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13 Jan 2003 : Column 472—continued

Drugs Policy

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I must announce to the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.26 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I beg to move,

We have already had a rather vigorous debate, part of which the Under-Secretary was lucky enough to miss, and inevitably a rather political one, about the Government's record on crime in general. I should like to take the opportunity of this second and slightly shorter debate to do something quite different. I want to try to make a plea to the Under-Secretary which I do not expect him to accept on the spot, but which I hope may influence his thinking and perhaps lead us to some sort of agreement over the coming months on what I regard as a critical and tragic error that the Government are currently making.

I do not doubt for a second the genuine intention of the Government and indeed the Under-Secretary, who has spoken about the matter frequently and passionately, to reduce significantly the menace of hard drugs in Britain. That is common ground in all parts of the House. Nor do I doubt for a moment that the hon. Gentleman and the Government are willing to devote resources to the effort to reduce the menace of hard drugs, both in pursuit of the supply side and the drug dealers themselves—both remotely and in the United Kingdom—and through demand-side measures, if I can put it that way, or the effort to rehabilitate those who are caught in the vortex of heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine. I do not doubt that, alongside the resources that the Government have already devoted and the increased resources that they are now devoting to that pursuit, they intend to construct what they conceive to be the best possible way forward.

I doubt none of that, but I genuinely believe that the method that the Government are currently employing will mean that a large proportion of the very many hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of taxpayers' money that they are spending on this matter will be tragically wasted. I believe that the sort of proposals that the Opposition have been making offer not necessarily the only alternative, but a serious and plausible alternative that could provide some serious and lasting benefit to society.

It is the Minister's regular taunt that, roughly speaking, I became interested in drugs at the last Conservative party conference. That is not so.

At the beginning of last year, I began investigating what was happening to young people who were on drugs. I freely admit that until I occupied my current position, I knew little about the subject. When I began investigating and talking to young people who were caught in the nexus, to those who had been caught in it, to those who were on the way out of it, and to those not only in this country but in the Netherlands and Sweden

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who had been trying to help young people out of it, I realised that there is an appalling gap between reality and rhetoric confronting this country.

The Minister tells us that 118,000 people have contact with drug treatment. He also said—honestly and correctly, I am sure—that he intends roughly to double that number through hundreds of millions of pounds of further expenditure. In practice, that means that many young people visit a form of agency or doctor's surgery and receive something that keeps them going. It may be heroin, methadone or counselling. It may help them for a while to remove themselves from the crime statistics. However, in many cases, it does little or nothing to remove them permanently and properly from the vortex into which they have descended.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Does my right hon. Friend remember visiting my constituency and the drug abuse resistance education—DARE—project, which is run so successfully in our local primary schools by the Ministry of Defence police? Does he realise that, despite the Government's good intentions, the alcohol and drug advisory service in south Wiltshire is so understaffed that it takes six months before people can see a counsellor?

Mr. Letwin: I remember the visit. I have the highest regard for DARE and its work and I am aware of the overstretch in referrals. However, even if the alcohol and drug abstinence service in my hon. Friend's constituency receives additional funding in the next round, referrals will be almost useless in many cases. They will maintain and perhaps reduce the ability, desire and, in some cases, need of some young people to engage in criminal activity, but they will not reconstruct lives.

All my experience shows that reconstructing a life that has been severely damaged and almost destroyed by heroin, cocaine or crack cocaine addiction, almost always accompanied by a cocktail of other drug and alcohol-related problems and a range of psychological and social problems, cannot be done on the cheap. Such a life cannot be reconstructed in an amateur fashion or by maintenance. That can be achieved only through repeated, intensive psychological effort in residential or crypto-residential care. If the House were so organised, a stream of witnesses could appear to testify to that from their experience.

I do not claim that every young life that needs rescuing can be saved only if the young people live on top of the shop. However, there is a chance of genuine success only if the relevant people are, from morning till night and through the night, in conditions that allow them to focus entirely on rebuilding their lives. Even then, all my experience shows that the success rate is far from 100 per cent. Relapse will occur, and people will have to go through the system twice and sometimes thrice to escape.

The power of the drugs that we are considering for an addictive personality is so great that rescue is an arduous undertaking. I do not believe that the Under-Secretary and I would disagree; I suspect that he has seen and heard many of the same things as me. I am sure that he has talked to the same sort of people as me. Much of what I am saying probably rings bells in his mind, too. I appreciate that the Government do not

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have a bottomless coffer and I therefore recommend focusing and using the limited available resources, including the additional money, on the youngest who are caught in the vortex, and not trying to deal with every case.

It is evident that if we can deal with the flow, we will tackle the stock over time. When I visited the Netherlands, I was told that the average age of cocaine and heroin addicts is currently increasing by 360 days a year. Almost no one is joining the queue. That is the most striking statistic that I know, and I have mentioned it before. The Netherlands has reached the tipping point and succeeded in persuading young people that the drugs are loser drugs and worth avoiding. That has also happened in Sweden. Enough people have been cured to begin to make the cure social. At that point, funds can be released for referrals for older people who are on drugs and to place them in intensive treatment.

We will reach the tipping point in this country by focusing and spending the money on the young and subjecting them to intensive, residential rehabilitation. We must find a means of forcing those young people into treatment. Without that, nothing else will work. Offering treatment is not enough because although the offer may be taken up, in most cases it will happen four or five years later.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): Does the right hon. Gentleman support supervised prescriptions of heroin? That was one of the most strategic planks of the policy in the Netherlands to persuade young people not only to accept treatment but to get out of the dealer's grip.

Mr. Letwin: The techniques that have been used in the Netherlands vary. However, the genuinely impressive part of the Netherlands experience is not the maintenance programmes for those who are old, but the intensive rehabilitation through abstinence of young people who have subsequently managed to escape the vortex. I do not discount the possibility of what the Under-Secretary effectively sanctions in the United Kingdom—maintenance of older drug users. It is better for people to receive methadone—bad as it is—than to rob old people to pay for that or heroin. However, that is not a cure; it simply dockets the problem. I urge moving young people out of the drugs culture through intensive, rehabilitative abstinence programmes. It is impressive that the Netherlands and Sweden have managed to achieve that.

Ms Taylor: Like the right hon. Gentleman, I have considered the way in which the matter is tackled throughout the world as well as in Britain. All the evidence shows that if young or older people do not wish to come off the stuff, it does not matter how much we try to force them. Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept the research?

Mr. Letwin: No. That is not my experience from talking to people who are in the programmes or those who are conducting them. I have been told repeatedly that the hon. Lady's contention is false. I am prepared to subject the matter to empirical investigation. I do not propose leaping at the problem. I propose conducting pilot studies of mandatory treatment for the young and

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ascertaining whether that works. The hon. Lady and I would not then have to hold a discussion in the abstract, because we would know. We should conduct the world's first serious experiment to ascertain whether we can crack the problem empirically.

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