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10.43 am

Sir Michael Shersby (Uxbridge): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Mr. Legg) on his good fortune in gaining second place in the ballot--I say that with some feeling as I achieved only 20th place. I am glad that he has had the opportunity this morning to discuss an important landmark Bill which he hopes that Parliament will enact in order to save the lives of young people who are exposed to drugs, particularly in badly run and improperly supervised clubs of the kind to which several hon. Members have referred. One hopes that the Bill will end the series of tragedies that have deprived parents of their children who have been tempted to try drugs such as Ecstasy.

I listened with considerable attention to the speech by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), who made an interesting contribution to the debate. I am sorry that he does not support my hon. Friend's Bill, but he raised some points that should be considered carefully--particularly his reference to the increased consumption of alcohol and the increasing availability of alcoholic pops and similar products.

There is no doubt that people's awareness of the association between public entertainment venues and the misuse of drugs was heightened tragically by the harrowing media reports of the death of Leah Betts. I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Leah's parents, whose dignity and calmness in the face of losing their daughter helped to bring forward the proposals. Since the death of that beautiful young woman, there have been further media reports about the drug-related deaths of young people whom this country can ill afford to lose and whose deaths occurred in preventable circumstances.

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The death of Leah Betts and the subsequent trial of the student who admitted helping to supply her with an Ecstasy tablet illustrate the fact that action is necessary. According to a report in The Times of 12 December last year, the person who was supposedly responsible for security at the club concerned is no longer alive, as he was implicated in the supply of drugs and was shot in a triple killing in 1995. That gives hon. Members some idea of the kind of people behind the supply of dangerous drugs.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, public attention has been focused on the problems arising from attempts to close Club UK in Wandsworth. The licensing committee refused to renew its entertainment licence in May last year and I think that it is important to examine the timetable of events. The club had been associated with two drug-related deaths and undercover police operations suggested that drugs were readily available on the premises. That was confirmed in March last year by council officials. The club lodged an appeal and the hearing against the closure order began in November. Judgment was reserved on 19 December and the decision to uphold the council's refusal was announced only on 6 January. That is a good example of the amount of time it takes to close a club when there is clear evidence of a drugs problem. My hon. Friend's Bill is important because it aims to overcome that delay and deal with matters promptly.

At the Conservative party conference, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary announced proposals to make possible the revocation of public entertainments licences and the closure of premises with immediate effect in cases where there is clear evidence of a serious problem relating to the supply or consumption of controlled drugs on or near the premises. The Home Secretary's message at that conference was clear. He made it absolutely clear that it is not good enough to try to persuade children at school and in the home not to experiment with drugs. Action is needed to stop drugs getting into their hands: action at ports, on the streets and, most importantly, in the clubs.

I ask the House to remember that Leah Betts took just one tablet of Ecstasy bought in a club. Hours later she was dead. My right hon. and learned Friend made it clear that we owe to Leah's parents, and to millions of other parents, the duty to stop pushers poisoning our children. That is one reason why I am in the House today to support my hon. Friend's Bill which, as we know, has Government support and, indeed, the support of many hon. Members. In Churchill's immortal words, we are here to take "action this day" and not allow the problem to drag on any longer, where a year can elapse between clear evidence of a problem in a badly run club and its effective closure following appeal.

The Bill is important because clubs, as we all know, are a magnet for drug pushers. Bad clubs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) pointed out so clearly in his most interesting speech, are a particular magnet for the criminal fraternity, who fasten on to them because they know that they will provide them with a ready market among vulnerable youngsters. Sometimes it appears that the clubs themselves--the bouncers, managers and owners--are in on the act. The police often know which clubs these are. I am not talking about all clubs--I am talking about bad clubs and badly run clubs.

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Hon. Members will know of some of those clubs. The police certainly do, but they cannot close them because they do not have the necessary powers. Even if they succeed in getting a licence revoked, the owner can appeal and prevaricate. There is then a delay, during which the club continues to offer both entertainment and drugs to the youngsters who frequent it.

The danger therefore remains, and it cannot be allowed to persist. That is why it is important that the law be changed. I do not believe that the hon. Member for Newport, West is right in saying that if the Bill is enacted, it will make the situation worse. The Bill is directed at bad clubs and the delay that occurs between evidence becoming available and the closure order coming into effect.

We hear much in the House and read in the media about drugs, which is a generic term to describe a group of various drugs which exist and are used for very different purposes--mostly medicinal. It is important to make it quite clear what we are talking about. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 controls

which are designated as "controlled drugs". The primary purpose of the Act is to prevent the misuse of controlled drugs. It does that by imposing a total prohibition on the possession, supply, manufacture, import or export of controlled drugs, except as allowed by regulations or by licence from the Secretary of State.

Schedule 1 includes the hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD and cannabis, which have virtually no therapeutic use. The production, possession and supply of drugs in this schedule is limited, in the public interest, to research or other special purposes.

Schedule 2 includes the opiates, such as heroin, morphine and methadone, and the major stimulants, such as amphetamines, and quinalbarbitone. A licence is needed to import or export drugs in this schedule, but they may be manufactured or compounded by a licence holder, practitioner or pharmacist or a person lawfully conducting a retail pharmacy business.

Schedule 3 includes a small number of minor stimulant drugs, such as benzphetamine, and other drugs that are not thought so likely to be misused as the drugs in schedule 2, nor to be so harmful.

Schedule 4 includes the benzodiazepines. The restrictions applicable to schedule 3 drugs apply to those, with a number of relaxations.

Schedule 5 contains preparations of certain controlled drugs, for example, codeine, pholcodine, cocaine and morphine, which are exempt from full control when present in medicinal products of low strength. The hon. Member for Newport, West referred to some of those in his remarks.

A wide range of drugs that exist in our society are controlled by the Act. It is exceedingly dangerous for some of those to get into the possession of the criminal fraternity, sometimes to be modified by them, to be diluted, watered down or interfered with in some way that alters their purity, which in itself can constitute a serious danger to anyone taking such a drug.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) made a very important reference to safety at clubs. He spoke about the responsibilities that some club officials have in supervising the entertainment that takes place in

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them. I have looked into the matter because I am interested in the part that the running and supervision of clubs can play in making it safe for young people to enjoy entertainment on licensed premises.

In February last year, the Home Office issued a draft circular on the health and safety of young people at dance events and clubs. It provided model licence conditions, designed to encourage measures to improve the health and safety of young people, with particular emphasis on reducing the availability and acceptability of drugs.

The conditions were intended not to be prescriptive but to enable local authorities and agencies, as well as the organisers of dance events, to devise conditions that meet local needs and circumstances. That seems to be moving in the right direction. The model conditions in the circular were prefaced by the following general considerations.

First, the onus is to be placed squarely on the holder of the licence to provide health and safety measures, irrespective of whether drugs are being taken, which meets one of the points made by the hon. Member for Newport, West.

Secondly, the criteria for granting licences should include the availability of rest facilities in a cool environment; the monitoring of temperature and air quality; and the provision of information on the dangers posed by drugs. All of those are highly desirable.

I share the views of the hon. Gentleman, who spoke about some of the music that is played nowadays, the incredible noise that it generates and the heat generated as a result of dancing for long periods, which in itself is a great danger.

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