HC Deb 17 June 2003 vol 407 cc53-60WH 3.30 pm
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

I congratulate the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety on her promotion. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has put together a formidable team to join her in her new post: the Under-Secretaries of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friends the Members for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and for Slough (Fiona MacTaggart), and the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration. That bodes well for success in a Department to which we all look to solve many of the huge challenges that face our constituents. I want to cover one such challenge—drugs and crime—in this short debate.

Plymouth has had a successful track record in fighting crime. It is an example of a can-do city that creatively develops its own solutions in a way that fully supports prevention-focused Government policy. In June 2001, I had an Adjournment debate that celebrated that track record. Sadly, things changed not long after that, and I want to share with the Minister my concerns and those of the people of Plymouth about what is happening in our city, especially about the link between crime and drugs and what we need to do to tackle it.

The Minister will be pleased to hear that the number of drug-related deaths in Devon and Cornwall fell from 86 in 1999 to 69 last year. Does she share our concern, however, that drug deaths in Plymouth have nearly doubled from nine to 17 in the same period and more than trebled since 1997, when there were five? Each of those deaths is a tragedy for the people close to those who died and a source of huge frustration for our public services, especially the coroner, Nigel Meadows, and Judge Taylor and Chief Superintendent John Isaac, each of whom has given more thought, attention and personal commitment than is the norm. That is very much in line with what the Home Secretary recently called for in visible and accountable public servants.

That commitment to partnership work is reflected in our crime figures. I ask my hon. Friend to imagine having had one of the first community safety partnerships in the country with the sort of track record that I described in 2001. Then, I was able to tell our hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), who responded in that debate, that in the 12 months to March 2001, even figures for violent crime were going down in all but one of the eight wards in my constituency. That was at a time when that was not the trend in the rest of the country and against the background of a substantial problem of heroin addiction. Vehicle crime had been driven down by 50 per cent., and burglary by 60 per cent. in the previous six years. I said then that it would become more challenging to keep bearing down on crime in that way. Little did I know how true that would be. I highlighted the work of the arrest referral scheme and what the coroner was doing to alert young people to the dangers of drugs.

Sadly, Plymouth is now experiencing a period of rising crime. It has seen a rise in burglary and vehicle crimes during the past year. The new crime-counting rules introduced nationally last April have had an impact on figures, but there is no doubt that drugs and stealing to feed a habit are contributing substantially to those increases. In 2002–03, domestic burglaries rose by 22.4 per cent. against the reduction target of 12 per cent.—a reasonable target when set against recent pre-crack trends. That target was achieved by neighbouring south and west Devon's basic command unit, which does not experience the same acquisition crime/drugs profile. Vehicle crime rose by 14 per cent. against a reduction target of 5 per cent.

However, Plymouth achieved a 12.5 per cent. increase in arrests for class A drugs and a 52.6 per cent. reduction in recorded public disorder offences, as well as a 7.5 per cent. fall in road casualties, which demonstrates that our BCU still has the capacity to succeed in tackling some of our key crime challenges. Plymouth led the way. It was a trail-blazer in innovative partnership work to tackle drugs and substance abuse. We have a very robust and respected arrest referral scheme, which has been operating since 1995.

It was the innovative partnership of John Isaac—now our chief superintendent—and Judge Taylor, resident judge for Plymouth, that led to the introduction of Fast Track, making the simple but effective link between offenders with drug problems and treatment by use of a probation order. That was the cast from which drug treatment and testing orders were formed and legislated for.

As a result of that initiative, domestic burglary was reduced by 57 per cent. That was made possible by providing immediate access to treatment. More recently, offenders known to be involved in crime but not currently in the criminal justice system, have been identified and offered immediate treatment. The Plymouth seamless access to drug treatment initiative aspires to a self-sufficient drug treatment team with the aim of enabling rapid entry to treatment for drug users who commit crime to pay for their drugs at whatever stage they may be in the criminal justice system.

As Chief Superintendent John Isaac pointed out recently, however: While we have got up to 2,500 heroin users turning to crime involving property to convert it into cash to buy drugs, it will continue. The number of crack cocaine users in Plymouth has increased over the last year. It is estimated that just one crack addict needs between £10,000 and £20,000 a year to feed their habit, and the majority of that money is obtained by crime. There are about 40 areas—half in London, but sadly now including Plymouth—where a significant number of drug users use crack as their primary drug of choice. Heroin addiction was a bad enough problem, but crack addiction and markets have an even more damaging effect on local communities. I raised Plymouth's crack problem here in Westminster Hall with my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East, then a Home Office Minister, at the cross-cutting Question Time just a couple of weeks ago. I told him how the problem had developed in Plymouth after a successful blitz on supplies in London through Project Trident.

Heroin makes people's lives a misery—the people who use it, their families and their neighbours. It leads to crime; four out of five addicts say that they fund their habit by stealing. Deprived communities such as those in my constituency suffer from all aspects of drugs more than most. My hon. Friend the Minister is familiar with a similar situation in her constituency. However, crack is even more devastating than heroin. It costs more, and I understand that the craving and the need for treatment are more spontaneously demanding. Therefore, it has even stronger links to crime, especially violent crime.

Although our police moved smartly through Project Ovidian in Devon and Cornwall to deal with some of the worst aspects of the problem, crack is now established in Plymouth. I appreciate that new money and new approaches through our drug action team are coming, and that the pooled treatment budget in Plymouth is increasing from £1.2 million to £1.6 million—a 30 per cent. rise over the three years of the current comprehensive spending review. However, we still need to complete the loop to create the virtuous circle envisaged in the seamless drugs action project. That is the subject of a £1.1 million bid under invest to save round 6, mainly to provide services for the 600 prisoners per annum who return to Plymouth and cannot access such a service, and so return to crime.

That will indeed be an investment to save: to save wasting the effort that people in Exeter put into rehabilitating people while they are in prison; to save the £1 million-plus cost a week to victims of burglary and theft in Plymouth; to save the human misery of drug addicts, those close to them and their neighbours and communities; and to save wasting the significant investment which is now taking place in our communities through the neighbourhood renewal fund. It will build on the investment that we have already had in police resources.

Police numbers are rising, and new partnerships between the police and the local community are being created to combat crime. Since 2001, 211 more police officers have been recruited in Devon and Cornwall, making a total of 3,145 police to tackle crime locally. There are 117 more full-time equivalent police officers in Plymouth than in 1997. Recorded crime in Devon and Cornwall fell by 5.4 per cent. in the year to March 2002, which was better than the national average.

As I said, the pooled treatment budget for the drug action team increased by 17 per cent. last year and will increase by 30 per cent. over the three years of the current spending round. However, not only more money but smarter working will be needed, and there is wholehearted commitment in Plymouth to local partnership through the drugs action team framework initiated by the Government. The innovative partnership approach of John Isaac, who is now our chief superintendent in Plymouth BCU, made the simple but effective link between criminal activity and drug use and targeted those people for treatment, at whatever stage they were in the criminal justice system.

I hope that the Minister will help by ensuring full and proper consideration by the Treasury of that invest to save round 6 bid. I promise her that the money will be well used, and that she will see Plymouth's usual level of commitment and innovation to ensure its best use in meeting the Government goals that we share. I hope that my hon. Friend will also recognise the role played by all the people that I have mentioned in trying to turn the tide of the dreadful impact of drugs on our community. I would particularly like to pay tribute to the Harbour centre—a voluntary group that was established many years ago to tackle alcohol abuse, but subsequently focused on the drugs problem as that emerged in Plymouth.

I shall also mention the health teams. We had a health action zone in Plymouth, which made a significant contribution to preparing the way for the drugs action team. The drugs action team brings all the partners together, to identify ways in which they can co-operate, to ensure that they are all singing from the same hymn sheet and to make the best use of resources.

I also pay tribute to the responsible attitude of and the role played by our local newspaper. It is about to cooperate with the police to raise awareness and act as a channel between Plymouth people and the police to crack down on drug dealers who blight the lives of people in our communities. I am sure that the Minister will watch with interest how that local newspaper brings to bear the journalistic skill that won it the accolade of regional newspaper of the year in recent years.

The editor, Alan Qualtrough, is working closely with the police on a campaign to clamp down on the supply side of the drugs challenge in our city, which of course must be tackled at the same time as the treatment side, although that has been the main subject of this debate. The campaign will invite the public to co-operate in shopping drug dealers in their community to the police. The police will staff a special hotline during the campaign. In the coming weeks, a series of articles will examine issues related to the acquisition, legality and consequences of drugs, as well as the many police successes in enforcing the law on drugs in Plymouth.

Mr. Qualtrough tells me that Jayne Freer will be the lead journalist working on the campaign. Since she has been shortlisted for the prestigious regional news reporter of the year award for her previous coverage of that serious issue—examining how the police have already been able to get at some of the serious drug-dealing networks—I think that we can look forward to a robust, hard-hitting and effective campaign attempting to turn the tide of this dreadful scourge.

In summary, we have enterprising public services, a quality local community newspaper and a strong record of communities and people working in partnership. That record was established through the trail-blazing community safety partnership. Just as Fast Track was the predecessor of drug treatment and testing orders, coining out of the Morgan report in the mid-1990s, the voluntary initiative of the Labour-led Plymouth council and the local police unit paved the way for what became the crime and disorder reduction partnerships that were introduced in the early years of this Government. Nowhere can show more than Plymouth how a community faced with some of the most challenging problems can become one of the most difficult places to deal in drugs.

3.45 pm
The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) on securing the debate and on her tremendously powerful contribution on behalf of the community. She works tirelessly for local people on crime reduction and regeneration and encourages them to feel that they can make a difference and turn the area round. I had the pleasure of visiting a regeneration partnership in my hon. Friend's constituency to discuss the issues with local people. She cares deeply about this matter.

It is vital to break the link between drugs and crime, as problem drug misusers, especially of class A drugs, account for a huge proportion of the crime that affects our communities. Drug treatment works; for every £1 spent on treatment, £3 is saved in criminal justice costs, so there is good evidence for our investment. Direct funding for drug treatment, including that in prisons, will rise from £438 million in this financial year to £573 million from April 2005. Significant extra resources are being allocated because it is a priority. We will use every opportunity from arrest to court to sentence to get offenders into treatment to break the link between drugs and crime.

The updated drugs strategy issued in 2002 recognised the need for a comprehensive programme of aftercare and resettlement provision. It was no good merely getting people into treatment; other issues in their lives, such as education, training, housing and rehabilitation into the community, were also vital, especially for those leaving prison. We must ensure that the gains we achieve when people are in custody are not immediately lost when they are released. We have been less successful in that aspect of the treatment pathway than we have in others. People must be contacted as soon as they are released. It is crucial that they have a support system and appropriate treatment in the right place at the right time.

I have a key role in delivering the drugs strategy in communities. To strengthen the links between drugs and crime reduction strategies, we want drug action teams in unitary authorities to merge with their local crime and disorder partnerships to ensure that there is an integrated process. For too long, people in the crime and disorder partnership have mirrored those in the drug action partnership. Bringing the two together will have a significant advantage as it will help us to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of planning and delivery, and it will gladden our hearts if we can cut bureaucracy in drug treatments, for example, in reducing the number of funding streams and the amount of administration. That is a top priority.

As the trail-blazing partnership in my hon. Friend's constituency has shown, good local partnerships throughout the country have delivered dramatic improvements in services. Waiting times are falling; the number of drug misusers entering treatment rose by 7.5 per cent. in the last period for which we have the figures, and we are on track to deliver the target of doubling the number of problem drug misusers in treatment in the next few years. Every area now has a young people's substance misuse plan to try to stop young people today becoming drug misusers tomorrow.

We have a good national strategy, but my hon. Friend is right to say that a minority of local partnerships are not performing well, and we must invest time and energy in helping them to improve their performance. In some cases, where partnerships are struggling or failing to deliver, we have directly intervened through the Government offices for the regions and the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse. We are already doing that in Bristol, and the Government office for the south-west is considering how to evaluate how well the partnerships are working, in order to make them more efficient. We are expecting a report in July with recommendations about practical action to support the partnerships.

In the case of Plymouth we are, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, investing more than £2 million this year to help to tackle the problems of drugs and crime, which includes bringing down waiting times for treatment, which is important. The pooled treatment budget for this year is nearly £1.4 million, which is an increase of £202,000 on last year. Moreover, there is £250,000 for arrest referral, £224,000 for communities against drugs and £221,000 under the borough commanders fund, so there is a range of funding streams into drug treatment in Plymouth.

Plymouth has the second-largest pooled treatment budget allocation per head in the south-west region; it is second only to Bristol. I hope that that is a reflection of the issues that my hon. Friend has outlined today. The 17 per cent. increase in the allocation for Plymouth this year is in addition to a minimum 30 per cent. increase for all health authorities, and that is a sign that the Government recognise the pressures that Plymouth faces.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the importance of communications in the drug strategy. I commend the work of her local newspaper and the reporters who have been involved in trying to ensure both that the issue is right at the forefront of local communities' concerns and that local people feel that they can do something to make a difference. As my hon. Friend will probably know, we have just launched the Frank helpline service, together with extensive television and radio advertising. We are trying to make contact not only with young people but with their parents and carers, and with anyone who wants good, authoritative, independent and accurate information about the problems that drugs can cause and the harm that they can inflict. The campaign is very new, and we are looking forward to the evaluation, but I think that it will help us to tackle the problems that drugs cause.

There are signs that the Plymouth partnership is beginning to respond to the challenge, but I know that there are still significant problems. In the last year Plymouth has developed an integrated criminal justice team, which is funded by resources allocated to Plymouth under the drugs strategy which amount to about £1 million. That will target drug-using offenders; it is an excellent example of joined-up working to get the offenders into treatment; and it will, I am sure, impact on local crime. The team has commissioned a new structured day-care programme, filling a major gap in the available services. That will help to bring down waiting times in the other modalities of treatment that are available in the community.

The problem of crack has been recognised—my hon. Friend was eloquent in describing the misery that it causes—as has the new set of issues that it poses compared with traditional opiate dependency. Work is under way to ensure that crack users are supported through the existing drugs services, and there is now a comprehensive system of training for key staff, because it takes new skills to deal with the problem. The intention is to integrate crack treatment into the Harbour service that my hon. Friend talked about, which is a major step forward in recognising the local problems.

However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to build more capacity and more treatment services to meet demand. However, that takes longer than any of us would want. We are starting from a low base on drug treatment, which was never a priority for previous Governments, so increasing capacity takes time. Doing so involves the training and recruitment of staff and the introduction of new services where appropriate, many of which will become operational as the funding feeds through. It is fair to say that the recruitment of staff, as in many parts of the public sector, is one of the constraining factors. However, I am pleased that we have exceeded our targets for the recruitment of new staff into drug treatment quite significantly this year, which is a sign that people are beginning to think that it is well worth pursuing a long-term career in drug treatment, which the Government are increasingly supporting and mainstreaming.

Waiting times for some treatment services in Plymouth have been far too long: indeed, they still are. I know that waiting times for detox services and residential rehabilitation have stretched to three months and that those for specialist community prescribing have risen to nearly six months. That is unacceptable, and waiting times must be reduced if we are to break the link between drugs and crime. However, I am encouraged by the fact that the wait for non-specialist community prescribing is down to four weeks, with good shared care with local GPs; that the wait for structured care planned counselling is down to four weeks; and that there is no wait for structured day-care programmes. That is significant progress. If we can continue with it, I believe that it will have a positive impact on crime levels.

Building treatment capacity is not about making the system bigger or simply having more of the facilities that are already on offer. We must get extra value out of the money that we spend. Ensuring that the commissioning process is effective, transparent and properly informed by all partners is a key factor. When partnerships are struggling and have a poor track record of delivery, I am determined that we should intervene to help and support them.

Linda Gilroy

Does my hon. Friend accept that Plymouth is not failing but has a successful track record? It merits support from the Department of the sort that was forthcoming from my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East in the round 6 invest to save bid. I understand that a decision will be taken on that at the end of July or in August, and we should all work proactively towards that end. We share the Government's goals, and together we can help to achieve some of the targets, nationally as well as locally.

Ms Blears

Yes, I am very aware that the ethos, philosophy and practice of partnership working is exhibited strongly in Plymouth, and that partners there are signed up to delivering effectively. I know that my hon. Friend supports an ambitious bid in the invest to save programme to try to ensure even more drug treatment services. I have no doubt that the application will be considered extremely carefully and that a decision will be made shortly, during the next round.

We need to support partnerships in the next stage of development. The Plymouth crime and disorder partnership was a trail-blazer in its early days, and it has gone on to do some excellent work, but I want to ensure that all partnerships can deliver. We must help them to take the next leap forward so that they can become even more effective.

We have the opportunity to develop a strategic framework under the newly merged partnership. It is a crucial time for places like Plymouth to take that step. I hope that the local partnership grasps the opportunity, and that it develops a robust framework for the joint commissioning of treatment services to ensure the effectiveness of the local drug treatment system. The resources are being made available, and I am sure that the partnerships are committed to getting full value.

The development of the new commissioning structure over the next few months will enhance the capacity, quality and effectiveness of the treatment system. I want to ensure, at both national and Government office level, that we give all partners enough support to ensure that they can serve my hon. Friend's constituents, who are so greatly in need of those services. That will be a lesson for us all. We need to work collaboratively nationally, regionally and locally in our communities; only by working together can we get better results. It is my responsibility to simplify the bureaucracy so that staff can spend more time delivering services instead of dealing with administration. I am committed to trying to achieve that.

Once again, I commend my hon. Friend for her debate. Once again, she has exhibited how much of a champion she is for the people of Plymouth. I have no doubt that the partnership will go from strength to strength, delivering some excellent treatment services in the community. If it breaks the link between drugs and crime, it will reduce the misery and personal anguish that drugs cause to all communities. My hon. Friend knows as well as anyone the distress and difficulties that drugs cause to her community, and she is doubtless an effective player in ensuring that such distress is dramatically reduced.