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12.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) on obtaining this debate on an issue of great importance. It is regrettable that so few hon. Members have been in the Chamber to hear the arguments that he advanced.

The hon. Member made it abundantly clear that, in his thinking, the appropriate directive has no virtue as regards safety. He is right when he says that the proposed directive originated in a unanimous resolution of the European Transport Council on 22 December 1994, on the safety of roll on/roll off passenger ferries. Member states, in agreeing the resolution, invited the European Commission--in the light of the tragic loss of the ro-ro passenger ferry Estonia--to submit a proposal for recording accurately the number and names of passengers and crew on board certain vessels. The then United Kingdom Government signed up to the resolution, so obviously the principle of registration was acceptable.

The proposed directive contains several requirements for passenger shipping in the European Union. On every passenger ship voyage of more than 20 miles from the point of departure, the shipping company must, as the hon. Member said, record the name of every person on board--including the crew--their gender and an indication of age category: adult, child or infant. The proposed directive also requires the recording of information, when volunteered by a passenger, concerning the need for special care or assistance in emergency situations; and that information must be passed to a shore-based representative of the company within 30 minutes after the passenger ship's departure.

The proposed directive requires all persons--including the crew--on board any passenger ship departing from a European port to be counted before the ship departs, and requires that number of persons on board to be

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communicated to both the master of the ship and a shore-based representative of the company. The master is specifically responsible under the directive for ensuring that the number of persons on board does not exceed the number that the ship is permitted to carry.

The proposed directive also requires the ferry company to ensure that the information required by the directive is readily available at all times for transmission to the designated authority--in the United Kingdom's case, that is the Coastguard agency--for search and rescue purposes in the event of an emergency or accident.

Although I well understood--because the hon. Member presented it so cogently--his argument regarding the effect and some of the implications of the measure, I believe that it is not the case that the package that it represents lacks justification in terms of safety improvements. Reinforcing traditional duties to keep passenger totals within certificate limits benefits safety; formalising arrangements for information sought from people with disabilities benefits safety; requiring those data in respect of each voyage to be recorded ashore as well as on board ship benefits safety.

During working group discussions in Brussels, my Department questioned--as the hon. Gentleman did today--the practicality of some of the requirements. The concern was to probe the rationale for detailed requirements and procedures because of their effect on British shipping routes and ports, and their relationship to the original resolution. As a result of those suggestions, the proposed directive was materially simplified.

At the European Transport Council in June 1997, the Government judged that the safety aspects of the directive as a whole outweighed reservations. We were able to gain a later implementation date for the recording of passenger details than had been originally proposed. Like many of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed, our concerns were essentially practical and did not relate to the principle of the measure, which the Transport Council had already accepted in 1994.

I shall now deal with the extent to which passenger registration will apply to services affecting the United Kingdom. It is important to remember that no journey of less than 20 miles is affected by the requirement to record passenger information. However, the requirement applies to both domestic and international voyages within the European Union of more than 20 miles so, as the hon. Gentleman said, it would apply to voyages between Dover and Calais or between Ramsgate and the continent. That was of particular concern to the hon. Gentleman.

There is, however, scope in the proposed directive for member states to issue exemptions from the requirements to record passenger information, but not from the duty to count. There is also scope to request the European Commission to derogate certain services from the requirement to record passenger information. However, the scope for exemptions or derogations is limited in each case to services that meet clearly defined criteria set out in the measure. For example, exemptions by member states may be granted only to services operating exclusively in protected sea areas. The definition of a protected sea area within the directive is:

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Having set out the background and contents of the measure, I turn to implementation issues. We have held several informal discussions with representatives of the shipping and ports industry affected by the directive. One important subject examined with them has been the extent of possible exemption or derogation for both domestic and international journeys. Cases for derogation of international voyages between member states must be made--I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will would accept that this is reasonable--jointly by the member states concerned, and they will be decided by the European Community collectively.

Exemptions may be given by member states, but they need to inform the European Commission. If the Commission considers that a service should not have been granted an exemption, it can require the member state to amend or withdraw its decision. The overall aim of these provisions is consistency throughout the Union. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that British citizens often travel on ferries of other than British origin; we believe that this is a means of increasing safety throughout the European Union for all its citizens.

We have not yet completed our analysis, but are well advanced with it, so it may be helpful if I set out our provisional conclusions. As I said, many domestic services will not be affected by the requirement to record passenger details because their voyages are of less than 20 miles. We believe that others will meet the criteria for being granted an exemption by the United Kingdom.

When the directive has been formally adopted, thereby bringing into force the exemption procedure, we shall ask ferry companies to apply to us for formal exemption. In principle, passenger services in protected sea areas can be expected to be exempted. We are also considering whether there is a case for seeking derogation for further

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domestic services and hence for making a submission to the European Commission for those services that we believe meet the criteria laid down in the directive.

One relevant criterion is the state of the sea to be expected on the service. The directive allows member states to apply for derogations only for services in an area where the annual probability of the significant wave heights exceeding 2m is less than 10 per cent. As for international journeys, our provisional view is that virtually all of them will be affected by the requirement to record passenger details, and that operators should plan on that basis.

There are no cases that might be exempted by the United Kingdom alone, because the member state for the other terminal of the service also must agree.

From the outset, the European Commission was particularly anxious to ensure that voyages across the English channel, and especially the Dover strait, should be included in the requirement to record passenger information. The Commission argued that precisely that sort of service should be subject to the requirement because of its relative frequency, in the Commission's view, across a particularly busy shipping route. The hon. Gentleman, in his well-reasoned argument, made clear his concerns on that issue, so I shall deal separately with the question of seeking a derogation for services across the Dover strait.

Any such case must be supported jointly by the United Kingdom and France. France has supported and continues to support the Commission's desire for the requirement to be applied to companies on the Dover strait. If we did receive a proposal from the French Government, we would of course consider with them the strength of the argument; and if we considered the case strong enough we would support its submission to the European Commission--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order.

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1 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I am grateful for the opportunity to draw attention in this short debate to a change that drastically needs making--allowing the prescription of cannabis for certain specified medical conditions. This is not part of any general argument about the decriminalisation of cannabis--it is a unique subject, although it has a bearing on that argument. To allow cannabis to be made available on prescription would effectively make the law more rational and enforceable in respect of other uses.

Today, I am discussing the case for moving cannabis from schedule 1 to schedule 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 1985. It will still be illegal, but if it is moved to schedule 2, research into it can be carried out; and it will be available on prescription to named patients.

It is quite illogical not to allow cannabis to be provided in this fashion. Indeed, until 1971 it was available on prescription, but it was then moved from schedule 2 to schedule 1, which comprises drugs with no therapeutic value. Strangely, heroin, cocaine and two synthetic cannabinoids have been left in schedule 2. If the Minister sees any logic in that, I hope that he will explain what it is.

I cannot see why Home Office licences are required for research into cannabis but not for research into heroin. Ever since 1971, the move to schedule 1 has been used as an excuse for doing nothing about cannabis as a form of treatment. In effect, there has been a total block on research.

Most research is done by the drug companies because it is so expensive, but what drug company will put money into research into an illegal substance that cannot be used for prescription? Who then will do the research, when applications to do it are shuffled around, as they are now, between the Department of Health and the Home Office? Licences are incredibly difficult to obtain, and the Home Office in particular seems to drag its feet.

Who will develop a standardised product of the type we need, if such research is not possible? We need research to discover which part of the complex chemistry of cannabis can be used for therapeutic purposes, but that research is just not being done. We need research into ways of taking cannabis for treatment purposes. I understand that it used to be available in tincture form. The Dutch have developed preparations of cannabis that can be taken orally or by inhaler. I am not asking that people suffering from medical conditions be allowed to smoke cannabis, but we need research into a form of it that will dissociate treatment by the drug from its leisure uses.

All this work is being held up by the decision in 1971 to shift cannabis to schedule 1. Meanwhile, the situation has been changing rapidly, invalidating the 1971 decision in the process. First, word has spread among the thousands of multiple sclerosis sufferers that cannabis is of value in treating their condition. They have found relief from pain, greater bladder control, and more control of spasms. The Alliance for Cannabis Therapy, which was formed to campaign on the issue and which has done a magnificent job, has received more than 3,000 letters from MS sufferers describing the value of cannabis in their treatment. But they have been driven into illegality by their need for this treatment.

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I should like to quote some of the moving letters that have been received--I wish that the Minister would go through them. Here is one written in 1996:

Here is another letter:

    "I have a 36 year old son who developed MS when he was 18 years old. He has now got to the stage where he is wheelchair-bound and totally dependent on my husband and I for everything. He also has to sit with his legs elevated to waist height all the time because of pain in his legs. The doctors have tried everything they can think of but nothing works. They have now told us there is nothing they can do for our son. About a year ago, after much deliberation, my son decided to try cannabis and it worked. We told the doctors and they did not object to him using it, but because the pain is so bad he needs quite a lot, and this in itself causes quite a problem."

The next letter is dated January 1997:

    "We heard about cannabis through talking to others at respite centres he went to, and as most of our friends who would and did get this for us willingly refused to take away money, we decided to go it alone, so to speak",

and use cannabis. That shows the sort of problems that are caused. I hope that the Minister will not condone the idea of people suffering from this disease being forced into the illegal market to find a form of treatment that helps them. The situation is truly appalling.

The law is being brought into disrepute. A recent headline in The Daily Telegraph read: "MS sufferer who turned to cannabis escapes jail". These people are not professional drug dealers: they are amateurs, and hence clumsy in their approaches. They find themselves threatened with prosecution, and although the police do not always press for prosecution, realising the humanitarian circumstances, and although the courts may hand down lenient sentences, the fact remains that people are being forced into illegality. The longer that that goes on, the more the law will be brought into disrepute.

The case for what I am saying is overwhelming. Does the Minister truly want people to find themselves in this position?

The second change since 1971 has been the growth of public support for the availability of cannabis on prescription for MS sufferers. All the polls show that. In California and Arizona, recent plebiscites have sanctioned the prescription of cannabis for certain specified conditions. In Italy, too, it is available on prescription--or rather, people can now grow their own if cannabis is prescribed for them by a doctor.

The last stage in the process of change finds expression in the BMA report issued at the end of last year on the therapeutic uses of cannabis, showing conclusively that it does have therapeutic value. That proves that the move from schedule 2 to schedule 1, denoting a drug of no therapeutic value, was wrong.

All that has changed since the 1971 decision. I emphasise that I am speaking about natural cannabis, not cannabinoids. The research we need is into the properties of natural cannabis, as the BMA report says. The BMA has no objection to research on cannabinoids--all the research has been on cannabinoids--but we need research on natural cannabis.

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I cannot see why we do not have more research to develop a purified, standardised form. I hope that the Government will facilitate that research instead of inhibiting it, as they do at present. Each attempt to have cannabis made available on prescription is met with the argument that we need more research. It is a circular argument, because the Government do not allow the research that would provide the information.

I have taken two delegations of senior doctors--delegations so high-powered that I wondered why I was on them--to the Department of Health. The first occasion was in 1994, when we got a warm reception and indications that change was in the air. That vanished as the election approached and the usual fear about drugs and the panic that the subject produces took over. The second occasion was in December, when the reception that we got was more hostile and less supportive than in 1994 or before.

I believe that the mentality of the war on drugs produces such change in official thinking. I am not expressing an opinion on the war on drugs. It is partly a civil war waged by one section of society on another--on young people--but that is not my argument today. We cannot wage the war on drugs against the sick, including sufferers from multiple sclerosis. Parliament and public opinion would not put up with it. The police do not want it.

All the senior members of the police with whom I have discussed the matter think that cannabis could and should be made available on prescription, because that would remove that difficulty from the enforcement of the law. I hope that the Minister will ask our new drugs tsar, Keith Hellawell--a man for whom I have great respect, particularly for his Yorkshire common sense--what he thinks about whether cannabis should be available on prescription.

It is irrational to deal with the matter as we do. I am disappointed by the reaction to the delegation that I took last December. I want the Minister to recognise reality, and I want us to stop bringing the law into disrepute. I want us to help the vulnerable and to stop the run-around of arguing for more research when research is not possible.

I have great respect for the Minister, both in his previous legal incarnation and in his present health incarnation. He is a rational, highly intelligent Minister. I know, unfortunately, that will not get up in a couple of minutes and say, "My God, Mitchell, you are right." If he is, I am happy to give way, but I somehow think that that is not the way of Adjournment debates, unless they have been reviewed as another aspect of that review of everything that we have embarked on under the Labour Government. New Labour, new approach--it would be very welcome.

I am afraid, however, that we will get a defensive reply. I imagine that it might go on about consultations and further consultations, especially with the BMA. Such consultations have been going on for years, with no result and no action. We might get a reply about caution. Caution, and even fear and panic, have been the dominant tone since 1971.

If the reply highlights the need for further research, I point out that that research is not being done and is very difficult in the present circumstances. I would want licences for laboratory experiments and clinical

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experiments, and such licences may not be available unless cannabis is moved from schedule 1 to schedule 2. I hope that we will not be given the run-around on that. I fear that we shall hear more remarks about the war on drugs, but I should point out to the Minister that that muddies the issue, because it makes that war a war on the vulnerable.

Most such argument is not intellectually sustainable. It is irrational. If the Minister must deploy such arguments, he has obviously been told by superiors in the Government that, in the words of "Beyond the Fringe", at this stage in the war we need a futile gesture, and to go outside and make it. I hope that, while the Minister makes defensive noises, he grasps the essence of the issue. We need rational thought, and I want the process of rational thought to begin with a new Government taking a new look at a situation that has been deadlocked for far too long, with consequent suffering and illegality for the most vulnerable.

I hope that the Minister will initiate a process of thinking--a short one--by Ministers, officials, the Department, the Home Office and the drugs tsar, so that we end up with a more rational approach to the issue and move natural cannabis from schedule 1 to schedule 2 to make it available on a named patient basis for purposes of treatment. We cannot go on as we are. It is illogical, messy and disastrous for the war on drugs and for those who turn to cannabis for treatment. Let us take them off the front line and put them in a field treatment station, well away from the front line of the war on drugs. Please, let us have some rationality on the issue.

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