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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1105—continued

Mr. Hawkins: Some minutes ago, when I first tried to intervene, the Minister was responding to the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) and praising the work of drug action teams. Will he comment on a letter recently sent to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, by the chief executive of a drug action team? He says:

That is the reality of the confused picture that the drug action teams, which can and do provide good work, are finding. Those remarks are from someone who is trying to run a DAT, and the Government are making his job much more difficult.

Mr. Ainsworth: I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, never mind consistency of funding—DATs never

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existed when his party was in power. We need to go down the road of pooled budgets and we need to give people long planning times as well as indications of their budgets. We fully intend to do exactly that.

There will be a major expansion of services to refer people to treatment and support via the criminal justice system. We will use every opportunity from pre-arrest to court and sentencing to identify drug-misusing offenders, engage them in treatment and break the link between drugs and crime.

We will focus on the 250,000 class A drug users who account for 99 per cent. of the costs of drug abuse in England and Wales and who do the most harm to themselves, their families and their communities. We will expand treatment and support services to ensure that people get the help they need when they need it. By 2008, we will have the capacity to treat 200,000 problematic drug users each year.

The evidence that we have received from a number of police forces and treatment agencies suggests that crack cocaine use is steadily increasing throughout the UK. The problems are acute and they demand urgent action. There will be new initiatives to stem the flow of crack to the UK, police action in a number of key force areas to close local crack markets and specialist treatment programmes for crack users.

Treatment and support services will be extended to include a new package of aftercare services to help those leaving prison to rejoin society. We will make significantly more money available to plug what I consider to be the biggest gap in the drugs strategy, and provide through-care and after-care for people leaving prison and ending treatment. If we do not do that we will send those people straight back on to the market—straight back into the clutches of the dealers and straight back into crime, if indeed they do not kill themselves with overdoses. We must plug the gap, and that is one of the most important changes that we are making.

All this adds up to a radical and comprehensive package to tackle drug misuse at all levels. Over the past year debate on the issue has made great strides, with only a few exceptions. Since my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary asked for an adult debate a year ago and since the Home Affairs Select Committee's report on the Government's drugs strategy, we have managed to open up discussion. We have managed to introduce much more common sense into that discussion, and to make room for people to exchange views at every level—from the political level down to the local level. That means that teachers and local practitioners will be more confident about discussing such matters. Only by providing open debate of that kind and giving people that confidence will we be able to make the real difference that will be needed over the next few years if we are to reduce the problem of drug abuse.

3.46 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I pay tribute to the Minister, who, since taking his current position, has been entirely reasonable on this issue, as on others, and has been positive in trying to bring about the sort of constructive debate that is taking place now—with the odd exception. We need to engage in such debate if we are to meet the fundamental target that the Minister identified and reduce the amount of

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drug use, abuse and addiction, and reduce all that flows from those things. I pay similar tribute to the Minister's colleagues. We welcome the new spirit that has accompanied the arrival of the second Labour Administration, who—I say this straightforwardly—are different from the spirit of the first.

Let me also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and his colleagues from all parties on the Select Committee, including my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). I followed the Committee's deliberations from afar. It took evidence from people with personal experience of, for instance, family bereavement, who reached entirely different conclusions from each other, and who told the Committee dramatic and devastating things. I heard and read about those things. The Committee laboured hard to distil all the evidence and to ensure that it was up to date.

The Committee has done us a service. I make only two exceptions in that regard. My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I support nearly all the recommendations, but we disagreed with one recommendation on cannabis and we did not think that the Committee went far enough in respect of heroin prescribing. The report is very authoritative, and there is evidence of a huge amount of work. I want to thank the voluntary sector, in two contexts. The charity DrugScope is based in my constituency. It conducts evidence-based research, and in seeking to put its case on that evidence base it does us a great service—as do those parts of the voluntary sector mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, including faith groups and the youth service, which try to educate people about lifestyle choices that are better than those leading to addiction. It often does a brilliant job in protecting young people from the peer-group pressures from which they all suffer. In many cases it pulls them back after they have tested the water—as young people always do.

Like the Select Committee, my colleagues have done a huge amount of work. My noble Friend Lady Walmsley chaired a policy committee for a year, which went around the country taking evidence and talking to people. She took the committee's conclusions to our conference in Manchester in the spring. We had a full morning's debate and reached conclusions that, although not everyone agreed with them, followed a democratic decision-making process based on the best evidence available.

We are all trying to get the best answers and I salute the Government on their strategy, which I consider to be much more along the right lines than the last one, not least because they have dropped some of their absolutely unachievable, undeliverable targets and are focusing on the simple message that this is principally a health issue not a crime issue and that prevention and treatment are central to making sure that we break the back of what has become a nightmare in many communities, with addiction leading to crime, illness and sometimes death.

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman said that one or two members of his party might not share his view. Would they include, perhaps, Lord Alton of Liverpool, who recently chaired a superb conference in the House

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of Lords at which my views about cannabis, which are shared by leading members of the National Drug Prevention Alliance, were advanced? It was attended by some of the most authoritative speakers from Sweden, who explained how they have created a national consensus.

Simon Hughes: My noble Friend Lord Alton was a Liberal and a Liberal Democrat, but he left our party to become a Cross Bencher. I do not in any way undermine his view, but I was referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, who takes a different view from mine, as do some of my other hon. Friends. Our views do not follow a pre-ordained pattern. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), who has worked in the health service, believes that we should legalise all drugs. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) who has had international business experience, takes a very different view.

Mr. Cameron : They are Liberals—they do not have to agree with each other.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is being unfair; he knows that there are different views in all parties. We must not dishonour the debate by pretending that party allegiance is its most important factor. We must welcome the debate, which should be based on evidence.

In May this year my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) asked the Minister for some figures about the purchase cost of drugs, both now and over the past 10 years. The price of many addictive drugs has fallen considerably in the past 10 years. Between 1990 and 2002, the price of heroin fell from £90 to £63 per gram; cocaine fell from £87 to £60 per gram; amphetamine fell from £13.80 to £9 per gram; ecstasy fell from £18.80 to £7 a pill; LSD fell from £4.20 to £3.40 a tablet; and cannabis resin fell from £91.80 to £77 per ounce. The only price that has remained roughly similar over the past five years is that of crack cocaine. The concern is that, if we are not careful, illegal drugs will become cheaper and more easily accessible than alcohol. Certain drugs might become even more appealing for young people because they will be easier and cheaper to buy than a pint of lager. Drugs are easy to get hold of in normal life—young people do not have to go looking for them. That is why the issue goes beyond illegal drugs and includes alcohol, tobacco and so-called medicinal drugs that can also become addictive, such as amphetamines.

The Minister referred to the UK's terrible record of failure. Over the past 30 years, we have had more addicts than almost any other European country. That is not just my opinion—in my constituency, drug addiction is such a regular issue that I wish I could say anything but that—but is backed up by independent surveys. The Minister will be aware of the recent report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Its summary refers to a significant increase in cocaine and ecstasy use in the UK. It also refers to 44 per cent. of 16 to 29-year-olds having consumed cannabis. Another point in the report is often made by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn)—that the average age of heroin users is going down, whereas in

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other countries, such as the Netherlands, it is increasing. So we have a real problem, in that addicts are becoming younger.

That is not mere theory. Almost every week, on going home after a late sitting of the House I see a daughter of a friend of mine—she is in her 20s—sitting outside a late-night supermarket, or standing on a petrol station forecourt. She has been waiting to get money to buy some more drugs. Sometimes, she knocks on my door in the early hours of the morning. Six years ago, that young woman was at home leading a drug-free life; now, she is a prostitute on drugs. People abuse her all the time, and almost all of her family relationships have broken down. That is a tragedy. We have all met such people in our surgeries. If she survives, it will be almost a miracle.

A friend of mine who is in his 30s—he is a constituent who came to my surgery a year ago—went through 14 years of addiction to heroin and alcohol. He is now clean and doing well, so there are good news stories, but he went through a terrible period, and we should never underestimate how awful such experiences are. Another friend went through a period of going clubbing and taking ecstasy every weekend. I could see what was going on. Mondays and Tuesdays were bad, things improved a bit by Thursday, and he was ready to go clubbing again by Friday. There is, of course, a risk; every year, a few people die as a result of ecstasy use. Mercifully, in his case he grew out of it. It may have lasting effects, but the reality is that it does not pose the same addictive risk as serious drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine.

These issues confront us all, which is why this debate is hugely important. Interestingly, it has moved from the side courts to the centre court. The last time that we had such a debate, it was held in Westminster Hall; today, it is being held here because it deserves to be. It concerns one of the central issues of health and crime in our society.

Before I set out the key factors as I perceive them, I appeal to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) to look at, and to respond to, the evidence rather more readily than he and his colleagues do at the moment. However, he and I are in agreement in at least one respect, in that I, too, believe that we must treat people who are in charge of vehicles and under the influence of drugs in the same way as we treat those who drive under the influence of drink. I think that I know of the family to whom he refers, and the daughter who gave evidence. Many people are injured or lose their lives because we do not yet treat this problem seriously. I ask the Minister to talk to his colleagues in the Department for Transport. We can do more to ensure that similar tests apply to both offences. For example, the old test of whether a person can walk a straight line could be used. It is really important that we send out the message that being under the influence of alcohol or of any other drug is equally unacceptable.

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