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Drug Abuse

4. Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): If she will make a statement on the Government's strategy for combating drug abuse among young people and teenagers. [116387]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam): Young people are the main focus of the Government's anti-drugs strategy. One of our four key objectives is to reduce by 50 per cent. the incidence of drug misuse among the under-25s by 2008. We are working with all relevant Departments to ensure that young people receive the help and advice that they need to resist drug misuse.

Mrs. Winterton: Bearing in mind that 78 per cent. of teenagers in a school's education unit survey thought that Ecstasy was always unsafe, what impact will the proposal to downgrade Ecstasy, as recommended in the recent Police Foundation report, have on drugs prevention programmes in schools? Does the right hon. Lady agree that Leah Betts' death alerted young people to the fact that Ecstasy can kill? Does she also agree that research shows clearly that the use of Ecstasy can have a degenerative effect on the brain?

Marjorie Mowlam: The Government have made clear their position on the recommendations of the Police Foundation report: we do not support the recommendations in respect of cannabis and Ecstasy. I have met Leah Betts' parents; I recognise the pain and suffering that they have experienced and acknowledge their work to stop other young people from suffering their daughter's fate. I hope that that work, together with other preventive educational programmes that we are implementing, will make a difference to young people and ensure that no other family goes through the pain suffered by the Betts family.

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On the recommendations from the Police Foundation, our position on the two that the hon. Lady mentioned is clear. We welcome the report, and in discussions between Departments my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are considering the other recommendations. I hope that we can make substantial progress on those.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Does my right hon. Friend share my frustration at the fact that debate on the issue is generally about whether one is hard or soft on drugs, instead of examining the complex issues involved and concentrating on practical measures that would help to get all people off drugs and ensure that teenagers and young people do not go on to drugs?

Marjorie Mowlam: That is a helpful contribution. It is important for people to understand that drug abuse cannot be broken overnight. It takes years to break the cycle. We are working hard with those in education to make sure that preventive measures are put in place to stop young people getting addicted in the first place. We are also working on treatment and on trying to stop the drugs coming in. Last Monday, we launched "Positive Futures" with people from Sport England, including Trevor Brooking and Kevin Keegan, and the youth offending teams, to try to get 10 and 11-year-olds to look more positively at the future--a future that can be sports-related, and not drugs-related.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I am concerned about what seem to be conflicting reports in the newspapers about Ministers' views on so-called soft drugs. Will the Minister tell the House clearly the Government's view on cannabis? Will she also comment on a poll published today, which found that one in five 15-year-olds has been offered heroin? Roger Howard, the chief executive of DrugScope, said that young people felt that they did not know enough about the dangers of heroin. Will the Minister talk to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to ensure that young people are given sufficient warning about the dangers of heroin?

Marjorie Mowlam: The hon. Gentleman asks two questions. The Government have made clear their position on the recommendations in the Police Foundation's report on cannabis and Ecstasy: we do not agree with the recommendations. There are, however, many recommendations in the report which we welcome. Like my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I look forward to an open and frank debate.

On working in schools, I assure the hon. Gentleman that no one is trying harder than the Department for Education and Employment, the schools, the parents, the teachers and the governors to make sure that children are aware. We are issuing guidelines to schools so that they use the most effective educational measures. We have put extra money in, to make sure that teachers can find the time and the staff to do it. On prevention, we are working in communities with voluntary groups. People from the sports world and the media world, older people, former drug takers and people such as Leah Betts' parents go to talk to young people. All that helps.

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We have put in an extra £7 million to help on the educational front. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have now reached more than 60 per cent. of primary schools and more than 80 per cent. of secondary schools. We are working hard to get that closer to 100 per cent.

Social Exclusion

5. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues in her role as chair of the ministerial network on social exclusion. [116388]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam): Since I was appointed chair of the ministerial network in December 1999, I have held one meeting, in January, at which I agreed with ministerial colleagues a future work programme to chase progress on the implementation of previous social exclusion reports. I plan to hold three further meetings in May and June to follow up implementation on school exclusions, truancy, rough sleeping and teenage pregnancy.

Mr. Dismore: In welcoming my right hon. Friend's role in ensuring that Government policy on social exclusion is implemented on the ground, I remind her that in London teenage pregnancy is an especially serious problem. Will she congratulate organisations such as Homestart, a voluntary group in my constituency? It supports the valuable work of Barnet health authority and Barnet council in advising young teenagers who are at particular risk of becoming pregnant, and works with them to ensure that they get the best help to improve their parenting skills if they become young mothers.

Marjorie Mowlam: I join my hon. Friend in acknowledging the contribution of organisations such as Homestart, which work in partnership with the Government and use some of the £60 million that we have put in to try to meet our target of ensuring that the number of teenage pregnancies is halved in 10 years. We have one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in Europe. We hope that, by working with local groups and using the extra money, and through better education and support, the numbers will be reduced drastically.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that the social exclusion unit undertook, as long ago as June 1998, to devise approaches to tackling some of the problems on our worst housing estates, will the Minister tell the House what discussions she has held this week with the Deputy Prime Minister about the Audit Commission's report? It stated that the five local authorities that perform worst on empty properties, and thus deny people the opportunity of having a home, were all run at the relevant time by the Labour party.

Marjorie Mowlam: The hon. Gentleman should consider the seriousness of the matter. He tries to score political points by counting councils; Conservative Members have few to count. We do our best to work with all councils--Labour, Liberal or Conservative--on housing. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made clear in the housing package that he announced yesterday, money will be available for all communities to get more housing at lower cost and fairer rents.

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If the hon. Gentleman has visited estates that suffer serious social exclusion problems, he will know that they are not caused only by housing. If problems such as boarded-up houses and rubbish in gardens are tackled on their own, the problem returns. We must ensure that housing, poor health, poor education, unemployment, bad environment and so on are tackled, and that that is done through co-operation. That is the way in which to regenerate a neighbourhood, and the social exclusion unit is working on that.

The social exclusion unit is also considering issues such as teenage pregnancy and rough sleeping, which can fall between Departments, to try to ensure that they are tackled, too.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby): My right hon. Friend knows that last week the social exclusion unit published a report on young people. It suggested that a ministerial group at the highest level, with representatives from each Department, should consider young people's interests and how each Department affects their lives. We can thus join up the thinking across Government to ensure that young people get a decent service. That national structure should be reflected locally through local youth forums in which young people would have a voice. It is essential to implement that new strategy for young people as soon as possible.

Marjorie Mowlam: I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I agree that a strategy for Departments to join up to consider young people's interests is a positive step, which will make a difference to many young people. Again, the suggestion of doing the same locally has a lot to offer. However, I add a footnote and a warning. We must ensure that we do not tell people in our communities how best to implement a policy. There must be flexibility so that local communities can make decisions, which depend on factors such as size and urban-rural mix, for themselves.

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