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House of Commons

Friday 9 June 1989

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Itinerants (Control)

Miss Ann Widdecombe presented a Bill to make stop notices applicable to caravans : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 23 June and to be printed. [Bill 152.]

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Drug Abuse

9.34 am

Mr. Chris Butler (Warrington, South) : I beg to move,

That this House commends the Government for the high priority it gives to the problem of the misuse of drugs ; calls for sustained and properly co- ordinated attempts to reduce supplies of such drugs from abroad, for the maintenance of effective deterrents to drug abuse and of effective controls on availability, and for a developing and monitored programme of prevention and education to minimise potential demand ; and calls urgent attention to the problem of intravenous drug abuse aggravating the risk that AIDS presents to the population of the United Kingdom.

The founder of the Royal College of Physicians, Thomas Sydenham, said :

"Bless the Lord for giving opium to the human race."

Three hundred years on, a recent opinion poll shows that the British public believe that narcotic drugs are the greatest threat facing the United Kingdom. It is often said that where the United States leads, we follow some years later. The scale of the problem in the United States is truly immense.

There are reckoned to be 38 million illicit drug users in the United States. There are 12 million regular users of cocaine, to the extent that it is now believed that the cocaine market in North America is saturated. Prices are falling there and there is wide availability, despite the fact that 127 tonnes of cocaine were seized by the United States authorities. There are 18 million regular users of marijuana in the United States and 500,000 heroin addicts. This causes immense cost to United States society in terms in crime, policing, the judicial system and medical treatment amounting, it is estimated, to $54 billion a year.

The drug policy review group in this country believes that the equivalent United Kingdom costs annually are £3.8 billion. If we were even to begin to reach United States levels, that figure could easily be doubled. We have not yet begun even to register the costs of crack, which are already inflicting tremendous wounds on United States society, although it has already arrived here, as the recent riots in Wolverhampton showed. The word on the streets in Warrington, my constituency, is that crack is available in the night clubs there, as are many other drugs. Many people travel quite a long way to get their drugs from the Warrington night club scene.

In the first half of the 1980s, new addicts increased at the rate of 25 per cent. a year, so that by 1988 the total number of known addicts was five times that in 1978. In 1986, notifications of new addicts fell, but they rose again in 1988. It is estimated that notification underestimates the total number of addicts by between 5 and 20 times. In 1988, 270 kg of heroin were seized, but it is estimated that only 10 to 15 per cent. of all drugs reaching the population are stopped by such seizures. In 1988, too, 300 kg of cocaine were seized, but the police say that very large quantities of cocaine are reaching our shores.

There were no increases in notifications of cocaine addicts in 1988, but the police and other agencies report widespread availability. That will reflect itself in future notifications of addicts. The police believe that cocaine is the major threat facing this country in the coming years. In some areas, it is already cheaper than heroin.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs estimates that there are between 75,000 and 150,000 opiate users in the United Kingdom. There is a similar number--between 75,000 and 150,000--of non-opiate users. That

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excludes cannabis. If we were to take the worst scenario--a total of 300,000 regular uses--that would fill our gaols six times over. The problem is clearly out of hand. It is true to say that we are now staring down the barrel of the gun. Some people write off the drug problem as the problem of "Sin City"--London--or they write it off merely as a problem that affects a section of our society : hippie dinosaurs, perhaps, or the champagne set, or ethnic minorities. It is true that London accounts for some two thirds of the problem, but it is truly now a national problem. There is hardly a city, town or hamlet that is not affected in some way.

The problem is certainly not confined to one section of the community ; it affects all social classes. Drug abuse has exploded, and with it crime, as many must finance their habit by dealing in drugs and prostitution. The contribution that that makes to the crime wave is commonly underestimated : Home Office research in 1983 suggested that in the Wirral 15 per cent. of burglars were notified addicts, and further research in 1985 suggested that about 50 per cent. of all burglars in the area were drug misusers. If that is multiplied to give a nationwide figure, the result is truly staggering. I wonder whether the crime wave of recent years could be correlated with the increase in drug abuse. Dr. Tim Harding of the university of Geneva reckons that between 25 and 30 per cent. of all prisoners have been opiate users.

It seems at times a hopeless battle, and there are those who wish to void the field. Some extreme libertarians believe in decriminalisation, feeling that people should be allowed to go to hell in their own way. That, however, ignores the extreme social cost that would accompany even decriminalisation. Families are certainly affected by addicts who are hooked into their habit.

Highly intelligent and respected drug experts also believe in decriminalisation, feeling that the costs of the present regime are so high that it is the only answer. In their view prohibition has failed, as it was doomed to fail, and indeed has aggravated the problem by opening the doors to gangsterism. They cite Amsterdam as an example of a good liberal approach. In that city, possession of cannabis is no longer an offence : it can be freely bought in cafes with a cannabis leaf in the window.

Decriminalisation is not the answer ; Amsterdam is not paradise. In fact, drugs have made it a rather seedy and sleazy city. At best, decriminalisation would lead to greater availability of drugs, and--as the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has pointed out--increased availability would tend to lead to increased chances for others to be dragged into the habit. At worst decriminalisation would lead to large conglomerates getting in on the scene--as has happened with tobacco and alcohol--and promoting it, subtly and not so subtly. I believe that decriminalisation is a policy of despair.

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West) : I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman and I agree that the dangers to which he referred exist. Does he not recognise, however, that in this country only about 10 per cent. of addicts are known by the helping agencies, whereas in Holland the figure is about 75 per cent? Does he not agree that, although decriminalisation has many

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negative aspects, the other side of the coin would be that massive benefit, which would be a major factor is stamping out drug-taking?

Mr. Butler : If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me as I develop my argument, I think that he will see the same way out of the maze as I do.

Until 1960 the policy of controlled availability left us free of the problems faced by the United States. Since the 1920s alcohol and drugs had been strictly prohibited there, and although the prohibition of alcohol collapsed amidst a sea of gangsterism, drug prohibition continues with the result that gangsterism flourishes and 5,000 new heroin users are accumulated every day.

In 1960, the Brain committee said that in the United Kingdom everything was all right--certainly in comparison with the horrors of the position in the United States. The market was effectively undercut by the official supply, and in the 1950s and 1960s, certainly, there were some 500 addicts among a population of about 50 million. The small number of addicts were maintained on unadulterated drugs, and there were few crimes associated with them.

What went wrong? In the early 1960s a large number of north Americans came to this country and exploited some unscrupulous GPs, who prescribed drugs in considerable amounts. Sizeable profits were made by both the doctors and the north Americans engaging in their transatlantic trade. The result was the Dangerous Drugs Act 1967, and the setting up of a number of licensed clinics around the country to replace the GPs. There were too few, however, and it was difficult to recruit psychiatrists prepared to staff the centres and run the risk of encountering the problems of agression associated with drug addicts.

In effect, the clinics retreated from their target market. They became associated with bureaucracy, and with unreasonable attempts to wean addicts off their habit. We had begun to retrace our steps down the American path. The number of addicts rocketed, and in the United Kingdom it was open season for internationally organised crime. The question I wish to raise, which is connected with the intervention by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) is whether we can now return to the benefits of registration. We have accumulated some 20 years of damage, and we have a vastly greater problem on our hands. I believe that we can return to registration, and that in any event, the pressure of events is taking us there.

Merseyside has a high prevalence of drug abuse : a conservative estimate is that it contains about 15,000 regular heroin users, 40 per cent. of whom inject. A quarter of all 15 to 20-year-olds have tried illicit drugs, and one tenth of them are regular users. Merseyside strikes me as an excellent illustration of how to find the path back to the benefits of registration. Since the mid-1980s it has followed a policy of harm reduction, endorsed by the advisory council. That policy accepts that abstinence is not the only objective of treatment : to concentrate on abstinence is to exclude the large proportion of drug users who are committed to long-term abuse and who will not listen.

If drug abusers will not abstain, the next best step does not involve banishing them to the black market ; it involves minimising the consequences to themselves, the community and society. For such a policy to be effective such services need to be accessible, confidential and--that awful term--"user friendly". AIDS prevention must take

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priority over drug prevention : those who will not abstain must be encouraged not to inject. If they refuse to do that, they must be encouraged not to share needles, and if they will not do that, they must be encouraged at least to use clean equipment.

The methods of the Merseyside policy include long-term maintenance on drugs, the provision of syringe exchanges, information about cleaning syringes, and even free supplies of condoms and associated material. It also involves a large team of outreach workers in the homosexual community, working among rent boys and prostitutes. Generally, the policy has begun to reach the addict population which until now has remained largely submerged.

Does the Merseyside policy work? There is evidence that it does. There has been a reduction in local crime around the centres that provide such services, and there is insignificant leakage of drugs from the clinics into the addict population at large. For six months the local police examined all arrested drug addicts and did not find one with clinic drugs to which he was not authorised. The Merseyside policy attracted an unreached population. At least 1,000 people became involved with the Liverpool exchange scheme and only one third of those people had previously been in contact with any drug service.

If drug equipment is not returned there are grave dangers of re-use and unauthorised disposal, but the Merseyside exchange scheme achieves a fair balance of exchange. There has been a general reduction in needle sharing, but I suppose the ultimate criterion is how far the HIV virus has spread in Merseyside. It is remarkable that the figures are extremely low there. In the Merseyside area only 14 drug addicts are HIV positive and they all acquired their infection from outside the area before 1985. Tests on 105 addicts and prostitutes known to have engaged in risky behaviour showed a 0 per cent. rate of HIV infection. There are no known cases of local infection with HIV from drug abuse.

The policy of outreach, maintenance and user friendliness begins to show us how we can return to the path of making registration work again. Under the threat of AIDS that will increasingly be the pattern. AIDS is a bigger threat to individual health and to the health of our society than drug abuse, but drug abuse involving the sharing of needles can spread the virus at a devastating speed. It spreads it first into the drug population at large and secondly into the heterosexual population.

In Thailand where there are very many herion addicts, three years ago HIV infection rates were 0 per cent. among drug addicts. Two years ago the rate was 1 per cent. and last year it was 50 per cent. That demonstrates the truly explosive spread that can result from needle sharing in a herion- taking community. Tourists contemplating going to Thailand for rest and recreation should think again. In some parts of the United States up to 70 per cent. of addicts are now HIV positive. Fifty-three per cent. of all AIDS deaths in New York are of drug addicts and 50 per cent., that is 100,000 of New York's 200,000 drug abusers, are already HIV positive. The majority will go on to develop the disease and will die shortly afterwards. Nationally in the United States 30 per cent. of all drug users are estimated to be HIV positive. In the United Kingdom the 1986 equivalent figure was 10 per cent., but it will have increased since then. However, in Scotland the figure reaches up to 60 per cent. especially in the Lothian region. That has caused a heterosexual epidemic in

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Scotland to the extent that in the Edinburgh region 1 per cent. of the heterosexual male population between the ages of 15 and 45 are now HIV positive.

What is worse is that many drug addicts turn to prostitution to finance their habit. In April 1988 of 35 women in Glasgow known to be HIV positive 26 were working as prostitutes. That is a violent focus of infection. Last year during the debate on the Criminal Justice Bill I argued that deliberate or knowing infection of another person with AIDS should be made a criminal offence. I believe that more strongly than ever. I realise that there is a problem in proving the case, but at least the law would be there as a deterrent as well as to be used. It is not only intravenous drug users who are at risk of AIDS. In 1987 a study of prostitutionin New York showed seropositivity rates among crack users as great as the rate among heroin users and seropositivity rates among crack users in the Bahamas are similarly high.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury) : All the problems that my hon. Friend describes come together in a horrendous nightmare in the sort of hospital that I saw in Newark, New Jersey. That hospital contained complete wards of babies who were born with AIDS because their mothers were drug addicts who resorted to prostitution to pay for their drug addiction and became AIDS victims. That meant that children born of prostitute mothers were already suffering from AIDS. That is the spectre which awaits this country if we do not tackle the crack problem effectively and now.

Mr. Butler : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for filling out the generally bleak picture that I am painting. Fifty per cent. of all HIV positive mothers can expect to give birth to HIV positive children, and that is sad. In Africa about 50 per cent. of all people infected with HIV are young children.

Mr. Randall : The picture that the hon. Gentleman has just painted is very bleak, but does he not agree that a major problem in this country is getting people to come forward? Misusers do not come forward and until we get to grips with that we will fail to provide the crucial helping services.

Mr. Butler : I thought that to some extent I had dealt with that in terms of the outreach programmes in Merseyside where people do not just wait for addicts to come in but send workers out into the various risk communities to find the addicts and offer them services in a user friendly way. It is not only a matter of a carrot but of a stick and I shall shortly deal with that.

Mr. Randall : I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that while the Merseyside approach is quite radical, it is not the approach across the country as a whole. The situation is patchy from area to area, and until we spread the notion that people must come forward and provide a safe environment in which people can do that we shall have problems. The prison population is a good example.

Mr. Butler : Once again the hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. I am not defending the Government, because I think that Britain has been going wrong in this field for more than 20 years. In many ways prisons are the key to the spread of HIV infection. Dr. Tim Harding who is the prison medical officer in Geneva prison and reader in legal medicine in Geneva has carried out a well-conducted study

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of five European gaols. He estimates that one tenth of all prisoners in those gaols carry HIV. He carried out a study in France among 500 consecutive newcomers to Fresnes prison and found a 12.6 per cent. rate of HIV positivity. He says :

"In prisons considerable numbers of intravenous drug addicts, a high proportion of whom are probably AIDS carriers, can be expected to have occasional homosexual contacts induced homosexual behavour provides a bridge' between a known high risk group of (intravenous drug abusers) and individuals who may later become a source of infection through heterosexual contacts"

Graham Medley from Imperial college London says that needle-sharing in British prisons produces between 33 and 344 AIDS infections in prison every year. Staff at Risley remand centre tell me of the extreme difficulty that they have in screening visitors and stopping them from bringing in drugs. They also have to engage in the very unpleasant business of cell searches looking for drugs and syringes. Sweden, which is a paragon of human rights, has solved the problem by daily screening of prisoners' urine. Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider such an experiment here? The current methods of control are certainly inadequate. I do not believe that the provision of condoms to prisoners is the answer. They have a high failure rate for such high-risk activities and may cause more damage than they are worth. Information is the only vaccine that we have, and it is especially important to the prison scene. Part of the vital information that is needed by the authorities and prisoners is prisoners' HIV status, by which they can base their behaviour in prison and outside afterwards.

I am talking about regular testing of the prison population. I know that the medical authorities are devising tests using saliva rather than blood, which might make testing easier. Some people would say that testing offends civil rights, but prisoners have already lost most of their civil rights by being in prison, and survival of society must begin to take precedence over individual rights, as it always has in the past when we have faced pandemics of this kind. The nettle has been grasped elsewhere. Spain screened its prisoners and found an 18.7 per cent. HIV positivity rate. Parts of the Basque country and Catalonia found a 50 to 55 per cent. positivity rate. Bavaria began testing its prison population in 1985. By 1987, it had tested 97.3 per cent. of its prison population voluntarily, and found a 1.48 per cent. positivity rate. Sweden positively encourages testing of new prisoners. Italy positively encouraged testing of new prisoners and found a 16.8 per cent. positivity rate. Testing can be done without a cataclysm for human rights.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to say what progress has been made with anonymous testing in prisons, which was promised by the director of the prison medical services in November 1988. The danger is that if we do not grasp the nettle, prisons in the United Kingdom will become a major crossover point to the heterosexual population outside.

Enforcement is the stick that I mentioned to match the carrot. If we are to renew a drive back to making registration work, we shall have to be even tougher on many of the criminals who populate the drug world. We need the stick and the carrot to identify, isolate and control the problem. Merseyside's prescribing and general policy

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is correct, but I am not so happy about its penal policy. Cheshire police are happy with the support that it receives from the courts, but when it engages in joint operations with Merseyside police both forces hope that the trial will be held in Cheshire because they believe that the Merseyside courts will be soft on pushers. A quarter of marijuana users in the Merseyside area are cautioned, whereas in Greater Manchester the rate is only 5 per cent. The possession of class A drugs can result in a seven-year prison sentence and an unlimited fine, but in May 1988 Merseyside police extended the possibility of a caution to those found in possession of heroin. It is no good taking a harsh public stance on drugs if the actuality is soft beneath. It sends out the wrong message to drug addicts and the population at large. It is not right that there should be differing standards of justice throughout the country. There should be uniform severity for pushers and uniform strictness for those who are found in possession and have not acquired drugs in the proper registered manner.

The Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986 is a most valuable piece of legislation. It has enabled the police to track the devious spread of assets which drug traffickers insert into complex banking systems, but it takes up much police time. The police have managed to confiscate £8 million worth of assets, but that has cost them much money and I wonder whether there is a case for the police being able to reclaim the costs that they incur in confiscation. I am aware of the problem with hypothecation of revenue, but I suggest that there is a precedent because in the past the secret services have often flourished with the aid of confiscated assets that the Treasury has not nosed in on.

Another problem with that otherwise exellent Act is that the prosecution does not follow its spirit sufficiently. Prosecuting authorities demand that the police prove that assets of drug traffickers were acquired illegally. The Act placed a welcome burden on the defendant to prove that he had acquired his assets legally. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will lean on prosecuting authorities to make them observe the spirit of the Act.

The importation and distribution of drugs are not two separate issues. The relationship between the police and Customs is better, but it could be improved. Customs is a national organisation and the police are not, which in joint operations causes logistical difficulties. It is time that we had a national agency similar to the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Drugs Enforcement Agency. I have always been an admirer of Elliot Ness and the "Untouchables". As we already have a national intelligence unit, it is time that we had a national operational unit, pooling the skills of police, Customs and the Home Office's drug branch. Such a group of "Untouchables" would form a national drugs directorate that would co-operate internationally with, perhaps, a European task force that relies on a European intelligence base. There has been much talk recently about integration with Europe. I do not agree with full integration yet, but such integration and co-operation would be sensible and not a symptom of "Bexleyism." International crime must be combated by an international effort.

I applaud the decision that the Government took in October 1983 to restrict parole for drug traffickers sentenced to more than five years' imprisonment because it gives the right message to pushers. Will my hon. Friend the Minister assure me that that restrictive policy will continue? We should not pursue the objective of a lower

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prison population and be lax with dealers in death and misery. Unfortunately, I disagree with my predecessor, Lord Carlisle. His Committee's report states that we should abandon this restrictive policy. The Committee believes that everyone should be entitled to parole after serving half of a four-year sentence or more. Now is not the time to be soft on drug dealers.

Many drug couriers and dealers imprisoned in Britain are foreign. Local review committees are tempted to deport them before they complete their sentence. The motivation is clear--to get rid of the scum and lessen the burden on the British taxpayer. Many couriers are sad cases who have been manipulated by more malign minds, but sympathy is the wrong attitude because they have often been picked to give that kind of aura. A premature return to their countries of origin would give the message that Britain is a soft touch. Certainly, the possible gains to people coming from Third world countries are immense if we do not make them aware of the potential risks. I am glad that I concur with my predecessor on this point. He said :

"for the professional drug trafficker who has a large nest-egg hidden way in some foreign bank, a free ticket back home will not amount to much of a punishment compared with a few years in prison here."

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can ensure that the parole board will treat potential deportees in the same way as it treats other inmates of British gaols.

There is also the international aspect of enforcement. The United Kingdom co-operates in the United Nations commission on narcotic drugs and in the Pompidou group, and in that way there is international co-operation in reducing the availability of drugs. The Overseas Development Administration, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office spend millions of pounds a year on drug projects abroad, including crop eradication and crop substitution. No doubt, other hon. Members will wish to explore those international aspects more.

I am particularly concerned about the Caribbean basin. The Caribbean has become much afflicted with the problem, with money laundering and high increases in domestic addiction occurring. It has become a trafficking centre for north America and the consuming countries of Europe. We have a relationship with the dependent territories and Commonwealth countries there. We have a particular responsibility and influence there, too. We have given some assistance, through launches to the Turks and Caicos islands and the British Virgin Islands, and in 1988 we sponsored a Commonwealth drug law enforcement conference in Barbados, but we could do more. I know from personal experience that one can walk down the streets in the Bahamas and be regularly accosted and offered coke. That is a blot on the Caribbean basin. In some areas there is strong evidence of official complicity in the drug trade, to the extent that it raises questions about the governance of those islands. I know that some of these islands are our friends, but friendship implies frankness, and if they are unable to put their houses in order there may be temptation for some international action to be taken to do it for them.

Drug prevention through the medium of education is important. In America, drug-crazed schoolchildren in sink schools in inner cities often make shootings and rapes on stairwells almost unremarkable. There is a great problem of a drug-ridden, ruthless, amoral, often unparented

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underclass, and it is making the Americans think hard about their social policy. In the United Kingdom, the number of heroin addicts under 21 is rising, but the school population of 6 million is, as yet, almost untainted by narcotics. I hope that cultural pressures and education will keep it that way.

The most important socialising force and force for good in this respect is the family. Families do get it wrong. Prison officers at Risley have told me of parents who bring in drugs for their children on remand. If the family breaks down, we will certainly lose a potential force for much good, because the family is the unit in which children realise that they have responsibilities to people other than themselves. The Conservative party is often said to be the party of the family, but, sadly, since 1979 the illegitimacy rate and the rate of cohabitation without marriage have doubled, which does not say much for the party of the family. Much can be done to reinforce the family as an economic unit and bring home to fathers the responsibilities of parenthood. That should be a major priority for political parties, and I believe that a prize will await those who realise it at the next general election.

Much good work is done in schools by bodies such as TAGADE. The life education centres of the Rev. Ted Noffs offer a promising line of bringing home to children the wonders of the workings of their bodies and giving them a positive feeling of self-respect for their health. The image of sparkling life is presented to them, compared with the automatic turn-off of grisly death and, perhaps, the turn-on of the forbidden. The media often fall into this trap. They often portray drugs as a symptom of the naughtiness of the champagne set, as adventures into the forbidden, or they portray crack as the coming thing for the "in" set. The reality is that drugs are used to bolster the self-esteem of those who take them. They are a grubby, dirty business and are taken by people who are inadequate. Drug taking should be presented as that. The media have a responsibility to evaluate their presentation just as much as the Government do, but I suppose that asking for self-regulation in the media these days is like crying in the wind.

The Government are feeling their way in their anti-drugs propaganda. They spent about £2 million on it last year. In 1987, they engaged in a campaign to persuade misusers not to inject and never to share. The preliminary results of research show that that campaign was ineffective and may even have been counter-productive. We now know that simplistic slogans for mass consumption, such as, "Just say no" or authoritarian approaches to schoolchildren are not the ways to do it. Many preconceived notions about campaigns of such promotions have had to be jettisoned in the light of research. It is vital that, if the Government engage in these promotional campaigns, they do the research to evaluate the effect. There is no point in spending millions of pounds if the result is fruitless or possibly harmful.

Clearly, prevention of drugs is better than cure, especially because a cure of drug addicts is rarely achieved. As with enforcement against crime in general, enforcement in this respect is late in the day. It is far better that children and young people learn from their families, schools and general culture that it is wise never to begin. The challenge is enormous, with some 300,000 regular users of drugs. I hope that we can rise to take the difficult decisions to meet it.

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10.17 am

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes) : I am proud to be the first to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler) on initiating this debate on what must be one of the most important problems--if not the most important--facing society, not just in this country but in the Western world. It is sad that the peculiarities of parliamentary procedure mean that these debates are likely to take place only on Friday mornings, when many hon. Members have constituency engagements or, at this time of year, compaigning engagements. Those who have gathered here are interested in this subject. I should like to embrace the views of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department who leads the Government in chairing the inter-ministerial group on this subject. I fear that I must make one political comment--the only one--and note the paucity of the Opposition's attendance. Apart from the necessary Front-Bench spokesman--the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall), whom we are glad to see--there are no other members of the Labour party and no members of the Social Democrats, the Social and Liberal Democrats or the Ulster parties. Perhaps most noteworthy of all, there are no hon. Members from Scotland present. Part of the greatest problem we face in this country is, tragically, north of the border.

Mr. Randall : I want to place on record that apart from Front Bench Members, there are only six Conservative Members in the Chamber.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg) : There are no Labour Members present on the BackBenches.

Mr. Rathbone : Statistics can be used to prove anything.

Mr. Hogg : There are seven Back-Bench Conservative Members present.

Mr. Rathbone : I believe that there is a miscount from my Front Bench.

The truth is that drug misuse is the most horrifying problem. I agree with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South said, with one proviso. He mentioned that AIDS was an even more pressing problem than drug abuse. I have to take the opposite point of view on that. Whatever the horrors of AIDS and whatever the greater likelihood of those who suffer from AIDS dying before their time compared to the likelihood of those who take drugs dying before their time--and statistics are not available to prove the matter one way or another--until we get to grips with the problem of drug misuse, we shall be incapable of getting to grips with at least the behavioural activities that lead to the spread of AIDS. AIDS is both a behavioural and a medical problem. With the marvellous innovative spirit that exists in the human race and the scientific knowledge which is discovered so swiftly nowadays, I hope sincerely that we shall see further developments in the study of AIDS which will lead to treatment for it. It is welcome news, which came out only in the past week, that at last the virus has been traced back to its source and that is, perhaps, the start for finding a treatment for it. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South will take my criticism in good spirit, because it in no way negates the importance of this debate.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South raised two broad aspects of the problem--trafficking and demand reduction. I was privileged to attend a United Nations-sponsored parliamentary meeting in Vienna just two weeks ago. It was sponsored by the United Nations fund for drug abuse control--UNFDAC--and it was attended by representatives from Italy, including those representing the anti-Mafia commission of the Italian Parliament. It was also attended by representatives from the Federal Republic of Germany and by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler) in his capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I attended in my capacity as chairman of the all-party drug misuse group. The meeting concentrated on the aspect of trafficking. That is, of course, an aspect of drug misuse that falls very much in the international sphere. One of the points made, particularly by the Italian parliamentarians, was the way in which the crime syndicates have assumed such an immensely worrying international dimension because of their ability to penetrate all the most sensitive sectors of the political, economic and social structures of an ever greater number of countries.

That penetration is especially noticeable in south America. However frustrated we may be when looking at the problem from our side of the Atlantic and north of the equator, we should realise how much the problem still exists in the countries of south America. We should commend the immense job the people there do in trying to come to grips with that horrible domestic problem--horrible in every aspect. One cannot look lightly on the problem faced in Colombia, where 18 judges were killed last year, which at one terrorist stroke undercut society's ability to rule itself, and the inclination of judges, who are human beings like ourselves, to implement proper justice in the future. We should seek ways in which we can buoy up their ability to administer justice, as well as their ability to keep law and order. I want to remind my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department that I was a little depressed on that score. When I questioned our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about whether he had any plans for a meeting with his Colombian counterpart, he said that he had no plans to do so. That may be as a result of the exigencies of his diary and I hope it is no more than that. However we must not overlook ways in which we can help the enforcement of law and order by giving military advice and assistance, which is what is so often required, as well as political advice and aid in the work of drug misuse officers on the ground.

Mr. Randall : I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would give me some clarification. I was interested to hear what he said about buoying up the criminal justice system after the death of the 18 judges. Can he tell the House a little more about how he feels Britain, as an external country, can help to buoy up the criminal justice system in Colombia?

Mr. Rathbone : The hon. Gentleman anticipates what I was about to say. There are three areas in which we could buoy up the criminal justice system in Colombia. One way falls into the ambit of the United Nations. The completion of the United Nations convention on drug misuse and its adoption and ratification can be encouraged by this

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country. It will provide a yardstick or backdrop against which all other international and domestic activities can be measured and encouraged.

The second area is that of military assistance. The illegal growing, distillation and warehousing of those illegal products is carried out deep in the forests of huge countries in that under-populated continent. It is logistically and militarily an enormous effort to track down wrongdoers and to take action against them. What we would consider to be a police or Customs exercise in this country is a military exercise in Colombia. Military communications are important there. The drug barons who are earning, by the lowest estimates, about £50 billion a year from drugs trafficking--more than the gross national product of some south American countries--have the wherewithal to buy the best communications equipment as well as the best armaments. To get hold of the best communications equipment, they go to the best sources. We must match them with the equipment used by the authorities in those countries.

The traffickers have armaments with which to defend themselves, as they put it, or to push their illegal traffic in a terrorist way, as I would describe it. We must ensure that the powers of law and order in those countries have the necessary armaments. It comes down, in the end, to giving those countries sufficient hard currency, through trade, to buy those armaments, or at least to encouraging them to use loans and grants from international and national sources for the recruitment and training of internal forces of law and order. Thirdly--and this was perhaps what prompted the question of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West as it is the most difficult aspect--we have a role to play in encouraging, and making it easier for, those countries to pass laws that can be properly applied. They need both adequate internal laws to help them to grapple with the problem and an international framework of laws in which the drug barons can be trapped. The British Government have taken the initiative and have struck bilateral agreements with several countries under which drug trafficking assets can be traced and confiscated and information exchanged. That is a marvellous illustration of the sort of bilateral action that can be taken. We have enormous experience of constitutional affairs and we could help the countries to draft laws or amend their present laws so that they can be applied more easily. That was one of the matters that arose in our meetings with the German and Italian parliamentarians. The communique that all three participating countries agreed said that

"given the increasingly serious problems of a number of countries and the noted inadequacy of national and international measures adopted so far, is was essential to consider as a matter of urgency new initiatives, giving priority to the delicate areas of criminal investigation, the identifying of international drug traffickers and the bringing of such criminals to justice."

I pay tribute to British drug liaison officers. I know from my limited personal experience and from what I have heard that they do a terrific job. I shall not go into great detail : I shall certainly not identify the individual or countries concerned as many of those gentlemen live in fear of their lives. Both those from the police and from Customs and Excise do the most marvellous job, and they have perhaps done more to increase the entrapment of

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drug traffickers and the capture of drugs being trafficked than any other single well-directed activity could have done.

Mr. Randall : I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's three points. Does he agree that because the revenues that can accrue from the production of drugs are so massive, there is a great incentive for certain Governments to do no more than pay lip service to their desire to rid their country of drugs? How can one square the wish to participate in efforts to get rid of drugs with the reduction of revenues which, to some of the poorer countries, are massive?

Mr. Rathbone : That is a tricky question, which was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South. My hon. Friend referred to the Caribbean basin, where evidence emerges all too often of direct links-- not only national links, for the benefit of the national treasury but personal links for the benefit of personal treasuries--between drug traffickers and those who stand to gain from their activities.

Let me correct an insinuation that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West made. The moneys that the drug barons earn form at most a very small part of the gross national product of the countries concerned. It is true that traffickers may live in those countries and use some of the money that they gain, but in the main, the moneys are part of international funds that swill around the world--from one interest-bearing instrument in one country to another

interest-bearing instrument in another. Most of the funds are not used in the homeland, as the traffickers do not have to use much of the money--the huge amounts--that they gain to maintain their factories and armies. A stage further down the line, the growing of drugs is of only marginal benefit to the national economy, although, compared with traditional vegetable crops, it can be of immense benefit to individual incomes. It is tragic that it is not the producers but the barons who benefit.

May I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department whether the Government will continue their efforts to devise ways of improving international liaison by drug liaison officers and providing an international base for their work? A British drug liaison officer in a particular country or city should be in a good position to do work for the German or French police as well as the British police. Conversely, a German, Dutch or French drug liaison officer should be able to work for the benefit of the British police.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South referred to the international position and to the United Nations. I would also draw attention to the activities in Europe, which are equally important to us and to the other countries of western Europe. It was in that context that two weeks ago the Pompidou group of Ministers met in London under the chairmanship of the Home Secretary and under the wing of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. The Pompidou group was set up by the Council of Europe, which has taken a considerable interest in the problems of drug misuse through its Legal Committee and through its Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee, of which I am pleased to be a member. It was in the spirit of Council of Europe Assembly recommendation 10.85,

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calling for genuine political co-ordination and action at European level that the Pompidou Ministers were called together two weeks ago.

My hon. Friend made an important reference to the sense of urgency that we must now feel about the danger to Europe from cocaine and, increasingly, from crack. We must not wait for the effects of that new drug to turn up in the health records before planning preventive action. So often it is not until the medical world feeds back reports of a problem to the social or political worlds that action is taken. I plead with my hon. Friend the Minister--most especially wearing his hat as chairman of the interdepartmental Minister's group--to impress on his colleagues that they should not wait for dramatic and horrifying statistics to be fed in from representatives of the Department of Health before taking action.

The problem is put into more dramatic perspective because of the growth of crack. There is nothing peculiar about that derivative of cocaine. It is easy to make, cheap to buy and therefore cheap to sell. It has two quite horrific properties, the first being its immediate and shortlived effect leading to the propensity to buy again being all that much stronger. Because it is cheap to buy, there is a vicious downward spiral.

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household) : Like alcohol.

Mr. Rathbone : It can be like alcohol, as my hon. Friend has suggested from his special knowledge of these matters, but with alcohol one has to consume a considerable amount and get into an alcoholic curve before becoming a truly licensed alcoholic. The second horrifying property of crack is that, unlike cocaine or herion, which have to be taken for 12 or 18 months before addiction, if crack is taken only three times it is highly liked to lead to complete addiction. Its availability because it is cheap and the characteristic that makes people want ever more of it are enormously worrying aspects. Unless we get it right, another potentially worrying aspect will be the easing of frontier controls in 1992. We must be sure that as we lower the Customs and immigration barriers in Europe--for the very good reason of making Europe a more coherent and cohesive entity-- we do not make it easier for drug traffickers to move drugs around the European Community.

As I have already said, the Government have shown great initiative in dealing with the proceeds from crime. They have, first, introduced legislation into this country ; secondly, tracked down the sources of illicitly earned funds ; thirdly, struck bilateral agreements with other countries ; and, fourthly, encouraged multilateral agreements wherever they can be made. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South said, huge amounts of money are involved. I plead with my hon. Friend the Minister, as many of us have pleaded with his colleagues, to use the money seized from tracking down drug traffickers for the encouragement and improvement of the forces of law and order in their good work.

The Treasury is opposed to that suggestion because it wants to avoid hypothecation. One argument is that it would be unfair for the police force that happened to be active--or luckily active, as some would say--and had

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struck gold then to be given the benefit of that money. Some might say that it is impossible actually to plan those activities on a basis of occasional bunce funds. Those are not worthwhile arguments. We are not suggesting that such money should be built in as part of the regular budget of police forces or drugs intelligence units. However, where certain actions should be taken--for example, the establishment of better computer intelligence networks and better training- -it would be criminal of the Government not to make those criminally gained funds available to aid the fight against the drug criminals.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester) : I am aware of my hon. Friend's close interest in this matter, and also in the police manning of our county of Sussex. Does he agree that the problem of drug abuse and addiction, while especially evident in Metropolitan areas, also extends very much to the provinces? Is it not the case that in areas such as ours there is little prospect of improved manning on the ground, so that the policeman on the beat can deter trafficking, unless there is additional financial provision? Our pleas year after year for a more adequate police complement have not been met. The Government should carefully consider my hon. Friend's proposal as a possible means of tackling this specialist problem, which is one not just of the cities, but of country areas.

Mr. Rathbone : I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend and political neighbour for drawing attention to that point and for reminding the House and the Minister of the needs of East and West Sussex. It is regrettable that requests for a greater police complement from the police authority and the chief constable--to whom I pay tribute for his work for the communities in East and West Sussex--have not been met.

I am not actually talking about funds from drug trafficking going into the budget for officers on the beat. That is another pressing question that I look forward to pursuing with my hon. Friend both in the House and elsewhere. My suggestion is that those funds should be used, not just for a police force, but for a national force to help the national effort. They could be a cornerstone for the intriguing idea put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South for a national drugs misuse fighting body. What better way to use those funds than to get such a scheme off the ground?

As I mentioned earlier, there appeared to be an immensely satisfactory outcome from the recent Pompidou group discussions. I commend the Government on their proposal for an international demand reduction conference next year, which will be especially welcome in the specific context of the threat, from cocaine. It is an admirable idea that is being substantiated by the Government's willingness to fund it. In that area, as in many areas of the fight against drugs misuse, the Government are offering support not only in words but in the necessary funding.

That leads me into the second area. I apologise to the House for taking so much time, but I believe that it is an enormously important subject. I hope that I am not repeating what my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South has said, nor, indeed, unwinding any of the wise words that my hon. Friends will be adding later on. In his summing up, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South said that we must make more people

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