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House of Commons

Monday 17 December 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Drugs Strategy

1. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): What plans he has to focus the drugs strategy on harm minimisation. [21143]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made clear in his evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the Government will be increasing the focus on harm minimisation within the drugs strategy. As part of the review of the strategy, we are looking at what more we can do to minimise the harm that drugs do to individuals and their families, to communities and to society in general. In addition to the recently published action plan on drug-related deaths, we have set up a group of key

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experts to tackle the treatment of crack cocaine addiction and, with the Department of Health, we are looking to produce new guidance for heroin prescribing.

Mr. Love: My hon. Friend will be aware of the excellent work done by the drug action team and the crime and disorder partnership in Enfield, using £250,000 provided under the communities against drugs initiative. Apart from tackling criminality, that money is being used for education and early intervention to try to reduce the use and misuse of drugs. But if we are to be successful in tackling drug misuse, surely we must concentrate on the harder drugs, which are currently blighting the lives of 250,000 of our younger people at a cost of over £1 billion to the criminal justice system.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We continue to try to get the message across, so that we are credible with young people when we tell them what drugs will do the most harm. Our response must be proportionate in order to do that. We need police resources to be aimed specifically at the majority of areas that are causing the greatest problems. My hon. Friend is right: the link between class A drugs and acquisitive crime is clear and indisputable.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): While I welcome the Home Secretary's recent move to reclassify cannabis, will that still not mean that people who wish to consume this stuff can only get it from illegal sources because it remains illegal, but that the police will not be able to crack down effectively on the trade? Is this a sustainable position?

Mr. Ainsworth: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's position on the matter is clearly known to the House, as is that of the right hon. Gentleman, who, effectively, advocates the legalisation of cannabis. That is not the policy of the Government. We are trying to encourage the police to aim their resources where they are most needed. The police ought to be looking in far more detail at the work done with regard to class A drugs,

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which is where most criminality occurs in terms of the acquisitive crime to pay for them. It is not the intention of the Government to legalise cannabis.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West): The statement is welcome, but does it mean that we have moved away from the failed policies of harsh prohibition that we, Sweden and the United States have followed for a long time and that we have joined in the policies of harm minimisation—described in the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love)—which have been so successful in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Portugal? Is this a change in policy? Will it be reflected in the evidence that the Home Office gives to the Council of Europe's report on drug abuse that will be considered in January?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend studies the problem not only in this country but abroad, and he will know that there is a convergence in drugs policy across many countries. There is no decriminalisation of drugs in Holland. There are differences of emphasis. We are looking actively at renewing our focus on harm minimisation within the drugs policy and strategy in order to be as effective as we can. If my hon. Friend looks properly at what is happening in other countries, he will see that many of the trends are in the same direction as the one which we are looking to follow in the UK.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): Will the Under- Secretary be clear? Is he saying that harm minimisation should be an equal goal in the strategy, as has been argued by many of those who have come before the Select Committee—most recently Mike Trace, who was the deputy drugs tsar? Given the unacceptable number of deaths from heroin overdoses and heroin impurities, should not harm minimisation be as important as the other goals in the drugs strategy?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is right. Much work has been done on harm minimisation over a period of time. The Government introduced needle exchanges in the UK in the early 1980s, but a lot more can be done. That is why we have put the emphasis on that area, and that is why the Home Secretary listed it when he gave his evidence to the Select Committee as one of the issues that he wanted examined.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Injecting drug users use an average of only one syringe a day, which forces them to reuse and share their syringes. Are there any plans to review syringe exchange schemes to cut down the spread of infectious diseases, such as the hepatitis C virus?

Mr. Ainsworth: As I said, we are reviewing the whole strategy, and together with the Department of Health, we are looking at the availability of needle exchanges to make certain that we are doing the maximum that can and should be done in that area.

Police (Administration)

2. Mr. John Baron (Billericay): What plans he has to reduce the administrative work load of police officers. [21144]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (

Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Recent research commissioned by the Home Office showed that up to 43 per cent of police officers' time was spent in the police station. "Policing a New Century" outlined our proposals to provide support staff with the necessary powers to undertake certain roles that do not need to be carried out by a police officer. The Home Secretary has established a taskforce, chaired by Sir David O'Dowd, to co-ordinate the steps necessary significantly to reduce the unnecessary burdens on police officers' time. It will report in the spring.

Mr. Baron: I thank the Minister for that response. The findings of that study will result from the great burden of paperwork, including 58 performance criteria, the best value regime and a raft of arrest paperwork. Given that detection rates are at their lowest ever, when will the Minister allow the police to do the job that they want, which is to fight crime, not push paper?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman throws back at us some of the issues that we have exposed in order to make progress on that issue, which we are doing in the police reform White Paper. He is right that we are looking to streamline the number of targets to which the police are subject through best value and other regimes, but other issues include the amount of time spent in a police station on arrest. Some of that work can be done by other people, and is being done by other people in some police forces. Those are some of the issues that we intend to address, so that police constables can spend more of their time doing the work that they are highly qualified to do and that the British public expect them to do.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): Will my hon. Friend pass on the congratulations of many hon. Members to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on his pungent remarks a couple of weeks ago about delays caused by the legal profession? The administrative work load on police officers and the administrative work done by housing officers, police officers and councillors in pursuing antisocial behaviour orders—in my city of Nottingham and elsewhere—cost massive amounts of money. The case gets to court and then some smart alec lawyer finds a way to get the little brat—which would be the parliamentary expression—off and out into the community again. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the joined up thinking continues so that the time of council officers and councillors is used productively?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not sure that I would dare refer to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary as pungent, and I do not know whether my hon. Friend meant his remarks to be pungent. However, efforts are being made better to align court time with policetime, so that police officers do not waste their time unnecessarily waiting for court cases. We need better co-ordination and communication to avoid that happening.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Is it not a sad indication of the state of police morale that they should consider working to rule? The police cannot strike, so will the Home Secretary and the Minister agree that the flexibility that we all know is necessary must be

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achieved by agreement? To achieve that, what will the Government do? It is a question not of setting people to do different jobs, but of getting rid of paperwork. What forms will the Government abolish? What reports will they stop calling for? What will be the Government's side of the bargain in reaching the agreement needed if the police reforms that the Home Secretary wants are to be achieved?

Mr. Ainsworth: The Government published "Diary of a Police Officer", and we seek to halve the number of best value indicators as part of our efforts to cut bureaucracy. Such things underlie the whole agenda of the White Paper. We are in the middle of negotiations that could affect terms and conditions for the police, and the hon. Gentleman should not be surprised if the press comments on that. While we are handling such important issues, the British public will consider both how the Government handle matters and how the Opposition respond. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will respond reasonably and sensibly instead of playing games on the back of an important issue.

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