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The Minister of State, Home Office (Ms Joyce Quin): The right hon. Gentleman made some serious allegations when he asked his question on Monday. He said that the circulation of drugs in prisons was being "encouraged" by prison staff and that there was free circulation of narcotics in prisons. First, what hard evidence of that can he send to the Government? Secondly, how many prisons has he visited in the past few months to substantiate those allegations?

Mr. Clark: The answer to the second question is none. One does not need to visit a prison to substantiate accusations of that sort. I will certainly send the hon. Lady a dossier of the people who have written to me, and they include former prisoners. I am surprised that she should try to confront the problem so directly. Perhaps I should have said not "encouraged", but tolerated. I will be very surprised if she really denies that, because she has a completely different reputation to that of her junior colleague. She knows her brief and her subject. Why does

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she not talk to the Director General of the Prison Service, who has gone on record and said that, among many other things--

Mr. Peter Bottomley: It was the chief inspector.

Mr. Clark: Yes; I stand corrected by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Flynn: The Minister has been sent copies of evidence given to the parliamentary drugs misuse group not only by the chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, but by three ex-prisoners--articulate and intelligent people, who said that drug use in prison is precisely as the right hon. Gentleman described it.

Mr. Clark: Yes. The House must allow the Minister to concentrate her mind on the issue. She is denying accusations on the basis of I do not know what briefing from officials in her Department, but she is setting her opinion--and, presumably, their advice--against that of Sir David Ramsbotham and the expressed opinion, based on experience, of police officers, magistrates and former prisoners. That is a tide of evidence that runs so strong that I am surprised the hon. Lady should simply resist it. Unless she accepts it and takes it on board, the strategy to which she referred and of which she has promised us further details in due course--perhaps she can give us a little trailer this morning--will be completely valueless.

I shall conclude, but perhaps the hon. Lady will clearly say whether she denies that the circulation of narcotics in some prisons is tolerated by the staff--I suppose that she has to say that. Will she proceed from that to say that that does not happen and, if so, what she is going to do about it? Does she accept my argument that, if she is serious about the problem, she can tackle it by dealing with one prison at a time, making all the appropriate provisions for disturbance that may follow a genuine attempt to root drugs out of Her Majesty's prisons?

10.38 am

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): This has been an interesting debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) on securing one on such an important subject. I agree with him on many points, in particular his valuable remarks about addressing young people through the medium of youth culture, which is realistic and important. I also agree with his generous tribute to our right hon. Friend Lord Newton, whom we knew better as Tony Newton, the former Lord President of the Council, who played such a leading role in producing the strategy "Tackling Drugs Together". He worked hard to that end.

This subject is so important for so many of our constituents, and I wonder whether the House spends long enough debating it. I do not want to make too partisan a point, but it was noticeable that, on this immensely important and complex subject, out of all the hundreds of Labour Members, only one actively participated, making a passionate speech in favour of the legalisation of cannabis.

The hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) honourably holds the views that he expresses on this subject, and he is something of an expert. It seemed that his speech had been fermenting for some while, and it took him more than a little while to make it. The hon.

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Gentleman began with a passionate plea on behalf of cannabis. He went through a list of statistics and arguments and then talked about the legalisation and harm reduction of other drugs. The hon. Gentleman spoke especially about Ecstasy. In itself, his speech was a worrying sign of how easy it is to open the door for one drug, only to find that we are opening the doors for other drugs. That is how the hon. Gentleman's speech left me.

With all respect, I profoundly disagree with the hon. Member for Newport, West. His arguments do not set out any way of tackling the problems of hard and soft drugs. In legalising soft drugs, we would be taking a step backwards, whereas we must take two steps forward to tackle the problem of hard drugs.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) began by seeking to defend the Liberal Democrat policy, as though that was the most important issue regarding drugs. I do not want to be unfair to the hon. Gentleman, because he is no longer in his place, but it is my distinct recollection that those who attended the Liberal Democrat conference voted in favour of the legalisation of cannabis. That was followed shortly afterwards by a vote in favour of establishing a royal commission on the same subject. That happened after the leader of the Liberal Democrats had become a little agitated. As I said, I do not want to be unfair to the hon. Member for Colchester, because he is no longer in his place. It is right that he made common ground with the rest of us in wanting to fight drugs. It was clear that he realised the importance of this subject.

Indeed, it is an immensely important subject. There can be few of us in this place who do not have, for example, head teachers in our constituencies who are worried about the problem of drugs, or the potential problem, in their schools. There can be few families where parents do not have somewhere in their minds a lurking fear that, one day, their children will come into contact with illegal, controlled drugs. They will be worried about the effects that may flow from that. Sad to say, this is an immensely important subject for millions of families and for communities and schools throughout the country. The Minister must grasp how high are the public's expectations for action to be taken. They want the Government to give a clear lead. They want them to realise the importance of the issue.

Two weeks ago, we had the presentation of the drugs tsar's strategy. The appointment of a drugs tsar was one of the Government's principal initiatives in this context. We welcome any beneficial influence that can be brought to bear on such a complex problem. At the same time, we recognise that in the Government's criteria the position of the drugs tsar is advisory and presentational. The drugs tsar is not responsible for Executive action. We look to Ministers and to the Government generally for a clear lead, commitment and action. Action must be taken by Ministers, who have Executive responsibility, to give the subject of drugs the importance that it deserves.

We think that prevention and treatment are important and that emphasis must be placed on both approaches. With that in mind, we were slightly surprised by the Department of Health's recent consultation paper "Our Healthier Nation". As the Minister may know, it contains barely a mention of the problem of drugs. We think that drugs constitute an important issue in health terms. The mention made of the problem in the consultation paper was to the effect that the Government had a drugs tsar, who was proposing a strategy. For its part, the strategy of

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the drugs tsar referred to "Our Healthier Nation" and the efforts of the Department of Health. We look to the Department to give this subject the priority that it deserves.

I do not know whether the Minister can assist us, but we would be interested to know whether waiting lists for drug treatment, for example, are monitored. Any information on that would be welcome. We would be interested to know especially whether waiting lists for drug treatment are increasing, as they seem to be in other areas, or diminishing.

The Government have set great store on the introduction of drug treatment and testing orders. We welcome the orders, but we recognise that, however they may be presented by the Government, they represent only an incremental and possibly even a marginal change to what already exists in the form of probation orders with a condition for treatment. We are surprised that this important new policy, which has been put forward by the Government as one of their principal approaches to tackling the drugs problem, will not be implemented generally for nearly another two years. In the meantime, there will be only a few hundred drug treatment and testing orders in pilot areas. It is something that we shall watch carefully.

We shall watch carefully also how much is made available by the Government in the way of new resources to assist in the treatment of drug problems. The Government set great store by the £5 million that they estimated will be available from the seizure of drug barons' assets to fund health care in this area. Again, we welcome the provision of £5 million, but we would like to know a little about how certain the Government can be that this provision will be made every year.

Can it be guaranteed that £5 million will be available every year? Given the importance of drug treatment and providing resources to treat people, especially young people, so as to get them off drugs and out of a drugs way of life, £5 million is a small sum. We are looking to the Government for a much clearer lead and a greater commitment to providing resources to show that the Government are prepared to take clear action.

We have heard something about the link between drugs and crime and the increased use of heroin. We think that there is some evidence, as does the Government's drugs tsar, of an increase in the use of heroin. I was struck by figures that the Government made available in a written answer to me. It appears from a Government strategy that 60 per cent. of all those arrested for offences--any offences--had been misusing drugs. Nearly 20 per cent. of them had been misusing heroin. Those are worrying statistics. We know that they are borne out by the experience of the police and of those who work in the Prison Service. We invite the Government to accept that drug abuse among young people is a significant factor in crime, especially in drug-addicted crime, where addicts steal to fuel their addiction. My hon. Friends have rightly referred to that.

Against the background of the link between drugs and crime, and given what we know about drugs and prison, we were surprised by what the Government announced yesterday about mandatory drug testing in prisons. We know that it is difficult to deal with drugs in prisons. However, the Minister admitted yesterday that mandatory drugs testing was showing success and reducing the

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number of prisoners testing positive. Given that one policy is showing signs of success in a difficult area, we find it extremely strange that the Government would want to relax that policy in any way. That seems to defy common sense and logic.

Our worries were increased by the warm response from the hon. Member for Newport, West to the Government's relaxation of mandatory drugs testing. The hon. Gentleman is passionately in favour of the legalisation of cannabis, and he interpreted the Government's move as one in that direction. The hon. Gentleman is not alone. It appears that others have taken the same cue from the Government. We think that the Government were sending out a confused and mixed message. The Minister shakes her head, but that is the message that has gone out. We look to the Government to send out a clear message that all drug taking is wrong and that the Government will take a clear lead in the fight against drugs. Testing in prisons was valuable in respect of all drugs. It was detecting all drugs, including heroin, and not only cannabis. We are concerned that the testing has been relaxed.

As I said, we look to the Government for a clear lead and for commitment. We shall give constructive support to the Government. We know that there has been cross-party support in the past. At the same time, we are looking for clear action and a demonstration of commitment. Let us have an approach that goes beyond presentation and has a direct effect on the problem, which matches the huge concerns throughout the country. There are high expectations among millions of parents. That concern is shared by teachers and communities. There is a wish for the Government to give a clear lead in this difficult area and to show their commitment to tackling drugs. We expect nothing less.

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