HL Deb 16 July 2001 vol 626 cc1267-70

2.56 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the policy of the police of not charging users of cannabis in parts of London has their full support.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the Government's absolute priority is tackling class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine, given the devastating impact that these have on individual's families and communities. The six-month pilot in Lambeth, to which I assume the Question of the noble Baroness refers, is very much in keeping with this priority. The Government will be interested in the evaluation of the pilot and in particular the impact on drug misuse and crime.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. The issue of drugs is far too important and complex to be dealt with in this Chamber today. However, my concern is that a police force in a very high profile and public manner has been selective in its implementation of the law. Can the Minister tell me whether that is because the Metropolitan Police has manpower problems or because it is now a new Labour policy to allow the Commissioner to choose which parts of the law should be enforced?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the matter is not quite as simple as the noble Baroness suggests. There is enormous discretion for the police over what they do when an incident or perceived crime takes place. In many ways the Association of Chief Police Officers' guidelines are almost a mirror image of what is happening. The discretion at constable level has been removed in Lambeth by the Commissioner for a period of time. That is wholly consistent with the ACPO advice on discretion. It is not the case, as expressed by the noble Baroness, that the police always act; they have discretion under the law. That is what the police are trained to do. So there is no wider agenda here. It is a useful exercise chosen by the Metropolitan Police and we all look forward to a proper evaluation after the six-month pilot.

Lord Desai

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the interesting observation made by the right honourable Member of Parliament for Kensington and Chelsea that we should have a larger debate on drugs should be welcomed by all sides of the House, including the opposite side?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am in favour of mature adult debate on all issues of public policy.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the use of discretion often brings the law into disrepute? Could not the good practices of Lambeth be followed by other chief constables to achieve a uniform policy on whether or not to bring prosecutions?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, for all I know, similar policies might well be operating in other parts of the country. Discretion is used at the lowest level of the police force by those who, with their local knowledge, are the best judges of when it is appropriate, not Ministers in Whitehall or politicians in Westminster. We must leave it to the best judgment of the police. If there are defects in the law, that is the responsibility of Parliament. There are grounds for a wider debate on the issue. This is a useful pilot in a very small part of the country. We shall all be interested in the proper evaluation of the pilot in some six months' time.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, to put the issue in context, can the Minister say how many people in Lambeth were charged with the possession of cannabis in June last year and how many were charged in June this year with the same offence?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I do not have those figures. We shall be evaluating the pilot in six months' time. It is not for us to second guess on a daily basis what is happening. We want to get the overall picture. The figures requested by the noble Lord will be available in due course because that will be part of the evaluation.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, having taken into account the results of the interesting experiment in Lambeth and the other debates and discussions that he is encouraging, will my noble friend be able to share with us at some date in the near future how we should bring all these experiences together so that Parliament can accept its responsibilities in determining whether a change in the law is necessary?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am in the mood for short answers today and the answer to my noble friend's question is yes. In due course we shall be able to have a debate, but it needs to be based on facts. As anyone who reads the public prints will see, there is a considerable dispute between doctors and researchers about the good or bad effects of cannabis. In a short debate last Thursday the House considered the correlation between acquisitive crime and class A drugs. The Government's priority is to deal with class A drugs.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the fact that some parts of the criminal law are enforced with more vigour than others is as old as the criminal law itself? Does he further agree that, when we have thought twice about it, none of us would wish it otherwise?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Earl. Another good example is the even sentencing policy. I know that in different parts of the country we see some wild sentences, particularly from magistrates, for what is in effect the same crime. That is what they are there. for—to make local decisions. The noble Earl is right. I agree with every word he said.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, can the Minister say what is the Government's attitude towards chief constables and their immediate subordinates deciding not to enforce some of the ridiculous European regulations that are currently extant? Is the noble Lord aware that the country as a whole would be pleased to be relieved of the quite slavish following of the letter of the law regarding Europe when it is well known that our colleagues in Europe, particularly the French, enforce the law just when they think they will?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the example of metrication immediately comes to mind. But I shall not make a pronouncement on the enforcement of European law either by chief constables or, as is usually the case, by local authorities. Local authorities have the main role and it is a difficult one.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, as a member of the Executive, is not the Minister somewhat worried by the reply he gave to the noble Earl, Lord Russell? He said that the law is being administered differently in different parts of the country. What are the Government going to do about that?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I agree with what the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said. Under the law, chief constables and their forces have degrees of discretion. I hope no one is suggesting that we remove their degree of discretion. Therefore, there are bound to be differences. We would not have 43 chief constables if we did not expect differences. We would get rid of them, as one of my noble friends hinted last week when we were discussing police retirement. We do not have a national police force in that sense. We have to leave it to the good judgment of chief constables to use the discretion that Parliament has allowed them.

Lord Rea

My Lords, following this experiment with so-called "soft" drugs, will the Government consider rethinking their policy regarding hard drugs? In particular, will they consider allowing more prescriptions of clean heroin to habitual users who cannot or do not want to kick the habit? That has been shown to have great health benefits for the users concerned as well as wider benefits for the community in terms of a great reduction in acquisitive crime.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, we will do everything we can to get people off hard drugs. When people come forward to drug programmes to come off class A drugs—sometimes it is done by substitution—they should be assisted in doing so. If that is not happening, we will need to look into the matter.