HC Deb 29 February 2000 vol 345 cc17-24WH 12.30 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce a debate that will last for half an hour, which was the time taken by the BBC Radio 4 programme "Face the Facts" yesterday evening to set out the case of Ruth Wyner and John Brock. I shall not refer to the broadcast in detail, as I hope that the BBC will put a transcript of the programme on its website, but I wish to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) who was quoted in the programme.

I shall not go into detail about the conviction and sentence of Ruth Wyner or John Brock, the manager and the director of the Wintercomfort project in Cambridge. They have been granted leave to appeal against their sentences. To discuss their conviction would be to tread on the borderline of what it is appropriate to refer to in this Chamber. I wish to declare two interests: first, my brother-in-law, Dr. George Reid, senior bursar at St. John's college, Cambridge is a trustee of Wintercomfort. Secondly, before becoming a junior Minister in 1984, I was the chairman of the Church of England Children's Society, which ran 100 projects that were mostly to do with vulnerable young people. The society continues that work and when I asked its director, Ian Sparks, to describe the policy before the start of this debate, he replied, "Risk minimisation."

Obviously, there are people in jail who are drug misusers. Ministerial replies have informed me that drugs were misused in prisons about 18,000 times last year. The Prime Minister said to me in an oral answer two weeks ago that the proportion of prisoners involved in the misuse of drugs had fallen from more than 20 per cent. to below 20 per cent. I pay tribute to those in the Prison Service who, since 1995, have been making progress. The problem has not been swept under the carpet; it is being recognised. I pay tribute, too, to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which covered the misuse of drugs in prisons in a report published in November. I hope that the report has drawn a reasonable response from the Government. I suspect, however, that the Government have already responded to the Committee and that the Committee will publish its response to the Government shortly.

The Home Affairs Committee dealt with the importance of tackling drugs misuse in prisons. I shall illustrate the scale of the problem. Last year, people were detected as misusing drugs in Highpoint prison more than 100 times, while the actual supply of drugs was detected on only seven occasions. For every 20 times that people are known to be misusing drugs, those who supply them will be caught only once. Catching suppliers of drugs is not easy, even in a prison that is under total control. The point of people being in prison is that they do not break the law, yet at Highpoint, as an illustration of other prisons, there is an obvious problem. The Home Affairs Committee recommended the use of sniffer dogs, both for visitors and for those making random visits around the prisons.

I commend the fifth report of the Home Affairs Committee. Paragraph 175 on page lvi refers to the need to ensure that Prison Service treatment projects and programmes sufficiently involve outside agencies and expertise. I recommend that the Government ensure that Ruth Wyner and John Brock are released from prison and that they use them as advisers. Those two people have 30 years of experience of dealing with people who are vulnerable and on the streets. In the overall spectrum, Home Office Ministers are supposed to have total control over prisoners. Those who run hostels have some control over their residents. Those who operate day centres such as the Bus project run by Wintercomfort in Cambridge have virtually no control, except for the opportunity to ban. Similar projects can be found in Worthing, in West Sussex, and around the country.

I will not mention what the judge said about sentencing, because that can come before a higher court. However, an organisation with decent guidelines which its employees follow, and which are known to the police, is an example of the expertise that underlies the recommendation of the Home Affairs Committee. It said that the anti-drugs strategy could be derailed if steps were not taken to ensure that there was an adequate pool of drugs workers and agencies in the community, to assist in the development of prison programmes and to provide the vital aftercare for released prisoners.

By misuse of drugs, I refer not to the use of alcohol or cigarettes, which I covered to some extent during the Adjournment debate that I initiated on 13 May 1998, and which can be found at column 291 of Hansard, but to the conventional meaning. When people are on the streets and are drug misusers, they are vulnerable. I will deal not with the crimes that they commit, but with their vulnerability. Where is their contact with medical services? Where is their contact with those who can involve them in risk minimisation? For example, where do they start to learn about moving from heavy drugs to light drugs? Where do they learn to go from the multiple use of needles to using a needle just by themselves? How do they reduce from misusing drugs seven times a week to twice a week, on the way to being clean, as some young people did when I was involved in such work? Few people go in one jump from being a drug misuser to not misusing drugs at all.

It is probably recognised that more people leave prison addicted to drugs than go in addicted. I hope that that is changing. The previous Government took that seriously, as do the present Government. The Minister, whom I am glad to see here today, and his colleagues in the Home Office and in other Departments have spoken well on this issue. I hope that the Minister does not mind responding to the debate today.

I will now refer to the debates on what became section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 when it was going through the House and another place. The Act followed the legislation of the 1920s, the Dangerous Drugs Act 1965 and the Bill introduced by the Labour Government in early 1970, and continued with the Conservative Government after the general election in 1970. In Committee—I forget whether it was in the other place or in the House—people said that prison governors were vulnerable to prosecution, because section 8 applies to those who manage, not to the ordinary worker. There were explicit references to the risks to prison governors and, I think, to Ministers. If there were no references to Ministers, I make them now, because both they and prison governors are as vulnerable as Ruth Wyner and John Brock.

I cannot believe that Parliament intended Ministers to find themselves in front of a judge in King's Lynn, charged with the same apparent offence as Ruth Wyner and John Brock. I recommend to Ministers that they set out a policy similar to Wintercomfort's, and I am grateful for the advice given to me about the matter. Prisons do not run drop-in centres, but their employees may work in good faith and to the best of their abilities, after seeking the advice of the police and setting up an advisory committee. Wintercomfort and the Bus project certainly did that.

Despite the reliance that the Prison Service may put on its advisory committees or its links to the police, its employees or those who manage prisons on its behalf could be subject to proceedings without any warning, in the same way as those who run day centres. The law could apply to any day centre or hostel in the country, or to those who administer university lodgings.

I suspect—but I have not yet found out whether it is the case—that a confidentiality policy would apply if someone in prison said, "Look, I have a drugs problem, can I get confidential help?" The Minister may not deal with that today, but it applies to those who run hostels or day centres. There must be confidence between the people running an organisation and those who ask for its help. That applies to the staff of charities, and I suspect that it also applies in prisons.

It is also important that people comply with the law. I suspect that some people in prison, if they were consulted confidentially, would not share information unless there were a court order. Let us remember that there was no court order in relation to Wintercomfort. It is for Parliament to make the duties of prison staff, prison governors and Ministers clear, just as we should make clear the position of charity workers, so that there is no ambiguity. I cannot believe that, either in day centres or prisons, those who need help are refused it. It is not consistent with a civilised society that people who run projects in day centres or prisons to the best of their abilities, who do not connive in or profit from the supply of drugs and who do not pursue any political agenda should be imprisoned for sentences of draconian lengths—or at all—for simply doing their jobs. The response from ordinary people is epitomised by an email that Mike and Mary Evans sent to the Home Secretary after listening to the "Face the Facts" programme last night. They were disturbed by the case and say that, when people are part of the solution to the drugs problem, but are treated as though they are the problem, something is wrong. It is for Parliament to raise the issue.

I have focused the debate on prisons and other centres of drug misuse, because in the whole Prison Service in the first 11 months of 1999, prison staff were prosecuted in relation to the supply of drugs on three occasions. Hon. Members and those who work in this field, in prisons and elsewhere, should not rest until there is justice, and that applies in prisons and day centres.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody)

Does the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) have the Minister's permission to speak?

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

Yes, Madam Deputy Speaker.

12.41 pm
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) on securing the debate. It is timely, and I have a great constituency interest in the matter. I agree that we must do everything possible to reduce the use of drugs in prisons and, if possible, eliminate it.

It may help my right hon. Friend the Minister if I describe my experience of visiting my constituent, Ruth Wyner, in Highpoint prison three weeks ago. I was searched and put through the full procedure before I entered the prison. Sniffer dogs were in evidence and I assume that, if I had been carrying any contraband material, they would have picked that up as I went into the prison. What perturbed me was the fact that, after I left the prison, Ruth Wyner was, I understand, strip-searched. I do not know whether that was meant as ritual humiliation or whether there was a necessary purpose behind it. If my understanding is correct and she was strip-searched, was she being treated differently from other prisoners? Did prison officers consider that they had a well-founded suspicion that I had covertly passed her contraband material in breach of prison regulations? If not, what was their purpose?

The hon. Member for Worthing, West carefully enunciated the policy of Wintercomfort and the confidentiality agreement, which was a reason why my constituent was arrested and convicted. It may be interesting to know that Ruth, while in Highpoint, has been involved in a training course to become a Samaritan for other prisoners. While undergoing that training, she was told that confidentiality was extremely important when talking to other prisoners about their problems. Ruth's response was, "Does that include drugs?" "Of course," was the reply. What is the difference between the situation in prison and Wintercomfort's policy concerning the importance of confidentiality towards vulnerable clients, which landed Ruth in prison?

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to speak and I thank the Minister and the hon. Gentleman for their courtesy.

12.44 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

All hon. Members will be grateful to the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) for raising the issue, which is serious both in its broad context and, for Ruth Wyner and John Brock, in its narrow context. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate the inhibitions under which I must operate in terms of the case's appeal status. As it is sub judice, it would not be appropriate for me to refer specifically to that case, but I am happy to deal with the broad context.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

On a technical detail, we know that an appeal against the sentence will be heard, but it has not yet been agreed that there should be an appeal against conviction. Are Ministers inhibited in speaking about the conviction if an appeal has not yet been allowed against it?

Mr. Boateng

In the final analysis, that would be a matter for you and your colleagues, Madam Deputy Speaker. Call me a cautious, old-fashioned lawyer, but when there is a whiff of an appeal, my policy is to make no reference to the specific facts that support conviction or to those matters prayed in aid of the appeal.

In relation to the broad context that the hon. Member for Worthing, West raises, we understand the concerns that some agencies have following the convictions of Ruth Wyner and John Brock. Managers, staff and trustees of day and night shelters should ensure that all reasonable steps are taken to prevent the supply of controlled drugs on the premises in accordance with the law. The key lies in an effective drugs policy that enables managers and staff to work effectively with the police to prevent drug dealing on their premises.

The Home Office and, where relevant, colleagues and officials in other Departments—I think especially of the Department of Health—will consider the extent to which it is necessary to give further guidance in the light of the case. That is being given urgent attention as we speak, not least because the Government recognise the onerous responsibilities that fall on managers, staff and trustees of such centres. They do a difficult and challenging job in circumstances that are often equally difficult and challenging.

I shall try to deal with the broad question asked by the hon. Gentleman and the specific points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). Drugs are a real and present danger in our society. We are determined as a Government to develop and implement a concerted strategy to tackle drug misuse and stifle the availability of illegal drugs on our streets in the wider community and in prison. The key to that lies in an effective strategy to prevent the supply of controlled drugs in prison, and in the Prison Service ensuring that drug use and trafficking in prisons are perceived by all concerned as serious offences that merit firm action. A prisoner may be segregated. He may also be transferred, to disrupt the network of contacts and supplies. Both responses are appropriate, although the latter is, rightly, more frequently used.

Experience tells us that the fact that someone has been convicted of a trafficking offence does not automatically mean that he will try to deal drugs while in custody. The prison authorities must, however, be alert to that possibility and some prisons have developed innovative strategies for managing drug traffickers. Elmley prison, for example, has designed a separate unit and regime for traffickers to address their offending behaviour, while Whitemoor prison has developed a protocol for the identification and management of suspected traffickers. I sat in on a course in a women's prison that was specifically designed for women used as carriers by unscrupulous criminal elements, who are often based overseas. Those women had been shamefully used, with disastrous consequences for them and their families, and courses have been developed to assist them. We also know that there is an advantage in dealing with drug trafficking by indirect methods. Dealers cannot operate without supplies or a market and the Prison Service devotes much effort to preventing drugs from being smuggled into prisons and to breaking the habit of identified drug users.

The general emphasis in recent years has been in improving security procedures, for which the hon. Member for Worthing, West was good enough to give the Prison Service credit. That has brought real benefits in tackling drug trafficking. A range of measures has been adopted to improve perimeter security, including increased patrolling, searching the ground near the perimeter fence before inmates are allowed access, and the use of dogs and of closed circuit television. Drug detection dogs are increasingly used, actively and passively, to deter and discover drug smugglers and there will in future be at least one drug dog for each establishment. I have witnessed the benefits on the ground of that measure.

Domestic visits are the most common means of smuggling drugs into prison. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge related her experience of a visit to her constituent. The searching of all visitors and the use of the security procedures that she detailed are, for good reason, common occurrences. The use of dogs and specific counter-measures such as the provision of lockers for visitors' luggage and improvements to the layout of visit areas, including the provision of low-level fixed furniture and the increased use of CCTV, all have a role to play. The hon. Member for Worthing, West described how drugs use at Highpoint prison has decreased as a result of the vigilance of staff; the response to testing supports that finding. I am sure that hon. Members understand why such vigilance should be maintained.

Intelligence-led searches are part of such vigilance. If smuggling of contraband is suspected, prisoners will be strip-searched after domestic visits. After my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge had done me the courtesy of calling my private office yesterday, the Prison Service told me that the search of her constituent was the result of random search procedures used at Highpoint. Following domestic visits, a 10 per cent. random search takes place. I am assured that such a search was involved in the case of Ruth Wyner. No discourtesy was intended to my hon. Friend, and no suggestion was made that any contraband had been passed over. I apologise if my hon. Friend felt that the search was deliberate; it was not. It was part of the random security measures used at Highpoint, which have had positive results.

Mr. Bottomley

No Member of Parliament would mind being searched in extremis. We should not be treated differently from other people, and the explanation given could apply to any of our constituents. I should add that I am grateful for the interest of my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who is also present for the debate.

Mr. Boateng

The interest of all hon. Members is welcome, and reflects interest in the wider community. We have set aside an additional £76 million for the Prison Service to develop its drug strategy over the next three years. That money will mainly be used to expand drug treatment programmes in prisons.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, who mentioned confidentiality, and the hon. Member for Worthing, West raised the important issue of how to involve the voluntary sector, which has an enormously important role to play as part of the CARAT service which will provide counselling, assessment, referral, advice and throughcare. We are forging good links with the national health service and the voluntary sector in ensuring that a range of suitable programmes for prisoners is available to cover all drug problems, whether low level, moderate or severe.

We want to build confidence and trust between the Prison Service and the voluntary sector, and that of prisoners and users, which will involve a respect for confidentiality. However, people involved in the voluntary sector and CARAT teams must understand that confidentiality has limits. CARAT teams are different from the Samaritans, which is a life-saving operation that does wonderful work with listeners in prisons, and which, according to tradition and accepted practice and procedure, is based on complete confidentiality. In specific, exceptional circumstances, such as the possibility of an escape or the introduction of illegal contraband into the prison, everyone working with CARAT teams must understand that they have a duty to inform the appropriate authorities. There is a distinction between the two organisations.

This is an important topic to which we have not been able to do justice. I reiterate my thanks to all hon. Members who contributed. We shall continue that vital work with care and sensitivity, ensuring that it is evidence-based and that best practice is developed and spread throughout the Prison Service to tackle a problem that affects the whole of society and to which prisons are not immune.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to One o'clock.