HL Deb 23 January 1969 vol 298 cc1040-5

3.44 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to make a Statement in accordance with the reply to Questions which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has given in another place about the Report on Cannabis of the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence. I will use his own words:

"My right honourable friends the Secretary of State for Social Services and the Secretary of State for Scotland and I have carefully studied the Report on Cannabis, submitted by the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence, and wish to thank Sir Edward Wayne, Baroness Wootton and their colleagues for their painstaking examination of this social problem.

"The Sub-Committee of which Lady Wootton was chairman recommended that the penalties for possession, sale or supply of cannabis should be substantially reduced. It also recommended studies of the use of police powers, of the exclusion of strict liability, and of redefinition of the offence of unauthorised possession. It recommended that the general law on drugs should be recast.

"My right honourable friends and I fully accept that more comprehensive and flexible powers of control are needed to check drug abuse and I hope to be in a position to announce proposals in due course. We also accept that there is a need for wider research and we are bringing this to the notice of the Research Councils and others.

"As regards a review of police powers of search and arrest, the Advisory Committee has set up a Sub-Committee under the chairmanship of the right honourable Member for Ashford to review these powers in relation to drug offences, and this inquiry is proceeding. I am in sympathy with the view that the scope of strict liability in relation to drug offences should be restricted and I shall continue consultations with the Law Commission to that end.

"On the other hand, I cannot reconcile the view expressed by the main Committee that the wider use of cannabis should not be encouraged with the proposal that legislation should be brought in to reduce the existing penalties for use. Nor has the Advisory Committee made any forecast of the consequences of such legislation. But in our opinion, to reduce the penalties for possession, sale or supply of cannabis would be bound to lead people to think that the Government take a less than serious view of the effects of drug-taking. That is not so. It would be entirely contrary to Government policy to allow this impression to spread, nor would such a view accord with the resolution of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which the Government accepted last year, recommending 'that all countries concerned increase their efforts to eradicate the abuse and illicit traffic in cannabis'. Accordingly it is not the Government's intention to legislate to reduce existing penalties."


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord for reading that Statement in reply to my Private Notice Question to him on this subject? I think your Lordships will wish to have time to digest the Statement and, as I hope, return to the whole subject on some subsequent occasion when longer time for debate is available. I should just like to ask, here and now, whether the noble Lord is aware that, with the greatest respect to the noble Baroness and her colleagues who have given so much study to this question, the Statement he has made to-day on behalf of the Home Secretary will be found to accord with the great majority of public opinion in this country?


My Lords, I should like to welcome the Statement that has been made, and in welcoming, in particular, the assurance that more research is to be carried out on this question, I would ask if this can be done fairly urgently. I would ask the Government whether they agree that this is the crux of the matter: that if this is really a dangerous drug, as the World Health Organisation seem to think, then we should stamp on it as hard as we possibly can; but that if it is not a dangerous drug, as a number of other authorities and as, within bounds, the Wootton Committee seemed to think, then there is nothing that could be worse than to put takers of a relatively harmless drug among the criminal community where they will meat the heroin "pushers"?


My Lords, I am most grateful both to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, and to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, for the general welcome they have given to this Statement. With Lord Brooke of Cumnor's suggestion that we shall need time to digest the Statement, and that it might well be a suitable vehicle for discussion over a longer period later on, I would quite agree; but that is not a matter for me. No doubt through the usual channels we shall have an opportunity of getting a date to discuss this problem. For that very reason I do not think that this is the time to go into details in this matter, or to discuss the pros and cons of the Report of the Committee of which my noble friend Lady Wootton was chairman. That may well come at a later date.

I think, however, that the Home Secretary's Statement, which I have just read, is quite unequivocal as representing the policy of Her Majesty's Government at the present time. As such, whatever the dissenting views of experts, I am sure that it will be reassuring to the great majority of our community, who are very concerned indeed, and rightly concerned, about the overall problem of the drug menace. Having made this Statement, I think we should do better now to leave the matter until a later occasion when we can consider it in greater detail.


My Lords, I hope I may be allowed to press my noble friend a little further on this point. There is little doubt that the decision made by the Government on, I presume social and political grounds will be generally accepted. Nevertheless, because the Report presented from the Committee is one of such importance generally, and one which really means that further investigation on the widest scale must be undertaken on this subject, it would not be sufficient simply to say, as I am sure the Government do not mean to say, that on this matter their attitude is negative.


My Lords, nothing that I said could have given rise to such a supposition of my noble friend. Nor do I think that anything I have said should give rise to the suspicion, which he apparently entertains, that part of this decision is a political one. Certainly social reasons enter into it; of course they do, and they must do. But what I want to make quite clear at this stage is that the Government are not prepared to legislate on cannabis in isolation and on what they firmly believe to be—I think the Report of my noble friend's Committee bears this out—as yet inadequate information.


My Lords, while I agree with the Government on the cautious attitude they have taken to the whole question of the Report, particularly on the question of more investigation to find out why cannabis has become so fashionable, would not the Minister agree that the emotional and prejudiced reaction of many people is perhaps a little exaggerated? I ask that, in view of the fact that no one can question the intellectual capacity of my noble friend Lady Wootton and her intellectual integrity. I should like to pay tribute to her courage in this matter.


My Lords, I entirely agree with what my noble friend has said about my noble friend Lady Wootton. I should have said all these things earlier if I had imagined there was anyone in this House who would question either the standing or the integrity of my noble friend. Those are matters which, to my mind, are beyond dispute and do not arise. But what does arise is what my noble friend Lady Gaitskell referred to as the emotional content in, the emotional feeling about, this matter. In my experience there is emotion on both sides, and I think that this matter should not be judged emotively; it should be judged on the facts. All I am pleading for now is that this House should leave the subject and not try to deal with it with totally inadequate questions and the answers I am giving, but wait until we can consider it properly on the basis of such evidence as exists.


My Lords, may I be allowed to add how very important it is that the Government have made their views on this highly controversial issue known so promptly, so as to leave no doubts in the minds of the country as a whole, and especially in the minds of the addicts themselves, as to what the Government's decision has been. Also, may I be allowed to stress that the matter of urgency should take second place to a thorough and complete investigation of the whole subject, especially in its relation to other addictive drugs?


My Lords, before the Minister replies and although I do not want to appear to be narrow-minded, may I ask this question with relation to the procedure of the House? After it has been suggested to us by some of our leading Members that this is a matter which should be debated at a later stage, we have had a series of statements, without any attempt to ask a question, from Members of your Lordships' House who have recently been on their feet. Is this acceptable practice now in the House when a Statement is made, or should we follow the normal procedure, which is to ask questions and to limit ourselves to questions when we do so?


My Lords, since my noble friend the Leader of the House is not here, it falls to me as Deputy Leader to reply to the noble Lord, Lord Alport. Clearly we tend to be generous, but sometimes I think our Rules are stretched too far, and I suggest that perhaps this afternoon that is in fact the case. The real object, of course, if there are points to be made on Statements, is that they should be in the form of questions to elicit information; although we have always extended a degree of tolerance—shall we say?—to the three Front Benches so that those who lead for their Parties might make a statement. But, in practice, contributions from the House generally are in the form of a question to elicit information. In view of what my noble friend has said, that this is such an important matter and it is something we should debate at some stage (and clearly that subject could be dealt with through the usual channels), and particularly as we still have other Business to do this afternoon, I think this is perhaps the moment when we should move to further Business.


My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to answer the question of my noble friend Lord Segal. And, indeed, I would remind the noble Lord, Lord Alport, that I was in fact answering a Question, given by Private Notice, by his noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor. In reply to my noble friend Lord Segal I would agree with him, and I would add also that the Government are aware that the existing law is in many respects inadequate, inflexible and anomalous. But what we need, as speedily as possible, is to get it right. What we need is a single, comprehensive code covering drug abuse in its entirety and giving the Government proper powers to deal with it adequately.


My Lords, mindful of the warning that has been given to ask a specific question, may I ask whether the Government will, if possible, before any debate on this subject takes place, give serious thought to one specific matter: whether there cannot be some differentiation in the law between the "pushers" who may deserve serious penalties, and the possessors, many of whom are quite wrongly imprisoned?


My Lords, the penalties of up to ten years in this connection are, in our view, adequate, and the courts are perfectly well able to distinguish between different classes of offenders according to the evidence.