaging to our young people, by dragging them into tobacco addiction as well. I understand what the Home Secretary is seeking to do, but I am not convinced that his statement will help to achieve it. My great fear is that it will increase tobacco addiction.

Mr. Blunkett

There is a general feeling that, if we were starting from scratch, we would take much more draconian measures against tobacco use than are possible in society today. Some of us fought very hard to ensure that tobacco advertising was banned and that young people were dissuaded from using tobacco in public places and elsewhere. I sympathise with the points that my hon. Friend makes because they cross fine lines. For example, the evidence on gateway access using tobacco, alcohol and, yes, cannabis to class A drugs is very mixed, but it is clear that all three play a part in taking young people on to the killer drugs. All I can offer my hon. Friend is this: the strategy that we have adopted so far has not worked. It is estimated that 46 per cent. of those under 30 have used cannabis at some time, so seeking to criminalise them or to pick them up for mere possession or use—

Mr. Letwin

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman said that it is still criminal.

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, it is criminal, but picking up, arresting and charging young people for possession would not be sensible. The right hon. Gentleman giggles. My view as a parent is that, if youngsters of 18 or 19 are found in possession of cannabis, a warning signal has to be sent to them, but arresting and charging them would not be in the interests of themselves or society. That is why we are taking these steps.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

The Home Secretary must be right to want to worry less about soft drugs and more about hard drugs; it therefore seems illogical to equate the penalties for selling both. If people are to suffer the same penalty, whichever they sell, they will be more inclined to sell the more profitable one. His statement fails to recognise, however, that for many years, well before 1997, this country's drugs policy has been a complete failure. Fifty per cent. of property crime is drug related, nearly three quarters of our jail population are in for drug-related offences, and millions of pounds and masses of police and customs time are spent on the problem, yet drugs are readily available close to every school, even in a rural constituency such as mine, and even in the most secure buildings in the country—the jails run by the Home Office—where drugs are apparently easily obtained.

Far more fundamental consideration needs to be given to this problem. As part of that, will the Home Secretary consider making it general practice to treat hard drug addicts not as criminals but as addicts, as we would treat alcoholics or others with a health problem? Provided that they entered some sort of rehabilitation programme, drugs should be available to them on prescription. That would reduce crime and enable us to concentrate resources on education and rehabilitation.

Mr. Blunkett

On a small point of clarification, the sentence for trafficking in class A drugs is life. On a lighter note, I hope that it remains so, whatever the Lord Chief Justice thinks about the Home Secretary and Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman is right about treating addicts as opposed to punishing them—that must be the direction in which we move, and drug testing and treatment orders and arrest referral are designed to do that. The establishment of the National Treatment Agency in April last year and the development of sensible drug policies in prison were necessary to start the process of reversing years of neglect. I do not wish to make a silly party political point this afternoon—[Interruption.] I will not do so. A concerted effort inside and outside prison is necessary. The modest progress that has been made so far in reducing the availability of drugs inside prisons needs to be accelerated. On that issue, I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

Is the Home Secretary not aware that, whatever he says today, and whatever the experts are saying, a stark and uncomfortable message is going out to families across the country that cannabis is okay, no matter how strong it is and no matter how it is taken? In my view, the experiment in my constituency was not a success. There are more drug dealers than ever and there are more people using cannabis. That is the message. Is the Home Secretary certain that, in 10 or 20 years' time, we will not look back on this day as the one when we got it wrong?

Mr. Blunkett

I want to say to the hon. Lady, whose views I respect and whose campaign has been vigorous, that there are no certainties in dealing with drugs policy. There are no certainties in finding a way forward. If there were, we would have found them, and I would be much less modest than I am this afternoon about putting forward the policy.

All I can tell the hon. Lady is that, first, the facts that she has enunciated—I do not mean the assertions that have been made by certain members of the community—are in doubt. The 10 per cent. increase in the capture of class A drugs dealers is a fact. The 10 per cent. drop in the last six months in robbery on the streets in Brixton is a fact.

Kate Hoey

It is nothing to do with cannabis.

Mr. Blunkett

The re-use of police time is certainly making a difference. Robbery in Lambeth is now at almost a two-year low. Those may be uncomfortable facts as they do not back up the rhetoric, but they are facts that I have taken into account in making the statement this afternoon.

Lady Hermon (North Down)

Will the Home Secretary enlighten us all about his consultations with Ms Jo Daykin, who is—and remains, I am pleased to say—Northern Ireland's drug and alcohol strategy co-ordinator? I ask about the consultation because of the concern that she expressed on the record today: My concern is that young people will get a mixed message that cannabis is now harmless, which it is not. She pointed out that the changes announced by the Secretary of State today would not take into account the prevalence"— of cannabis— in Northern Ireland. Whereas in England there are major problems with class A drugs like heroin, the main drugs of choice here are cannabis and ecstasy. Will the Home Secretary confirm that he has taken into account Jo Daykin's representations? Can he confirm that the substantial additional investment that the Secretary of State for Health announced will be extended to Northern Ireland?

Mr. Blunkett

I can confirm the latter point.

On the hon. Lady's earlier points, I understand the issues that have been raised. Representations were made, which is one reason why I decided to increase the penalty for traffickers and dealers—a particular problem in Northern Ireland—to 14 years. I did that specifically in response to a request and to ensure that the implementation of the new recategorisation will take place next summer and will take account of the particular problems of Northern Ireland.

I want to make a substantive point. The only people who will be giving the wrong message are not me, Ministers or those putting forward the policy, but people out there who are now telling young people that cannabis is legal or has been decriminalised. That is why I was genuinely disappointed that the shadow Home Secretary fell into just that trap.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on his willingness to listen and to think about a very serious problem and shift policy in a very pragmatic manner. It was not, and it is not, right to criminalise very young people who possess trivial amounts of cannabis, often on a first-time basis. However, like me, I am sure he understands that in the few months since he made the provisional announcement there has been considerable confusion about the policy. It concerns me that it will take until next July for the recategorisation from B to C to occur. Will he tell us why that is so? Will he also assure the House that the change in policy on prescribing heroin to the more chaotic heroin users, who cause the most criminal problems, will take immediate effect and that we will not have to wait that long for the heroin policy to change?

Mr. Blunkett

Where we do not have to change the law, we will act swiftly but by consensus. As I said earlier, we should move as quickly as we can towards prescribing and towards tackling problem users. The allocation of resources will help with that. The delay will allow us to have a debate in the House on recategorisation, to change the trafficking and dealing penalties and to be able to put in place the necessary changes in the models that the Metropolitan police and then, under the Association of Chief Police Officers guidance, police across the country will operate.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

I wanted to welcome any liberalising measure from the Home Office, following a series of illiberal measures, but I fear that the Home Secretary's proposals may land us with the worst of all possible worlds. Surely steps effectively to depenalise the use or possession of cannabis at the same time as retaining or reinforcing the penalties for its supply will do nothing to reduce demand for cannabis while continuing to drive soft drug users into the arms of hard drug providers. What does he propose to do to break the link between the supply of cannabis and that of heroin and cocaine?

Mr. Blunkett

I respect the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has been interested in and committed to such issues for some time. I am disappointed, therefore, to hear what many of his hon. Friends have to say. They claim that a differential rate for trafficking and dealing would lead to people receiving a lesser penalty for dealing in cannabis—they would get away with it and encourage people to get involved in class A drugs. We now hear the reverse argument: that by having a similar penalty, we make it more likely that people will turn to class A drugs. We cannot have it both ways. It has to be one or the other. [Interruption.] We have used the word "confusion" a great deal this afternoon. I will examine Hansard and the public statements to ensure that we are clear about where the confusion has arisen.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point on traffickers. We said that we will target the middle-market dealers. The assets recovery agency will assist with that when the Proceeds of Crime Bill completes its stages—tomorrow, I hope, if it is not blocked in the House of Lords. We also intend to use the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies more effectively, as we have been doing, to work in combination to break the trafficking route, but that is the biggest challenge of all.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement is important because he is concentrating on the hard drugs, which do enormous damage not simply to the individual but to the fabric of society? I urge him, however, to look carefully at the practice of prescribing heroin for the chaotic users. Breaking the link between money and heroin or crack use is important if we are to have an effect across society, and prescribing has a significant role to play.

I hope that the Home Secretary will return to the issue of cannabis because I think that he needs to move further on it. In cities such as Manchester, the use of cannabis is so widespread that it no longer makes sense to take even the approach that he outlines. However, I strongly welcome the emphasis on hard drugs, which are the real issue.

Mr. Blunkett

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments on harm minimisation through prescribing. The Netherlands and, recently, Portugal found that without legitimising fully the world supply of those drugs, which breaches every international convention, and the trafficking, by which I mean dealing and selling across the counter, the same conflict is faced all the time. There will be a contradiction whatever steps we take. If we were all prepared to examine that problem and be honest about it, we would have a much more rational debate.

Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I pay tribute to the work of Keith Hellawell, with whom I had contact in the previous Parliament. His work was valid and his views were sound.

I and many parents believe that not enough emphasis is put on drug prevention, especially on education. I am not merely talking about harm reduction, which is often what is proposed. If drug education is to be effective, clear and unequivocal messages must be sent to the young. The Home Secretary's statement means that those messages are now extremely mixed. I leave him with the thought that virtually no crack cocaine or heroin addict in this country did not start first on cannabis.

Mr. Blunkett

I might be prepared to accept that, with some exceptions, there is not a hard-drug user who did not start on either tobacco, alcohol or cannabis. If we were all more rational in what we think and say, we could have a more reasonable debate. I agree that the education campaign is critical. It is why we are stepping it up and seeking tenders for an entirely new approach. We accepted the hard-hitting approach recommended by the Select Committee.

I pay tribute to Keith Hellawell, who gave his time, energy and commitment for many years.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Having rubbished him.

Mr. Blunkett

I am being heckled. I have not rubbished Keith Hellawell; he rubbished me. He, not I, went on the "Today" programme. He decided that he would announce today in an extraordinary fashion the resignation that he had tendered a month ago. On a lighter note, I thank him also for the drug targets that he set for us all. They were described as inspirational: they inspired him; they perspired him; and they appear to have expired him.

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I welcome the extra money for treatment because, as I am sure everyone will agree, when treatment is requested, it should be made available. It is right that we should have a credible drugs message. I welcome my right hon. Friend's reassertion that all drugs are harmful because that is the message that we should get over to young people.

I welcome the proposal to increase the maximum sentence for dealers, but I am concerned that my right hon. Friend does not believe that there should be a supply for gain offence—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. MacKay, let me chair the proceedings.

Mrs. Dean

I would welcome any further information and views that my right hon. Friend could give on a supply for gain offence. I also ask for reassurance—

Mr. Speaker

Order. One question is sufficient for the Home Secretary.

Mr. Blunkett

We believe, as do our lawyers, that the supply for gain offence can be dealt with under the existing discretion, particularly with the new clarity about the offence of dealing.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

As someone who sits on the Home Affairs Committee, may I thank the Home Secretary for his statement and for accepting some of our recommendations? It might have been more coherent if he had accepted all of them, but perhaps that is too much to ask.

Does the Home Secretary agree that the biggest prize is to get the 270,000 heroin users into treatment? With that in mind, will he consider a specific suggestion made to me by police in Oxford, which is to speed up the operation of the drug treatment and testing order because the wheels of justice turn slowly and it takes a long time for people to get to court? Will he consider making the start of treatment a condition of police bail in some circumstances? Will he ensure that all forms of treatment are available on DTTOs, including methadone replacement? Will he ensure also that, as the Select Committee suggested, if someone starts treatment outside prison, they are able to continue it in prison because stopping treatment can be damaging for the health and it increases crime?

Mr. Blunkett

I agree entirely with the latter point, and it is a serious issue. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his open mind and his willingness to engage with these issues on the Select Committee. These are difficult and sometimes dangerous questions to deal with in politics, and I respect him for doing so. We should examine the commitment to ensure that we use treatment as a clear incentive, whether that concerns bail, referral or the question of whether someone will be sent to prison. In the broader statement that will be issued in the autumn, I hope to be able to deal with that more thoroughly.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on being the first Home Secretary in 30 years to stand at the Dispatch Box and argue for a drugs policy based on evidence rather than prejudice and emotion. It was a great disappointment to see the shadow Home Secretary argue so uncomfortably a case in which he clearly does not believe. Will the right hon. Gentleman look to his own Front Bench and recognise that seven of its Members have admitted to using cannabis—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The question is to the Home Secretary, not the shadow Home Secretary. If the Home Secretary can answer the hon. Gentleman's question, that will be fine, but the hon. Gentleman must understand that it is late in the day.

Mr. Blunkett

I am keen to maintain our privacy, as the shadow Home Secretary knows because he is always chiding me about it. I shall not ask anybody to reveal what they took, and I hope that the papers will not. I have not taken anything, by the way, just in case that answer evokes the question, but after being Home Secretary, who knows? I thank my hon. Friend for his words, which I greatly appreciate.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

I was the only member of the Home Affairs Committee not to sign the report. I was implacably against the declassification of cannabis and I am grateful to the Home Secretary for not accepting the other recommendations to declassify ecstasy from class A to class B or to set up a network of heroin shooting-up galleries throughout the country. If the Home Secretary is in any doubt about the gateway theory relating to cannabis, will he please speak to any police officer, who will confirm it to him?

Colleagues have rightly referred to treatment for existing addicts. Does the Home Secretary agree that unless measures are put in place to prevent the ever-increasing flow of new addicts, the treatment for existing addicts will become unachievable and unaffordable? Our resources, such as they are, should be focused on prevention and education. I have been horrified by some of the examples that pass for education in our schools and some of the leaflets that are circulating, which teach children how to avoid being caught, rather than stopping them taking drugs.

Mr. Blunkett

There is a big distinction between advising children how to avoid being caught, and advising young people, for instance, on fluid intake and on the way in which they can protect themselves in clubs. That distinction must be made. I agree entirely that the task of education, preventing people from drifting into drugs, building confidence, self-esteem, self-belief and hope for the future and early intervention are all critical in this regard. I do not accept that the evidence on the gateway to hard drugs is overwhelming; otherwise I would not have made the statement that I made. I accept that the evidence is incredibly mixed, as I said earlier.

Mrs. Irene Adams (Paisley, North)

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on taking head-on what is probably the scourge of our time. However, there are aspects of his speech with which I disagree. I represent a constituency that has very strong communities, but it was almost destroyed in the mid-1990s by drugs, and I have to say that cannabis was a part of that. The only way in which we tackled the situation was by all the agencies coming together—the politicians, the police, the medical services, the educationists and the whole community. Using that approach, we reduced violent crime by 56 per cent. within a year.

My main concern today—my great fear—is that much of the Home Secretary's statement will be lost, and the only part of it that will be reported is the downgrading of cannabis. It is almost tantamount to telling a child that he may not have a sweet, but that if he takes it from the drawer behind our back, that is all right. We are sending extremely mixed messages that will worry many communities. I hope that my right hon. Friend will ensure that there is a wide-ranging debate in the House and outside it before the proposals are enacted.

Mr. Blunkett

I am happy to give that assurance, and to offer my congratulations on the enormous amount of work that my hon. Friend put into building the community as a solution, to which I referred in my statement. The risk to which she put herself at one time in doing that, I understand, is greatly respected. Organised criminals—those intent on destroying the lives of others and making money—are at the heart of the challenge that we face. I believe that what we are trying to do today by sending the right message—the proportionate message—will help. All of us with children of our own deal differently with the commission of an offence or some deed that we know to be wrong. We deal with it differently not just in terms of how often it happens, but what it is. That is what I am trying to do in aiding the police to do their job.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

I, too, welcome the move to reclassify cannabis from class B to class C, but has the Home Secretary given any thought to how the measure will apply across the United Kingdom? Such are the vagaries of the devolution settlement that drugs laws are reserved to this House, but criminal justice and police matters are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. For instance, in Scotland we have no system of caution, and all drugs offences will still be referred to the procurator fiscal. The Police Federation of Scotland has already said that the measure is irrelevant to Scotland. How does the Home Secretary envisage that it will apply to the whole United Kingdom, and does he agree that, as matters stand, it is irrelevant to Scotland?

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. That is one of the joys of devolution. As we talk to Ministers in the Executive, we need to ensure that there is clarity and continuity. I am sorry that people in Scotland have reacted in a different fashion, but I hope that we can get very similar messages across so that we are all batting on the same wicket in terms of reducing drug trafficking and drug use.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will not today be remembered as the day when we started to get it right? The Secretary of State is to be commended for being the first with the courage and sense to change a policy that has failed every year since 1971. Then, there were 1,000 heroin addicts and no drug crime, and drug-related deaths were very rare. Every other Government's continuing with more and harsher prohibition has resulted in 250,000 addicts and record crime and deaths compared with any country in Europe.

The Home Secretary has introduced a policy that changes direction and is pragmatic, rational and courageous. May I urge him to look at the drug injection rooms throughout Europe, which are a very distressing sight? I suggest that he go to the Paulus Kerk in Rotterdam to see people injecting. The needles are clean, and people are in hygienic surroundings with support, education and training for jobs. That is infinitely better than being on the streets.

Mr. Blunkett

I accept that there is a debate to be had about managed prescribing and whether that spills over into unsupervised or alternative prescribing, but I am clear about the fact that it would not help that debate if we allowed people, unmanaged and unsupervised, to set up so-called shooting galleries around the country. That said, as regards the so-called paraphernalia—sterilised water, pads and needles—it is critical that we are able to develop policies to minimise harm and to ensure that we take those things out of the hands of the dealers and organised criminals who are destroying people's lives.

Matthew Green (Ludlow)

I listened carefully to what the Home Secretary said, and I welcome it as an initial step forward. He stressed the importance of the credibility of the message to young people, but all the organisations and committees that he consulted represent the great and the good, and he made no mention of any consultation with users—young people themselves. Is he concerned that the whole debate may end up sounding like the great and the good patronising young people and not listening to their concerns about drugs?

Mr. Blunkett

There is a danger in every area of policy that we end up debating with ourselves, those whom we meet, and those who influence us through the newspapers and other media. That is why the first-past-the-post constituency and the constituency work that we do are so crucial—we meet people in our surgeries every day and we have to respond to them.

The hon. Gentleman made a serious point about listening to young people. All Departments need to pull together forums to listen to young people, hear their message, weigh it and give advice where we can. Young people do not necessarily expect diktats or life by example—God forbid that we should preach that—but they expect us to establish a structure having heard what they have to say.

Clive Efford (Eltham)

My right hon. Friend has not proposed a perfect solution today, but, sadly, we do not live in a perfect world. Does he agree that those who oppose the proposal deny the sheer scale of the problem of crack and heroin throughout the country? Does he accept that the appointment of Mr. Hellawell, with the ridiculous title of "drugs tsar", raised expectations, which were not met in the communities that we represent? Does he also accept that today is a watershed and that it will also raise expectations?

The success of my right hon. Friend's proposal will be determined by whether the police use the opportunity to target dealers in class A drugs. That is crucial. People know the houses and cars from which people deal. The proposal will be successful only when people see action against those individuals.

Mr. Blunkett

I agree. There will be change on the streets in the years ahead. Expectations are often raised and dashed, and democracy is thus damaged. I have tried to raise expectations not of immediate change but of long-term investment. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I were able to announce additional resources, and I hope that they will be complemented by further resources, consequent on next week's comprehensive spending review.