Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1127—continued

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: The updated strategy contains a proposal to pilot refusal of bail to those who are not prepared to accept treatment. We will consider early interventions of the kind that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Cameron: I am pleased to hear it, and I look forward to seeing whether the system works.

A common theme features in what has been said to me by those involved in education, by the police and by the DAAT. When things go wrong, treatment services must be available. They must be attractive, access to them must be quick, and we must ensure that they work. As others have said today, that means that there must be more places. Although residential places are not the only answer, there are not nearly enough. According to a written answer given to me, there are only 1,900 in the country, and I support the proposal of my Front-Bench team to increase the number, while retaining all the existing treatment options.

Let me end with a plea to the Minister. This is an incredibly difficult subject. It is impossible to control from Whitehall the number of drugs that will be taken, what new drugs will appear and what will happen to the figures. If the figures do not do the right thing, I ask the Government not to return to retribution and war on drugs. That has been tried, and we all know that it does not work.

I think we are making progress. Of course, anyone who takes part in a debate like this is in danger of being called soft. Following the report's publication I was introduced in this way by a local radio station: XNow we will hear from a Conservative MP who thinks that heroin addicts should be given prescriptions for ecstasy". That was a tough one; it was difficult for me to explain my way out of it.

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1128

I think, though, that if we get this right we will have a chance to cut crime, save money, improve the health of the country and even save lives. That is definitely worth a brickbat or two.

5.7 pm

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): I am pleased to be able to contribute, and I will try to be brief.

Let me make a confession to my colleagues on the Select Committee, and to the Chairman in particular. I was a relatively new member when the Committee decided to look at the Government's drug policy. In fact, I was an entirely new member: it was at the first sitting that we drew up the topics that we wanted to investigate.

I remember the occasion well. When a colleague suggested that we investigate drugs, my immediate reaction—which I did not share with the Committee—was XWhy? Do we not all know where we stand? Drugs are a bad thing; we are all against them; people who take them are stupid or inadequate or easily led, and we know that those who sell them are horrible criminals who ought to be banged up for as long as possible". At any rate, my views were close to that. I was not looking forward to an investigation that seemed to have no real purpose. I had already made up my mind: I took a very hard line, and no one was going to make me deviate from it.

After a thorough and at times difficult series of evidence sessions, I was forced to reconsider. I still think all drugs are bad and I still think drug pushers should be given the heaviest of sentences, but I no longer believe that we have been tackling the scourge of drugs in our society in the best way possible. So I would say to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), who has just left the Chamber, that I do not mind being called radical, but I draw the line at being called liberal, for a variety of reasons.

Simon Hughes: Not related to this debate.

Ms Prentice: Indeed.

The most obvious failure in the Government's drugs policy is that young people, who are the customers of the drug dealers, do not believe in the current strictures. That is not to say that they do not believe that drugs are bad for them or that they are wrong; they simply do not believe the message as we present it. They have seen their friends take cannabis and survive; they have even heard the arguments about the beneficial aspects of some drugs and they do not consider it to be such a big deal. They also know about the downside of alcohol and tobacco, so they think that those of us wearing suits are just a tad hypocritical when we go over the top about cannabis. Indeed, had we known earlier what we know now about tobacco we might have banned it. I believe that the Government's change of tack on cannabis is right. It should remain illegal, but it should not be such a serious offence as it was, and it should not be classified the same as harder drugs. That change is logical and understandable and is much more likely to be accepted and understood. If a law is consistently flouted, it becomes useless.

We also felt that a similar change should be made in respect of ecstasy. I heard my hon. Friend the Minister say why he believes that cannot happen. We thought

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1129

long and hard, but we felt that the evidence from parents and others persuaded us that ecstasy should be reclassified. The Government have set out guidelines for clubbing, so they clearly realise that ecstasy is different from heroin and cocaine.

Heroin and crack cocaine gave rise to the most frightening problem, which was examined in probably the most difficult and stressful Select Committee sittings: namely, whether those giving evidence were users or whether their families had suffered. Initially, the families suffer most. They have goods stolen from their homes; they have to face the shame and the blame in their local communities when the addict steals from others to pay for his habit; they experience the despair and degradation of witnessing the drug take control of their son, daughter, brother or sister; and, finally, they suffer the sorrow and pain when a son or brother dies from an overdose or from using impure drugs. We would all agree that, for parents, watching a child die a painful and horrible death that they can do nothing to prevent must be a most harrowing experience. The parents who have been mentioned today, Tina Williams and Fulton Gillespie, helped me understand why we had to change the policy. I believe that it is right for the Government to concentrate their resources on the 250,000 or so chaotic drug users and at the same time bring down the full force of the law on those who traffic drugs and prey on those drug abusers.

I read the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on heroin use. It is a brave report and I understand many of the pleas that he makes. I was particularly concerned by his constituents' negative response to the National Treatment Agency. I hope that that is not typical around the country.

An even greater concern is that there are simply not enough agencies around, which is why it is right to concentrate on prevention and treatment. Some GPs have little understanding of or sympathy with drug users and need training to ensure that they approach the problem more positively and help young people. That is why drug abusers are often alienated from their GPs. They are very reluctant to come before certain professionals because they do not believe that they will get an appropriate response. I therefore hope that the Government's changes in respect of prevention and treatment will make a big difference.

In telling us about the lack of available treatment, Tina Williams described her son, who is a heroin addict:

I do hope that the philosophy that now underpins the Government's strategy will ensure that Tina Williams' experience will not be repeated.

I want to underline the plea from the Chairman of the Select Committee for at least a pilot on injecting rooms. The hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) described the situation in inner cities, parks and open spaces, and on the landings of tower blocks. Finding needles is not the way for young people to learn that drugs are a bad thing, and I hope that the Government will look again at the issue.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said that the original strategy was too ambitious, but in my view it was simply wrong, and the drugs tsar has to

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1130

take some responsibility for that. The Government should probably be commended for recognising that they were wrong, and for changing course. No one is ignoring the dangers of drugs; it is those dangers that have led the Committee to reach its conclusions. I did not expect the Government to agree with every one of its recommendations—much as I would have liked them to—but I hope that the new strategy will be simply the first update, and that they will return to this issue periodically. In doing so, I hope that they will continue to use our report as a reference point.

I shall finish by briefly quoting Tina Williams again, because it is the families of drug users who really feel the brunt of the problems that arise:

drug addiction—

I hope that the Government's updated drug strategy will give Ms Williams hope, and bring about fulfilment of it.

Next Section

IndexHome Page