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Mr. Jon Owen Jones: My hon. Friend is being extremely generous in giving way. On the confiscation of drugs profits, can he tell us how much money has been confiscated? In particular, what proportion of the total profit does that amount represent? Given that the trade in this country is estimated to be worth more than £6 billion, how much of a dent are the Government making in those profits?

Mr. Ainsworth: I cannot give my hon. Friend the figure now, but I can tell him—and I acknowledge this—that it is a very small proportion. That is why we have introduced the Proceeds of Crime Bill. The existing law is disjointed. There is an obligation to prove the origin of the funds—irrespective of whether it is drugs money or the result of other crime—even though that presents a problem to the law enforcement agencies in terms of seizing the proceeds of crime. Confiscation orders can be

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applied by the courts, but they are not often enforced, so only a small percentage of the confiscation orders that are agreed actually lead to confiscation. All that provides the justification for the Proceeds of Crime Bill, which will be debated shortly in Committee. That Bill is intended to make that process more effective.

Lembit Öpik: On the issue raised by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), what evidence do the Government have to show that confiscation and the prosecution of drugs suppliers have made any difference to the amount of drugs use in this country?

Mr. Ainsworth: As the law to date has been so relatively ineffective, I doubt whether it has made much difference at all, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree that logic points to the need for the Proceeds of Crime Bill—to which the Liberal Democrats gave a reasonable response on Second Reading—and to the principle that attacking the profits made by the organisations that supply our communities with such substances can be a very big tool, which has been massively underused historically in this country.

We are seizing increasing amounts of class A drugs, including multi-tonne seizures of cocaine upstream. Police forces in the west midlands are piloting a project from which we will be able to develop a model for tackling the supply of drugs between the ports and the local communities. The project is funded with money confiscated from drugs traffickers.

We continue to play a leading role in the international campaign to combat the world trade in illegal drugs. We are concentrating on heroin and cocaine as the drugs that cause the greatest harm. During the year 1999–2000, we contributed some £8.5 million to overseas anti-drugs assistance.

As a major contributor to the United Nations international drugs control programme, we support alternative development projects such as those in Colombia. We are working closely with our European partners to drive forward an EU drugs strategy, and we continue to assist EU applicant countries on drugs issues.

Right hon. and hon. Members will know that Afghanistan is by far the largest single supplier of heroin. It produced 70 per cent. of the world's opium in 2000, and 90 per cent. of heroin in the United Kingdom originates there. Although it is true that the cultivation of the opium poppy all but ceased last year in Taliban-controlled areas, levels of trafficking remained high throughout that period and significant stockpiles exist. In the light of the current military situation in Afghanistan, we are keeping a close watch on changing circumstances and the possible effect on supplies of heroin to the United Kingdom. Although some people seem to think that the Taliban's decision to discontinue cultivation was due to some high motivation, there is absolutely no evidence that the amount of drugs leaving the country tailed off during the period when cultivation stopped. That may have been an exercise in getting rid of an over-extensive stockpile.

Paul Flynn: It would be only fair to say that our brothers-in-arms in the Northern Alliance have trebled their poppy and heroin production. Is it not nonsense to believe that if one country's crop of drugs is destroyed,

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the gap will not be filled by another's? At the moment, Burma, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan are doing so. If we have a war on drugs, we are in danger of turning central Asia into a vast new Colombia, where warring armies will fight each other in drugs wars. That is what we did in south America, and we are now likely to do the same with a vast area of central Asia.

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not know to what degree I differ from my hon. Friend. I had rather hoped that he would use the opportunity of his intervention to withdraw the allegations that he has made in two letters that he has sent to me since we discussed this issue last time in the House.

Paul Flynn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall give way to my hon. Friend in a moment.

I do not think that what is happening in Afghanistan is the result of the heroin supply trade, but there is no doubt about the misery on our streets currently and for a considerable time. Yes, the Northern Alliance have produced opiates, but since the Taliban have been in control, they have been the major contributor to heroin supply on our streets.

Paul Flynn: The very minor dispute that I have had with the Minister, which I regard as a closed issue, was covered in the letter that I sent to him two days ago. He will note that Hansard editors have agreed to alter the record of what the Minister said in a debate because the Hansard record was different from what he said. My argument was that the words that he actually used happened to be untrue.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. It would be helpful to the House if this debate could be confined to the broad issues, rather than entering into areas to which all hon. Members are not privy.

Hon. Members: Tell us more.

Mr. Ainsworth: If my hon. Friend wants to bandy allegations around, he is free to do so. My boredom threshold has been reached on the matter, so I do not intend to take it any further.

Good progress has been made on programmes and short-term targets that underpin the four strategy aims, but we recognise that there is much more to do. As I have said today, all controlled drugs, including cannabis, are dangerous, and it is essential that we warn young people of those dangers in a commonsense and credible way. We need to focus more effectively on hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, which cause the most harm, and on getting people into treatment. That is why the Government are currently reviewing progress against the drugs strategy targets to ensure that we still have the right balance and focus.

Against that background and the very clear difference between cannabis and class A drugs, the Home Secretary has decided to consult the advisory council about reclassifying cannabis. The council has been has been asked to provide advice within three months, and the Home Secretary intends to take a decision next spring. Some of the coverage of my right hon. Friend's

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announcement has been quite wrong and confusing— it does not equate to decriminalisation or legalisation. Cannabis, as a class C drug, will remain controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and using it will still be a criminal offence. However, if reclassification is warranted by an honest scientific assessment of the relative harms, it would enhance the credibility of our drugs laws as a whole, and it would help us to deliver our message on drugs to young people and better to align public policy and criminal justice practice.

Tackling drugs misuse is not something that the Government can do alone. We need to engage with communities and individuals across the country. I know that many hon. Members are actively involved in our own communities in tackling drugs misuse, and I welcome the opportunity to hear their views first hand.

10.10 am

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): On a subject as serious as this, it is perhaps incumbent on those who wish to address the House to say whether their professional expertise has involved any contact with the scourge of drugs. During the late 1970s and more or less the whole of the 1980s, I had the opportunity to practise as a barrister in the west midlands, an area with high drugs use, especially in the inner cities. In that time I prosecuted and defended in a great many drugs cases.

The drugs problem has got still worse in our inner cities during my years in the House, and for pretty well the whole of my adult life, and certainly all of my professional career, both as a practising barrister and as a Member of this House, I have regarded drugs as the most serious scourge of our society.

When we consider the possible changes that the Home Secretary is now considering, we must look carefully at the unanswered questions. One of those, which none of the media commentators has focused on, is the fact that the simple reclassification of cannabis would not merely completely alter the sentences of, and the police response to, those found in possession of it; it would have a much more significant effect on the sentencing powers of the courts over those who supply it.

Although the Minister talked in general terms about the need to control supply, he did not advert to the other point at all. The practical effect of the reclassification of cannabis would be as follows. At present, with the current classification, if someone is convicted of the offence of supplying cannabis, the maximum sentence open to the courts is 14 years' imprisonment. There is usually a reduction in the sentence to take account of a guilty plea, but large-scale supplying of cannabis regularly attracts sentences of long years of imprisonment. It is fairly commonplace for large-scale suppliers who are caught and convicted to be sentenced to eight, nine or 10 years.

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