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10.20 am

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): One of the most annoying political falsehoods of recent years is the slur and the claim that the Liberal Democrats support the decriminalisation of drugs. I invite the Minister to confirm that that is not the view of the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Evans: The Liberal Democrats voted for decriminalisation.

Mr. Russell: The Liberal Democrats are not in favour of the legalisation of cannabis or any other banned drugs. We take the threat of drugs extremely seriously. We therefore proposed a royal commission to examine the threat of drugs and how best we can deal with that threat.

Mr. Evans: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Russell: The hon. Gentleman will have his go in a minute.

A royal commission is required to consider the issues involved more rationally than has been possible in the highly political debate of recent times. With drug use, particularly of soft drugs, being so commonplace, many have questioned the point of fighting against drugs. However, it is important to protect the weaker and more vulnerable members of society, the disturbed, the uneducated, the people who are easily led--

Mr. Evans: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm to the House that the Liberal Democrat conference voted for the decriminalisation of cannabis, and also voted in favour of setting up a royal commission?

Mr. Russell: The policy of the Liberal Democrats is to set up a royal commission, as I have stated. I regret the politicking that is taking place, primarily outside the Chamber. The Liberal Democrats support a royal commission, and many other organisations and individuals have followed that line.

We need to examine the facts rationally so that we can channel resources and strategies towards protecting the vulnerable. We have heard from both sides of the Chamber today that the drugs problem is formidable. The number of drug seizures is growing, as is the number of cases coming before the courts and leading to prison sentences.

The hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) suggested that the number of deaths from drugs could be minimised, but I am advised that the number of deaths in the United Kingdom attributable to the misuse of drugs increased to 1,805 in 1995.

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In the context of the global drug problem, we know that raw material production is increasing, as is the production of synthetic drugs such as Ecstasy. The health and social consequences of drug abuse must be addressed. In their White Paper, the previous Government correctly identified the need to reinforce the law effectively and to reduce drug-related crime. There is broad party consensus.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): Is it not a fact that the fastest-growing crime in our country is burglary, and that a great deal of that is believed to be rooted in the search for money and goods to sell, to pay for drugs? If we want to reduce crime, should we not take a different view of those who take the drugs--which is self-abuse--and of those who are the victims of drug users, because the drugs are so expensive?

Mr. Russell: That was a timely intervention, as I was about to deal with the need to discourage young people from taking drugs. I endorse the hon. Lady's comments about drug-related crime. In my constituency, crimes related to feeding the drug habit are a major issue.

I endorse the sentiments of the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) on the need to get the message home to young people and to discourage them from taking drugs. I should like to think that the hon. Member for Newport, West also agreed with those sentiments, if not with every word that the hon. Gentleman said.

I am concerned about the public health aspect and the need to protect communities from health risks. A constituent of mine was stabbed in her leg with a syringe thrown away carelessly in a black bin liner by her neighbour. That lady now faces six to nine months of worry and anxiety about the health risks to which she may have been exposed. We all pray that there are none.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the White Paper "Tackling Drugs: To Build a Better Britain--The Government's Ten-Year Strategy for Tackling Drugs Misuse". We broadly support the four strands, which are, first, to help young people to resist drug misuse to achieve their full potential in society; secondly, to protect our communities--in Colchester the other week some drug pushers were taken out of society and put in a place that I would like to think was safe, although we know that the drug problem in prisons is growing; thirdly, to treat those with drug problems; and, fourthly, to stifle the availability of illegal drugs on our streets and at schools, dance halls and so on.

We welcome the White Paper as a realistic statement of the issues. We particularly welcome the focus on education for children aged between five and 16. That is the age range at which we should aim, to enable those children to resist the temptation of drugs. The earlier we intervene, the better.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): On what evidence is that premise based?

Mr. Russell: I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the premise that people in prisons are taking drugs. He is a prison visitor. If he does not believe that statement, I suggest that he check it.

We will look to ensure the consistent availability of treatment programmes, rather than the patchy, overstretched provision currently offered. We agree with the Government's vision, but we are disappointed with the level of resources to meet it.

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Drugs in prisons, as the Minister will confirm, are a massive problem. We hope that the Government will not take shortcuts in resourcing their proposals to rehabilitate drug users. We support greater continuity of care between prison and the community, especially for those serving short sentences, so that the cycle of drugs, crime and prison is broken.

In conclusion--there is only one conclusion--I invite the Minister to confirm Liberal Democrat support for a royal commission on the drugs culture. Will she give an assurance that the Government will support the setting up of a royal commission?

10.28 am

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea): On Monday, the important subject of drug misuse in prisons was raised three times during Home Office questions. The Minister of State, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), answered considerately and courteously, and cited statistics to show what the Home Office is doing--on the number of prison dogs and so forth--saying that she hoped that further announcements about Government strategy would be made in due course.

A little later, I asked her colleague, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), a question on the subject and paid him the courtesy of saying:

That is generally accepted, and I shall cite further evidence in a minute. The hon. Gentleman's answer was very unsatisfactory. Clearly, he had no idea what he was talking about and was blustering--I should have been delighted if the Minister of State had answered. He concluded by saying:

    "It is simply not true, and it is about time that he,"--

talking about me--

    "at his advanced age, grew up."--[Official Report, 11 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 14.]

We all enjoy that sort of thing, but it is usual to rely to a slightly greater extent on the strength of one's argument than on what the hon. Member for Newport, West(Mr. Flynn) called "schoolboy insults".

Had I been so minded, I might have said that, before lowering himself to that level, the Under-Secretary should have assessed his own vulnerability to such remarks by looking in the mirror, because he is--

Mr. Peter Bottomley: He has not finished shaving.

Mr. Clark: Exactly. We should never reduce debate to that sort of level.

It has only been a couple of days since then, and not only have three Labour colleagues approached me about the subject and endorsed what I said, but I have had telephone calls from magistrates saying that it was perfectly true and something that must be brought out, and police officers have confirmed to me the validity of what I said. It is something that is well known.

13 May 1998 : Column 305

Today, the Daily Mirror has run a story on the subject, consequent, I believe, on our exchanges in the House on Monday, which states:

by bosses, it presumably means governors--

    "in a new bid to cut drug abuse behind bars. Instead they will target prisoners using more harmful hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin."

The Minister will tell us whether that is a covert policy. Unfortunately, there is substantial evidence that some drugs--cannabis among them--are tolerated simply because they induce a degree of docility in prisoners, much as other drugs are used in other circumstances to lower the pressure and temperature inside an institution. The hon. Member for Newport, West gave the example of residential homes. That is playing into the hands of the drug barons and people who peddle drugs inside the institution. It is delegating power within the prisons to those who can provide the drugs.

If the hon. Lady were really serious about getting rid of drugs in prisons, she could do it. How? Target one prison at a time and prepare for the fact that the complete elimination of drugs within the building will, in all probability, lead to a riot, as it has done in the past--the hon. Member for Newport, West gave an example. One would have to have the resources standing by and everything available needed to deal with it. One would have to go through the trauma of whatever crisis it might induce, but then the institution would be free of drugs. One could move on from one institution to the next.Such action is perfectly possible--it may well be administratively undesirable and inconvenient. It is not true that one cannot stop drugs going into prisons and being circulated inside the prison walls. If the will is there, it can be done, in one prison at a time, with the maximum application of resources.

The editorial in the Daily Mirror today states:

Admittedly, that is a somewhat crude response.

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