HL Deb 01 December 1955 vol 194 cc1011-4

2.38 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government, with reference to an answer given in this House on 27th April and a report in The Times on 23rd November, whether Dr. E. A. Gregg, the Chairman of the British Medical Association wrote to the Home Secretary early in November stating that he was convinced that the decision to ban heroin was exceedingly unfortunate; whether Her Majesty's Government are aware that Dr. Gregg has also stated that he and the members of the Association, who are on the Standing Medical Advisory Committee, are not on it as representatives of the Association, and that it was most regrettable that the B.M.A. as an Association was not consulted as regards the ban so that the opinions of doctors thoroughly representative of the profession might be obtained regarding the use of heroin; and whether in all these circumstances Her Majesty's Government will consider the advisability of appointing an ad hoc committee to inquire into the position, and of postponing the operation of the ban pending the committee's report.]


My Lords, in view of the debate on the subject of heroin which will take place in your Lordships' House on Tuesday, 13th December, on the Motion in the name of the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, I hope that it will accord with the convenience of the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, and of the House, if I do not reply in detail to his Question to-day. I would propose to restrict myself to-day to a short statement, setting out very briefly the history of this matter, which I hope may be of some assistance to your Lordships.

The possibility of dispensing with heroin in medicine was considered five years ago, in 1950, when the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland were advised by the bodies which advise them in medical matters that it would be justifiable to prohibit the use of heroin in the United Kingdom if international agreement were reached to prohibit the manufacture of this drug. In 1954 the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations adopted a resolution urging all Governments to prohibit the manufacture, import and export of heroin except for such small amounts as might be necessary for scientific purposes. In December, 1954, my right honourable friend the Minister of Health consulted his advisory bodies and was told that they concurred with the proposal of Her Majesty's Government to accept the resolution of the Economic and Social Council. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced in another place on 18th February last his decision to grant no further licences after 31st December, 1955, for the manufacture of heroin except for small quantities needed for scientific purposes or the manufacture of nalorphine. I repeated this information in answer to a Question by the noble Viscount. It was not until May last that the first indication that the British Medical Association was opposed to this decision reached the Minister of Health.

My right honourable friend, with the Minister of Health and the Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Home Affairs received a deputation from the British Medical Association on 11th July. He and his colleagues discussed the matter very fully with the deputation, and subsequently considered most carefully, in consultation with his colleagues, the representations which the British Medical Association had made. As those colleagues adhered to the advice which they had originally given him, after consultation with their advisory bodies, my right honourable friend came to the conclusion that the decision not to permit the general manufacture of heroin after the end of this year must stand. He notified his decision to the British Medical Association on 17th October last.

Her Majesty's Government have given the most anxious and sympathetic consideration to all aspects of this very complex problem, including the position and experience of other countries. It is their view that the proposed ban should be maintained. They will, of course, keep its working under constant review in the light of the experience gained.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Lord for his Answer, but may I ask whether he is aware that that Answer is not the whole story of what took place although it will provide food for debate? Is he also aware that I speak as one who during weeks of agony has experienced the beneficial results of heroin, for which, in the opinion of my eminent physician in Edinburgh, Dr. A. B. Flett, there was no adequate or equal substitute? May I also ask the noble Lord whether between now and the date on which the debate on the Motion of the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, is to take place Her Majesty's Government will give the most careful consideration to the interests of the many patients, the mitigation of whose sufferings ought to be one of the cardinal points in this controversy but which is a point sometimes too readily forgotten by some of those who favour the ban.


My Lords, I feel that it would be undesirable to go into detailed debate now, but I can assure the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, that the question of the suffering of patients was foremost in the mind of Her Majesty's Government when this matter was considered.


My Lords, I quite understand the attitude of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, in not wanting a debate to-day, and in view of the Motion which I have on the Order Paper I believe he is quite right. I hope that when that debate comes the noble Lord will be able to consider the possibility of limiting the ban to the export of heroin and will bear that suggestion in mind when we come to discuss the matter on December 13.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether it is not the case that the bulk of the best medical opinion in this country is in favour of a ban on heroin at the present time; that the question of heroin production, manufacture and use is a world problem and that heroin has already been banned by fifty-four nations? And is it not desirable that we should follow suit in our practice here, thus giving a lead towards the disuse of a drug which is not essential and can be, and frequently is, replaced by other drugs?


My Lords, it is a fact that this drug has been banned by fifty-four other countries. The suggestions in the supplementary question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Haden-Guest, command a certain respect but are controverted by others. I feel that it would be better to leave this controversial subject until our debate on December 13.


My Lords, may I ask a supplementary question? Though I am not clear from the statement of the noble Lord that this is so, I believe that in the first case the British Medical Association was not consulted. A deputation was seen at a later date, but from what one has read in a report in The Times newspaper of November 23, and in a subsequent letter, it seems that the British Medical Association was not fully consulted. As in this case, it seems that often authorities who ought to be consulted on such legislation are not consulted. I wonder if those who represent us on the Front Bench cannot ensure that when there are questions affecting them, such bodies are always consulted as a matter of course?


My Lords, whether or not the British Medical Association were consulted is again a matter of acute controversy in this matter. That will be one of the aspects which undoubtedly we shall discuss in our debate. May I therefore confine myself to saying that Her Majesty's Government will adhere firmly to the view that they took all the consultation that they properly should have taken?