Fifth Standing Committee on
Wednesday 14 November 2001
[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]
Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 2001
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 2001.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the Draft Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Act 1990 (Modification) Order 2001.
Mr. Ainsworth: It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr. Olner. In my view, the provisions in the order are compatible with the European convention on human rights. The order's purpose is to bring 36 previously uncontrolled Ecstasy-type substances under the control of the 1971 Act. Like Ecstasy, they derive from phenethylamine and have similar hallucinogenic effects.
As required by the 1971 Act, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has considered the potential for misuse of those drugs and it recommends that they be brought under the Act's control. The order is needed to prohibit the production and supply of the substances through the illicit drugs market. The harmfulness of Ecstasy is well documented. It is known that its effects can include first-ever epileptic fits, panic attacks, mental disturbance and, on occasion, death. The Government's aim is to prevent the launch of those Ecstasy analogues on the illicit drugs market, and the order will provide the enforcement agencies with the necessary powers to stem their trade.
There is evidence to suggest that some of the substances have been illicitly produced in other European countries, and there have been police seizures in Europe and the United Kingdom. Although there is little evidence of their misuse in the United Kingdom to date, the Government consider that, as Ecstasy analogues, they warrant control.
Of the 36 substances listed, 35 have no recognised therapeutic uses. The 36th substance alpha-Methylphenethylhydroxylaminehas a medicinal use, but it is not manufactured as a medicine in the United Kingdom. The order proposes that the 35 substances be added to the list of controlled drugs specified class A in schedule 2 to the 1971 Act and that the 36thI tried to pronounce it once and, if the Committee does not mind, I will not try againbe added to the list of controlled drugs specified class B.
If the order is approved, we shall lay before the House amendment regulations that will bring all 36 drugs within the scope of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 1985. The regulations will impose the regime of control of their use for research and medicinal purposes. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has also advised on the controls that are necessary and commensurate with the drugs' harmfulness. In accordance with usual practice, we have consulted organisations representing the enforcement agencies, the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry on the changes. None has raised any objection.
If the order is approved by both Houses and the Privy Council, we aim to bring it and the relevant amendment regulations into force on 1 February 2002. I commend the changes proposed in the order.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Olner. I imagine that our proceedings will be relatively brief, but they are none the less important.
We do not contest the Government's proposals, because they are right to bring those new compounds within the scope of the legislation. Last Friday, the Minister and I attended the debate in the House on a variety of drugs issues and, although it is unusual for an Opposition spokesman to do so, I congratulate him on his extremely good letter to the Evening Standard, which corrected some bad misreporting of what he and Members from both sides of the House said in the main Chamber. It painted a much more balanced picture.
The Minister explained that the compounds are related to modified forms of what is known as Ecstasy. All hon. Members are conscious of tragedies such as that of Leah Betts, whose name immediately springs to mind when anyone in public life considers the appalling effects that Ecstasy is known to have. People in public life in Essex, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), will never forget that case. Sadly, there are few constituencies where there has not been an Ecstasy tragedy and it is entirely appropriate that, as the science develops, so should legislation to meet the threat and cope with the risks. We welcome the sensible steps that the Government have taken in that regard.
As I said to the Minister informally before the Committee started, if I wanted to cause him problems I could have got in touch with my parents, who were research scientists before they retired, and asked them to suggest difficult and detailed questions about the technicalities of the substances. However, I do not want to be unfair to him, because we take a similar view and approach on many of these matters.
The Opposition do not propose to divide the Committee.
Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I had hoped to be accompanied by my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), so hon. Members can be assured that my speech will be brief. I have been drafted in because our home affairs team panic every time they see the name of a drug written down and think that, as the only trained pharmacist in the House, I must know all about it. I hasten to add that I know little about the chemicals, as few appear on the shelf in the average high street pharmacy. I would not dare to comment on the unusual high street pharmacy, but I do not think they would be found there.
The drugs should be brought in line with the registration, although my spies tell me that the reason for the proposal is not quite what has been hinted at. All the substances appear in a bookI shall not mention its name, as it does not deserve publicitywhich could be subtitled, ``179 Ways to Make an Ecstasy-type Drug in Your Kitchen''. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that; it is right and proper that the drugs should be proscribed.
My understanding of alpha-Methylphenethyl- hydroxylamineI, too, have trouble with that worddiffers from the Minister's. There was a consultation in August 1998 and it was identified as having been omitted from the legislation. Why has it taken three years to bring it into line? I will not divide the Committee.
Mr. Ainsworth: I shall now describe the second order. The draft Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Act 1990 (Modification) Order 2001 was laid before the House on 24 October. In my opinion, its provisions are compatible with convention rights.
The purpose of the order is to add norephedrine to the substances listed under schedule 2 to the1990 Act. That will enable the United Kingdom to comply with a decision taken by the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs to bring norephedrine under the control of the 1988 UN convention against illicit traffic in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.
Norephedrine is used mainly in the pharmaceutical industry to manufacture over-the-counter medicines such as cold remedies. However, a UN risk assessment showed that it was being widely diverted for use in the illicit manufacture of amphetamine-type drugs, particularly in North America and the far east, although there have been few reports of its diversion in Europe to date.
The order will make it an offence to manufacture or supply norephedrine knowing or suspecting that it is to be used in the illegal manufacture of a controlled drug, which is punishable by up to six months imprisonment on summary conviction or up to 14 years on indictment and/or a fine. We are also arranging to lay before the House amendment regulations that will bring norephedrine within the scope of the Controlled Drugs (Substances Useful for Manufacture) (Intra-Community Trade) Regulations 1993. Those regulations require certain licensing and regulatory controls on licit trade in the EU to minimise the risk of diversion and trafficking.
Obviously we must bring the order before both Houses and the Privy Council as before. We plan to bring it and the relevant amendment regulations into force on 12 December 2001. I commend the order to the Committee.
Mr. Hawkins: As I said earlier, we accept entirely what the Government are doing. It seems sensible and appropriate. We have nothing to add from these Benches.
Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West): I welcome the order and the Minister's prompt action, but may I put a point to him? It follows on from the comments of the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley). The drugs on the list are synthetic. Although she said that they do no appear on the shelf in the chemist's shop, they could be made from components one finds there. From my modest attempt to keep in touch with the youth of today and woo the youth vote in Leeds, I know that those drugs are well known as club drugs.
The worry is that we are behind the times. People are moving on to drugs such as GHB, which are as dangerous and should be on the list. I welcome the list, but it must be kept up to date so that we are not always behind the times. Is there a mechanism for that or will we return to the Committee every six months to keep pace with those who apply science in practical chemical experiments in their kitchens to make new cocktails that could be lethal? We must try to keep on top of the matter as best we can. Is it possible to keep ahead of the game?
Mr. Ainsworth: I thank the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) for his kind comments about our debate the other day and the letter I had to write to the press because of the misrepresentation that took place. I am also grateful for his support on the two orders.
I must tell the hon. Member for Romsey that her spies are wrong about the motivation, but right about some background issues. Of the 36 substances that we propose to control, 34 are described in the book that she mentioned. The other two have a similar structure and probably have similar effects. She asked, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), how we can keep up with chemistry as people outside the licit industry become more sophisticated.
I admit to the hon. Lady that there is quite a gap between the time at which the drugs became known and our taking action today. However, we did not act sooner because of legislative pressure and the lack of evidence of a major problem with the drugs. If such a problem had manifested itself sooner, we would have taken action at the appropriate time.
That flags up the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West as to whether we can provide the necessary wherewithal for parliamentary scrutiny and oversight of the measures and keep up with a moving situation, making certain that the necessary protections are offered. I intend to consider that issue seriously, because I can see the potential for difficulties.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): I assume that a unit in my hon. Friend's Department keeps an eye on that moving situation.
Mr. Ainsworth: Absolutely, but let us not detract from the fact that an awful lot of business regularly has to go through the House. People must stand in line and justify taking up legislative time. My hon. Friend will have heard the Opposition complain today about the number of statutory instruments going through the House.
The speed with which we react must be commensurate with the potential difficulty. We must be careful to keep an eye on the situation and, if there is a real threat, we must act as expeditiously as we can. The matter was not considered a massive priority for quick action, because no substantial risk was defined.
We need to take seriously the points raised by default by the hon. Member for Romsey and directly by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West. The House will want proper oversight of any action we take, but equally we must be able to move quickly. I ask the Committee to support both orders.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 2001.
DRAFT CRIMINAL JUSTICE (INTERNATIONAL CO-OPERATION) ACT 1990 (MODIFICATION) ORDER 2001
That the Committee has considered the draft Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Act 1990 (Modification) Order 2001.[Mr. Bob Ainsworth.]
The following Members attended the Committee:
Committee rose at twelve minutes to Five o'clock.
Olner, Mr. Bill (Chairman)
Ainsworth, Mr. Bob
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie
Henderson, Mr. Ivan