Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Good afternoon, Home Secretary. I gather you want to say something to us about drugs policy, and I have moved that up more or less to the top of the agenda, but I thought I would just start off by asking you first about your priorities for this Parliament, leaving aside the proposed anti-terrorism measures. Can you give us a sort of overview of your priorities for this Parliament?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes. The Proceeds of Crime Bill, which will have its Second Reading next week, of course links directly to many of the issues that we are dealing with post 11 September, but also to the issues that will be of concern to the Committee. It also links in with the fact that we are engaging heavily now with the police reform agenda, and the White Paper and subsequent legislation will actually enable us to put in place those reforms, I hope, as quickly as we can over the winter. The consultations have been taking place on that basis. We have, by dint of the events of 11 September, also got a space for nationality and asylum and for extradition. I am mentioning those because obviously they have wider implications, albeit that they are tied in with the tragic events of 11 September. So once we have got the Anti-Terrorism Bill out of the way towards the end of November, with the agreement of the two Houses, we will then be able to concentrate on other issues which are all relevant to us. We will also, of course, be dealing with the wider issues of concern that come under the remit of the Home Office. I am keen to link what we are doing on police and crime and anti-social behaviour with the agenda against Class A drug-taking and the way in which we develop that as part of the active citizenship and community agenda. I want to underpin the work of the Home Office, whether it is on crime reduction and community policing, or whether it is on nationality and asylum, or whether it is on our criminal justice system, probation, police and the wider criminal justice reforms on sentencing and others, with the issue of how we mobilise communities to be part of the solution. We have now the role both to co-ordinate voluntary action and volunteering across Government, as well as the Active Communities Unit, and it is our intention to make that real over the months ahead.

  2. Assuming, as we all hope, that you remain Home Secretary for the duration of this Parliament, what would you like to look back on as your achievement at the end of that time? What would be your goals?
  (Mr Blunkett) I think the overall achievement that I would seek would be that the impact of the Home Office's remit generally had actually been seen in the communities we represent to have made a difference to their lives; in other words, not simply to fulfil public service agreement targets or even internal service targets, but actually literally to have made a difference in the way that people feel about the issues that we are relating together and that they have some sway, some say, over what is taking place. Hence the decision to have a broader consultation on sentencing, to broaden the debate and the consultation on the Auld Report, to open up issues around policing and the role of the community, and to do so within the context of the development capability, the capacity-building of communities to play a part.

  3. Are you satisfied that, for example, police priorities are the same as those of the communities they serve?
  (Mr Blunkett) I think that the variation that we see, both in terms of the application of resources to those priorities and in terms of outcome, indicate that there would appear to be great inconsistency. One of the items of our formal agenda is to address that and to do so in ways which do not take away local operational responsibility or flexibility but actually use best practice, hence the setting up and establishment of the Standards Unit for the Police Service and the development of the agenda which is now being considered by the Police Negotiating Board amongst others.

  4. You have two major pieces of legislation, apart from the terrorism one, in the pipeline: the Criminal Justice Bill and the Police Reform Bill. Without getting into the details of either, might you be able to let us see both of those Bills sufficiently far in advance for us to indulge in a little pre-leg. scrutiny? As you know, the quality of much of the legislation in the past is often substandard, it is inadequately scrutinised. Does the fact that those Bills are going to be delayed now because of the Anti-Terrorism Bill, give us an opportunity to have a look at the proposals?
  (Mr Blunkett) There will not be a delay, I hope, in the police reform measure, and therefore it would be difficult to go through a pre-scrutiny process in the way that I think you and, for that matter, I would find most favourable, but I think that if I can consult with the Lord Chancellor who has dual responsibility with me for the broader criminal justice measures, we might be able to find a way of ensuring that we can engage Parliament—in this case the Select Committee—in advance of the determination through Parliament. It is almost certain that because of the massive increased pressure on the legislative timetable that you just mentioned, the criminal justice legislation most certainly for this Session will be delayed.

  5. Thank you for that, that is very helpful. Turning now to drugs, shortly after your appointment as Home Secretary you did indicate a willingness to review the assumptions on which our drugs policy was based. Have you come to any conclusions?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, I have come to the conclusion that it is necessary to clarify this for the purposes of your own deliberations as a Committee and the mature debate that I indicated in the early summer was necessary, actually to have a much clearer picture of what government policy will be towards some of the more controversial areas. I want to make it absolutely clear that the message from Government will be "Don't take drugs of any kind, they are dangerous and they will damage you." It is also absolutely clear and necessary to have credibility, consistency and clarity in relation to those policies, therefore I want to combine with colleagues across Government programmes in relation to education, geared to an aid to young people, that are both credible to young people and are targeted and focused on the main risk that they face, namely the use of Class A drugs. I want to link that with harm minimisation programmes that again recognise that a quarter of a million people in the country are currently at risk because of their drug-taking policies using Class A drugs, and that we need to be able to link the development of policies for testing with the policies and the development, for instance, with heroin of the methadone programmes, with the reality of what happens on the ground. The Department of Health and the Home Office will be developing an expert group to advise us on an action plan which will include harm minimisation programmes and that will also include whether we should engage in highly structured heroin prescribing. We also wish to look at the way in which the middle-market programme of attacking drug distribution can be stepped up. In four Midland counties—the West Midlands, West Mercia, Staffordshire and Warwickshire—we are putting up £1 million for a pilot programme in terms of tackling those middle markets with the dealers who link into the international traffickers. Should this be successful, the Proceeds of Crime Bill will assist us in being able to use the proceeds of trafficking, and of the harm that that causes, actually to invest in tackling those crimes. We also intend to step up the pilot programme now beginning in Nottingham, Stafford and Hackney, on testing at the point of custody suites and the way in which that will work to identify drug use as part, as you know, of the major contribution to petty crime and to robbery, burglary in particular. To do this, to have a credible policy on education, on treatment, on harm minimisation, and above all consistently on law enforcement and policing, we believe it is right to look at the re-categorisation of cannabis. I shall therefore be putting to the Advisory Council on Drug Misuse a proposal that we should re-categorise cannabis to C rather than B, thereby allowing the police to concentrate their resources on Class A drugs—crack cocaine and heroin in particular—and to ensure that whilst they are able to deal with those who are pushing and dealing in drugs in exactly the same way as they can at the moment, it will both lighten their load and make more sense on the streets than it does at the moment. We have the support of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and many of those engaged in law enforcement across the country, and the experiment in Lambeth is already proving both successful in terms of concentrating and prioritising resources, but also with the police on the streets themselves who are now able to make more sense of policy finally. The public policy and practice will now be brought in line and will be coherent. If the Advisory Council see fit to do so, I think that will make sense to many people. There is one other factor, and that is the issue of the medical use of cannabis derivative. We are now in the third phase of the testing, assessment and evaluation programme. Should—as I believe it will—this programme be proved to be successful, I will recommend to the Medical Control Agency that they should go ahead with authorising the medical use of this for medical purposes. We therefore will have a coherence, given the derivatives of other more dangerous drugs that are currently available for prescribing.

  6. So on the re-classification of cannabis you are in fact accepting the recommendation that Dame Ruth Runciman made in her Police Foundation report, is that right?
  (Mr Blunkett) I am accepting that part of it that relates to re-classification. My predecessor indicated that this should be kept under review. I have reviewed it, and I believe that is the right way forward.

  7. I think she also mentions LSD and Ecstasy as possible candidates for re-classification. Do you have any thoughts on that?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, my thoughts are that they should remain Class A drugs.

  8. Can you tell us when you expect to reach a firm decision on that? When do you expect to hear back from the Advisory Committee?
  (Mr Blunkett) Professor Michael Rawlings assures me that will be within three months. They have a meeting in early November—one of the reasons, as well as your own investigation, that I wanted to clarify government proposals before the winter. They have a meeting in November. They believe that within three months they can come back to us. Those who are more versed in these matters than I am will go back to 1981 when the Advisory Council at that time did, not unanimously but by a majority, publish a report recommending re-categorisation, so there is nothing new about this debate.

  9. Can I now turn to Keith Hellawell. Why was he removed as UK Anti-Drug Co-ordinator?
  (Mr Blunkett) Because he was on special adviser terms, his term in office ceased at the General Election, and I wished, having taken over responsibility for the co-ordination and development of policy for drugs across Government and having absorbed the Drugs Unit into the Home Office, to re-evaluate the most useful means of drawing on his expertise. We have now—and we published a press release today—agreed that the use of his time on a part-time specialist basis will be to advise and assist us with issues around international drug issues, including trafficking, to work with me on the agenda in the European Union and in the Justice and Home Affairs Council and, specifically in the immediate short term, issues around precursors and the way in which we can develop common policies for protecting our boundaries and tackling drug trafficking. He has accepted that with great pleasure because his expertise had developed in the international drugs field.

  10. Were you unhappy with his work?
  (Mr Blunkett) No, I think Keith Hellawell had done the job he was asked to do, which was to develop the structure around the ten-year strategy, to help Government to draw down on experience elsewhere and to be able to reinforce that in circumstances where responsibility for different elements of drug policy rested in different departments.

  Chairman: Thank you. Mr Cameron.

Mr Cameron

  11. Home Secretary, going back to your announcement about cannabis and re-classification, to what extent do you think cannabis leads on to harder drugs because cannabis and harder drugs are all in the black market, and someone wanting to buy cannabis has to go into the black market to buy it? What is your thinking on that argument? Do you think your announcement today goes far enough, and is the government policy set against decriminalisation, or is it something on which you have an open mind?
  (Mr Blunkett) I am not in favour of either legislation or decriminalisation. I believe that the issues around whether cannabis is a gateway drug have been widely debated, but without conclusion. I have seen some of the evidence that has been adduced from other parts of the world on both sides. The Advisory Council undoubtedly will want to say something about this, but the evidence that we have at the moment, particularly with the increased use of crack and cocaine amongst young people, whilst there has been an overall general drop in terms of drug use, would indicate that there is a movement direct to the Class A drugs, which is why I want to get the educational and public policy measures right and make sure that people understand, particularly young people understand, that we know what we are talking about and that we have proportionality in the messages that we are sending out.

  12. I have one last question on this. Given your very welcome announcement on the importance of treating heroin addiction and rehabilitation which many people have thought of as the Cinderella service that has not had much attention, do you think that the Home Office can lead the debate on drugs and the fight against drugs, if such an important area lies outside your ambit because most treatment and rehabilitation is with the Department of Health, although there are some voluntary bodies that report to you? Is that split going to make it possible for you to—as I think you should—pay much more attention to drug treatment and rehabilitation?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, I will be able to do that. I have, as you will expect, very good relations with the Secretary of State for Health, and we have discussed the development of the new National Treatment Agency which, of course, was only established from 1 April, to be able to link what is happening here with harm minimisation and work on a broader front of misuse. I think that if we can get that right we will have, for the first time in this country, a coherent and seamless policy that will help people, not just those who are facing imprisonment and charge where we have now policies, of course, that are able to pick up those cries for help, but actually people who have not yet come into touch with the criminal justice system and, I hope, to be able to support their families as well, because I think everyone round this table in their constituencies will have come across families who are heartbroken, whose very life is destroyed by what has happened to those in their family who have not only started to take drugs but have got involved in crime as a result, and the deterioration both in themselves and in their lifestyle is heartbreaking.

David Winnick

  13. The use of drugs, certainly some drugs, Home Secretary, is, as you indicate, extremely harmful, no one can possibly dispute that. What do you say, though, to the argument that the existing laws which successive governments have defended really help the drug dealers who would certainly be very much opposed to decriminalisation?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, I have heard that. I believe that people, as they are in the Netherlands, have to answer the question as to how you deal with the dealers. I do not want to get into a situation where people are arrested in countries like the Netherlands for production, the equipment is then auctioned, as is their law, and people then buy the equipment at the lowest possible level and re-commence producing it. They are still liable. The people who are actually then the intermediaries are not, because it is very difficult actually to place a situation of decriminalisation on the user without ascertaining how they receive their supply. So being tough on the traffickers, tough on the dealers and sensibly sensitive to those who are users seems to me to be a logical outcome.

  14. Some would say that smoking, there is no dispute, is extremely dangerous, and we know the cost to the National Health Service as well, it is costing lives, but no one, to my knowledge, has suggested decriminalising cigarette smoking, have they?
  (Mr Blunkett) No, they have not, for the very reason I am proposing to re-categorise cannabis, namely that public policy, the enforcement of the law and basic criminality, have to be in harmony with each other.

  15. I have one final question. The Minister yesterday said—I believe I am quoting him correctly—that the Government wants an adult debate on drugs. Do we take it, Home Secretary, that the statement you made is not necessarily the conclusion of your thoughts over this Parliament, and that there is a possibility that the Government will review the position, other than what you have already stated?
  (Mr Blunkett) I would be a very foolish Home Secretary indeed if I believed that this would close down the debate, and you are going to have a very vigorous debate no doubt in taking evidence and reviewing where we are at the moment. I will listen very, very carefully to what the Select Committee have to say at the end of their deliberations as part of that mature debate, but I want to make it clear that this is our position, and we felt it would be helpful in your deliberations that you knew that, rather than our coming out halfway through with a change in categorisation.

  David Winnick: Undoubtedly. Thank you.

Angela Watkinson

  16. Home Secretary, I wonder if you could say a bit more about your plans for anti-drug education programmes, particularly for schoolchildren? We are hearing that larger numbers of schoolchildren are exposed to readily available drugs at a younger and younger age, and that despite the large amount of anti-drug education, larger numbers of schoolchildren disregard it. We clearly need a completely different style if we are going to tackle that, do we not?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes. We are working very closely with the Department for Education and Skills on the way in which the inclusion of health along with personal and social education will enable that to take place. There are some extraordinarily good experiments in peer group education—bearing in mind that young people tend to take more notice of young people than they do of people of my age—and the way in which we can reinforce that. The Department for Education and Skills will be increasing from £21 million to, I think, £47½ million the amount being devoted overall to these issues, to the wider personal, social and health education issues, and drugs are now a very substantial part of that agenda. We want also to engage the new Connexion Service which will draw together the various youth service and support provision for teenagers so that they can be part of this process, along with the youth offending teams. We are putting resources ourselves directly into communities as part of the CAD Drugs Programme—£50 million extra in this year—so that local communities themselves can work along with schools and youth services on these issues.

  17. Will that include the tackling of the sale of drugs outside schools, which is very prolific?
  (Mr Blunkett) I would like the reinforcement of our broader policies to engage the police at command unit level, at working with the police on what is happening around schools generally in terms of those who are engaging young people in this and other similar activities. I think all of us would feel that this is precisely where the police at local level and the mobilisation of the community and parents can have the biggest effect; in other words, this is not just down to the police, it is actually something that we could support and engage communities in undertaking. In those areas—I am familiar, for example, in Balsall Heath with what is happening with the St Paul's area where the community itself became part of the solution—an enormous impact was visible in terms of being able to see off those dealers. We then need to pick up the fact that so many of them are pyramid selling, namely that they are users and in order to feed their usage they are persuaded to deal and they then catch other young people in that terrible cycle. That is why I think we need to engage this holistic approach in making sure that we are not simply seeing them off to another area, but we are actually engaging them and being able to start treating them.

Mrs Dean

  18. Home Secretary, I was particularly interested to hear you mention Staffordshire as one of the authorities where you wanted to tackle middle markets. I wonder if you could expand on what you had in mind?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes. My hon. Friend the Minister responsible, who was certainly here earlier this afternoon, the Member for Coventry North East, last week engaged in developing the concept of the four pilot programmes linked to the publication of the Proceeds of Crime Bill, because, as I said earlier, the two will be able to go hand in hand, they will be able to pilot the programme in terms of targeting what are called the middle-market dealers. There has been a lot of concern by the police that whilst picking up the pushers, the people I was just answering Angela Watkinson on, is taking place at local level, there is this line from traffickers through to that level, which has not received the attention it deserves. We need the National Criminal Intelligence Service and NCS to be able to link with the local police at BCU level to be able to have an impact, and this experiment with this pilot will be able to engage those crime reduction and intelligence services, along with the local police as well. It is a considerable theme of mine, once we have been able to put in place security for ourselves following 11 September, that the security services generally should be able to play a much bigger part in disrupting the trafficking flows, and that will include the middle market.

  19. Thank you. Would that include extra resources for the police authorities?
  (Mr Blunkett) It will be targeted at the specific pilot area; it will be a ring-fenced approach. Initially we are putting up £1 million in order to kick-start it, but obviously as the proceeds of crime are recouped we will then be able to reinvest in a much bigger way.

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