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

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Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I was.

Simon Hughes: Oh, he was; I beg the Minister's pardon. I was going to excuse him from all blame. Along with Ministers and civil servants, we were considering other matters when the first order was laid, and not concentrating on affirmative and negative procedure.

There are two types of order, one of which goes through—technically—on the nod. Probably no one sees his or her role in life as checking every order, but is there an independent way to check on civil servants and Ministers to ensure that the orders that are meant to go before both Houses do so? If so, what is it? It would be good if someone other than the Government, who have the vested interest, could double-check that orders went to the right place, so that there were no slips in future. In the event, the mistake has not proved serious and the Government have done well in returning the order at a relatively early opportunity. However, a serious mistake could be made. Decisions are normally taken about which matters must or must not be debated based on their importance. Therefore, it would be reassuring if a failsafe method were available to all of us in opposition.

4.45 pm

Mr. Ainsworth: I thank members of both Opposition parties for the constructive way in which they have responded to the order.

We apologise for the confusion over affirmative and negative procedure, but it was simply an error, not an attempt to sneak the order through before the holidays. There were two separate orders on this matter. One established the tests and the other named the responsible officer for the probationary period for the drug abstinence orders. One was agreed under the affirmative procedure—it was properly scrutinised in Committee on 17 July—while the other went through under the negative procedure. The Government originally proposed the affirmative procedure because we recognised that the areas covered by the order could be sensitive and should receive maximum parliamentary scrutiny, but we mistakenly laid the order under the negative procedure. That delayed the measures and caused some difficulties, but that was not intentional.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) suggested that our regulations were over-complex and that we were tripping ourselves up. A substantial number of developments are inevitable as we advance our drugs strategy and implement things to make it effective. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) spoke briefly on that issue when he referred to the availability of the relevant skills for drugs treatment. The piloting should ensure that things are running correctly before we roll out the strategy nationally. We also need to build up the amount and quality of treatment available. If we tried to push out the legal requirement before the necessary skills and infrastructure were in place to support it, the courts, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath suggested, would ignore the orders and the legislative framework.

It is planned that the pilots will continue until April 2003, but we will report interim evaluations to the House. The moneys allocated are not structured so as to enable us to jump straight from three pilot projects to a national scheme. Before we go national, we will move to an interim phase and roll out the testing requirements and the orders that they support to areas other than those piloted. The three areas were not chosen because we have a hugely damaging drug problem in the midlands that is out of kilter with that in the rest of the country. The choice was made in consultation with the police and probation service and allows for a good spread of metropolitan area, a large city and a semi-rural—suburban—area so that we can see the results in those different situations.

We have had some interim feedback on the testing orders that support the order. In Staffordshire, of 163 tests for class A drugs on people at the point of charging, 43 per cent. were positive. In Nottingham, there have been 80 tests, of which 60 per cent. have been positive. In Hackney, 58 of 65 tests proved positive. By targeting specific crimes and the class A drugs that—it is being shown—lead to such criminality, a fair amount of drug addiction is being identified. That means that people will be not only punished but helped by the criminal justice system.

I do not know whether there is a failsafe mechanism to ensure that the negative procedure is not used accidentally and parliamentary scrutiny thereby avoided. Perhaps I should know that more as an ex-Whip than a Minister. As a spokesman for the Liberal Democrat party, perhaps the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey also ought to know. Even so, the system has proved effective. We named the order as one subject to negative procedure, and that was pulled up and exposed as incorrect. We then went back and used the correct procedure. On that basis, there seem to be necessary safeguards. It is for all hon. Members to make themselves as familiar with the procedures of the House as they can.

Mr. Hawkins: Given what the Minister has just said, it would be helpful if, once he has consulted his officials, he wrote to me and other Committee members stating the failsafe procedures exactly. That would increase our knowledge of this rather arcane matter.

Mr. Ainsworth: Now that I have marshalled my papers, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments checks on the progress of statutory instruments. It found out that the wrong procedure had been used and pointed that out to us. All parties are represented on that Committee, and such procedure is a matter for it rather than for the Government.

The one question that I have not answered concerns the latest on the issue of drug courts. I do not have an answer to give the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, but I shall write to tell him our latest thinking on the matter.

I ask the Committee to approve the order.

Question put and agreed to.


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

Committee rose at eight minutes to Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Hurst, Mr. Alan (Chairman)
Ainsworth, Mr. Bob
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Best, Mr.
Cousins, Mr.
Francis, Dr.
Gidley, Sandra
Hawkins, Mr.
Hughes, Simon
Johnson, Mr. Boris
McDonnell, John
McGuire, Mrs.
Mahmood, Mr.
Marsden, Mr. Paul
Morgan, Julie
Stoate, Dr.
Swire, Mr.

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Prepared 22 October 2001