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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Drug Abstinence Order (Responsible Officer) (No. 2) Order 2001

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 22 October 2001

[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]

Drug Abstinence Order (Responsible Officer) (No. 2) Order 2001

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Drug Abstinence Order (Responsible Officer) (No. 2) Order 2001.

The draft order, laid before the House in July, is made under section 58A(4) of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. It replaces the Drug Abstinence Order (Responsible Officer) Order 2001, made in error earlier this year under the negative procedure. The requirement for the affirmative procedure is a result of a consequential amendment to the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000.

The draft order specifies the description of persons who may be made responsible for the supervision of an offender subject to a drug abstinence order. That new, free-standing community order was introduced under the provisions of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. It is to be piloted in three areas—Nottingham, Staffordshire and Hackney—and will be subject to a full evaluation.

A court may make a drug abstinence order in respect of persons aged 18 or over who have been convicted of an offence if, in the opinion of the court, the offender is dependent on, or has a propensity to misuse, specified class A drugs. The offence must be a trigger offence—in the opinion of the court, the misuse by the offender of any specified class A drug must have caused or contributed to the offence. Offenders made subject to a drug abstinence order will be required to abstain from misusing specified class A drugs, and must provide when instructed to do so by the responsible officer any sample mentioned in the instruction for the purpose of ascertaining the presence in their body of any specified class A drug.

The responsible officer is defined as the person responsible for the offender's supervision. It is proposed that

    ``Officers of local probation boards (within the meaning of section 4(4) of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000)''

should be specified as the persons responsible for the supervision of offenders subject to a drug abstinence order. The same category of persons is responsible under the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act for the supervision of offenders subject to drug treatment and testing orders and of those aged 18 or over who are on community rehabilitation orders, to whom the court can also attach a drug abstinence requirement.

Officers of local probation boards also exercise the functions of the ``responsible officer'' in the case of offenders aged over 18 who are on community punishment orders, which can also include a drug abstinence requirement. In practice, and for the purpose of the pilot schemes, qualified probation service staff will be responsible for the supervision of offenders subject to a drug abstinence order. That will include decisions relating to compliance with the order, such as the frequency of tests and any breach action in case of failure. The legislation also provides scope for local probation boards to make contractual arrangements for the delivery of the services for which they are responsible. That might include the taking of samples for drug testing, for example. The description of persons set out in paragraph 2 has been approved by the national probation directorate, which will be issuing guidance to those responsible for implementing and supervising drug abstinence orders.

The pilot phase will be used to identify good practice and to evaluate the impact of drug abstinence orders on the reduction of drug misuse and associated offending. The persons supervising the order will play an important role in that. I commend the order to the Committee.

4.35 pm

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hurst. I imagine that our proceedings will be relatively brief, although, of course, any issue relating to drugs and drug offenders is always important. The official Opposition do not oppose the order, but I want to raise a couple of concerns.

The Minister was straightforward enough to explain that our proceedings are the result of an error. It was thought that the original order could be made under the negative procedure without the need for a Committee to sit. That perhaps vindicates our consistent view that the Government have made their criminal justice measures rather over-complex. Their error is evidence of the fact that we have such a complex raft of criminal justice legislation that is difficult to work out what requires a Committee's consideration. We have expressed that concern about a number of pieces of criminal justice legislation, several of which I have dealt with in Committee. I hope that the Government will take note of the fact that we need a clearer picture of those issues in future legislation so that hon. Members will be able more easily to understand what a Committee must consider and what is appropriate to the negative procedure.

Our second concern is whether the courts will use drug abstinence orders a great deal. The overarching legislation gives courts the power, which will be used in the pilot areas, as the Minister described, to enable a probation officer—a member of a local probation board—to tell a drug offender, ``We're not sure whether you are keeping to the drug abstinence order. We want you to be tested.'' As a barrister, I have prosecuted and defended many drugs cases over many years, and I wonder whether it is terribly realistic to think that probation officers will have much success in getting addicts of class A drugs—the most serious hard drugs—to go for random tests of the kind that entirely honest athletes sometimes have to take after competition. In the professional experience of those of us who have had to deal with them, class A drug addicts who return to their drug addiction are unlikely to be terribly responsive to requests from probation officers. Circuit judges will know that and will perhaps be a little cautious about using the orders.

However, I do not want to cast too much doubt on the Government's approach before we have seen how the pilot scheme works. I was interested to note that two of the pilot areas—Nottingham and Staffordshire—are in the midlands. That is the very area in which I dealt with drugs cases a number of years ago. There is much experience of drug treatment there—as there is, no doubt, in the Hackney area.

Experience gained in the pilot scheme areas will no doubt show whether my misgivings are borne out. In many ways, I hope to be proved wrong, because we all want new ways of tackling the menace of drugs to succeed. It will be a good thing if the orders are widely used and are successful as a result of the pilot projects. I will be the first to say how pleased I am if that is so. However, Conservative Members will carefully consider the analysis of the pilot scheme to see whether our misgivings are borne out or whether the orders are widely used. We do not oppose the principle behind any action suggested to help drug offenders, especially those addicted to hard drugs. We will watch carefully how the orders work out and whether the pilot projects are successful.

Having expressed those concerns, I shall not detain the Committee further.

4.40 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst. I do not think that either of us has served under your chairmanship before, but we are happy to do so today.

I can encourage the Minister and his colleagues; we will not oppose the order and so I will be brief. We did not oppose it when it was thought that it would require only negative procedure, so it would be mischievous, or worse, suddenly to pop up and do so now that the Government have discovered that it requires affirmative procedure.

We welcome the measure that the order in part implements, and the fact that courts will have drug abstinence orders as part of their panoply of powers. Also, we welcome the fact that the Government are proceeding through pilot schemes, which generally seems to be the right way to test new methods for the courts. We look forward to hearing the results of the pilot schemes. The areas chosen, in which there is plenty of experience, represent a good cross-section and seem appropriate.

I did not hear the Minister say how long he expected the pilots to run. That information may be helpful. I would also like to know how he expects to report on their success. Will it be by written answer, a document or some other method?

I may be stating the obvious, but it is clearly hugely important that when we punish drug offenders we do not think merely of locking them up. We must realise that we have to deal with the cause of their crimes, so a range of measures is needed. Some of those measures will tell them to stay off drugs, but support systems are needed to enable them to do so, otherwise the exercise is pointless. In another context, I happened to be in Channings Wood prison in Devon the other day. Its drug treatment programme, which has high success rates, is an example of good practice.

How will the Government ensure that there are enough people, in the probation service and generally, with qualifications to take part in such drugs support work? There has been a great shortage of people handling drugs counselling and drug support work. One of the great complaints of the Prison Service—and of prisoners—is that people come out of prison and find that there are not enough staff to continue their monitoring and support.

All parties, including the Labour party, have had drugs courts on their agendas. The idea is that specific courts would have judges and magistrates with expertise on the subject and knowledge of local clinics and facilities to which people could be sent and referred. Their ability to deal with drug-related offenders—a large number of offences, certainly in property-related crime, are drug-related—would be much greater. I apologise if there has been an announcement on the subject that I have not heard, but it would be helpful to know whether drugs courts are still on the agenda—and, if so, how?

I notice that the previous order was agreed about a day before Parliament was dissolved for the election. Our eyes were on other matters at the time, as were those of civil servants and Ministers—although not the Minister before us, as he was not then in his present post.


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