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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1096—continued

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman knows that I do not agree with him. The signals that we send to young people are important. I have just talked about those who suffer death or serious injury as a result of drug induced driving. He says that cannabis has killed no one, but there are many cases in which the person responsible for a fatal accident committed the driving offence as a result of the use of cannabis alone.

Mr. Cameron: I had to think long and hard about the problem when I served on the Select Committee. Does my hon. Friend accept that the signals argument goes both ways? What signal does it send to young people that ecstasy is in the same class as heroin and cocaine?

Mr. Hawkins: My answer is straightforward: it sends a valuable signal. I have no desire for our opposition, which is based on the tragic experience of people like Leah Betts' parents, to change. We do not want to send out the signal that heroin is less serious now.

The Government have to take notice of what the respected schools health education unit has discovered as a result of the Government's signals. The Minister will be aware of the media surveys that show that almost every young person who does not follow politics or take note of the details of what we say in the House thinks that cannabis is legal. They have seen the general message. The figures from the unit confirm a huge jump in the use of cannabis.

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The number of boys in their early teens who smoke cannabis has rocketed in just two years since the Government started to give every young person the impression that cannabis is legal. Some 29 per cent. of those aged 14 and 15 said last year that they had tried the drug compared with only 19 per cent. who admitted using it in 1999. A large-scale research project found that school children are increasingly likely to believe that cannabis is safe and has no down sides. The 10 per cent. jump in young drug users reversed a previous decline in drug taking by school children which was reported by the same research group in the second half of the 1990s. That was when Conservative Ministers were trying to clamp down hard on crime in general. Indeed, crime had dropped for the first time since the second world war as a result of tough anti-crime policies.

The Government's mistaken signals have reversed that. There has been a huge increase in crime, much of it drug related. The Prime Minister said, in his much vaunted soundbite, that he would be Xtough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", but the biggest single cause of crime is the use of drugs. The greatest single cause of crime stems from those who are addicted to drugs and are funding their drug habit by acquisitive crime. The Government have not been tough on the causes of crime.

Nearly 16,000 pupils were asked to complete questionnaires at 334 schools.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We were told at the beginning of the debate that there was a 15-minute limit on speeches following the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). It seems that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) is being given a great degree of leniency.

Madam Deputy Speaker : The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) is not being given any degree of leniency. The 15-minute limit applies only to Back-Bench Members. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) was exempted from the limit because he is the Chair of the Select Committee.

Mr. Hawkins: You will confirm, of course, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I had confirmed with you in the Chair what the position was before I rose.

As I have said, nearly 16,000 pupils were asked to complete questionnaires at 334 schools. The responses showed a similar boom in girls using cannabis. In 1999, 18 per cent. of girls aged 14 and 15 had smoked cannabis. However, last year the figure was 25 per cent. The survey covered 15,881 pupils aged between 10 and 15. The findings are severely at variance with what was said by the Prime Minister and other Ministers when they first came to office, proclaiming their commitment to the so-called war on drugs. Instead, the figures have gone dramatically in the wrong direction.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): I hoped to bring the hon. Gentleman out of his fantasy world into the world of reality. He talks about the majority of crime being committed by drug users and refers to it as acquisitive crime. Yes, that is true. However, the

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Committee did not discover that those who took ecstasy were among that group. The hon. Gentleman must think seriously about the findings set out in the report and about the scientific evidence. He must think again about placing ecstasy in the same class as heroine and crack cocaine. Ecstasy is qualitatively different.

Mr. Hawkins: I entirely disagree with the hon. Lady. She talks about science, and I shall quote once again from one of the reports on the recent figures in the recent survey. It states:

that is a reference to Labour Ministers—

the hon. Lady is talking about science—

Another scientific study showed that it is five times more likely to cause cancer than tobacco. The physical and mental health of an entire generation of youngsters is being put at risk because of the Government's willingness to accept the drugs agenda of a small liberal metropolitan elite.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us what his party's policy is on the classification of cannabis.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister heard me say earlier—I have said exactly the same to him in Committee—that when we come to office, any changes that we make will be evidence based. We believe, unlike the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice), apparently, in examining the science. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset has always said, as has my right hon. Friend the leader of the Opposition, that we will try to do everything on the basis of evidence, and not on the basis of the pro-legalisation fantasies that are shared by a number of Labour Back-Benchers.

I recognise that the Minister takes these issues seriously. That being so, he needs to examine the experience that we have had in visiting intensive rehabilitation clinics in Sweden, where they have managed to create a social consensus that illegal drugs are so damaging to society that all the forces in society need to work together to try to take illegal drugs out of the system. There is a social consensus in which teachers and head teachers, parents and society at large do not tolerate illegal drug taking. As a result of that, there is far less acquisitive crime and far fewer drug addicts. The population is healthier. We need to try, if we possibly can, to use the evidence of what has been done in Sweden and the evidence of the more successful rehabilitation clinics that I have visited in this country, such as the excellent Promise centre in south Kensington, where I met some of the addicts and their families only two or three weeks ago, to ensure that we have a more sensible and effective anti-drugs policy than the Government's failed policy.

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3.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and all members of the Committee, for the thorough and thought-provoking way in which the Committee's recommendations were produced earlier in the year.

The report and all the work that went into it has made a crucial contribution to the Government's policy, although we were not able to agree with all of the Committee's recommendations. For example, we have different views on the reclassification of ecstasy. Ecstasy is a drug that has not been misused to the degree that cannabis has, or for the same length of time. Knowledge of the long-term health consequences of the use of ecstasy is not as well founded as it is in respect of cannabis, but people die as a result of taking it. I believe profoundly that much of the harm minimisation work that is necessary to save the lives of those who are abusing ecstasy can still take place without any need to reclassify it. I hope that we proved that when we published the safer clubbing guidance earlier in the year. We were therefore not able and not minded to accept the Committee's recommendation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South is already aware that we did not support the Committee's request that we consider a provision for injecting rooms. However, many of the Committee's other recommendations have been extremely valuable and they have been fully embedded in the updated drugs strategy. For example, the Committee's call for a renewed emphasis on harm minimisation and for the focus of education to be on class A drugs and problematic drug users now stand as central features of the new updated strategy.

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