Previous Section Home Page

Column 709

quite different from that of drug dealers, who require stiff penalties. Prison is the last place that one would choose to send many addicts.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) for opening up in Parliament a debate which is widely being continued outside the House of Commons. He is right to say that it is a serious debate, and it is one in which there have been powerful advocates. Among others, a leader in the Financial Times and a number of very senior doctors have supported the decriminalisation not only of cannabis, but of other drugs.

I do not believe that that can be contemplated at this time by Parliament. I believe that it would run completely counter to widespread public perception, and that Parliament cannot legislate too far in advance of public opinion on an issue of that type. None the less, it is an important issue, and the Government are not approaching the problem of the widespread illegal use of cannabis with any coherence or sense.

I do not know whether the hon. Member for Newham, North-West has noticed the contrast between the attitude of the Home Office, which has increased the penalty to £2,500 for cannabis-related offences in England, and that of the Scottish Office, which has introduced what it calls a fiscal fine of £25. It seems to me that that reflects what I was speaking about earlier--the lack of coherence in the Government's approach to the handling of the drug problem. Sir Ivan Lawrence indicated assent .

Mr. Maclennan : I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) is agreeing with me. I am most grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Maclean : Will the hon. Gentleman look at Government amendments Nos. 79 and 82, which make exactly the same fine provisions for Scotland ?

Mr. Maclennan : I have noticed those amendments, which I suspect were tabled because I and other hon. Members have drawn attention to the oddity of treating the two systems differently. They do not detract from the point that I am making about the use of fiscal fines, which are a measure of Scottish society's attitude to cannabis taking. The police have welcomed the measure, as it will avoid their efforts being diverted towards chasing up relatively minor drug-related crimes, and will enable them to concentrate their stretched resources on hard drugs dealing, which is so much more profitable.

A risk that I have not heard seriously discussed is the fact that, if the penalty for dealing in soft drugs becomes so high that the risk to dealers is unacceptable, dealers may turn to dealing in hard drugs, which are much more profitable. That would be an untoward result of the Government's approach.

I recommend the Scottish Office's approach to the Home Office, which I hope will see fit to follow suit.

Dr. Spink : What decision was taken at the Liberal Democrat party conference with regard to legalising soft drugs ?

Mr. Maclennan : The hon. Gentleman refers to a resolution passed at a Scottish conference of the Liberal Democrat party in 1993, which Conservative central office has helpfully furnished to Tory Members, and a copy of which has conveniently come into my hands. That proposal

Column 710

was passed in Scotland and reflects the fact that the debate about drugs in Scotland is, in some ways, more advanced. It was put forward in the spirit of the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West. I have no intention of voting for his amendment and, as far as I am aware, the Liberal Democrat party has no intention of doing so.

It is not Liberal Democrat policy that cannabis or other illegal drugs should be legalised. I do not suppose that Conservative central office will subsequently circulate my speech, but I should none the less like to put on the record the fact that we have opposed the decriminalisation of cannabis because, as the hon. Member for Lewes said, the health effects are uncertain.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the feared adverse health effects and I have heard similar evidence from other doctors. It is also uncertain whether legitimised cannabis dealing would lead dealers to use that drug to promote other drugs. We have supported the Scottish Office proposal to make first-time offences of possession subject to non-criminal fiscal fines. That approach should be followed south as well as north of the border.

My main message to the Home Office today is that it should get its act together and join the Departments of Health and for Education. Let us pool the talent and concerns and use them constructively to tackle the most serious problem facing this country today, which is a major factor in the rise of crime.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : I wish to discuss new clauses Nos. 51 and 52. It is unusual to hear other hon. Members discuss new clauses that one has not yet had an opportunity to move.

Like the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), I can say that I have had no association whatever with drugs, even though as a young man I spent some time in the bazaars of the middle east during His Majesty's pleasure. Although I frequently speak about alcohol, particularly Scotch whisky, I am teetotal. Nor do I smoke, but that does not stop me discussing smoking. Like the hon. Gentleman, my interest is to try to find a solution to the ghastly problem facing the United Kingdom and the whole of the civilised world.

8.15 pm

There is no single, simple solution. Anyone who has studied the problem realises that, as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) properly said, the problem exists in our schools and any problem in our schools affects every age group in the community. It would therefore be nonsense simply to consider a narrow solution. The value of this debate is that it gives us an opportunity to address the matter in the round.

Deterrence has a part to play in dealing with the problem. I am not naive enough to imagine that it alone is a solution, but I have always believed that penalties deter some people and must therefore be part of the package. After all, given that we are faced with a fivefold increase in fines for drugs possession, we must recognise that present sentences are not enough.

New clause 51 proposes sentences to deal with not just addicts. Although one is concerned with the increase in addicts, the illegal drugs industry generates a turnover of between £2 billion and £2.5 billion per annum. It is a massive industry. Given the amount of money presently being laundered through the financial sector from the illicit

Column 711

drugs trade, its effect on anyone connected with the trade, whether school boys or girls, adults involved in laundering the money or handling the products, or dealers involved in distribution, must be addressed. It is an international trade. A number of recent incidents in Scotland have revealed evidence that the drugs have been landed in the north-west of Scotland for distribution in the United Kingdom. Our interest therefore covers much more than simply what is happening in schools, which is why we must consider carefully the sentences available to the courts. It would be far better to use the term "50 years" than the term "life". That would show anyone thinking of offending in this way that he was liable to find himself locked up for 50 years.

I immediately accept that we have to think of ways of weaning addicts off drugs. My first experience of addicts came with people who were addicted to drink--not unusual in Scotland. When I was a boy it was common to see drunks around the city of Dundee after 9.30 pm, because the public houses closed early. One of the factors that got rid of that problem was a more liberal approach to drinking hours in the pubs. It brought about a dramatic change in drinking fashions. Many youngsters become involved in drugs as a result of peer pressure. That is why we have to rethink sentencing policy, and it is why I tabled new clause 51. I will not go through the new clause in detail--I could speak for two or three hours if I did, and I sense that the mood of the House would be against that. I should like to make it clear that I could not support any attempt to legalise cannabis.

One reason why I oppose legalising drugs came to my attention when my wife and I visited Switzerland, whither I had gone to assess the impact of its more liberal approach to drug offences. I would hate to see here what I saw around the Parliament building in Switzerland : people using needles in public places in the middle of the day. As I told my wife, I could not think of any other country in the civilised world where one could observe people using needles right outside a parliament building.

I defy anyone to walk outside this building in the middle of the afternoon and find someone using needles publicly in the immediate precincts. People were doing this in Switzerland because of the so-called liberal approach. Swiss parliamentarians told me that, following the introduction of the more liberal approach, known addicts converged on the area because they knew that they would be safe from conviction there. Now this may be what some people want, but it does not appeal to me--it is one reason why I find it difficult to accept arguments in favour of legalisation. In this life it is often a good thing to go and observe such experiments to find out whether they work.

Next, I wish to discuss the rehabilitation centres covered by new clause 52. Part of the answer to the problem must be helping those who are part of the problem--the addicts. It is important to give the courts the opportunity to detain anyone convicted under the proposed subsection (5A) for a term--it will be left to the courts' discretion--that will be required to wean people off their drugs. That is only sensible.

I recognise that this cannot be done without some cost to the taxpayer. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland rightly drew attention to the fact that these centres do not yet exist. He will know that in the years before the second world war there were no centres to help people with alcohol problems either ; we had to create them, and the industry itself was largely responsible for

Column 712

paying for them. I should like to think that some of the stiff fines to be imposed on the illegal drug trade, not to mention the repossession of traders' goods and property, will be used to fund the rehabilitation centres.

I would not want anyone to think, just because I have spoken briefly, that my views on deterrence in this matter differ from my views on deterrence in defence or in any other terms. I believe that deterrence has an important part to play in helping to change attitudes and to convince people who might consider getting involved in the trade that the risks of so doing are unacceptably high.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) : I support my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench and affirm the strength of feeling among ordinary people in London, the centre of Britain's drugs trade, about the rising tide of drug misuse and drug-related crime. The problem is acute in my constituency.

As leading members of the Labour party have pointed out, a major issue at stake is the number of crimes committed in order to raise money to feed the drug habit. Half recorded property crime is due to people trying to find the money to feed their habit. That concerns ordinary Londoners. Many of the prostitutes on the streets of London and our other great cities are there to pay for their habit. I cannot stress too much the desperation felt by ordinary people trying to bring up their families when they discover that someone in the next-door flat or the upstairs flat in their estates has set up as a drug retailer. The misuse of drugs and drug-related crimes are ruining the lives of ordinary Londoners in places like Hackney. Crack and cocaine are the newest scourge among hard drug users. On the streets of my constituency I see young men whose lives have been shattered by drug misuse.

Londoners are increasingly worried about the growth in the use of guns in drug-related crime. Guns are being fired off in crowded clubs, yet crimes involving guns are not given the sort of publicity that they deserve--they are all related to drug misuse. Londoners and the people of Hackney want a real war to be waged against drugs, based on a coherent appraisal of the problem.

That is where the Government are failing--failing the people of Hackney, the people of London and the people of Britain. The problem of the rising tide of drug misuse is complex ; it is not just about token gestures in respect of fines. For instance, we need to examine foreign policy issues, such as the amount of aid given to certain countries. Small farmers in the Caribbean and the middle east turn to drug production because it is often their only means of earning hard currency for their families.

If the Governments of Britain and the United States were serious about fighting drugs, they would have to look again at aid for third world countries--and at banana production in the Caribbean. If small farmers in Jamaica and the eastern Caribbean are driven out of banana production, they will turn to growing drugs.

We also need to examine bank secrecy laws. It is no good Tory Ministers posing as being concerned about drugs while they continue, judging by their activities in relation to international banking regulation, to support the Bank of England's endeavour to stop effective disclosure laws. It is because of bank secrecy that the drug barons can shovel their money across continents.

As I say, we must also look at our support for third world countries' attempts to fight drugs. In Jamaica and the eastern Caribbean the drug barons have more highly

Column 713

powered and expensive speed boats than do the coastguards. If this country were serious about fighting drugs, it would be pumping money into Caribbean coastal defences--after all, Caribbean countries provide calling off points for the drug barons.

It is easy enough to see drug dealers on the streets and in council flats. However, the people making money from drugs, the Mr. Bigs, are not visible and are often not touched by the Government.

Hon. Members spoke about treatment and education. Nobody takes drug abuse and drug-related crime more seriously than those who live and work in inner cities. We do not want token gestures by the Government. We want an overall strategy on drugs which takes into account the foreign policy issues that I have raised and education and rehabilitation. Above all, it must take on board the need for a co-ordinated law and order strategy. The environments of too many people are being ruined, too many communities are being harmed and too many children are having their lives destroyed. The Government have failed the country on the drugs issue and the people of Hackney and London want a real war against drugs.

8.30 pm

Mr. John Greenway : I should like to make four brief points. First, I totally agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) said about the withdrawal of funding for health education workers. I recently called a meeting in my rural constituency for representatives from the police, the churches, schools and youth workers to discuss how to deal with the growing problem of drug taking by young people and the availability of drugs in our market towns. One of the strongest messages from the meeting was the real concern about the withdrawal of that funding by the Department for Education. I urge the Minister to make sure that the Department for Education is fully aware of the anger and outrage felt by many of our supporters in market towns about the withdrawal of that funding.

Secondly, I should like to respond to the criticism of the Government for increasing the fines for so-called soft drugs. I cannot understand the argument that it is wrong to increase the fines for the possession of amphetamines as well as for the possession of cannabis. We hear a great deal about cannabis, but amphetamines are in the same drugs group. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said about cannabis being the main drug, in his annual report published just a few days ago the chief constable of North Yorkshire said :

"There has generally been a decline in the use of cannabis as against the misuse of amphetamines which is strongly increasing." We have to tackle that head on. When the police and the customs authorities catch people who are involved in drug trafficking the only offence to which many of them will plead guilty or of which they can be found guilty--given the requirements for evidence--is possession. I warmly welcome the increase in fines and it is reassuring to know that it will apply to Scotland as well as to England and Wales. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn) has said, many of the improvements in interdiction have led to drugs seizures in Scotland.

Thirdly, I should like to make a point that has not been made on the legalisation of drugs. The hon. Member for

Column 714

Newham, North-West made a genuine attempt to introduce that subject to the House. There is high tax on two other poisons --alcohol and tobacco. If we were even to think about trying to control the availability of cannabis through some form of decriminalisation, presumably for health reasons, if for no other, the substance would have to be subject to high tax. That suggests that we could still end up with a black market. I am sure that the House will want to return to the issue again.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) tabled new clauses on drugs rehabilitation. In that context, one obvious point has not been made. If, as we all agree, the number of offences being committed in this country, especially petty crimes against property, is by known criminals to fund their habit of drug abuse, it must be right that while such people are in prison they should be rehabilitated. It is the one thing that we could do constructively to reduce the recidivism of people leaving prison.

Mr. Simpson : I support new clauses 4, 5 and 67. In the debate on the previous amendments the Home Secretary warned the House that victim compensation could rise to more than £2 billion by the end of the century. He cautioned that there was a need for radical changes to bring that cost to a more manageable limit. There is an ironic symmetry with the cost of serious drug-related crime. As has been said, £2 billion per year is the estimated cost of crime that is produced by serious drug addiction. That is the fact upon which we should base the debate and the strategies that flow from it. I have a word of caution in the context of my experience in my area of Nottingham. I praise the police, local authorities, the health authority and the Home Office drug prevention project for their willingness to talk openly about the serious and growing problem of dependency on crack-cocaine. No one should be under any illusions about the seriousness of that drug and the rate at which problems are growing across the country. I shall give one litmus test example. We did a quick survey one weekend and identified 29 children who were involved in child prostitution. Of those 29 children, 25 were crack dependent. They all had various ways of criminally paying for their dependency.

Not only in my area but across the country it is becoming increasingly easy to find stolen goods being priced in rocks rather than in pounds. The problem of crack swept through America and the authorities were poleaxed because they did not face the issue soon enough and were not prepared for the scale of the problem. There are two lessons to be learnt from that. First, the problem must be tackled at source. When asked about how they deal with crack when it has reached the streets, the police say that it is like chasing the wind.

Crack-cocaine must be dealt with by tackling the dealerships and terminating the supply lines. Secondly, we must face the reality that, increasingly, crack--cocaine is being offered to children. If the funding for drugs education work in schools is cut, today's children will not be equipped to deal with the difficult decisions that they will be asked to make in school today and in society tomorrow. That is the stark reality of where we are heading.

We need a programme, a strategy, to address all that and it must begin with some of the initiatives set down by the Home Office drug prevention project. We need to look at

Column 715

acceptable programmes that will help people while they are still drugs dependent to live with that dependency. Without that we cannot move to the next stage of living without dependency. People do not get conversions on the road as if blinded by a sudden understanding. Hard graft is needed to offer people pathways back to a sane and sensible way of living.

We must tackle the way in which this country is involved on the quiet in bankrolling serious drugs crime. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said, unless we tackle the supply lines of funding through the banking system for hard drugs activities, those activities will continue to grow and thrive. That is not part of the Government's strategy. As I said, I support new clause 67. Anyone who works with drugs will say that one of the most helpful steps would be to decriminalise cannabis. Those hon. Members who warn about the slippery slope towards serious drug addiction base their arguments on nil evidence. The only serious study which suggested that cannabis was addictive was based on the study of soldiers in the American forces in the Vietnamese war. Many of them pleaded addiction as it was a ground for being sent home. No study has shown that cannabis use leads to dependency on hard drugs. There is no progression except in terms of common supply lines. One of the biggest problems confronting children, young people and adults who use cannabis is that when they try to obtain it they are more likely to be offered a hard drug first. If those supply lines can be separated, there will be an opportunity to break the continuum that brings cannabis users into close and ongoing proximity to hard drug distribution.

The use of cannabis is a pathway not to addiction but to a criminal record. If it were decriminalised, we would immediately remove the unnecessary 42,000 convictions a year for cannabis use and automatically end the fivefold increase in cautions for cannabis use. We would certainly end the number of people who are harassed because of their use of cannabis. Decriminalisation would allow the country to develop a strategy that differentiated between serious drug use and the increasingly socially acceptable use of cannabis.

Sir Ivan Lawrence : Everybody agrees on the problem and the extent of it. The question is, what can best be done to solve the problem ? I agree with the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)--probably for the first time--when she says that we need a war against drugs.

Bearing in mind the compulsive nature of drugs and that, for the user, reason goes out of the window, the answer must be, broadly, some stick, some carrot, much less cautioning and certainly no decriminalisation.

As to the stick, the Government are to be congratulated on stiffening sentences for traffickers and on tougher fines for users. I support the Government's action, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), in raising fines from £500 to £2,500. To continue to allow fines to devalue is to send totally the wrong signal to children and youngsters and to suggest that the Government do not care. The Government care very much, as should we all, so we should support increased fines. It would also send the wrong signal to the police, who have

Column 716

been cautioning far too much. One suspects that one reason is that they felt that the Government and the courts did not care to have adequate penalties imposed on cannabis users.

As to the carrot, in addition to better education in schools--I am pleased that the national curriculum now includes drug education as part of health education

Mr. Rathbone : My hon. and learned Friend is inadvertently misleading the House. Drug education is included in biology, but that is not the sort of health education that co-ordinators were providing for all children in all schools.

8.45 pm

Sir Ivan Lawrence : On the contrary, I am told that it is to be included in the national curriculum. I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome that. I agree with his other remarks about Home Office initiatives.

I listened with interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), who said that drug users should be given some encouragement. There is not enough drug education or rehabilitation in prisons. We have been going on and on about that for the best part of 20 years. Something more must be done to encourage rehabilitation and education. New clause 62 is in the right direction, although I do not know whether the Government will accept it.

New clause 65 calls for reduced sentencing, which is probably not the best approach, although a reduction in time served through earlier parole or earlier release would be sensible. The trouble with reducing a sentence is that a promise to undertake a drug misuse course cannot be enforced : if users know that a promise of that kind will give them a statutory right to a lesser sentence, they will all make the promise, but few will deliver and the system of justice will be brought into disrepute. The advantage of earlier parole or earlier release is that the carrot would not be given until the offender had delivered his side of the bargain.

Some of the chattering classes may be in favour of

decriminalisation, and also some Opposition Members, although it is difficult to know whether the Liberal Democrats are in favour or against, as with so many of their policies. However, few people in society are in favour of decriminalising cannabis, because it would inevitably lead to more youngsters using more drugs. How would the drug habit of which the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington complained be lessened if more youngsters took more drugs ?

The ordinary use of cannabis is harmful, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) pointed out. Dr. Paton of Oxford university records that it may cause irreversible brain damage if used daily for two to three years. Opposition Members who leap up and down may be indicating the very problem that Dr. Paton identified. Cannabis use also leads to the use of hard drugs. The trafficker says to the cannabis user, "It does not give you as much of a buzz as heroin, cocaine or crack. Why not try them ?" Whether the use of harder drugs is psychological or medical, the courts are full of cases of people who started on lesser drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines or barbiturates and moved on to hard drugs.

Another objection to decriminalisation is that it would lead to more serious crime. As the number of users and the need to supply even cannabis, amphetamines and barbiturates grew, traffickers would need to supply more.

Column 717

There would be a greater demand for harder drugs, which would inevitably lead to more trafficking--and more traffickers would lead to more serious crime.

Was the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) serious when he said that an argument for decriminalising cannabis use would be the release of 42,000 people in prison for that offence ? If so, that is a good argument for decriminalising burglary. We could solve large-scale crime overnight by decriminalising burglary and releasing the thousands of persons awaiting trial or imprisoned for burglary. The Government's approach is sensible, but more money must be found for education and rehabilitation. If more money can be found for that, if for nothing else, it would be well justified.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : Right hon. and hon. Members share the belief that a terrible and growing problem confronts our country. We have a choice of two paths, one of which we know to be a path of failure.

Over the past 30 years, the approach in America has been the same as that of Conservative Members. America had a war against drugs, spending $8 billion a year over the past 10 years and a similar amount before that. In 1964, 4 per cent. of young Americans were using cannabis. The latest figure shows that 75 per cent. are doing so. There is no evidence to show that illegal use of any drug throughout the world has been reduced by adopting the methods proposed by Conservative Members. Six countries have the death penalty for using cannabis, and 50 have the death penalty for heroin use.

In America, similar arguments were used about the evils of alcohol. Even in this country today, the main cause for crime is alcohol. In 1919, America's answer was to ban alcohol : the consequence was that consumption doubled and the number of people who died from alcohol poisoning quadrupled because a great deal of alcohol was manufactured in unhygienic conditions.

What is the position on drugs now ? I speak as someone who hates the use of all drugs. I take none of them, and I suggest that many others should be as antagonistic to the medicinal drugs that we take in huge quantities as they are to illegal drugs. The use of illegal drugs is increasing and our policy on drugs is the main reason why crime is increasing.

If people living in my constituency on one of the estates where there is 40 per cent. unemployment wish to make some money, it is no good going on a useless job scheme as there is little chance of getting a job at the end and it is no good working for McDonald's for peanuts, but if they deal in drugs there will be a good chance of getting themselves a BMW in five years. The problem that drives the drugs trade is money : profit is what is behind the drugs trade. Drug trafficking is the biggest industry in the world. Drugs are coming into Britain in huge quantities. We are catching at the most possibly 10 per cent. and it could be only 3 per cent. The trade is increasing because people are making huge amounts of money from it. The best way of dealing with it is to undercut the profit and the trade by decriminalising the use of cannabis and making it available in the same way as alcohol is available now, and by treating the users of hard drugs as patients.

We must treat hard drug addicts as patients because there is virtually no chance of getting them off their drugs when they have to steal up to £2,000 of goods a week. If

Column 718

their habit costs £500 a week, as it does in Bristol, they have to steal that money. They are full-time criminals. Drug addicts take the drugs in unhygienic surroundings and using unhygienic needles. The number of people who die from heroin every year is 100. The number of people who die from using cannabis is zero. The number of people who die from taking paracetamol is 300, from other medicinal drugs 2,000, from alcohol 25,000, and from smoking cigarettes 110,000. Yet as a society we spend £100 million persuading our children to use tobacco but gaol them for using cannabis.

Do Conservative Members know why cannabis was banned ? I speak as a chemist. Many substances are far more dangerous than cannabis. I would not encourage anyone to use cannabis or any of the other substances that are available. The reason why cannabis is a banned substance is that the head of a lunatic asylum in Alexandria once went to a conference and said that cannabis made people insane. His reason was that all his in-patients were taking it. He did not mention that everyone outside in the community was taking it as well. Since that day, no one has suggested that cannabis makes people insane.

Several other substances which are freely available could have been banned. The really lethal substances, which I would be horrified if any of my children used, are freely available in chemist's shops, supermarkets and stationery shops. The glues and other substances that they sniff--things that we have in our offices--could kill youngsters. The great worry with cannabis is that it is usually mixed with tobacco. Many members of a generation in the 1960s in Britain and in America used cannabis mixed with tobacco. Now, not one in 100 of that generation still uses cannabis, but a third of them still use tobacco and in many cases it will kill them.

We know what popular opinion is. What Opposition Members are proposing will not gain us any votes. I appeal to the Government. We know that their policy is the wrong one. It will lead to more crime because people will need more money for drugs and they will need to commit more crime to get that money. The Government's policy of increasing the fine for cannabis will result in only one thing : the cannabis user will have to commit more crime to feed his or her addiction. Unless we implement a policy of decriminalisation, undercut the market for cannabis and treat the hard-drug addicts as patients, the problem will get far worse. We shall end up in the position that America is in. Every one of our cities will be divided into areas, with drug users defending their areas with guns. That is the future unless the Government see sense.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) : We are all aware that drugs are a serious problem in Britain and especially in the north-east of England. It was said not so long ago that in the north-east drugs were the third largest industry, after Nissan.

In my constituency in the past five years, five young people aged between 16 and 19 have lost their lives through taking drugs. The drugs that they took could be bought in the chemist. Unfortunately for some of them, they were not aware of what drugs they were taking and their effects. They took a cocktail of drugs such as temazepam, barbiturates and heroin. They clogged their systems up, went into a coma and died. It is a shame that the four young girls and one young boy who died were not in the real world. They did not understand what the drugs meant to them, but the pushers did. The pushers were

Column 719

ordinary people living in the community of Blyth Valley. They were selling to the young kids so that they could get money to buy more drugs to feed their own habit. So there was a chain reaction of drugs in the community.

Unfortunately, Blyth Valley has become one of the biggest drug centres in the north-east. I take my hat off to the local police, who have made 28 raids in the past two or three days. When the police entered the house of one known drug dealer, they found 20 stolen televisions, 14 video recorders and a big swag of jewellery. If that does not tell us anything, what will ? The drug dealers get the kids to go out and steal and burgle. Burglaries are on the increase in Blyth Valley. The kids bring the swag and get dope for it. The drugs are not only heroin. Some are from chemists. We must persuade chemists to put drugs under lock and key. We must get a grip on temazepam and wobbly eggs--they all have fancy names--before they get a grip on our people.

I take this opportunity to praise the Newcastle Journal , my regional newspaper, which has agreed to fund a poster campaign in Blyth Valley. It will print the poster for us and I shall distribute it in the area and especially in the schools. We must get across to young people the dangers of drugs. We must talk to them about drugs. It will always be difficult because if we talk to them, we tell them what drugs are. As one headmaster said to me, "What do I do, Ronnie ? Do I tell them to take only a little bit of this drug or not to take it with that drug ?" The young people who died took a cocktail of drugs. That is the problem. If we educate the kids, they become aware of drugs. Once they are aware of drugs, they will say, "I'll have a bash at it. I'll try a little bit of this or a little bit of that." That is the problem.

We must find the appropriate level and more money must be poured into the system. I do not know whether the new clause will achieve that, but I will support any amendment to the legislation that will help these young kids. Evil drug pushers are getting them hooked on drugs and making a fortune.

Mr. Maclean : I shall reply as briefly as I can to what has been a wide-ranging debate.

I assume that the intention of new clause 64, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), is to place a statutory duty on the Prison Service to provide drug treatment and rehabilitation programmes. There are problems with the drafting, but, in any event, prison governors are already expected to provide a cohesive response to the needs of inmates with drug problems. Guidance on that is contained in a Prison Service circular instruction and in a resource manual issued to all prisons in 1991, entitled "Caring for Drug Misusers : a Multi-disciplinary Resource for People working with Prisoners".

The Prison Service is reviewing that guidance, with the aim of developing an improved strategy for tackling drug misuse in our prisons. In Scotland, various prisons have developed specific programmes to meet the needs of particular groups of prisoners. A guidance manual setting out best practice for the management of prisoners who misuse drugs was issued in March : the aim is to help all prisoners to develop and maintain a drug-free life style. I, therefore, see no advantage in legislating to introduce a duty when the Prison Service is already providing an

Column 720

appropriate response. We heard about that from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) ; excellent work is also being done at Downview prison.

9 pm

As for new clause 65, I listened to the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam for requiring sentencers to take into account an offender's willingness to participate in a treatment programme when sentencing an offender whose drug habit has contributed to his offending behaviour. I agree whole-heartedly that it is important to deal with criminal activity that is drug related, but I do not believe that the new clause would usefully add to the court's existing powers to deal with such offending behaviour. The sentencing framework introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 1991 requires sentences passed by the courts to be commensurate with the seriousness of the offence committed by the offender. A custodial sentence may be passed only if an offence is "so serious" that no other sentence is justified ; a community penalty may be imposed only if the offence is "serious enough" to merit it. When a court considers that an offence is not "so serious" that only a custodial penalty is justified, but is "serious enough" to merit a community sentence, the court must ensure that the order or orders that it makes are the most suitable for the offender. In doing so, it may take into account any information about the offender that is before it.

Attendance at programmes dealing with, for instance, drug or alcohol dependency may be included in a probation order, either voluntarily--as part of supervision under the order--or as a mandatory requirement of the order. Under the Powers of Criminal Courts Act 1973, when a court is proposing to make a probation order and an offender is dependent on drugs or alcohol, the dependency caused or contributed to the commission of the offence and the dependency requires and is susceptible to treatment, the court may include in the order a requirement that the offender submit to treatment by a suitable qualified or experienced person with a view to reducing or eliminating the dependency. A community care assessment or psychiatric report will usually be a prerequisite in such cases.

Lady Olga Maitland : I take on board what my hon. Friend has said. The crunch is this, however : is the Home Office prepared to devote more resources to voluntary agencies such as the Addictive Diseases Trust, which have a proven track record of success ?

Mr. Maclean : The Home Office is devoting considerable resources not only to programmes in the Prison Service, but to programmes in the voluntary sector. I shall explain that shortly, when I deal with the Opposition amendments.

Voluntary attendance on a programme may be part of the supervision plan drawn up for a "straight" probation order. The draft revised national standard for pre-sentence reports proposes that when the report writer makes a proposal that envisages a probation order, supervision order or combination order, the report should annex an outline of the supervision plan proposed for the offender to assist the court in its sentencing decision. It should contain a description of the purposes and desired outcome of the proposed sentence ; a timetable with key milestones ; the

Column 721

methods to be used and activities to be undertaken ; the intensity of supervision envisaged ; and the likely effect on dependants. In the case of an offender with a history of drug misuse, the proposed supervision plan--to which the offender must consent--could therefore include voluntary attendance at a drug rehabilitation programme as an integral part of the plan. The full reasons behind the suggestion must be set out in the main body of the report. In both cases--whether the attendance is voluntary or included in the supervision plan, or mandatory-- it is an integral part of the sentence, and forms an element of the restriction of liberty imposed by that sentence.

When an offender subsequently refuses to co-operate with the terms of a probation order, that offender will be regarded as having breached the order, and may be returned to court. In the most serious cases, the court may decide to re-sentence the offender for the original offence, while taking into account the extent to which the offender has complied with the order. Where the breach appears to the court to be a withdrawal of consent to the community penalty a custodial sentence may result. It would, therefore, seem unnecessary to create a new offence to deal with the problem.

Furthermore, I am not convinced that it would be appropriate, as I think my hon. Friend has suggested, that completing a drug rehabilitation programme but failing to be rehabilitated by it should of itself constitute breach of an order. Treatment programmes can achieve excellent results, but there is no guarantee of success in individual cases. Finally, as the courts already possess a discretion to pass sentences that will be particularly suitable for offenders with a drug habit, I am not convinced that the new clause would serve a useful purpose.

I turn now to new clauses 51 and 52, which were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). My hon. Friend seeks to increase very significantly the penalties for the drug offences dealt with in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The House will be relieved to know that I do not intend to go through my hon. Friend's proposals paragraph by paragraph. I merely say that, taken in the context of the sentencing framework as a whole, the current maximum penalties available for drug offences are sufficient to enable the courts to respond effectively and flexibly to the wide range of cases that come before them and to reflect the very different types of offences and offenders. I do not accept that the courts require the additional powers suggested by my hon. Friend. Similarly, I cannot agree that it would be appropriate for most drug offences, including, for example, the cultivation of a cannabis plant, to be triable on indictment only. I share my hon. Friend's concerns about drug offences and the need to take them seriously. However, I believe that the current arrangements are satisfactory and give courts the freedom to pass appropriate sentences in all cases, including the power to pass tough sentences in most cases. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will agree not to press his new clauses.

Mr. Bill Walker : Would my hon. Friend care to put on the record the Government's view of deterrence ?

Next Section

  Home Page