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Mr. Jon Owen Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins: I will give way to one of the two most ardent legalisers on the Labour Benches, but only when I have finished my point.

The practical effect of a reclassification would be to reduce the maximum sentence dramatically. It is most likely that, in return for a guilty plea, even the largest-scale

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suppliers of cannabis would face sentences of only two years' imprisonment, of which they might serve one year or even less.

That would be a huge change, I do not think that there is much difference of view between the parties about the serious evil of those who supply drugs, especially to young people—although we will hear in a moment whether the hon. Gentleman disagrees. If the result of the change is that many of the large-scale suppliers will serve only about a year in custody, there are serious questions to be answered about whether the Home Secretary's proposed changes will lead to a massive increase in the number of young people subjected to the dangers of cannabis, which everybody accepts can be a gateway to the use of harder drugs.

Paul Flynn rose

Mr. Jones rose

Mr. Hawkins: Before I give way to the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), I ask him to say whether he can claim that there is a single user of class A hard drugs who did not start with cannabis.

Mr. Jones: I do not know whether I should thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me, but may I correct one thing that he said? There are more than two ardent legalisers on the Government Benches, and a damn sight more than two on the Opposition Benches behind him.

The hon. Gentleman speaks about the evil of people selling cannabis, but while he was prosecuting them, did it ever cross his mind that there was an enormous hypocrisy in the law that categorised those people as deserving 14 years in jail, while someone who sold tobacco, which kills huge numbers of people, got, if he was successful, a peerage or a Queen's award for industry?

Mr. Hawkins: I know one thing about the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends on the rearmost of the Government Benches—who are sitting so far from the Minister as is possible within the confines of the Chamber that it is clear that they wish to detach themselves from Government policy—and that is that the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for legalising drugs is matched only by his hatred and contempt for anyone who runs a successful business. I do not accept for one moment his totally fallacious assertions.

Mr. Jones rose

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman and I will never agree on these matters, and he knows that. It would be pointless for him to seek to persuade me.

Paul Flynn rose

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) rose

Mr. Hawkins: I give way to the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd).

Mr. Lloyd: There is an important point here about the role of the criminal justice system and the length of

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sentences. My experience, as a constituency MP and in life in general, is that the use of cannabis has grown astonishingly during the past 30 years. At what point has the criminal justice system had a real impact on the supply chain?

Mr. Hawkins: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis; one of the reasons why I was happy to give way to him is that I know that he thinks quite deeply about these issues. I take the view that whenever a large-scale supplier of drugs is imprisoned, it takes him off the streets for a long time. I know that those in favour of legalisation will say that someone else will fill the vacuum. That may well be so—

Mr. Jones: It is so.

Mr. Hawkins: Even if it is, if one takes the view that the purpose of the criminal law is to try to catch and punish those who are guilty of serious wrongdoing, serious criminal penalties must be available for those who participate in what most Members, and certainly the vast majority of the public, regard as an evil trade.

Paul Flynn rose

Mr. Hawkins: I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He and I have debated these issues many times. I know his views. I know that he will never persuade me, and I am aware, from the many times that we have debated the matter, that I shall not persuade him.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow) rose

Lembit Öpik rose

Mr. Hawkins: I shall give way a little later, but I have already given way a couple of times, and now I want to make some progress.

The view from the Opposition Benches—certainly from the Opposition Front Bench—is that the Home Secretary has to justify, with evidence, the major changes that he wishes to introduce.

In parenthesis I should say that the Opposition are highly suspicious about the timing of the Home Secretary's announcement, and the reasons that underlay that timing. As the Minister will know, the Home Secretary's recent appearance before the Select Committee on Home Affairs took place only one day after a Home Office Question Time at which the Minister himself had given an answer completely inconsistent with what the Home Secretary said the following day to the Select Committee. It was apparent to all of us that the Minister knew absolutely nothing about the Home Secretary's planned announcement.

I do not criticise the Minister for that, because I do not think that the Home Secretary had any intention of bringing forward his announcement to the Select Committee until the Government spin machine realised that on that day the big running story was the appalling e-mail in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—the Jo Moore scandal. That was what the Government spin machine wanted to bury, so the Prime Minister's chief press adviser cast around for an announcement that could suddenly be

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brought forward that would wipe the Jo Moore story from the media for the rest of the day, and erase it from the front pages the following day. The answer was to ask the Home Secretary to make a startling, half-cocked announcement to a Select Committee that had only just begun an inquiry. That is what the Opposition think lay behind the timing of the Home Secretary's announcement.

The announcement was bizarre because most Secretaries of State appearing before a Select Committee that is carrying out an inquiry would have the courtesy to tell the Committee that the Government would wait until the Committee had finished its inquiry, that they would consider the report and recommendations, and that only then would they decide whether to change policy.

Dr. Iddon: Those of us who are pro-legalisation of cannabis were utterly dismayed because the Home Secretary's announcement and all other announcements made that day were wholly overshadowed by a much more important announcement, of decommissioning in Ireland.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Double-banking.

Mr. Hawkins: As my hon. Friend says, that was probably simple double-banking of other stories by the Prime Minister's spin machine. I read the newspapers the following day and listened to the broadcast media for a great part of that day. Only two stories ran: one, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South–East (Dr. Iddon) says, was decommissioning; the other—which took up almost as much space in many newspapers, and more space in some of the tabloids, was the Home Secretary's sudden, half-cocked, rushed announcement. The hon. Gentleman knows the reasons perfectly well, because he has seen the Prime Minister's spin machine in operation—I seem to recall that he has complained about the misuse of that spin machine in other debates.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: If one believes what the hon. Gentleman is saying, it is possible to accept that the decommissioning of arms was also invented in Downing street. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary wanted to let the Select Committee know what he was minded to do at the outset of its inquiry, so that it was not halfway through that inquiry when the announcement was made. That was his motive in telling the Committee when he did. It had absolutely nothing to do with the cloud-cuckoo nonsense that the hon. Gentleman is coming out with.

Mr. Hawkins rose

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hawkins: I think that I should respond to the Minister's intervention before I give way to my right hon. Friend. The Minister's interesting explanation of events that did not conform with the usual process whereby Secretaries of State wait for Select Committee reports before responding to them does not answer the point I made earlier. It was apparent not only to me but to the whole House that the Minister's response to a question only the previous day was entirely inconsistent with the Home Secretary's announcement.

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