HL Deb 10 June 1997 vol 580 cc864-80

5.21 p.m.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to combat drug abuse in Scotland.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, some months ago I learnt from the chief constable of the Grampian Police that the chemical dependency problem in Scotland as a whole, and Aberdeenshire in particular, was far worse than I had imagined. In March he addressed a meeting of the Scottish Peers' Association on the subject and those present at that meeting were as surprised as I was by the severity of the problem. That is why I am asking the Government this evening to give the matter their urgent attention.

The demand for drugs has increased so rapidly and the culture of tolerance and acceptance among young people become so widespread that parents, grandparents and teachers have simply been caught napping. Drugs are now readily available throughout the United Kingdom. In the Grampian area alone the number of registered heroin addicts multiplied by a factor of 16 in the 10 years 1985 to 1995. Although that increase is particularly spectacular, there is a steady increase throughout Scotland.

Drugs respect no social boundaries; they are used and abused by people in all walks of life from the classroom to the boardroom. They are available at the school gate and in the smart nightclub. They are everywhere. I was particularly horrified to learn that 25 per cent. of babies born in the special maternity unit at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary are already drug dependent at birth.

Of course, drugs cost money. Some are comparatively cheap whereas others are fairly expensive. Addicts have to obtain money somehow to finance their habit, which can cost anything from £50 to £200 a day. It has been estimated that 70 per cent. of current crime, particularly housebreaking, is by addicts to feed their habit. The more serious crimes carried out by dealers and suppliers involve guns, fraud, money laundering and murder.

In addition to crimes carried out by addicts to finance their habit and dealers to protect and conceal an illegal business, there is the problem that a large number of addicts drive vehicles while under the influence particularly of hallucinatory drugs, sometimes mixed with alcohol and often with disastrous results. I wonder how much road rage can be attributed to the influence of drugs. There is as yet no roadside test like the breathalyser to test for drug use.

With drugs so freely available and the number of abusers increasing so rapidly, the impact on the health service is enormous. Apart from the cost of weaning addicts who wish to be cured of their habit and rehabilitating them, there is the huge cost of damage-limitation programmes. The cost of the distribution of syringes in Aberdeen alone is in excess of £120,000. Methadone substitution programmes are costly and the methadone is not always used by those for whom it is prescribed. Often it is sold and the seller carries on with a cocktail of other drugs paid for by the proceeds.

I am not altogether convinced of the wisdom of those so-called damage-limitation programmes. They are extremely costly and I cannot help wondering whether the money spent on them would not be better spent on trying to prevent young people taking drugs in the first place. I wonder whether it would not be better in the end to let a huge increase in drug-related deaths act as a deterrent.

Many doctors are fed up with spending more time on drug addicts than on people who are genuinely ill and suffering from problems not of their own seeking. In some places it is becoming difficult to find doctors willing to join general practices because they are sick of writing out prescriptions for methadone and of the abuse and violence they often suffer at the hands of those patients. The total number of drugs-related deaths in Scotland rose from 12 in 1995 to 30 in 1996.

What is to be done about the problem? Clearly we cannot continue as we are. Some people advocate legalising soft drugs such as cannabis and Ecstasy. They claim that at a stroke it should be possible to take the profit out of drug trafficking. They should consider that if it is sanctioned by law, people will think that it cannot be very harmful and all social sanctions will be removed. But increased availability will lead to more people taking them with consequent damage to health and safety and so forth.

Those people argue that there is no proof that soft drugs damage health, but they are unable to offer any proof that they do not. Indeed, there is more evidence that they do than that they do not. For example, if Ecstasy is so safe, how did Leah Betts come to die? There are other problems with legalisation such as whether there would be an age barrier; whether one would need a prescription and whether the drugs would be freely available perhaps even by mail order. It is worth noting that in 1990 the people of Alaska voted to recriminalise the possession of marijuana because legalising it led to such increased use and associated problems.

In the past central government have done some good work in combating the menace of drugs, but they have tended to take the attitude that resolution is largely a local problem. Though the figures I gave have been drawn from the Grampian police area, it is not a local problem; it is a national problem. The fight needs to be centrally organised to ensure that all those involved in it are properly informed, properly trained and adequately funded. There must be proper co-ordination policies so that we do not have a number of differently motivated groups operating independently of one another, sometimes in ignorance of others and sometimes in competition—often with inadequate resources which are wasted by duplication of effort.

Central government ought to have a Secretary of State responsible for the co-ordination of government policy in all relevant areas which include health, education, employment, housing, social services and criminal justice. We all know how little communication there is traditionally between government departments at all levels. For example, I read in a newspaper that there has been a problem with prisoners, who were on methadone before being convicted, ceasing to receive their methadone while in gaol because of poor communication between their GP and the prison authorities. As a result they went back to heroin which seems to be so readily available in prisons. In another press report I read of addicts who wished to give up having difficulty in finding the treatment that they needed in their specific area not necessarily because it did not exist, but because the information was not available.

It could also be helpful for a university to set up a centre which could provide information exchange, assessment, research and analysis and training in order to support those agencies which are active in the field. The remedy is a long-term one, starting in the home and the school, moving to the workplace and involving the health and social services and the police and criminal justice system on the way.

I shall not go into any more detail just now. As I have no right of reply at the end, I should like in advance to thank the other noble Lords who have put down their names to speak on this Question for taking the trouble to do so and to express the hope that the noble and learned Lord who is to answer will be able to give us hope that the Government will treat this problem with the seriousness which it merits. In answering he is making his maiden speech. It is a great pleasure to welcome him in advance to the Dispatch Box and I am very much looking forward to hearing what he has to say.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Hughes

My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, for bringing this matter to our attention tonight, although I am sure we are horrified and shocked at some of the information—that the situation can be so bad in Aberdeenshire, for instance—she has made known to us.

I first became involved in the matter of drugs as a parliamentarian 15 years ago or more at the Council of Europe. The social health committee, of which I was then chairman, undertook the examination of the problem of drugs as its major issue during one session. A great deal of research was undertaken and much expert advice was made available to the committee. The result was that we made certain recommendations. We felt that less time should be devoted to pursuing the users of drugs, who in the great majority of cases were more in need of help than punishment, although, as the noble Lady pointed out, the pursuit of their habit led many of them into crime in order to get money to pay for it.

The committee recommended that the main target of government should be the dealers in drugs. We recommended that one aspect of dealing with them should be to hit them where it hurt most—in their pockets—and that any assets which they could not prove were legitimately obtained should be the subject of confiscation. Very soon thereafter the Government in this country followed up the recommendation, and that has been practised here, but perhaps less successfully than we might have hoped. One point has become clear. The dealers have become more expert at concealing the proceeds of their crimes.

The people who have the first responsibility for dealing with this matter are the police. They need all the help they can get from every quarter—from health and education authorities in trying to keep youngsters away from drugs and from the Government in providing them with the resources to pursue these people. They have a ready mechanism at their disposal in Scotland in the person of the Lord Advocate. He is primarily responsible for pursuing criminals.

We are always horrified when we read in our press of a murder having taken place, particularly if it is committed by a deranged individual who kills members of his family or total strangers. But the people dealing in drugs are murderers—wicked murderers. They are evil men. They murder thousands of people whom they do not even know. I recognise that if a major dealer is brought before the authorities he cannot be charged with murder. However, if such a person is found guilty, the jury and the judge should take into account the fact that he has, even if not in the legal sense, perpetrated murder on a massive scale. The punishment meted out should fit the crime.

A number of years ago there were two Lords Advocate—not anyone present. At the time they were very much involved in pursuing corruption in public life, a subject which has become fairly topical. One Lord Advocate took the view that he would not prosecute unless he was certain in his mind that he would get a conviction. As a result a number of people were not prosecuted who might well have been. The other Lord Advocate took a different view altogether. He examined very carefully every case that came before him and if he made up his mind that he might get a conviction he went ahead. I am happy to say that he got the lot. If I should presume to give advice to the present Lord Advocate—I look forward to hearing his maiden speech—it would be, let him follow the second course: make it his objective to get the lot.

I mentioned that education and health authorities could be of help to the police. Another part of the realm which could be helpful is the press. Some newspapers have done much to help by drawing attention to the problem. I think particularly of the Sunday Post, which has maintained campaigns in Scotland and has brought to the notice of many people the extent of the problem. I hope that the press generally will make it their objective to help the police by always drawing attention when they can to what is taking place. If we can get at the dealers through police action, prosecution and conviction, and if we can reach young people through the activities of the education and health authorities, we may yet look forward to a situation in Scotland where on the subject of drug abuse we are beginning to win the battle.

5.37 p.m.

The Earl of Balfour

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, for instigating this debate because I attended the very interesting but most disturbing talk by Dr. Oliver, the chief constable of Grampian. To think that in the Aberdeen area 120,000 needles were issued gives an indication of how serious is the problem.

I am hooked on tobacco. When I was a teenager, no one said to me that smoking was bad for me. If you go and see any of the old black and white films the hero and very often the heroine usually smoked. I sometimes wonder whether they had shares in the tobacco industry. Nowadays only the baddies smoke. Alcohol is the only other legal drug that we have in this country. However, to some extent I believe that in this cold climate we need a little anti-freeze.

The noble Lord, Lord Hughes, was so very wise in suggesting that illegal drugs should be put into the same bracket as murder because they can destroy a person. Many people die of an overdose of illegal drugs. Drug trafficking has some of the best criminal brains behind it and is a huge international racket and problem.

Although Europe wishes to see free trade, each country cannot afford to allow the free transportation of illegal drugs across every border from Greece to Ireland. I sincerely hope that Her Majesty's Government will continue to control the crossing of our borders to prevent—perhaps that is the wrong word—to reduce trafficking in illegal drugs. I hope that the Government will increase our coastguard staff, Customs and Excise and have police specialising in drugs control. Customs and Excise have always had special powers of search—much more than the police—but they have always used their discretion in their wide powers.

In the Mail on Sunday newspaper I read a good article on the fight against illegal drugs. It concerned a nightclub owner whose premises were burnt down in February 1996 and which have just reopened. The owner has a cocker spaniel sniffer dog. Any person whom the dog suspects of having drugs is refused admission and now he has no drug problem. Previously, the owner found that any attempt to prosecute somebody he caught with drugs failed because any search methods were classed as illegal.

Most house theft, robbery and shoplifting are drug-related crimes caused by persons hooked on drugs and looking for a fix. These are tragic people. Many of them are very young and are given these harmful drugs almost free by the drug traffickers. We have extradition treaties with most countries for the crime of murder. Would Her Majesty's Government seek to include the serious crime of illegal drug trafficking in the same category as murder?

Finally, will Her Majesty's Government encourage every co-operation between Customs and Excise, the police, coastguards, etc. with every aid such as sniffer dogs, surveillance and any other means of controlling illegal trafficking in drugs?

5.44 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I did not put my name down to speak in this debate because I did not realise that it was going to come on so early, but perhaps I may make a short intervention. I am grateful to your Lordships. We should all be very grateful to the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, for raising this matter. She has made a valuable contribution by doing so.

Drugs are now established, I believe, throughout the United Kingdom as perhaps the principal cause of crime among young people. Those crimes have increased enormously in number. The drugs come mainly from abroad; not all of them, but a very high proportion including some of the most dangerous drugs. In days long past Scotland was more vulnerable to smugglers even than England and Wales. It is very strange that, despite its greater distance from the places where drugs are grown, Scotland seems to be very vulnerable to the import of drugs today. I do not think they come from south of the Border, from what I hear, but mostly by direct import on aircraft and through shipyards.

It seems to me that this is largely the crux of the matter. The Government should do all they can to concentrate on preventing the importation of drugs. Prevention is always better than stopping or curing drug use. As the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, pointed out, the police are exerting themselves tremendously to get on top of this problem. But as long as drugs continue to be imported the task of the police is very greatly increased. Therefore, I very much hope that when we have the pleasure and advantage of hearing the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate he will be able to tell us if the Government have a policy concentrated on preventing the importation of drugs. That seems to me to be the crux of the matter.

5.46 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, perhaps I may first congratulate my noble kinswoman, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, on raising this most serious of Scottish topics. In so doing I wonder, mischievously, whether she is setting out a case that this House can on occasion be relevant in Scottish terms. If only one always felt that was so.

I also look forward to hearing the answer of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate, whom I especially welcome to the Dispatch Box today. I am sure that we are going to hear an excellent maiden speech from him in these rather unusual circumstances, in which I do not believe that anyone is able to reply or to welcome his maiden speech on behalf of the House.

Drug abuse and concern about it is no party political matter. Along with long-term unemployment, youth unemployment, health matters and lawlessness among children, the misuse and abuse of unprescribed drugs is a national issue and as such the public expect that parliamentarians and those in government and the professions will work together, harnessing their combined talents to develop a viable strategy to deal with it. It is of course obvious that this is not something that governments and parliaments can do alone. Certainly, the caring professions have an enormous role in developing and delivering services in both prevention and recovery. I support the efforts of social workers, youth workers, health workers, teachers, police and prison officers in that respect.

But the real thrust needs to be in the area of popular action. It is the build-up of knowledge and motivation among adults and young people that will be most effective in combating the apparent attractions of drug misuse. We should look at the matter in economic terms, starting with the supply side. Others have already mentioned that there is clearly plenty of money to be made in the illegal and untaxed business of supplying unprescribed drugs. Sophisticated business structures have arisen to exploit this market. Hence, there is a lot of commitment to continue the business, and that most pernicious practice of using addicts as suppliers on the street is a symptom of that commitment. Given the well-known detrimental effects of this trade, it can clearly be identified as evil.

I turn now to the demand side, which is where I believe that we can have the greatest effect. Clearly, a market cannot exist for long without strong demand. We need to understand how that demand is created and what the attractions are. On a personal level, I realise that I am too busy to take unprescribed drugs. I have not used nicotine since I was six—it was a case of once and never again. Yes, I use alcohol on a recreational basis and in that I am typical of my generation. Succeeding generations have often pointed out to me that that approved drug, alcohol, can be more harmful than some drugs which are currently disapproved of—and they are right because the older generation's recreational and legitimate drugs are harmful when abused. However, for me, that is not an argument to extend approval to the use of other drugs. On these Benches—I am glad that they are beginning to fill slightly—we hope that a Royal Commission will examine this matter in the future.

The answer lies in how and why people have the time for drug use, and how that situation has come about. Of course, the answer is probably as wide as the number of people involved. Although some are in control of their activities, others are trying to obliterate some aspect of their lives. That is a somewhat self-defeating strategy. Working to overcome the problem would seem to be more efficient than seeking to obliterate it, but you have to believe that you can win. It is an issue of self-esteem. In the worst-case scenario, after addiction has set in, the solution becomes the problem.

I must make the obvious remark that enabling people to find fulfilling life styles is a fundamental aim of government, society, community and family. Risky activities must be balanced out by equally challenging activities with managed or controlled risk. I do not intend to dwell tonight on the well-established need for recovery programmes, except to call strongly for an adequate supply. Our focus must be on countering the popularity of recreational and introductory drug use. I do not believe that the existing social and health education programmes are yet reaching the parts that they ought to be reaching—and that is not for want of trying.

We need to be equipping all adults, teenagers and, I regret, children with knowledge of drugs. In particular, people need to know about the effects of drugs, both positive and harmful; the effect on their behaviour while under the influence of drugs, the effect on their present and future health and the effect that having a criminal conviction could have on their future. That means that everybody needs to be able to identify whether any drug is a depressant, a stimulant or a hallucinogenic substance. People need to be able to talk coherently about their characteristics. Further, people need to recognise that mixing drugs can create some alarming cocktails, the characteristics of which can be very different from those of the constituent parts. Furthermore, familiarity is needed with the problems of an unregulated supply. I refer to the problems of incorrect production, both deliberate and accidental. Complex drugs such as MDMA, also known as ecstasy, are clearly prone to that.

I recognise that there is a danger of building up a fascination which may lead to curious experimentation. It is a reluctant inevitability that teenagers will experiment with forbidden fruits. While preparing older children for their increasing teenage independence, parents have to ensure that they have taught their children how to recognise the undesirable from the positively harmful and how to resist peer pressure without being made to feel stupid, immature or unsophisticated. Laying such a foundation is a fundamental task of parenting. That can be backed up by other agencies, such as school, church, youth organisations, police, health professionals, relatives and good neighbours, but it will not happen if the parents do not believe in it. It is well known that when home and school are in conflict, home wins. The role modelling of home is too strong.

In earlier debates, I strongly advocated the case that we need to focus on how to make children abuser-proof. That has to concentrate on the way in which the family is run and the way in which a child's vulnerability to abuse can be reduced. Since supplying drugs to children and young people must be a form of child abuse, I believe that abuser-proofing should be the approach that is adopted.

I conclude by returning to my original economic analysis. It is essential that we focus on how to reduce the demand for drugs both by informal education and by promoting opportunities for more fulfilling lifestyles. I sincerely hope that when the noble and learned Lord on the Treasury Bench replies to the debate in his maiden speech, to which we are all looking forward, he will build on this contribution to the debate.

5.56 p.m.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, for tabling the Unstarred Question. This is an extremely important issue in Scotland and I am sure that we all welcome the opportunity to examine it.

I welcome the Lord Advocate to the Government Front Bench on the first occasion on which he will speak from the Dispatch Box. The Lord Advocate holds the oldest continuing political office in Scotland. I am sure that he is as proud to occupy that position as I once was. Curiously, however, if his Government have their way, he will enjoy a unique distinction: he will be the last Lord Advocate to sit in your Lordships' House. I would regard that as a pity. Ever since the noble Lord, Lord Renton, wrote his most important report on the preparation of legislation and included within it a recommendation that there should always be a Scottish Law Officer in this House, that practice has been followed. I hope that it is not undue immodesty on my part if I say that that seems to have been to the benefit of the legislative process not only in relation to Scottish or United Kingdom legislation, but increasingly in relation also to EC law.

While the noble and learned Lord is here, however, we shall welcome the opportunities that his presence affords us to inquire not only about his prosecution policy in those matters that fall directly within his remit, but also to address, as we are this evening, rather wider criminal justice issues in Scotland. I know from my time in that position just how much of the noble and learned Lord's time will be occupied by the issue of drugs and drug abuse in Scotland.

A few years ago—in 1993 or 1994, I believe—I chaired a drug task force. Its report, even if I say it myself, was remarkably well received. It was certainly the only document with which I was ever associated in government about which people still write to me—and do so in complimentary terms. Having spent a number of years at the DTI, I must confess that I have rather lost sight of what progress has been made with regard to the recommendations made by the task force with its very broad and very skilled membership.

One of our key recommendations was that a series of what were described as "drug action teams" should be established across Scotland. I should be interested to hear how they are progressing. Those who write to me about these issues are still most interested in the local approach which we suggested was the right way forward for Scotland. Perhaps I may disagree in a small measure with the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, and say that what we were trying to do was to focus not simply on issues of supply, but to look at the problem of drugs in every single aspect. That meant considering not only supply, but also what provoked demand and what could be done in terms of health and education.

As the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, pointed out, often the real problem is that young people start their route into drug taking, finishing up on class A drugs, on a recreational basis. I am sure it is his experience and that of others that it is extremely difficult to get young people to understand at the outset that the taking of a few pills at a rave or nightclub is either immediately extremely dangerous to their health or is likely to bring them into contact with all kinds of undesirable people who in time will seek to sell them even more appalling drugs than those that they take first time round. I would be grateful to hear anything that the noble and learned Lord has to say about the drug action teams.

Within the report we also addressed probably the most difficult issue: methadone substitution. We studied that very carefully in Edinburgh and concluded, not without anxious thought, that methadone substitution for heroin addicts was the right way forward, provided that there were proper controls attached to such substitution. It stunned me then, and it still shocks me today, to discover that in parts of Edinburgh, where the control in providing methadone to addicts was not as tight as it might have been, there very quickly grew up a market in methadone-enhanced spittle. That appears to be rather more astonishing than anything that your Lordships' House can contemplate. Clearly, it is necessary that there should be proper controls in place.

There were very real difficulties about expanding the range of GPs prepared to participate in prescribing methadone to those who had a heroin addiction. I understand exactly why such difficulties existed—difficulties not only for them but for their other patients. I would be interested to learn how that is progressing. I have seen a report that in the past year in Glasgow, where a good methadone substitution programme has been introduced, the number of drug deaths has declined from 36 to 11. Certainly, progress is being made there. I would be grateful to hear some comment on progress being made in the methadone substitution programme.

As the noble and learned Lord will be aware, the previous Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr. Michael Forsyth, was extremely keen to ensure that as far as possible drug policy proceeded on a cross-party basis. To that end he established the organisation Scotland Against Drugs in which I believe all the leaders of the major political parties in Scotland participated. One very much hopes that that approach will continue. If I sense at the moment something of a reaction to, or backlash against, methadone substitution, perhaps I may inform the noble and learned Lord from this side of the House that our support for the Government in pursuing that approach, provided it is tightly controlled, will persist. We wish the Government well in persuading other GPs to participate in schemes.

The chief constable of Lothian and Borders estimated that between 30 and 40 per cent. of acquisitive crime within his region was caused by those who sought funds to feed their drug habit. I very much hope that the Government will persist in the programme I have described. I also hope that the noble and learned Lord will continue to support the Scotland Against Drugs campaign. During the election we indicated that we would be prepared to increase spending on that activity by some £2 million. I would be interested to know whether the Government share that objective.

I also hope that, not this evening, but in time, the noble and learned Lord and the Secretary of State for Scotland will reconsider their objections to the introduction of minimum mandatory sentences for dealers convicted for a third time of handling class A drugs. These are just the people that the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, and others have described as murderers. They can have no excuse that they do not understand the direct consequences of their actions.

Finally, I should like to pose two further questions to the noble and learned Lord. During the course of the election campaign one proposal—about which I have not heard much since—was the appointment of a drugs tsar. It was not entirely clear to me whether this supremo, or whatever his title might me, would be appointed for the whole of the United Kingdom or just for Scotland or England. Certainly, a number of Scottish names were bandied about as possible occupants of this newly-established post. I should like to see what is proposed in detail before I offer it any support or blessing.

That leads me to what I believe to be a crucially important point. As the noble and learned Lord and his noble friends will readily understand, the principal statute governing the misuse of drugs in the United Kingdom is the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 which, with some variations, applies across the United Kingdom, and rightly so. I must inform my noble friend Lord Renton that it is not the case that drugs for Scotland come in only from the north west along the rugged coastline. Drugs come up the motorways from England and do so very quickly indeed. Someone arrested with drugs at Dover may well be bound for Glasgow. I am advised that recently an individual was brought on petition before the sheriff in Glasgow and charged under the 1971 Act and that that was his first ever appearance in Scotland. By the same token the largest ever haul of class A drugs by Customs and Excise was made north of Inverness. The street value of that haul was about £100 million. Those drugs were destined for south of the Border.

As the Government reflect on these matters, as they appear to wish to do on everything, I urge them to appreciate how crucially important it is that the fight against drugs is maintained across the United Kingdom without division. I have a very real concern that if, following the proposed constitutional changes, the United Kingdom statute no longer has the same application in Scotland or is perhaps modified and changed, far from the fight against drugs being improved and the prospects of victory being that much greater, there will be very real dangers. Even if the noble and learned Lord cannot answer me tonight, I hope that as he makes his contribution to the White Paper on the referendum and devolution Bill, given his deep knowledge of the criminal justice and prosecution system in Scotland he will recognise that such issues as drugs cannot be dealt with on a parochial basis but must be tackled on a United Kingdom basis.

6.8 p.m.

The Lord Advocate (Lord Hardie)

My Lords, this evening is a very momentous occasion for me. I wind up this important debate on a subject that is not only of considerable importance to society throughout the United Kingdom but is one that is dear to my heart. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, for raising this important topic tonight. I am delighted to note that among the contributors to the debate are the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, and other noble Lords. I mention those two speakers in particular not with any disrespect to others who have spoken but to advise those Members of this House who are unaware of it that I was born and brought up in the town of Alloa in the county of Clackmannan where the noble Earl has his seat. It is a particular pleasure for me to reply to his comments, especially in view of his expertise in the field of social work and his involvement with people who have been sadly involved with drugs.

To have to respond to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, one of the previous holders of my office, is an added pleasure, although it is one about which I had some reservations. I note that with his customary skill, he sought to introduce the subject of devolution into the debate. I look forward to hearing his contribution at the appropriate time.

The issue of the misuse of drugs and the consequences for the individuals concerned, their families, and society in general, is a matter of grave concern. It is appropriate that this should have been the subject of debate in the House at an early stage in the life of this Parliament. The measure of the concern felt by the House is accentuated by the distinction of those Members of the House who have contributed to the debate. I know that other Members had expressed an interest in speaking, but for one reason or another were unable to do so. I wish at this stage to thank the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, for initiating the debate and affording me an opportunity to make my maiden speech.

When I was created a Life Peer I had hoped that my maiden speech might enable me to indulge in humour, but the subject of this debate is far too serious for that. I would however note in passing that the noble Lady is the Chief of the name Fraser, and wondered whether there was any significance in the fact that the final contribution was made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie. Was there, perhaps, some instruction from the Chief to the noble and learned Lord? But having had the privilege of working with the noble and learned Lord. I am well aware of his independence of mind, which is an essential characteristic of a Lord Advocate. I can assure him and the House that I intend to follow custom in that regard. Therefore, I dismissed that issue as a matter of mere coincidence. I note also that the noble Lady has a diploma in Cordon Bleu cookery. I should confess that I share that interest, albeit from a consumer's point of view.

More important, however, is our mutual interest in the subject of today's debate. I share with the noble Lady her anxieties over the misuse of drugs and the effects that has on society. Perhaps I may deal with some statistics. I agree that the situation is serious. It may even be more serious than has been disclosed.

A survey last year of Glasgow school children showed that 35 per cent. of 13 to 16 year-olds had tried cannabis within a two-month period; 13 per cent. of them had tried LSD; 7 per cent. ecstasy; and 2 per cent. cocaine or heroin. That problem is not confined to the West of Scotland. A similar survey in Dundee showed that 31 per cent. of 11 to 16 year-olds reported having used illegal drugs. A recent survey by the Scotland Against Drugs Campaign showed that 14 per cent. of fourth year pupils used illegal drugs once or more a week. A survey last week by Glasgow University's Centre for Drug Misuse Research showed that of selected young people at rave events 95 per cent. had taken cannabis; 87 per cent. ecstasy; and 11 per cent. heroin. All of that must be seen against a background of 251 drug deaths in Scotland in 1995. The hard core of drug misuse is rising significantly, as measured by new attendances by problem misusers at agencies. Recorded new attendances increased by about 135 per cent. between 1991 and 1995.

I agree entirely with noble Lords that there is a strong relationship between drugs and crime. Drug addicts resort to crime to feed their habit; drug dealers resort to crime to conceal their activity. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser, quoted a statistic relating to the relationship between acquisitive crime and drug misuse. I am advised that many police forces operate on the basis that between 50 per cent. and 70 per cent. of acquisitive crime is drug-related. Apart from those statistics, society's concern naturally focuses on the damage to young people's health and their prospects; the strain on family and friends; pressures on communities, and the health hazards associated with drug misuse, in particular HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.

It is understandable that the House should be concerned about the matter. I agree that as a civilized society it is imperative that we do something about the problem as a matter of urgency.

The noble Earl, Lord Balfour, referred to the need for the police to specialise and to Customs and Excise. I can assure him that each police force within Scotland has a specialist drugs unit. In addition, there are various relationships with other agencies, to which I shall return, and the Customs and Excise have had results which have been more successful in recent years, despite the apparent restriction on the location of their operations.

Customs and Excise are concentrating anti-smuggling resources in three main centres. The placing of resources in fewer locations has been shown to be more efficient and effective. It provides a fast, flexible and intelligence-driven response to identified risks, but it maintains a flexible, high profile deterrent. The resources of the UK Customs and Excise employed on investigation and intelligence are increasing. There is greater co-ordination of intelligence with better focus from enhanced central organisation. Therefore, there can be no doubt that the role of the police is important, coupled with the Scottish Crime Squad, the new Scottish office of the National Criminal Intelligence Service and staff of H.M. Customs and Excise Investigation Division. They have been brought together to liaise and to join forces in this war against drugs.

To turn to the points raised by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, I have already dealt with the question of people indulging in criminal activity to feed their habit. As regards the impact on the health service, that is recognised and is met in part by the Scotland Against Drugs campaign. As your Lordships will recall, the campaign was launched in May 1996. The Government have renewed their commitment to Scotland Against Drugs by providing funding of £2 million to allow the campaign to continue into 1997–98. The activities of the campaign are varied, but they include a televised drugs debate in 1996–97, dance and song competitions, sports activities and a "shop a dealer" initiative, which attracted more than 1,400 calls. It is part of the education programme and I accept that it is important that children, parents and all members of society are properly educated. That is part of the scheme.

The issue of legalising cannabis and ecstasy were also raised by the noble Lady. I can assure her that it is not the intention of the Government to legalise either cannabis or ecstasy. Indeed, international obligations would make that difficult, even if it had been the intention of the Government. However, I assure the noble Lady that it is not.

On the point raised by my noble friend Lord Hughes, I agree that an important aspect of the war against drugs is the confiscation of the assets of dealers whenever possible. It may interest my noble friend to know that the Government in Scotland are committed to that and that the Crown Office will provide all available resources to ensure that the confiscation of assets is effective. It may also interest him to know that I recently chaired a conference in the Caribbean Dependent Territories, which was the Conference of the Attornies-General of the Caribbean Dependent Territories, and the issues of drug smuggling, drug trafficking and money laundering were high on the agenda. There is considerable co-operation between the United Kingdom Government and other governments in this important area. Again, I assure the noble Lord that the Government are committed to that. That would also address the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, relating to importation.

Regarding the drug task force, I should advise the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser, that the Government are committed to it and that drug action teams have been set up and are operational. The question of a drugs czar was raised. That initiative was announced in Aberdeen by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and is a manifesto commitment. The purpose of a drugs czar is to co-ordinate work to tackle drug misuse. We consider that the co-ordination is vital and that that co-ordination should cover not only statutory agencies but also voluntary ones. I wish at this stage to pay tribute to the many voluntary agencies which are involved in combatting drug misuse.

As regards the drugs czar, the position is that at UK level a small group of Ministers, with the Secretary of State for Scotland represented, will meet to discuss the rules, powers and appointment process for the czar and it is essential that the arrangements we settle on reflect the distinctive position in Scotland. Again, despite what may have been said in the press, I can assure the noble and learned Lord that no decisions have been taken as to who might or might not be appointed.

I had hoped to deal with other points, but I am conscious that this is a maiden speech and that restrictions relate to time and to Members leaving the Chamber. Therefore, I shall seek to draw to a conclusion.

There are three main objectives of the Government to combat drug dealers. First, to reduce the health risks to drug misusers and their families. Secondly, to combat drug dealers. Thirdly—and above all—to enable our young people to resist illegal drugs through sustained interventions based on hard information and compelling facts. That may meet at least in part the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie. We are determined to achieve these objectives and I can assure the House that if it is in my power, we shall do so.

The way forward is to co-ordinate the resources of everyone involved, statutory and voluntary. We will take account of the implications for the all-party Scotland Against Drugs Initiative and, as I have already said, we have committed and reaffirmed financial support for the campaign in the sum of £2 million. We also wish to see whether there is more we can do to improve the collaboration between the various agencies because complacency is the biggest danger in this situation. We must not be complacent; we must never give up; and we must consider at all times how best to improve collaboration between and among the various agencies, both statutory and voluntary.

That continued and increased collaboration is essential if we are to succeed in our campaign against the misuse of drugs and their dire consequences. I can offer no early solutions to a grave social problem that is worldwide in its challenge. We have developed some good approaches in Scotland. We must be prepared to vary and redouble our efforts across the piece to contain the damage to health and welfare that noble Lords have raised so properly and so eloquently tonight.

I hope that what I have said will demonstrate that the Government are determined to combat drug misuse in Scotland and to accept the offers of cross-party support in that regard. I can assure the noble and learned Lord that we shall take up such offers. It is early days, but I have no hesitation in making our commitment clear. Tackling drug misuse across the UK matters a great deal to this Government and we shall play a very full part in the vital challenge in Scotland.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, may I on behalf of the whole House congratulate him on a most excellent and interesting maiden speech? I understand that in his youth he intended to be a teacher of modern languages, until he was persuaded by an Irish lawyer's blarney to take up the law, in which he has had a most distinguished career. I believe that this House very much appreciates the fact that he has exchanged that lucrative career for the comparatively measly salary of a government Minister. We look forward very much to hearing him frequently in the future, and for my part I shall hope to enrol him as a member of the Scottish Peers Association.

House adjourned at twenty-nine minutes past six o'clock.