Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1420 - 1439)



  1420. Would you agree that in exercising their freedom to do what they like with their own lives, they are having a harmful effect on other people's lives, the individual's and the wider community?
  (Mr Sims) There is a balance. We talk about the right that individuals have to make their own decisions and act in a certain way, but that they have a responsibility not to do so in a way which harms anybody else. There is a responsibility not to harm themselves maybe, but certainly a responsibility not to harm anybody else, so we interpret that to mean that education for family members and parents about what the true effects and different details about drugs are is as useful as providing it for younger people as well. We think that both have to happen together.

  1421. Mr Gillespie, you mentioned education. Maybe you would have a view as to what is wrong with drug education and why your own son was resistant, despite a good supportive family background and his own siblings who tried to help him? Is there any way that you could foresee or anything different which could have been done which would have helped him and might help others?
  (Mr Gillespie) Well, I work, Chairman, on the very simple principle that where there is life, there is hope and where there is no life, there is no hope, and my son is dead. Something let him down. Either I let him down, the system let him down or he let himself down, so you try to find the causes of that. At school the children are educated in how to behave themselves in all kinds of ways. In one of many ways, I was trying to find out how many of his classmates ended up using drugs and addicted to drugs. I have been able to find two or three who have been using drugs, but none of them were addicted, so he was just there. I think it would be unfair to extend that into some criticism of the education system just because my son became a victim of his own habits, but I do feel that where the system falls down, to answer your question specifically, is that education should be much more honest than it is at the moment. I think where you just demonise drugs and just say, "Drugs are bad and they should be banned", which is very simple and we would not be sitting here today if we did that, but we would be all gone somewhere else, that would be terrific, but children do not accept that. Whether it is a brighter generation than mine, I do not know, but they just do not buy things like that. You cannot tell them something that they will not test. I honestly would hate to be sitting here and tell you what I might have done if this kind of social milieu had been around when I was that age. I was doing all the things I should not have been doing, girls, coffee bars, and all this kind of stuff, under threat of annihilation by my father, but you did it. The trouble is that we are dealing with a commodity that is lethal if it is not handled properly and, without being boring, I keep thinking we are not in control of it and I just think that we should be.

Mr Watson

  1422. Mrs Humphreys, could I just ask about your son's own circumstances. When he admitted to possession of the ecstasy tablets, was he aware that the crime could carry a custodial sentence?
  (Mrs Humphreys) I think he was and they were sort of all in together. There was fear and panic on the day because these people had come to the door and were banging on the door and they thought it was a gang because Manchester is quite rough. They rang the police for help, the students in the house, including my son, because they were scared that this was a gang, but it was plain-clothed policemen who had come not because they were looking for my son, but they were horrified when it was a crowd of students in this house because it was a very strong house which had been used by somebody very suspect before they had taken it over, and they were not looking for these kids at all. The kids were terrified, so they ran out the back. Then they saw there were policemen in uniforms and it was all very dramatic. Then they thought, "Oh my God, the cannabis and the ecstasy". It was all panicky and in the heat of the moment when they said, "Whose drugs are they?", my son just told them, so it was all like that and then it was too late. Yes, I think he did and he was terrified then and he was just a jelly because he thought he could go away for 15 years or something.

  1423. So he was aware of the consequences?
  (Mrs Humphreys) They all were, yes, yes. The thing is that they live in this culture, and a lot of students do, where they go to clubs and nobody is catching anybody, there are lots of blind eyes turned and they just do not expect that it is going to happen. They think they are okay. They think they are being sensible and yet they are not actually very street-wise in fact, so if you are a parent, you have now got to teach kids to be more street-wise, "Don't get caught because it is not worth going to prison for".

  1424. We have taken a lot of evidence about this kind of murky area of interpretation about what is possession, what is intent to supply and what is trafficking. Do you think if there were very clear guidelines to your son that the possession of 12 ecstasy tablets would carry a custodial sentence, he would not have been caught with them?
  (Mrs Humphreys) Absolutely. He absolutely would not have done that, no, no, no.

  1425. He might have had 11?
  (Mrs Humphreys) Possibly. I do not think he would have had any need at all even to save them up or anything if it was all a much bigger thing. It definitely would not have happened.

  1426. So one of the areas that you think could be changed in terms of policy-making is to provide much more clarity?
  (Mrs Humphreys) That is right and to clarify supply. Social supply is like buying a round of beers or something. That is how they see it. That is, whether we like it or not, how they see it and when they are taking their turn like that, it should not be regarded as some evil, criminal drug-dealing.

  1427. I think I probably know your answer to this question, but presumably you would assume that if there was going to be a review of the classification system, ecstasy should not be classified the same as heroin?
  (Mrs Humphreys) No, I think it should be classified as to how dangerous it is and the scientific evidence, according to the Runciman Report, showed that it is not as dangerous, it is not addictive, for a start, and that is a scientific thing. I go along with that. I do not know how dangerous ecstasy is personally. How would I?

  1428. Mr Sims, have ADFAM got a view on that?
  (Mr Sims) We would broadly support the recommendations of the Runciman Report principally because of this issue that if education is based on fact, then it tends to be more effective than if it is based on—for example, if all drugs are described equally as dangerous, then it diminishes the message rather because it is not what people are seeing on the street around them which is as powerful an influence as the law or as education is. You have got to balance all those things together.

  1429. Mr Gillespie, firstly, can I say on the point you made earlier, I do not think you are a man who would let his son down, so I make that point now. I do want to ask you quite a straight question here, and I read your letter, which is do you believe, had your son been on a diamorphine prescription programme when he was in prison, that he would not have overdosed when he got out of prison?
  (Mr Gillespie) I think if the drug that my son had taken to start with had not been so full of impurities, he would possibly have survived. I think the five weeks without anything, because nothing was offered to him in prison and they had what is called a "throughput" thing, a system where you are supposed to be followed out, but that only happens for certain categories of people, it was not available to him. Oddly enough, two months after he died, I got a thing in the post from the Prison Service, saying, "If you want your son to be entered into this, would you sign this?" So, to answer your question specifically, no, there was nothing there that I could see that would have prevented his death other than the drug that he took itself being impure and if he had not had to steal to support his habit, and we can go back to all the evidence against that in the first place, we can do all that, but if he had not finished up in the prison system, he would have been alive today, I am quite convinced of that, as I think I said in my memorandum. However, if the stuff he had got outside of prison when he came out of prison, given that there was no other support system or treatment or anything else or anywhere else he could turn, he just took what was there and it killed him. Have I answered your question? I am not sure.

  1430. Yes, I think you have. You have pointed me in the right direction anyway, thank you. Tina, can I just ask you about your own personal experience because I talk to some of the family groups in my own constituency and the one thing that we obviously worry about on this Committee is this thing about whether there are gateway drugs and you have seen with some of the questions this morning that people are trying to tease that out. Certainly families tell me that they have experience of their kids going straight in to taking heroin. Do you have experience of that in your own area or do you think that they take other drugs before they get into heroin?
  (Ms Williams) I think there are other drugs as well as cannabis and I just think it is like a roller-coaster ride for some kids where they are moving from one to another. You cannot particularly pull cannabis out.

  1431. So you would not say that there is any inter-relationship and that if the law was loosened up on one drug, it might lead to harder drug-use?
  (Ms Williams) I do not think so.

  1432. As a general question to everyone, do you think that there are any circumstances where a conviction for drug-use or abuse would merit a custodial sentence?
  (Mrs Humphreys) Well, you have got to protect children, do you not? I do not think it really happens very much, but if you had somebody trying to push drugs on to children, I think you have to protect young people from everything. It is no different.
  (Mr Sims) I would hazard an answer which is that for me the issue is the behaviour that is the result of the use rather than the use itself. Therefore, as a simple answer to your question in terms of whether there is ever a circumstance where a custodial sentence should be offered to somebody using something, my answer would be no, but if the behaviour that results from that use damages others or the society around that person, then my answer would be different and may be yes.
  (Mr Gillespie) The same laws for prosecuting people who give cigarettes and alcohol to minors would be the same thing. You can do it if you want to, but I do not think that people who take drugs, who use drugs or people who are addicted to drugs should be treated as criminals. They should be treated as patients in the public health service sector, not the criminal justice system, and the money used in that system should be used in the public health service.
  (Ms Williams) I agree with that. If you give the right treatment, then there should be no need for the crimes to be committed in the first place.

Bridget Prentice

  1433. Your evidence has been most profound and powerful. Can I just ask both Mr Gillespie and Ms Williams first, did your sons hold down jobs at all during their period of addiction?
  (Ms Williams) No. He could not. The only thing that he used to think about from getting up in the morning was how he would get his fix, where he was going to get it from, if the gear was good enough. That was always another consideration. Sometimes he would come back and say, "It's no good. This stuff's not strong enough. It's not helping me". He could not eat, he could not sleep, so heroin took over his whole life.
  (Mr Gillespie) My son was involved in the voluntary sector and he wanted to be a social worker basically and wanted to go into social services, always into helping people, but, to answer your question specifically, once he got a habit he could not afford to work, but he had to steal.

  1434. But up until that point, he was involved in the community doing something?
  (Mr Gillespie) Yes, early on, but very quickly because he had to go to criminal sources to get this stuff, it is the usual thing we all know, all his time was spent trying to raise the cash to get the stuff.

  1435. One of the pieces of evidence that we have been given before suggests that if heroin is prescribed and people are stabilised, then they can actually hold down jobs.
  (Mr Gillespie) Absolutely. One of Mrs Thatcher's advisers, and a lot of people, including doctors, was heroin dependent. Because there are no long-term side-effects from heroin, unlike alcohol and tobacco, he was able to work perfectly normally and history is littered with people who were dependent on opium and heroin for many, many years. I am not advocating, as I said at the beginning, I am not advocating drug-use, but it is possible.

  1436. The other thing which has come across so very clearly from all of you is that you are very, very supportive parents and the rest of your families have been extremely supportive of people who have deeply hurt your families. What would you say we could do as politicians within this Committee for those addicts where the families are not supportive for whatever reason, maybe they are frightened, fearful of the drugs, whatever the reason might be, but families who have left their child to get on with it? What do you think we could do for them?
  (Ms Williams) I think we have got to make sure that the right treatment is out there for them, like you say, either residential detoxing, rehab, supported housing schemes. Supported housing, that should be there, and like halfway house situations when they come out of rehab just to get them re-established back into the community where they can get support with bills and just living everyday life and coming to terms with the problems because when you take heroin away, they are hit with a wave of emotions that they have not had for years and it just comes back really strong for them, so it is about putting that support in place.
  (Mr Sims) I would absolutely agree and recognise too, I suppose, that family does not always mean blood relatives, that some people will choose to create their own families and that that connection to society or a community seems to be, from the evidence that I have seen, a critical factor in whether somebody can survive and thrive on their own.
  (Mr Gillespie) Chairman, there is no question that many young people fall into drugs of all kinds because of difficult family backgrounds, but I have been absolutely astonished, as I said earlier, to find that this is not a background thing. This is not working class or middle class or upper class or anything, but this goes right across the board. For people who are less privileged, if you like, or less well educated or have had fewer advantages, these people are even in a worse state because they are not articulate and they cannot go and ask for what they want. Sometimes they do not know what they want and they do not know where to go, and virtually every time they go somewhere, they get the door slammed in their face or are just told to go away. Many of them of course are absolutely terrified to go anywhere near anything that looks like authority for a whole load of reasons, so they have a tougher time, I think, than we do.
  (Ms Williams) Could I add that I think that the Committee could set up some kind of ombudsman where it is not social services, it is not the Health Service, but an independent arbiter, if you like, whom people, who felt that they were not getting the services, could go to.
  (Mrs Humphreys) I think the illegality makes a stigma too. Some families are very afraid that this is breaking the law and, "This is going to affect all of us", and they just do not want anything to do with it. Perhaps they have been stolen from or their friends are being stolen from and there is no help for their young people, so it is hard for some families to support all of that and they just do not have the resources, emotionally or financially or anything.

  1437. And that also applies regardless again of class?
  (Mrs Humphreys) That is right.

  1438. It does not just happen because they happen to be poor. Mrs Humphreys, could I just press you a little bit more on the ecstasy use and you were saying that ecstasy is not dangerous.
  (Mrs Humphreys) No, I did not say that. I did not say that it was not dangerous. I said that I do not know how dangerous it is and I leave it to scientists to decide. I do not know how dangerous it is. I never said it was not dangerous.

  1439. Forgive me then for misinterpreting that, but we do know that people have died from taking ecstasy.
  (Mrs Humphreys) Yes, and people have died from drinking alcohol, choking on it and vomiting and alcohol poisoning, many, many more people. I just think that everything should be looked at for its own dangers and not that ecstasy is worse than anything or better than anything, but it should just be scientifically worked out.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 22 May 2002