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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1099—continued

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I am not convinced by the arguments on ecstasy. There is a great deal of science available, and it seems that ecstasy damages the brain. Whether that is reversible or irreversible is a point of controversy. Is my hon. Friend prepared, as he has done with cannabis, to refer ecstasy to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for a serious study?

Mr. Ainsworth: We cannot go down that road and we have made it clear that we are not prepared to do so. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has a remit to keep under review the classification of all drugs. It is free to do that and it will continue to do so. From time to time it will make recommendations to which we will have to respond. It will do so with regard to cannabis and ecstasy. There is no need for us to approach the council. The Government's position is clear on the classification of ecstasy. As we do not know what the long-term consequences of the abuse of ecstasy are on individual health, and because it kills people unpredictably, we are not prepared to reclassify ecstasy.

In our new strategy, we will focus on the most dangerous drugs, the most damaged communities and the individuals whose addiction and chaotic lifestyles are the most harmful, both to themselves and others. The misery that they cause cannot be overestimated, which is why, under the strategy, all controlled drugs are illegal and will remain so.

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We are making an unparalleled investment to tackle the harm that drugs cause. Direct annual expenditure will increase by 44 per cent. over the next three years, with a total investment of nearly £1.5 billion by 2005–06. The extra resources that we are committing to the fight against drugs demand high standards of delivery. Home Office teams will work with local partnerships and agencies to identify problems and ways of tackling them, including better mechanisms for supporting effective delivery and improved systems for monitoring and evaluating progress.

The strategy is not new—we are not starting from scratch. We are learning from, building on and adapting the 10-year strategy started in 1998. The strategy will be driven by a stronger focus on education, prevention, enforcement and treatment to prevent and tackle problematic drug use. We will deliver that key agenda by using what we have learned over the past four years—what works and what does not. The Opposition spokesman talked about the former drugs tsar and what he had to say. I wish to make it clear that the strategy is not a dog's dinner. It may be more fitting to point out that the dog barks when the caravan moves on.

Bob Russell (Colchester): Will the Minister put on record the fact that while more young people are taking drugs than ever before, they are still a minority? The vast majority of young people do not take drugs regularly. In his fight to prevent more young people taking drugs, will the Minister pay tribute to the excellent work by voluntary youth organisations and youth leaders, who play a vital role in making sure that the number of young people taking drugs is reduced and does not increase?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is partly why we are not prepared to contemplate, and the Select Committee on Home Affairs did not recommend, going down the legalisation or decriminalisation route. There is evidence that a lot of young people are deterred from experimenting with drugs by the fact that they are illegal. The majority of people do not take illegal drugs, but we should not underestimate the size of the problem. We should pick up what the Chairman of the Select Committee said—for the past 30 years, we have not had a proud record in this area.

We have one of the biggest problems in the world with illegal drug use, and nobody should be proud of Britain's record. The Conservative spokesman has an admirable ability utterly to ignore the facts at the Dispatch Box. To suggest that just a few years ago we were edging towards a solution and that everything is now going backwards is a complete travesty of the truth. Under the Conservative Government, crime doubled, and there is clear evidence that the steepest rise in problematic drug use took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. How on earth the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) can say that the position was anything other than that is strange but, in its own way, admirable. We have seen him take a similar stance on many other issues on many other occasions.

Paul Flynn: Does my hon. Friend recall that when the 10-year strategy was introduced in the House in 1998, it was supported, in every detail and target, by the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats?

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Mr. Ainsworth: I am not surprised that my hon. Friend has raised that, as he has long-standing views on the issue. There was a wide consensus in favour of the 10-year drug strategy at the time. We should remind ourselves of the current position. Just because the ex-drugs tsar has made pronouncements for his own purposes in the past few years, we should not forget that, before 1998, there was no strategy at all. Somebody had to pull people together and point them in the right direction. There was no evidence base whatsoever—that was not the tsar's fault, but it can be blamed, if we want to be blatantly party political, on the party that had been in government for a generation. The targets set by the tsar were, I accept, pulled out of thin air and taken from other jurisdictions—they were described by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary as aspirational.

Something has been achieved in the past four years, as we have at least started to build an evidence base and, with support, are pushing our policies in the right direction. It is only right, however, to review the strategy now, refocus it and learn lessons about what has not been working and what is not attainable. It would be irresponsible of us to do otherwise.

John Mann: Nobody in my constituency wants vague targets instead of quantifiable evidence-based outcomes. In that context, will my hon. Friend look at the evidence from my inquiry on the quality and variety of teaching in secondary education? Best practice can affect whether or not young people can relate to a message delivered to them, and is fundamental to whether they hear the message at all.

Mr. Ainsworth: I appreciate the depth of my hon. Friend's analysis of the problem in his constituency. He has made an important contribution to the debate that has opened up over the past year. I hope that he does not think that we have retreated from all the targets in the drugs strategy—we most certainly have not. Treatment is key to whether or not we succeed. If Opposition Members care to look at the strategy, they will see not only that treatment targets are still included, but that they are on course to be delivered and that we have strengthened them—there is now a requirement to look at the quality of the treatment provided and the number of people who successfully complete an entire course of treatment. We have strengthened some targets, but have also got rid of aspirational targets that did not help to motivate people working in this area. It is a case not of abandoning targets, but of refocusing the strategy on what is needed and what, we hope, will make a difference.

Simon Hughes: The Minister will know that we share his view that it is far better to get rid of the huge number of targets that, to use the Home Secretary's words, appear to have been plucked out of thin air and were almost certainly unachievable, and to refocus on a small number of targets which, we hope, are achievable. Treatment issues are key, as we are considering a health issue. A two-week maximum waiting time from referral to receipt of treatment is proposed in the new Government strategy. The establishment of 2,000 more intensive care programmes is also proposed. Are the Government determined to set themselves a date by which at least minimum provision is available along

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those lines in each part of the country, following the National Audit Commission's recommendation? As the Minister knows, one of the problems has been that people in some places can wait for months or years, while others receive much speedier treatment.

Mr. Ainsworth: We need not only to increase massively the amount of treatment, but to ensure that it is provided in the places where it is needed. The targets are there and the National Treatment Agency has been established to try to ensure that they are met not broadly across the board, but in localities; that a work force are developed who will enable us to meet those targets and get people into treatment on the proposed time scales; and that good-quality treatment is provided. We believe that, by the end of the 10-year strategy, we will be in a position to have doubled the amount of treatment in this country and to have places to get 200,000 people a year into quality treatment—the overwhelming majority of problematic drug users on the basis of the problem as we currently measure it.

I am surprised when Opposition Members talk about treatment, as they are currently suggesting that we pour almost the entire treatment budget into residential rehabilitation that would treat a fraction of problematic drug users. Such treatment would be wholly inappropriate for many of those people, and what would the rest of them be left to do? I do not know about the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, but I know that his right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary is not a supporter of increased public spending. Is he not one of the people who had to be hushed up during the previous election for proposing £20 billion of cuts? The Conservative party will need to explain the suggestion that we can spend the entire treatment budget on providing residential rehabilitation for a fraction of problematic drug users and either leave the rest to fend for themselves or spend more instead.

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