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13 Jan 2003 : Column 481—continued

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that the Minister is arguing for a multifaceted approach and that he has criticised what I thought was the shrewd and noble focus of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset on a specific and valuable proposal, can he tell me and the House his specific proposal today to tackle the horrifying exacerbation of the drugs problem that comes about through the virtually unrestricted circulation of drugs in prison, to which reference was made earlier?

Mr. Ainsworth: If the hon. Gentleman believes that there is some easy answer on the total eradication of

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drugs in prisons, please let us have it, as we have put in a lot of effort on that over some time. We have mandatory testing in prisons and the positive results have fallen considerably, which probably indicates a degree of success. The comprehensive counselling, assessment, referral, advice and through-care services programme is considering how to advise people and providing them with treatment wherever possible, carrying them right through. We are looking to beef up the back end of the CARATS programme to provide effective through-care and aftercare for prisoners, but of course the Prison Service needs to do everything it can to try to keep drugs out of prisons. All of us in the House would urge it to continue to do that.

Mr. Osborne: My constituency contains Styal women's prison, which is the second largest women's prison in England. The chief inspector of prisons, who recently inspected it, estimated that some 40 per cent. of the prisoners were on heroin, although the Government think that the figure is much higher. Styal still does not have a proper drug detoxification unit, partly because it has changed from a small to a large prison in the past couple of years. Will the Minister consider the particular case of Styal prison and its desperate need, as identified by the chief inspector, for a drug detoxification unit?

Mr. Ainsworth: Yes, I will. We are happy to consider that case, but I ask the hon. Gentleman—this is as true in the community as it is here—to consider who should take the decisions as to where and whether a detox programme is needed in a particular area or in a particular establishment. I suggest that there are many other issues on which he would come to the House and argue that, in imposing a rigid system, rehab would be provided across the board, even where it was not necessarily the most appropriate input, which is exactly what I am arguing now. That is not a decision for Ministers. It would be far better taken in the locality following consideration of its needs. Detox is about 10 times more expensive than some other interventions, so we are talking about big money here. If we provided residential rehabilitation where it was not needed, we would be wasting money that badly needs to be spent in other areas.

Ms Abbott: On the question of drugs in prisons, my hon. Friend will be aware that I was a graduate trainee with the Home Office many years ago, and I worked in the prisons department. There are no easy answers, but some straightforward things could be done, including regularly searching warders for drugs, which does not happen at present. Restrictions on visitors were referred to earlier. Also, we must make absolutely sure that there are no vestiges of the attitude that I saw in the prisons department 20 years ago among those at prison governor grade—at least if the prisoners are spaced out of their heads, they are easier to manage. I do not have a magic solution, but those simple things would go some way towards clearing drugs out of prisons.

Mr. Ainsworth: One hopes that those attitudes have been eradicated from the Prison Service and that we are seriously considering how to help people as much as we can, but, as the right hon. Member for West Dorset says, the drugs strategy also needs to address the problem of

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young people, as the right hon. Member for West Dorset says. If we do not cut off tomorrow's problematic drug users, we shall wind up having treated one set of people as others are coming along behind them to provide the same problem. We estimate that there are about 250,000 problematic drug users in this country. If he is suggesting, as he appears to be, that many of them can effectively be abandoned so that we can spend the money that is available on a relative few, that will not help us to cut the crime that is caused by the drug problem in our country.

John Mann (Bassetlaw): My hon. Friend says that decisions on what forms of treatment should be available need to be made at local level. Who should make those decisions, and what criteria and evidence base should they use to judge success?

Mr. Ainsworth: In the first instance, it has to be the drugs action team. We must ensure that the DAT is properly structured and can make a good analysis of all the area's needs, and that all the relevant local agencies have a proper input. It is our responsibility to ensure that there are adequate resources for DATs to commission services, and then we must hold them to account. I do not see how we can impose a rigid system from the centre on every area, insisting that there should be so many rehab places. People nearer to the problem in a particular area will understand its size, structure and complexity and will seek to commission services to deal with it. That is common sense, and it would use the money available in the most cost-effective way.

John Mann: The majority of people on my DAT, like every other, are not from the health professions. What other part of the national health service makes health decisions through people such as council officers, police and probation officers, rather than health professionals?

Mr. Ainsworth: DATs cannot consist solely of health professionals. Other people, including some from the local authority, need to have an input.

I have spoken for longer than I should. I commend the updated drugs strategy to the House. I ask the House to reject the motion and support the amendment. There are no simple solutions to this problem, but the updated drugs strategy builds on the work that has been done and the lessons that have been learned over the past four years. Only by pursuing it with vigour and ensuring that we deliver do we stand a chance of reducing the significant drug problem that we have in our country, which causes so much crime and misery. The Government are absolutely pledged to that. It is a major priority for us. I commend the amendment to the House.

8.13 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Something rather interesting is happening. We are edging towards the point at which we have a sensible, rational debate on the problems of drugs in this country—the second debate on the subject in this Chamber in about five weeks, and that is a precedent. The issue is no longer a peripheral one and it is being approached sensibly, without sloganising or fixed attitudes. The Home Affairs

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Committee report was a great help in that process, as was the approach taken by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). I do not agree with everything in the motion, and I will explain why, but I commend him for the manner in which he set out his ideas.

We are witnessing a retreat from certainty, and that is a very good thing, because none of us can be certain about what is the right approach. There is conflicting evidence, and various initiatives have been tried but have failed. We all edge our way forwards. What is the firm ground? We can all accept—it is explicit in the motion—that the drugs trade is a motor of crime. I was certainly convinced of that when I was chairman of a police authority in Avon and Somerset. I saw that the drugs trade was a significant problem not only in inner-city Bristol but throughout the force area, driving burglary, street crime and car crime in rural as well as urban areas, as people often found that the pickings were richer out in the country, where property was perhaps less well defended. On the back of that, circumstances were created in which organised crime and gun crime could prosper, and many evils resulted.

We can also all agree that we want to be effective in dealing with the supply and distribution of hard drugs. Importation is clearly a factor. I am still critical of the extent to which the Government's efforts have been focused on closing down some of the import routes, especially in central Asia. I have been concerned for some time that the diplomatic effort in that area has been insufficient. Police officers in Bristol have also complained strongly about the West Indies, suggesting that every plane arriving from Jamaica for some time has been a source of hard drugs in the Bristol area. I am not convinced that the interdiction efforts of either Customs and Excise or the intelligence services have been robust enough.

I am sorry to say that recent figures from Customs and Excise show that, far from an improvement in performance, less cocaine and heroin have been seized recently. In 2000–01, 9,463 kg was seized; the following year it was down to 9,007 kg; and in the first half of the current year the figure was only 3,639 kg, which suggests a marked decrease in seizure rates. I accept that there is an element of serendipity about whether there is a big seizure at a particular time, but the figures do not suggest that Customs and Excise is winning the war. Perhaps more effort should be made.

I hope that we can all agree that not all drugs are the same in their harmful effects. I find it hard to identify a psychotropic drug that does not have any harmful effects. However, even if we accept that all drugs have some harmful effects, it is nevertheless a nonsense to pretend that class A drugs—the hard drugs—are equally as dangerous as some of the drugs classified as class C, or which are about to be reclassified as such. The problem with not recognising that fact is that it undermines everything else that we say about the subject. It is no good asserting to young people that cannabis is as dangerous as heroin, because they do not believe it. They know that that is not true, and to do so undermines everything that we do. We must therefore look at the problem not only of insulting the intelligence of the community whom we are trying to influence but of misdirecting police effort and resources away from where they can be effective in dealing with drugs that are

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proven to kill, towards those that are not proven to kill and which may have a less harmful effect than fully legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.

My fourth point concerns dealing with the user, and this is where the motion of the right hon. Member for West Dorset really comes into effect. We are, I hope, reaching a consensus that dealing with the possession of drugs as if it were a criminal offence requiring a custodial sentence is nonsense. Apart from anything else, to do so puts the person in question into a context in which they will be encouraged to take drugs. Indeed, as has already been discussed, on coming out of prison they may find themselves on drugs that are harder than those that they were on when they went in. There is some evidence of an improvement in the Prison Service's performance in that regard; nevertheless, a very real risk exists.

It is clear that that point does not apply when there are aggravating circumstances. Much was said in a previous debate about driving under the influence of drugs. We do not treat that problem seriously enough, and there should be greater awareness of it. It has been suggested, not least by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), that a halfway stage of Xsubstantial possession" should be recognised. That would create a threshold that both the police and the user can identify and understand by establishing a quantity that is considered likely to be used for purposes other than personal, or directly social. In my view, there is a strong argument for that.

The question, therefore, is: what do we do with the user? The motion of the right hon. Member for West Dorset advances the proposition that any new money should be put solely into the treatment of the young. Although I accept that his proposition would have merit in the context of a wider approach, my worry is that other improvements would not result. I am thinking of the older user, who needs continuing and enhanced assistance. As we know, the availability of facilities across the country is patchy, and in many parts there is an unacceptably long period of referral and an unacceptably weak support system.

Pilot schemes and initiatives are under way to couple release from prison with continuing rehabilitation. Here, I pray in aid a chief superintendent in my constituency, who has written to me commending the pilot scheme in Bristol known as the prolific offender scheme. The Minister nods, so he is obviously familiar with it. The chief superintendent says that what is desperately needed is for that scheme—which provides continuing support for prolific offenders within a regulated environment outside prison, including support with drug addiction—to be extended across the police force area. That requires money and resources. It requires resources from the Home Office, and support from the health service in providing the right mix of personnel. I do not agree entirely with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who said that only medical staff have a role in this regard. A more holistic approach would be of benefit. The probation service clearly has something to say on the subject of prolific offenders in particular, and something to do if we are to protect our communities effectively.

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