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House of Commons

Friday 8 December 1989

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Broadcasting (Deaf People)

9.35 am

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : I wish to present a petition to the honourable Commons of the United Kingdom, Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled. The humble petition of the people of the constituency of Ealing, North and elsewhere sheweth that the broadcasters are not providing complete access for deaf television viewers, for example, with subtitles or sign language ; the number of viewers affected are at least 4 million ; deaf viewers, as equal members of the general public, are entitled to equal access to television programmes.

The petition is led for my constituents by Mr. A. D. Murray of 15 Courtfield gardens, Ealing, London W.13 and Mr. R. W. Gillies of 59 Argyle road, Ealing, London W.13 with whom I strongly agree that proper provision must be made for deaf people to see and understand television with sub- titles so that they know exactly what is happening in the programmes. They are surely entitled to that. Wherefore your petitioners pray that your honourable House will ensure that legislation be passed placing an obligation on television channel operators to make their programmes more accessible to deaf people by using Teletext sub-titles, sign language or other means and to reach complete coverage by a fixed date.

And your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray.

To lie upon the Table.

Barking--Dagenham and Redbridge

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South) : I wish to present a petition on behalf of more than 300 constituents who wish to object to the proposals of the Boundary Commission to

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disregard the wishes of the London borough of Barking and Dagenham and of the London borough of Redbridge for the division between those two authorities.

The humble petition of the residents of the London borough of Redbridge in my constituency who are affected by the recent Boundary Commission proposals sheweth that

they object to the Boundary Commission's proposals to transfer their property from the London Borough of Redbridge to the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.

Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your honourable House will ask the Boundary Commission to reconsider their proposals and accept the original recommendation put forward by the London Borough of Redbridge.

And your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray.

My constituents wish to remain in a low-rated area. The low rates are the reason why they bought their property in the London borough of Redbridge.

To lie upon the Table.

Broadcasting (Deaf People)

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South) : I should like to present a petition regarding the deaf. It is the humble petition of the people of Ilford, South and is also presented on behalf of the constituents of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). They state that they are concerned because

the broadcasters are not providing complete access for deaf television viewers, for example, with subtitles or sign language : the number of viewers affected are at least 4 million ; deaf viewers, as equal members of the general public, are entitled to equal access to television programmes.

The petition states :

Wherefore your petitioners pray that your honourable House will ensure that legislation be passed placing an obligation on television channel operators to make their programmes more accessible to deaf people by using Teletext sub-titles, sign language or other means and to reach complete coverage by a fixed date.

And your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray.

One of the television companies' main arguments for introducing television to this honourable House was that it would enable the deaf to see exactly what was going on. My constituents and I find it extraordinary that those same television companies, which have achieved their objective of getting television into the House, now deprive the deaf of the opportunity of knowing what is going on through the use of subtitles and other means.

To lie upon the Table.

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Drugs Misuse

[Relevant documents : Sixth Report from the Home Affairs Committee in Session 1988-89, Crack : The Threat of Hard Drugs in the Next Decade (House of Commons Paper 536), the Seventh Report, Drug Trafficking and Related Serious Crime (House of Commons Paper 370), the Seventh report from the Social Services Committee, AIDS (House of Commons Paper 202) and the Government's response to that Report, Cm. 925.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. [Mr. John M. Taylor.]

9.39 am

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Mellor) : I am glad to have the opportunity in the early stages of my return to responsibilities at the Home Office to discuss with anxious colleagues the problems of drug misuse.

During my previous incarnation at the Home Office I had the privilege of chairing for four years the ministerial group on the misuse of drugs. One of the best experiences of my time in this House resulted from the genuine goodwill on all sides that we should try to work together to find a common solution. I particularly recall the Opposition's tremendous co-operation in passing the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986. That has been a striking success, but I also take careful note of and welcome the observations of the Select Committee on Home Affairs about the way in which it can be improved. I do not want to inhibit genuine, legitimate criticism from anyone and I take in good part criticism about the way in which the drug problem is handled. We always need to be stimulated to evaluate what we are doing and to make greater efforts. I hope that this debate will give us an opportunity to renew a shared commitment. We should also recognise the crucial fact that, although it is obviously for Government and elected representatives to give a lead, we alone cannot carry the burden of winning the battle against drugs. We shall succeed only if we galvanise everyone in society into a shared endeavour to deal with the menace of drugs.

I shall be as candid as I can about the present drug situation, informed, I hope, by recollections of my experiences. I shall also say something about the experience of the United States, which is highly relevant to the problem of cocaine about which I have particular concern. I shall also mention the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which by happy chance was published yesterday ; we therefore have an early opportunity to discuss it. I cannot give my final view on that report, but because of my previous involvement in these matters I know enough about the thinking behind the report to say some helpful and constructive things about it. I shall also speak about the future development of Government policy. Above all, I welcome this opportunity to listen to what concerned colleagues say and I shall take on board any points that are made. It is two and a half years since I held any responsibility for drugs policy. As I read myself back into this problem, it is interesting to recollect my fears and hopes during my four years in office. It is interesting to see how things have turned out. Inevitably, if one is realistic, there are good and bad indications. This year all the figures--I shall give them to the House shortly--show that a greater attempt than ever before is being made by international drug traffickers to bring drugs

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into this country. That is a sombre and inescapable fact, and it is important that it is ungarnished and is given in the round. It forms an essential background to our debate.

It has not all been gloom during the time I have been away on other matters. I remember the concern felt by everyone in 1983 and 1984 when "chasing the dragon"--smoking heroin--appeared to be on its way to becoming a major activity among mainstream youngsters and not just among the deviant fringe. It appeared that that practice would lead inevitably to a spread of injecting heroin. At that time there was great apprehension about whether that threat to many youngsters would prove to be unstoppable. Although there is no room for complacency in the figures, it is clear that such widespread misuse has not occurred. There is evidence of a much higher level of herion misuse in our society today than any of us can take comfort from, but it has not spread in the way in which some people feared in the early 1980s. We can take some comfort from that.

During the early 1980s I remember saying that there was nothing inevitable about our nation succumbing to the menace of drug misuse. If we can work together on intelligent and sensible policies, it is in our power to prevent that from happening. There is some encouragement from the figures which show that, as a result of the sustained effort made in the Government's anti-heroin campaign, the efforts made by so many hon. Members, by outside elected representatives and by concerned groups in society, a strongly negative message about heroin has come across. Heroin misuse has therefore not become the mainstream youth culture event that many people feared.

When a cross-section of teenagers are asked about heroin, about 95 per cent. regularly say that they would immediately reject an offer of heroin. What is even more important is that that is not a knee-jerk rejection, but is based on informed opinion. When those conducting the survey ask the youngsters why they would not take heroin, their replies are usually based on informed opinion about the known consequences of the drug. That much is good news.

In autumn 1986 I visited Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia and I saw the size of the cocaine problem faced by those countries. I appreciated that what we were dealing with were criminal enterprises of a scale to rival the existing Governments of some of those countries. The insolence of the drug barons of Colombia is such that just yesterday they blew up the headquarters of the anti-drug forces. They did not care that they killed 40 innocent passers-by and seriously injured many others. Therefore, one is dealing not with a state within a state, but with a state that rivals the legitimate state.

Near the border between Peru and Bolivia I remember flying over the fringes of the Amazon by helicopter. I flew ove hillsides from which smoke was coming. It was rather like a scene from "Apocalypse Now" and the aftermath of a particularly bloody encounter in the Vietnam war. The smoke resulted from the hurried burning of wonderful trees of the rain forest, which were being cleared so that more and more slopes could be devoted to the production of cocaine.

I was briefed then on the scale and sophistication of the laboratories, which rivalled pharmaceutical laboratories for legitimate purposes, and on the insidious inter-relationship between the drug traffickers, with their massive sums with which to corrupt, and the activities of the guerrilla groups who, in return for money, offered

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protection. That has spilled out in recent allegations of international mercenaries being involved. I hope that it is clear when one reads newspaper articles or reports, but it was even clearer to me when I went to south America that the scale of the problem was such that, notwithstanding the seemingly boundless commitment in the United States to receiving increasing quantities of cocaine because of the extent of misuse there, there was a glut of cocaine being produced and that Europe would be targeted increasingly. I fear that that has happened.

I shall give the latest Customs figures for as recently as last week, which will confirm the scale of the problem with which we have to deal as we all work together against cocaine. Our feelings need not be all doom and gloom. There must be proper understanding of the scale of the problem, and anybody who holds office or responsibility and who tries to underestimate the scale of the problem does the public no service. I always see it as my task to find out the facts and to tell people clearly about them, not so that people feel overwhelmed by the problem, but so that they will sit up and take notice. I have a profound conviction that we can see off this problem if we work together and devise the necessary strategies.

The latest figures from Customs show that, in the period from 1 January 1989 to 5 December 1989, 309 kg of heroin were seized by Customs compared with 211 kg in the whole of 1988. Although that is a high figure, it is not as high as some of the figures that were reached in the mid-1980s. The figures for cocaine are deeply troubling. Between January 1989 and 5 December 1989, 392 kg of cocaine were seized by Customs compared with 264 kg in the whole of 1988. I want immediately to pay a warm tribute to the work of the police and Customs authorities in seizing those quantities of drugs. However, we all know--and I want to say this before anyone else can- -that there is no escape from the drugs problem down the law and order route. Whether society falls victim to a drugs problem turns on the willingness of individuals within that society to reject offers of drugs. In a free society, however professional the police and Customs officers are, there will always be a way through. In a free society, we should not want the erosion of freedom that would follow if every packet was opened, everyone coming through airports was searched or every container was opened ; and heaven knows what scale of human resources would be needed.

We are applying the most modern techniques and working through world-class organisations such as the National Drugs Intelligence Unit. There has been an expansion of resources which hon. Members of all parties have rightly called for over the years and they have ensured that pressure has been put on the Government to increase resources. We have a fully professional police and Customs service which seizes an ever-increasing proportion of the drugs that come into this country, although it by no means seizes all drugs, or even the majority.

While I am troubled by the figures of heroin, it is interesting that, although on the face of the figures it appears, as a result of the increase in the number of seizures, that more heroin must be coming in, at street level--and I asked for this to be studied especially in the past few days-- there is no evidence of increased availability of heroin, of a increase in its purity or of a reduction in its price. We must not become complacent about heroin peaking at far too high a level, but there is no evidence of an increased amount of heroin being available on the

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streets. That may lead us to the conclusion that our police and Customs are seizing a greater proportion of heroin, which is a good and valuable development.

Some people are in danger of underestimating the cocaine problem. We have not as yet seen a great influx of cocaine misusers at the drug clinics, but let no one draw false comfort from that. It is a question of time, and one of my central points today is to reveal some of the American experiences. I have toured some of the inner-city areas of the United States and I know that a number of other hon. Members have done the same. In those areas, crack has become a major habit. Even I have not been prepared for some of the shocking statistics that are now apparent in the United States. I say that not to frighten or shock people, but simply to report the evidence from a developed western society which has more than 20 years' experience of cocaine. That experience warns us what may lie in our path if we do not work together to deal with the problem.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield) : We all realise the marvellous job done by the Customs and police on this problem. Several years ago, I was lucky enough to ask the Prime Minister a question about whether the Customs service had the required manpower to cover the job properly. At that time there had been a serious reduction in manpower. What is the position now? What will be the position in the future?

Mr. Mellor : Those are fair questions. I am happy to say that there has been a tripling of the number of Customs investigators since 1979, and an additional 854 preventive Customs posts, dealing mainly with drugs, were established between 1984 and 1988. I accept that it is a key feature that those numbers should be expanded. They are kept under constant review. We have never said that enough is enough. One cannot expect people to do the job unless we give them the resources to do it.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes) : I should like to remind my hon. and learned Friend of one category of Customs officer that he did not mention in his response to the intervention, and that is the increased number of intelligence officers abroad. I do not want to go into detail, but I must say that they are doing a magnificent job of intelligence gathering without which the interdiction in this country would not be as effective.

Mr. Mellor : When I visited the National Drugs Intelligence Unit a few days ago, I was encouraged enormously to see how much that system had developed, with police officers and Customs officers being stationed overseas. As my hon. Friend says, for obvious security reasons one cannot give great detail, but having experienced personnel working alongside enforcement agencies in the countries concerned and welcoming their representatives here, as we are doing, is a way of building a sense of co- operation on personal rather than abstract principles, which is important.

We know that large quantities of cocaine are coming into the country, and we know that there is a time lag between a misuser's first experimenting with the drug and the development of the problem. That is the present position, and let no one be in error about that. As there is the financial incentive for traffickers to bring drugs into the country, they will use every piece of ingenuity to evade the restrictions. As direct routes from the countries of origin

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are now assiduously searched, traffickers will bring in drugs through two or three other countries and increasingly complicated routes are now being used. I cannot disguise from the House my continued and increasing concern since I was last at the Home Office about the extent to which drugs are being brought into certain other countries in the European Community and then being shipped across to the United Kingdom.

Customs figures show that in 1988 30 per cent. of the heroin seized in Britain--and, even more disturbing, more than 50 per cent. of the cocaine seized--had been routed through a European Community country. Sometimes people are tempted to say that the British Government are being bolshie, difficult and tiresome about Europe when we say, "Hang on a moment" in response to rhetoric about open frontiers. Apparently, to qualify as a good European, one has to say, "Yes indeed. Me too, me too." But in practice we cannot afford to have open frontiers with countries such as the Netherlands because the consequence would be that an increasing amount of drugs would come into Britain. I hope that this will not become a partisan matter. I hope that hon. Members throughout the House will understand that, while we work faithfully for the implementation of the open market in 1992, we cannot do away with border controls between EEC countries except at our peril, and it is too high a price to pay.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) : I agree with most of what the Minister has just said but the Select Committee report underlined the lack of linguistic skills on this side of the Channel, which is most important. We urgently need police and Customs officials with those skills who can co- operate with their counterparts in other countries to ensure that we have the best possible intelligence. For too long Britain has lacked such skills, and the police simply reflect that fact.

Mr. Mellor : That is a helpful practical point. It is true that we rely heavily on others' ability to speak English, and it is fair to argue that one way of helping international co-operation would be to improve our linguistic skills.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) : My hon. and learned Friend referred to drugs coming from south America direct to Europe. Those of us who went to the National Drugs Intelligence Unit at El Paso, where all 10 law enforcement agencies of the United States are represented, were shocked to discover that the centre is monitoring shipments of cocaine and other drugs from south America direct to

Europe--especially to Spain and Portugal, because of the Hispanic link, but also to Holland. As my hon. and learned Friend said, the maintenance of our border control is paramount.

Mr. Mellor : Yes. And it is not a matter of politics ; it is a matter of common sense. This is a practical problem. The gap between rhetoric and reality apparent in some people's effusions about Europe always distresses me. We are talking about the practical business of putting up shutters as best we can against the importation of drugs. I should be failing in my duty if I attempted to find a bit of good news about heroin to persuade people that there was not a problem. Nevertheless, it is worth drawing attention to evidence of policies taking effect. It is good

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news that our drugs branch inspectorate is reporting that there appears to have been a levelling out, if not a reduction, of the availability of heroin in some areas. That leads me to hope that the problem has reached a plateau, albeit at much too high a level. As with the AIDS figures, the number of addicts reflects what was happening in society some years ago. People become a little involved with drugs, then a little more involved, then they become hooked and satisfy their cravings on the illicit market, then, at a certain point--some never reach that point, but many do--their dependency reaches such a pitch that they turn themselves in to the authorities in despair.

I pay tribute to the work of our many drugs clinics, which work effectively to try to offer addicts some hope. Although the number of addicts is increasing, there are signs that the addict population is aging. That is most interesting. The proportion of new addicts aged under 25 notifed to the Home Office fell from 54 per cent. in 1985 to 48 per cent. in 1988. That may be an early indication of what I hope will be a trend and evidence that the present generation of teenagers is not falling prey to heroin as the previous generation did.

Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) : It is encouraging to think that heroin consumption has reached a plateau and that we have an aging addict population. But there is anecdotal evidence in the inner city to suggest that the pattern of drugs consumption is changing and that communities in which the drug of choice has traditionally been marijuana are now turning to heroin and crack. That is happening on council estates in my constituency, and it is a cause for great concern.

Mr. Mellor : There is much in what the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) says, and I shall be particularly interested to hear her views on cocaine, which I shall be discussing a little later. Sad evidence is emerging that members of the Afro-Caribbean community, who have not previously been involved with hard drugs, are now becoming involved with cocaine, and perhaps that was the trend to which the hon. Lady was referring. Different drugs are fashionable at different times and we must hope that as heroin consumption reaches a plateau there will not be a tremendous upsurge of interest in cocaine. Nor are we talking about heroin and cocaine alone. The problems of drug misuse in Britain are much more complex than that. Most people's introduction to drugs is via amphetamine-based drugs. If I am not to prevent other hon. Members from speaking, I must be disciplined in what I say and about the length at which I say it. I may not be concentrating on amphetamines, but that does not mean that I underestimate the problem.

There is a problem in key inner-city areas. One cannot generalise. What is true for one area is not true for another, and the balance and extent of drug misuse varies, as does its interaction with other deeply anti-social activities such as alcohol misuse. I regard alcohol misuse among teenagers as every bit as troubling as illicit drug misuse--in some respects, more so. That is why we have devised a system of inner-city drug teams, which we intend to work with the organisations in the community to help to restrict drug taking. We hope to announce the establishment of the first nine of the teams and the central

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co-ordinating unit in January and to increase the number to 30 over a two year period. We should certainly consider seriously the problems referred to in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) : I am somewhat concerned about a remark that the Minister made in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott). He referred to the Afro- Caribbean community and the use of crack. The evidence that members of the Select Committee of Home Affairs saw when they visited America was that crack knew no boundaries of race or gender. Does he agree with me on that?

Mr. Mellor : Oh yes. I hope that that is not the impression that I gave. I was paying a compliment to the Afro-Caribbean community by saying that previously it had not been much involved with hard drugs. As the hon. Gentleman says, cocaine knows no racial boundaries, and it is sad that it seems to have started to affect the Afro-Caribbean community as well as the rest of us. I am not saying that it is a particular problem in that community because it is certainly not, but the increase in its use is a sign of the insidiousness of cocaine, which has attractions that heroin does not have and can involve groups that heroin does not involve. The evidence from America is that 50 per cent. of so-called crack-heads are women. We have never before seen such a large percentage of women being involved in any form of drug misuse.

We must realise that cocaine is not just a different drug posing the same problems as heroin. It is an equally serious drug which, if anything, poses even worse problems. the most pernicious way of taking cocaine--smoking it- -is also the easiest. One does not have to stick a needle in one's arm--the ultimate turn-off, especially at a time when AIDS is rampant.

It has always been foolish to inject drugs because the drugs themselves cause damage and people inject amphetamines as well as heroin. Impurities in the drugs add to the health hazards, and people injecting themselves without medical supervision and often not knowing how to do so properly run the risk of all manner of infections.

Self injection of drugs was always ill-advised, but it is foolish beyond belief to do it now and especially to share equipment at a time when we know that the AIDS virus is becoming increasingly rampant among the drug- addicted community in Europe. In Spain and Italy 60 per cent. of the AIDS cases were contracted through intravenous drug misuse. So far in the United Kingdom it is only 4 per cent. but we have nothing to be complacent about because in Scotland over 50 per cent. of the HIV-positive people obtained the virus through the sharing of drug-misusing equipment.

While much attention has rightly focused on homosexual activities, and while much has been done by the homosexual community to change their habits in order to minimise the spread of AIDS as I know from my previous responsibility in the Department of Health, we need to focus on the fact that in Europe the number of AIDS cases resulting from homosexual activity is doubling every 14 months. However, the number of cases contracted through intravenous drug misuse in Europe is doubling every nine months. I need hardly add that as most drug

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addicts are heterosexual, and whatever so- called commentators in the popular press may say, it is clear beyond peradventure that AIDS can be spread by heterosexual activity. No one should be in any doubt about that. A high HIV-positive rating among intravenous drug misusers is an inevitable bridgehead into the hetrosexual community. That is a crucial matter.

I have already said that the Customs seized 392 kg of cocaine up to last week compared with 264 kg in 1988. Cocaine is a major problem, and we do not just have to look at it in the form of crack to be able to say that. Any form of cocaine abuse is to be deplored. The figures show an increasing problem of crack misuse. There were 12 seizures in 1987, 27 in 1988 and 124 from January to November this year. Crack is not a magic substance. Any one of us could make it in the kitchen in half an hour if we had cocaine and another readily available ingredient. The greatest buzz, the greatest high and that which causes the greatest chaos afterwards comes from smoking cocaine, and that is because of the immediate impact on the brain. Once cocaine appears in any form in a community, it is inevitable that sooner or later people will turn to the ultimate form of drug misuse--free-basing or crack smoking.

The drug traffickers take a cynical view and as a result cocaine enjoys a spurious reputation as a champagne drug, although we know that many well- known champagne lifestyles have been greatly damaged by its impact. The fact that someone is a well-known

champagne-successful chap gives him no immunity from the destructive effects of the drug. It hits people in high society as hard as it hits people anywhere else. Crack is a shrewd marketing ploy by the dealers because it can be sold in much smaller quantities. People do not need to buy a gramme of cocaine powder and the small quantities of crack usually cost more than anything else. But that fact is disguised by the availability of small quantities.

We must expect the drug taker to gravitate towards crack in search, as many drug users are, of a higher and higher buzz. However, the drug dealers will direct all their commercial pressures to getting people into crack because it is the easiest way to market to the widest community. We must gear ourselves to meet that. Thank goodness the Select Committee on Home Affairs had no truck with the people who say that some drugs should be legalised. Such appeasement is pathetic and is no response to anything. How could one legalise such substances when the figures show that in 1983 the United States Drug Enforcement Agency reported 328 cocaine-related deaths while by 1988 the figure had risen to 1,078.

I should like to deal with current American experience, and in that context I am indebted to Mr. Michael Campbell of the Drug Enforcement Agency in London who provided the figures. The latest assessment for the United States shows that there are 5 million to 6 million regular users of cocaine there and that as many as 22 million Americans have tried it. The United States authorities make no bones about the fact that in the 1970s and perhaps for too long cocaine misuse was not a matter of uttermost concern in American society. It was able to gain a hold and in the 1980s there has been a desperate battle to regain control. That proves that when control is lost it is difficult to get it back.

In 1988, 17,000 people appeared in emergency rooms in hospitals in the United States overdosed with cocaine.

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Infants exposed in the womb are 10 times more likely to die from cot deaths than babies whose mothers do not use the drug. A recent random study of 36 United States hospitals found that at least 11 per cent. of 155,000 women surveyed had exposed their unborn babies to illegal drugs, with cocaine far and away the most common. The impact of drugs is devastating on people who choose to use them. Who can defend the pictures that we have seen of cocaine-addicted babies whose lives are blighted before they have even begun?

Some hon. Members may have visited Dr. Mark Gold's cocaine hotline. I went there when I was in the United States just over four years ago. Dr. Gold's experience of running that hotline illustrates the pace at which the cocaine problem develops in society and who is caught up in it. When he started his cocaine hotline five years ago he thought that he would get about 10,000 callers a year. He has received 1,000 calls a day every day for the past five years. It is interesting to see the spread through society. Initially his callers were people aged 31 or more. They were mostly white, male Americans and mostly people with a substantial education background who were moving ahead in their careers. Today, only five years on, his callers are less well educated, younger, and mainly unemployed. That shows the spread through society. In 1983, only 16 per cent. of Dr. Gold's callers were unemployed, but in 1988 the figure was 61 per cent. In 1983, 50 per cent. were college graduates, but today the figure is 11 per cent. Last year the average age was 26 ; in 1983 it was 31. It is interesting to consider the method of taking cocaine. Free-basing is the inhalation of cocaine fumes. In 1983, 21 per cent. of those who called on the hotline were free-basing, but in 1988 it had risen to 64 per cent. That is inevitable, and that is why we have to take the matter seriously.

Some people say that perhaps one should be able to buy it like cigarettes across the counter. They say "What is the difference?" It is interesting that when Gold analysed people's responses to the drug and the impact it has had on their lives, over 70 per cent. of those who called told him and his colleagues that the use of cocaine was more important than his or her own family. Seventy per cent. of callers said that cocaine was more important than friends, and 90 per cent. said that, although they did not consider themselves addicted, they would use every bit of cocaine in their possession as soon as possible. It is a highly addictive drug, and 37 per cent. of callers had reached the conclusion that their only escape from cocaine abuse was suicide.

The legalisers seem to assume that one can go on being dynamic, bouyant and successful whilst just having a sniff or a smoke or sticking a needle in one's arm, just as one would have a cup of coffee to keep one going through the day. It does not work like that. As Dr. Gold said, 79 per cent. of callers said that, because of their cocaine abuse, they were regularly absent from school or work, and 59 per cent. said that they were high at school or at work. Fifty-one per cent. said that they were beginning to be disruptive and 48 per cent. of the students who called said that they were becoming actively involved as cocaine distributors within their school in order to support their addiction. That is part of the insidious drawing in to criminal activity.

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Mr. Vaz : The Minister has now been on his feet for 50 minutes. I do not mean to criticise him as I have listened carefully and he has presented some interesting facts. He mentioned Dr. Gold's crack hotline which was mentioned by the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and I have raised it with other Ministers. What is the Government's view of the establishment of such hotlines in Britain to determine the extent of cocaine use and of publicising the telephone number of the hotlines or helplines in schools and colleges?

Mr. Mellor : We have for some time had drugs and AIDs helplines. My mind is open to whether we should have a specially designated cocaine hotline. Currently a number of drugs helpline numbers are readily available. I am open to persuasion as to whether a dedicated cocaine helpline would help or hinder. Poly-drug misuse is a problem that must be acknowledged. Some people abuse only one drug, but many abuse a great number of drugs, depending on what is available.

Mr. Rathbone : The Government's energy and money would be better directed to supporting local information services under the local drugs advisory committees. In my area of Sussex there is an excellent drugs advisory information service run by the East Sussex county council. It understands the problems. Rather than a national hotline, as suggested by the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), it would be better for the people concerned if there was a build-up of a network of local hotlines.

Mr. Mellor : My hon. Friend knows that a key part of our strategy is to assist financially a range of local efforts. We have substantially increased the sums of money available year after year to such projects.

I do not want to outstay my welcome, and although I have spoken for only 40 minutes, and not 50 minutes as the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) said, he is right to make me keep my eye on the clock.

It is not piety that makes me say that I always find it enormously encouraging to work with the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I do not know of any Department that has had a more constructive--not cosy-- relationship with a Select Committee. It is based on mutual respect for the job that we are all trying to do. I hope that that will continue, and it is in that spirit that I looked at the report. I was glad to see in the report total opposition to the legalisation of drugs. It says what I have stated until I am blue in the face, that measures to reduce the demand for drugs will be the key. That cannot be said too often.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester) : Will my hon. and learned Friend accept that he is probably uniquely qualified and experienced in the House to be making this speech with his background in the Foreign Office, the Department of Health and the Home Office?

Experience in America suggests that there is in demand reduction a major role for the private sector working by itself and possible in joint venture with Government. I am thinking of such bodies as the Miami coalition and the campaign for a drug free America. Drawing on his experience, does my hon. and learned Friend think that there is a greater role for the private sector and that regional health authorities and his own Department ought to be working, stimulating and pump-priming the voluntary, charitable and commercial sector?

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Mr. Mellor : That is an interesting idea. We have kept faith with the idea of putting specialist drugs experts into education authorities to stimulate curriculum development locally.

Having looked at the drugs projects in Australia devised by the Rev. Ted Noffs and his team, I think that there is plenty of scope for voluntary or other bodies to become involved. It is at our peril that we slam the door in the face of any significant element within society that wants to become involved and help. Unless we harness the energies of all, we shall fail to deal with the problem. None of us has ever wanted the Government, local authorities, the Health Service or other parts of the public sector to dominate. They have a duty that they cannot shirk. I should like to see more involvement from the private sector. That is already possible through the wider drug prevention initiatives of the Home Office, and will be possible through the inner city projects that I mentioned earlier. Because great minds--or even not so great minds--think alike, we are already doing a number of things for which the Committee asked. When I returned to the Home Office it was clear to me that we should use the Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Bill to give us the powers to ratify the United Nations convention. I am glad to say that the Bill has been expanded to contain that. The Bill allows us to ratify the 1957 European convention on mutual assistance in criminal matters. I regret the hidebound nature of the legal profession--I admit that I am as guilty as anyone--and the undoubted difficulties of a common law system coming to terms with the rules of a civil law system. It is over 30 years since the 1957 convention and our being able to ratify it. However, it is better late than never as international co-operation is a necessity rather than an option. We were asked to provide money to meet some of the additional costs of international drugs investigations, including rewards to informants. As a starter, we have made £1 million available. I looked at what was said about the confiscation powers under the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986. The idea of a working group to look at its operation and to smooth out the difficulties is important. it is good that £22 million worth of restraint orders have been obtained and £13 million worth of confiscation orders have been issued by courts. When taking the Bill through the House, I would have settled for that over two years. However, we still have a long way to go. Plainly, with an innovative piece of legislation, which is what the report called the Act, there will be some problems. The various professional groups involved need to work closely together and, above all, the courts will have to use their powers. I want to look at evidence which shows that some courts are not using their powers as widely as they might.

I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion. Because I know that we are dealing here--

Mr. Vaz : Does the Minister share the criticism of the Select Committee's report that some people may have about his speech? He has spoken for a great deal of time on important matters such as statistics from America. He started to speak at 10.24 about demand reduction. Perhaps the Select Committee and the Minister have not spent enough time looking at this and outlining the schemes that the Government intend to set up. Before he concludes, may we hear a little about that from the Minister?

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Mr. Mellor : There was a debate on this matter not long ago, so rather than reiterate the well-known and well-established paths that the Government and others have consistently followed, I felt that it would be better to reflect on the key indicators to stimulate us to greater effort. Demand reduction is crucial. As I have already said, this comes on a number of levels. We are planning a new advertising campaign, which will deal with the problems of poly-drug misuse. The evidence clearly shows that the heroin campaign, which was a challenging campaign, had a key role to play in the number of teenagers who said no to drugs. We were not posturing to them in terms that would appeal to those of us of increasing middle age and saying the things that we wanted to hear about drugs. Instead, we went out and listened to what teenagers wanted to hear about drugs. They did not want to hear, "It is bad for you" or that drugs were illegal and kill. We discovered that we could reach out to them if we said that drugs made one a boring person or ill in a more down to earth way than just killing one off, but equally insidious in terms of one's ability to function as a person. Above all, it made one unattractive to a person of the opposite sex. One may prefer to be able to reach out to people on a different basis, but the evidence shows that that approach works, and we shall build on that with the national campaign.

We also wanted to have regional and local elements because there is no such thing as a British drug problem. There is a whole host of different local problems, which becomes a set of British statistics. Moving down to the regional level, the money should be given to local authorities and other groups to work in their local community. The efforts that we shall make through the Home Office initiative to co-ordinate initiatives more all bear on drug demand reduction. There is also the work being done in schools through curriculum development to ensure that kids, in being taught the parameters of a healthy lifestyle, understand about drugs and understand the problems that they face.

There are international elements in demand reduction. The hon. Member for Leicester, East will know that we have called a world conference on drugs in April, which must be more than a talk shop. It is no good giving people only the opportunity to emote emptily over a problem. It must have a practical outcome. One of the things that we want to do is have a working group on demand reduction looking seriously at the problem with discussions led and stimulated by acknowledged experts. It is no good us all inventing the wheel individually. We must try to reach common strategies on demand reduction.

I may have been long on diagnosis and short on cures to the problem, but that is because I think it is important for us to take stock of where we are. At the outset of the problem the Government identified key approaches to deal with a problem for which there is no one solution--those approaches being to support international action, to reduce the production and trafficking of drugs, to strengthen police and Customs enforcement, to maintain tight domestic controls and effective deterrence, to develop prevention publicity and education and to improve treatment and rehabilitation. As every year, or even as every month, has gone by, a new layer of bricks has been put on the wall. We continue to build the wall. There is no one single answer, but there is a range of useful initiatives that help us to build on. We have no monopoly of insights.

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We rely on the insights of others--experts in the subject, Members of Parliament, concerned members of the public--to put to us other ways in which we can do this.

I hope that I can take as read that the House will not expect me, although I could do so, to reiterate the many different policy strands under each of those headings. I have had a chance to talk about some of them in reply to interventions. However, I should welcome further suggestions as to how we might refine it. If we are honest, we are all on a steep learning curve with this problem, which has a greater dimension today than it ever has before, in the experience of any of us. We had best work together to get on top of it.

We are a long way from becoming a nation awash with drugs and drug addicts. I hope that we never shall become one. However, it is clear that, although there have been undoubted successes in recent years in the battle against drugs, we are being put to the test even more severely today than ever before. The fact that drugs are not as much in the headlines as they were tells us more about the fashionability of the issues in the press than about the seriousness of the threat. We must not be deterred, because not everybody is hanging on our every word about drugs, from laying down the further strategies that are needed.

We can take some comfort, but not a lot, from the fact that heroin has moved towards its peak ; but cocaine will pose the worst threat yet because it is so insidious. I hope that everything that I have said will persuade people of that. When we look at poly-drug misuse and at the range of substances with which some people constantly delight in discovering to abuse their bodies and minds, we must recognise that we must not let our vigilance slip. I hope that the House will join me in renewing our commitment to keep the battle against the drugs problem as a top priority, knowing full well that society will not survive in its present form if we succumb to it. 10.36 am

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