EU Action Plan on Drugs 2000-2004

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The Chairman: Before we start the questions, I inform the Committee that, as from the next Session of Parliament, there will be a different system of document distribution. The Vote Office will take responsibility for ensuring that the documents are delivered by the Ministries, and for distributing them. I hope that that system will prevent errors such as have previously arisen.

Mr. Hawkins: On a point of order, Mr. Atkinson. That is very helpful news, and I am delighted to hear

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it. Can I take it that the Vote Office will take responsibility for getting all documents not only to Committee members, but to those who are likely to represent their party on the Front Bench, even if they are not members of the Committee?

The Chairman: I do not know, but perhaps a message will reach me later on so that I can satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

Simon Hughes: On a point of order, Mr. Atkinson. Thank you for that indication, and thanks to the Minister for his helpful comments. I hope that a clearly agreed, sensible route for trafficking the documents can be established. Perhaps we should concentrate on that. Colleagues will have noticed—this is not a criticism of Ministers—that the Committee considered the matter a year ago today. It has taken one year from the Scrutiny Committee's saying that this is a political—

The Chairman: Order. That is not a point of order for the Chair but a question for the Minister. Will the hon. Gentleman leave the question till later?

Simon Hughes: I am happy to pursue the matter with the Minister, but it relates to Committee organisation. The matter has not come before this Committee since the Scrutiny Committee recommended that it should a year ago.

The Chairman: Order. When matters come before the Committee is not a question for the Chair.

On the other question—it is surprising what comes to you when you sit down—the Vote Office will ensure that the documents are delivered to members of the Committee. Non-members will have to ask for them at the Vote Office.

I hope that we can continue with the main business of the Committee. We have until five minutes to 10 o'clock for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and asked one at a time. There should be ample opportunity for all hon. Members to ask as many questions as they need.

Mr. Hawkins: My first question was half-anticipated by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. It occurred to me, too, that we were exactly 12 months on from when the Scrutiny Committee said that the matter should come before this Committee. What does the Minister have to say about that inordinate delay? Can he shed any light on it, and could he tell us whether the Government played any part in delaying the matter?

Mr. Ainsworth: I have not played any part in delaying the matter coming before the Committee. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of long standing, so he knows that channels of communication between the parties schedule the business of the House while taking account of priorities. I do not know what representations, if any, his party made about the delay but, as far as I am aware, the Department did not cause it.

Simon Hughes: The Minister helpfully told us that the mid-term review would be published in a fortnight, or thereabouts. On a linked procedural question, will

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he undertake that if the review is published in Brussels, members of the Committee and others will be alerted to that fact? Will he give an undertaking that there will not be any delay between its publication and its arrival in the system in the UK? We are working on a document that is by definition the original document, so we would benefit from seeing as soon as possible the mid-term review that is welcomed in the motion.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is right. The mid-term review is almost upon us, and this is the Committee's opportunity to make some input into it, albeit at a late stage. There will be no attempt to delay the issuing of documentation. Of course, a workload imposes itself upon the structures of the Home Office, but I shall do my best to ensure that documentation from the mid-term review gets to the people who need to see it, including members of this Committee, as soon as possible.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Will the Minister tell us where there is any evidence in these documents that the policies pursued in Europe against drugs have produced a reduction in drug harm, in the number of addicts and in drug deaths?

Mr. Ainsworth: If my hon. Friend studies the documentation he will see that it is a little early to consider any outcomes at all. We found the same thing when the drugs strategy was implemented in this country some time ago. We need to identify common measures. He and other hon. Members will surely agree that all the countries that are involved in the problem and making contributions to the solutions need to find a common measure for demand and supply and for assessing the situation. A lot has been done, but what we do not have, and will not have until the end of the evaluation of the action plan, is any idea about the outcomes of the action plan. It is too early to judge that. We are simply trying to arrive at measurable criteria that can be transferred from one jurisdiction to another, so that we can make comparisons.

Mr. Hawkins: I noted that the European Scrutiny Committee had particular interest in what kind of ''co-operation with Turkey'' was envisaged, and whether there had been any progress in negotiations with that country. Since the Scrutiny Committee reported on that more than a year ago, we have had clear indications that, on human rights and other grounds, it is very unlikely that Turkey could be regarded as a genuine applicant country in the foreseeable future. I share the scepticism expressed by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) about whether any of this will do any good, but I ask the Minister whether he thinks that any action with regard to Turkey will be affected by the recent decision that Turkey is so back down the list as to be almost off it.

Mr. Ainsworth: As the hon. Gentleman knows, Turkey has made applications, which increases our ability to influence that country. However, Turkey is a very real part of the problem because it is midway between the supply and demand of 90 per cent. of the heroin that reaches UK streets. There has been some progress in the form of an agreement to try to prevent the diversion of the precursor chemicals necessary for

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the production of heroin. In addition, discussions are taking place on co-operating with Turkey to tackle organised crime. There are ongoing efforts to do more, but the agreement on precursor chemicals plays a useful part in disrupting the supply of heroin to the UK.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): My impression from reading the papers is that the wheels grind awful slow and the convoy will move at the speed of its slowest ship, but the matter is urgent. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in this respect, the EU should try to move at the speed of the fastest ship? The best and most effective policies should be adopted quickly throughout the EU.

Mr. Ainsworth: I agree with my hon. Friend. I do not accept the view of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) that nothing can be done and all this is a waste of time. I do not see how we can think of ourselves as an island in this regard. We must co-operate with our EU partners and try to move things forward as effectively and quickly as possible. It is enormously frustrating that we cannot make faster progress.

If we can set some decent priorities and proper targets, our action plans will be more effective. That will take time but, at the moment, the various countries simply do not measure things in the same way, so we cannot compare what we are doing with action taken in other countries. We cannot test which policies are effective and learn from best practice in other countries because there are so many different systems. There is some evidence of policy convergence. We want the EU to put together a framework, which we can properly evaluate. The process is enormously slow and frustrating, but we are pushing to move as quickly as we can and to be as effective as we can.

Simon Hughes: On 2 September, a document was published entitled ''Implementation of EU-Action Plan on Drugs 2000–2004—Progress Review for the Member States''. It is described as prepared in the framework of the mid-term evaluation. The document is unhelpful in that it reaches no specific conclusion and merely contains a set of reports. Have the Government formed a view of what can be learnt from that document, either about the effectiveness of UK drugs policy or about other drugs policies in the EU? Has a response been prepared or is one in the process of being prepared? If so, can we see it?

Mr. Ainsworth: Many conclusions flow from comparisons between the problem in this and other countries. Beyond doubt, the drugs problem in this country is near the top end of the range compared with some of the drugs problems in the EU. There does not seem to be an overall growth in the drug problem in the EU, including in Great Britain, but the problem is far too serious. Certain trends can be identified and useful comparisons can be drawn. For example, HIV infection among needle users is far lower in this country than in the EU generally. However, the lack of genuinely comparable data makes it difficult for us to use analysis from the EU as effectively as we would like. That is why we need the action plan, but I accept that much more needs to be done.

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Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Building on the Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), does he agree that subsidiarity needs to be applied slightly differently in this area from the way in which it is applied to other areas of policy? As there is no consensus on the one magic bullet that will cure the drugs problem, we need to encourage diversity of effort throughout the EU, while adopting common measures of success, so that we can identify best practice. If we could ascertain that one particular practice was effective, would the Minister press for its broad adoption throughout the EU?

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Prepared 17 October 2002