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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1142—continued

Paul Flynn: I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman's speech enormously. Does he recall that during the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, the form of alcohol concerned was distilled spirit, the most concentrated and deadly form of alcohol that killed many people because they could not control the alcohol content? Illegal drugs are in the hands of criminals and they are being sold in their most dangerous form. If there is a system of licensed regulation, the likelihood is that much weaker forms of the drugs would be available.

Pete Wishart: I am making the point that if we introduce illegal drugs to a legal market, we may see legal drugs competing for that youth market. Manufacturers will try to develop new products to entice young entrants to the marketplace. As well as having alcopops, we might have cannabis candies or ecstasy allsorts. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that that would be a health disaster. Prohibition has not been a success, but legalisation would make matters 10 times worse.

Hon. Members have looked at third ways to solve other problems, so I propose a third way to tackle illegal drugs. To their credit, the Government are crawling towards that, however ham-fisted their approach. We need reclassification to be realistic and credible, especially for young people. It is nonsense to include ecstasy in the same category as heroin and cocaine—that exaggerates the danger of ecstasy but diminishes the danger of heroin and cocaine—but it does not make sense to include it in the same category as amphetamines and barbiturates, as that has the reverse effect. What is wrong with broadening the classifications? Why can we not have more drugs categories, which would make more sense than current classifications?

I said that the Government's approach to drugs is ham-fisted because I still do not know what they want to achieve. Throughout the UK, there is confusion about the Government's strategy. In the Criminal Justice Bill, a great hokey-cokey is going on—one foot is in on the reclassification of cannabis, but one foot is out, as the Government want increased tariffs for class C offences. No wonder no one knows what is going on. It is almost possible to believe that the Government will lead us to the top of the hill on decriminalisation only to take us all the way down again. It is incumbent on them to tell us what on earth is going on.

If there is confusion in England, there is even more in Scotland. Drug laws remain reserved to Westminster, but no consideration is given to the fact that we have our own legal system in Scotland, as well as our own policing arrangements. As for changing drugs laws, the Scottish Police Federation has said that the downgrading of cannabis to class C would make little practical difference. We do not have a system of cautions in Scotland, so people who are found in possession of small quantities of cannabis will still be reported to the procurator fiscal. The change in the law makes no sense to Scotland. I am disappointed that not one Labour Back Bencher from Scotland is in the Chamber tonight. Are they not interested at all in drug laws? It is a disgrace that not one of those 56 Members are here tonight.

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In conclusion, I congratulate the Government on attempting to unravel the whole drugs package. There is not one drug problem, just as there is not one solution, and they are beginning to realise that. I welcome reclassification—as early as 1997, the Scottish National party suggested that route. Anyone looking at the issue of drugs will agree that the available resources should be targeted on the drugs that cause the most harm—heroin and cocaine. Harm reduction is the sensible approach, but for goodness' sake, the Government must ensure that they achieve clarity in their approach or the strategy will go the same way as the many others before it—forgotten and irrelevant.

6.7 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): I warmly welcome the updated drugs strategy, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and his Committee on their report. It is a robust and valuable contribution, and has opened up the debate.

My office, too, has been looking at the problems faced by drug addicts—we have been talking to them and doing some research which, frankly, has been distressing. The average age of the addicts we spoke to was 22. Ninety per cent. of them had no educational qualifications and 80 per cent. left school before completing their education; 60 per cent. had suffered a family breakdown or serious family bereavement. All of them had been on soft drugs, which they had used before going on to heroin. Most were addicted to more than one drug, not just heroin. Several of them were using crack cocaine and emphatically told my researcher, Declan McHugh, and me that after using crack they used heroin to bring them down. Their situation is therefore extremely distressing.

More than 60 per cent. of those addicts admitted to committing a crime to feed their habit, and more than 50 per cent. said that they had lost their job as a consequence. All of them were unemployed. More than 30 per cent. had been in a state care home. They were tragic cases, feeling that no one wanted them then and that no one wants them now—that was a desperate thing to come to terms with. Many of them said that they no longer got a buzz from heroin and that that had gone a long time ago. They said that they simply needed heroin and that without a fix, they began to rattle and could not survive. Our research told us clearly that young people use this stuff out of desperation. Sometimes they start because it is a bit of fun or because their friends are doing it, but they soon become controlled by it and desperate to get away from it.

If the policy is to be effective—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has been very warm to my constituents who have spoken to him about the issue on a number of occasions—it has to start with what we know about the problem of use of drugs. If we do not understand that, we simply will not get it right. When we did our research, people constantly said that they needed heroin to block out their lives. They told us that it eclipsed their minds, that it was the only substance available to them and that there was nothing else that could block out reality. It was a desperate experience to listen to them. One or two of the younger ones were in

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such terrible turmoil when they spoke to us about their habit that they found it impossible to continue and left the room. We were very uncomfortable and depressed about opening a door by encouraging them to tell us their life histories without necessarily being able to close it with effective treatment.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that this is a matter of urgency and a serious issue for us to get our heads around. Hon. Members have suggested that we must get real. When the people involved are young, vulnerable, very poor, coping with tragedy and are often without families, and are living rough, in care homes or on deprived estates, that is getting very real. That is the reality in my constituency. When we put money in for regeneration, we must see that our aims will not be achieved if we do not reduce drug dependency, as both issues are tied together so closely. The matter is not exclusively one for the Home Office or the Department of Health; it is also a matter of employment and most definitely relates to local government and housing. All those issues are impacting on the lives of the young people involved. Building on that knowledge and acknowledging that the needs of individuals are different in every case tells us that, if the policy is to be effective, we need not only to build on our knowledge about the problem of use of drugs, but to accept that the policy must be flexible to need and respond to the needs of individuals. The more we do that, the more we will have a chance of achieving success.

I am very pleased that there is a robust determination to help people to cut the dealer out of their lives. Our taking that stance is long overdue. The young people who spoke to us said that the dealers were like crows on their shoulders wherever they went. They said that if they had money in their pockets, the dealers were there and wanted to sell to them. We must cut the dealer out of their lives. The prescription of heroin in supervised conditions with careful treatments that are part of the overall process is very valuable. I interviewed people in their mid-30s and early 40s who will be permanently on heroin. We must come to terms with that fact. I do not want such people permanently to be dependent on heroin and committing crimes to feed their habit. We must allow them to control their habit and we must provide support, and prescription gives us the opportunity to do so.

I am very pleased that we are focusing our attention on the problematic drug user. Such a person will be devastating his or her family's lives and the community in which he or she lives. The policy is beginning to resonate and to show that it is one that we can deliver.

I should like to persuade my hon. Friend the Minister that the updated drugs policy needs to widen opportunities and increase services, which must be available 24/7 if they are to be effective. Inevitably, there will be a problem with having enough professionals quickly enough to allow us to respond now to the needs of our communities.

I would also like to persuade my hon. Friend to look at an example in my constituency. We have a group of parents called Parents Against Narcotics in the Community—PANIC. They have coped with these problems and enabled their children to survive heroin and crack cocaine dependency. They have expert knowledge second to none, and they can tell us all. They do not need to read the book; they have lived the

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experience. They are delivering a service to a group of people in my constituency and I recommend them as a model for others. If we cannot train enough professionals or get the supply of support and services in place quickly enough, let us use the network of support that is already there.

I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) talk about Tina Williams, a first-class female who has coped robustly with her own family and is now determinedly coping with the problem on a much wider scale. It is a joy to hear the young people speak of this female. She gives them hope and a hot meal, and their only opportunity to have a wash and brush-up and to feel decent and human. She makes them feel human. This woman needs all the commendations that we can give her. I am delighted that she is in my constituency and that she is running PANIC for the people of Stockton. They say that, without her, they would be desperate. So, let us use the resources that are there for us. Parents and grandparents want to help; they are there. Ex-addicts want to help; it makes them feel that they are giving something back when so much has been given to them.

I also want to ask the Minister to consider the question of employment. Drug addicts need to feel wanted, for the sake of their self-esteem. They need to know that their talents and skills are recognised. Progress to work is excellent, but I want to persuade my hon. Friend to look at the Asian experience. There, employment is central to all treatment for drug addicts, and the success rate in getting addicts clean, involving employment, has been staggering. If they can do that in India, we can do it here.

The updated drugs strategy is first class. Individual treatment and support are crucial, and the prescription of heroin will cut out those disgraceful, disgusting dealers who are earning £8 billion a year in Great Britain selling the stuff to our youngsters. Cutting them out is long overdue. Well done!

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