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1.57 pm

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): I am aware that time is short in what has been an excellent debate on both sides of the House. I shall do my best to make a number of new points as well as to reiterate some that have already been made.

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I particularly want to draw attention to the excellent speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who has shown many of us the way forward on this subject. As a new Member, I have had a number of opportunities since my election in June to learn more about this problem. First, I had the chance to go on patrol with our police in Bishop's Stortford and to see at first hand the problems that they deal with, week in and week out. It is clear to me from that experience alone that it is alcohol that causes the principal social problem, rather than illegal drugs. I saw the very patient and professional way in which those policemen and policewomen dealt with often difficult and antagonising circumstances.

I also had the chance to observe the difficulties that head teachers and teachers face in schools, in holding the line and maintaining discipline. Similarly, a parent whose child has been expelled from a school is naturally anxious about where that child goes and whether he or she might fall even further off the rails.

Perhaps my most important experience in learning about this issue in recent months has been to visit Vale House in Hertford, one of the leading rehabilitation centres in the United Kingdom, which is led by the excellent Chris Hannaby. Every day, she and her team help another person to turn their life around. What struck me as important was that alcohol featured in 42 per cent. of the cases with which her team has to deal. I was impressed by the comments made by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) about the difficulties that would be faced by centres such as Vale House if there were to be an arbitrary imposition of the new rules on independent health care. Many centres would suffer as a result, and the hon. Gentleman made that point well.

At Vale House, I was also struck by how we can move away from the stereotypical image that we all perhaps have of a drug addict. I met a professional man in his 30s, a mum in her 40s and a young man in his late teens or early 20s who had been brought up by parents who were addicts as well. What possible hope does someone like that have starting on the straight and narrow? If I learned anything from Vale House, the police and others, it was just how widely drugs in all forms affect our society. Indeed, the British crime survey 2000 showed that a third of all adults have taken drugs in one form or another.

The debate today is on drugs strategy, but it is not clear that the Government have a strategy. In recent months, we have seen a series of conflicting statements and short-term fixes.

Lembit Öpik: When the hon. Gentleman has finished criticising the Government, could he explain his party's strategy? I understand from the Front-Bench spokesman that the current Conservative strategy is to maintain the status quo.

Mr. Prisk: Our party's strategy is clear: it is to take a long and sensible look at the matter, and not to make instant, off-the-cuff comments in Select Committees. The Government have a 10-year plan, and that is welcome, but three years on, it is not clear whether many of the targets that have been set are still to be met. For example, is it still the case that a strong attempt is being made to reduce the use of class A drugs—perhaps the Minister could tell us when he winds up—or has that target been adjusted or changed?

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What caused the demise of the drugs tsar? Was it because he disagreed with some or all of the policies, or was it because he was not involved in many of the decisions that the new Home Secretary and his colleagues have taken? Then we come to the decision to announce a change of Government policy at the Home Affairs Committee, which the Minister was kind enough to try to explain to the House earlier. I shall not rehearse that in detail because it has already been discussed, but it was either slip of the tongue or it was a deliberate attempt to move the debate on without undergoing the traditional consultation process. In any case, it is not the way to develop an effective, long-term and coherent drugs strategy.

In the muddle, the Government are sending out confusing signals to the millions of families involved—I mentioned some of my constituents earlier—about the exact Government policy on drugs. How are the policemen and policewomen in Bishop's Stortford supposed to know where to draw the line on cannabis possession and use? How are schoolteachers and heads meant to be able to hold the line on discipline? What are parents to say to their children about drugs use and possession?

Sadly, the strategy seems no longer to be driven by the long-term needs of our society but by special advisers' need for good news stories in tomorrow's papers. I say that with regret, because drugs are a fundamental issue for all of us. We need to reform our approach to them. Hon. Members have mentioned Drugscope and its extraordinary analysis that the UK has many of the strictest laws on the use of cannabis and at the same time the highest usage. That is an unsustainable position.

What is needed? We have to begin by recognising that good laws will only work because the majority of people naturally accept them. That is why it is right that we should address the hypocrisy—as it seems to most young people—of the way in which we deal with alcohol, prescribed drugs, tobacco and cannabis. We must also ensure that any drugs strategy is founded firmly on a balance between an informed freedom of choice for adults and the promotion of personal responsibility. We need to ensure that people understand the need to accept the consequences of their actions.

If we are to liberalise the laws on cannabis—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden made a powerful case for that—that should be based on robust and independent information about the implications for health, the addictive nature of cannabis and whether it leads to harder drugs, as some evidence in New Zealand has suggested, or whether it is, as some hon. Members have suggested, the circumstances of its current supply that make it a gateway drug.

Most important of all, we need to learn far more about people who have an addictive personality, because they are most at risk. As I said, at Vale House I met three people of different ages, different backgrounds and different circumstances, yet they all had an addictive personality. If we are to reduce the destruction that drugs cause, we should consider much more carefully that vulnerable group and their addictions, whether it be to alcohol, tobacco, valium, cannabis or heroin. What makes someone a natural addict? Is it a state of mind,

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a biochemical reaction, a personality flaw or a combination of all three? If we can identify those people early on, we can help them to avoid getting hooked.

Drugs in all their forms affect millions of people across our society. To shape a coherent and sustainable strategy, it is essential to balance informed freedom of choice for adults with enhanced personal responsibility, while seeking to protect children and those most vulnerable to addiction. I am in no doubt that it will take time to get the right strategy: it should not be worked out on the hoof. It is worth taking that time, because we cannot afford to get it wrong.

2.6 pm

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): In the time left, I want to raise a couple of brief points. The first is about the treatment of drug addicts. There are three Kainos wings in prisons: at Verne, Swaleside and Highpoint. They are run by the Kainos community, and since their creation have been funded by charitable donations. Before the Kainos wing opened in Verne in March 1997, the prison had suffered from one of the highest levels of disruption and problematic behaviour, yet it now scores well in those areas. The governor and staff of Verne are happy to ascribe some of the credit for that to the success of the Kainos wing.

The way in which the wing works is straightforward. Any prisoner can volunteer to move into the Kainos wing, but to do so they must sign a compact that commits them to live by community rules. They include renouncing drug use, which is enforced by a voluntary testing regime. Some rules are simple, such as being polite and respectful to other inmates, but they often represent a huge step forward for the prisoner concerned.

Contrary to the belief of some in the prison sector, the regime does not include intensive religious intervention, but rather encourages inmates to assess their criminal habits, kick their drug dependency and become people with something positive to contribute to society. Since the wing in Verne has become operational, the atmosphere has changed from an unsafe, hostile environment to one that is much more supportive. The wing is free of drugs, violence and criminal damage—that is what all prisons should be. Reoffending rates of those who serve their sentence in the wing are lower than the national average.

It is impressive that Kainos wings are often used as a last resort for the most violent prisoners in the system. Independent research has described the wings as a

Therefore it is particularly disappointing that by March 2002 those wings will be closed down at the insistence of the Prison Service management board.

The reasons for that are confused. Lower reoffending rates have been described as statistically insignificant, but the fact that the Kainos wings have only had a short time to work has been ignored. Their purpose seems to have been misunderstood by the Prison Service, although they have received the support of governors, staff, the Prison Officers Association, boards of visitors and inmates themselves, all of whom want the wings to continue their excellent work. I ask the Minister to ask his colleague the Minister with responsibility for prisons, to whom I have written about this, to reconsider. I believe that the wings can make an important contribution to the reform of drug users in prison.

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Let me return to the main topic of today's debate—the legalisation of cannabis, about which many Members have spoken. Although the philosophical arguments advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) sounded attractive, there is conflicting evidence about the practical implications of legalisation. We need a proper debate on it before such a move is made; certainly I have yet to be convinced by my right hon. Friend's arguments.

I am concerned about the message that the reclassification of cannabis from a class B to a class C drug would send to young people. It might give the impression that cannabis is safe, and I think that we all recognise that it has its dangers. If we suggest, by reclassifying it, that it is safe, more young people will be encouraged to use it, and more young people will go to dealers. I was impressed by what was said by the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King), who suggested that pushers often deal not just in cannabis but in other drugs. By encouraging young people to go to dealers, having given them the impression that cannabis is safe, we may encourage them to use other drugs as well.

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