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13 Jan 2003 : Column 503—continued

9.35 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who has extensive knowledge of the subject. I, too, want to make the point that access to treatment is a key weapon in the war against drugs.

Everyone who has contributed to this debate agrees on one thing: drugs are an enormous menace facing our society and the epidemic sweeping through many parts of the country is extremely serious, and the Government's current response, though well intentioned, has not yet delivered the success that we seek. I urge the Government to think again about the bold idea presented by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) today. They should not dismiss it because it has come from our party, as the current set of policies being pursued by the Government is not producing the fruit that we would want. I really believe that it would be right to set up a pilot to test my party's bold and radical proposal.

I am concerned about some of the statistics on which the Government are basing some of their decisions. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann)—I enjoyed his speech—was right to draw our attention to some of the statistics. The updated drugs strategy paper is a good and worthy document, and I agree with much of it, but on page 11 it makes the unlikely claim that DAT returns suggest that the waiting time for treatment is 2.8 weeks for priority cases and 8.3 weeks for non-priority cases. On which part of the country are those statistics based?

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The police and the drug action team in Plymouth tell me that if a heroin addict wakes up one day determined to kick the habit and goes to the Harbourside centre—an excellent charity in Plymouth that helps many people—for help, the response will be, XThat is great, and we will do all that we can to help you, but there is a two-year waiting list for the treatment that you need." That is two years, not 8.3 or 2.8 weeks. I worry that Ministers are making decisions based on false information, and I urge them to check the waiting times for treatment of all kinds in all parts of the country. It is no use whatever telling a heroin addict who decides to kick the habit to come back in six months or two years. Think of all the misery and crime that will occur in that time.

I want to ask the Minister a specific question about Plymouth. Heroin has long been a nightmare for many parts of Plymouth—I have known that for many years—but the police tell me that crack cocaine is now taking hold of the streets in some of our deprived areas. They tell me that we ain't seen nothing yet, and that worries me. They do not think that the DTTO scheme is working very well, and they have started what they call the targeted referral scheme, saying to heroin addicts or crack cocaine users upstream, before they are arrested or prosecuted for an offence, XLook, we know you are stealing or shoplifting to fund your drugs habit—we are watching you, and we will get you—but at this early stage we can offer you treatment." That is not to say that they will not prosecute them, but they give them a chance to make an upstream decision to change their lives at a better time than when they are already in the dock, at which stage we can only offer them the option of facing cold turkey or going on a DTTO.

The Plymouth police have pursued the pilot scheme, which showed early promise, but there is no funding to develop it. Judge William Taylor went to Downing street on 12 November 2002—I hope that the Minister was aware of that—and asked for a specific sum to pursue that pilot scheme in Plymouth. He is a very experienced judge—the senior judge in Plymouth—and he believes that that could make a real difference in tackling the drug problem that our city faces.

The Government have not responded to that request for extra money, and if the Minister does nothing else in her winding-up speech, can she please explain what has happened to that request, and say whether the Government are willing to make that money available to help us tackle the problem of drugs in Plymouth?

9.40 pm

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) opened the debate with a plea to the Government to look at this matter constructively, and this has indeed been an extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking debate. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) described it as a seminar, and I agree that, to some extent, we have looked at this issue in that spirit. Other Members spoke in some detail from their personal experiences. In his opening remarks, my right hon. Friend spoke of his fear that, if they do not understand the appalling gap between their rhetoric and the reality, the Government's current actions may mean that literally millions of pounds of taxpayers' money will be wasted. One had only to hear of the practical experience on the ground of the hon. Member for

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Bassetlaw (John Mann) to realise the width of that gap, to which my right hon. Friend rightly drew attention. In addition to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, other Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), discussed that reality.

Ms Dari Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins: No, I am sorry. The hon. Lady was able to intervene earlier a couple of times, but time is so short that, if I am to do justice to the speeches in this debate, I cannot take her intervention.

My right hon. Friend asked what the Government's contact with drug treatment means in practice for addicts on the streets. Does it mean that addicts are receiving something? It often means, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw pointed out, that they get letters offering them jam tomorrow—sometimes many months into the future. In most cases, whatever is offered by the different treatment agencies does not take them away from drugs.

My right hon. Friend talked about the success of Ministry of Defence police DARE projects, but even in those cases referral can often involve a wait of six months before an addict sees a drug counsellor. As he said, that does not help in the reconstruction of addicts' lives. Of course, if those addicts continue to commit crime to feed their drug habit, they cause misery for the many law-abiding people whose homes are subject to the burglaries that my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster talked about. The misery that they cause through the crimes that they commit to fund their drug addiction is at the heart of what we are trying to address in this debate.

As my right hon. Friend said, what we need is intense and sometimes repeated residential or quasi-residential rehabilitation. However, we frankly admit that even that will not achieve 100 per cent. success; in many cases, addicts will need to go through such intensive rehabilitation more than once. We should target taxpayers' money on the youngest addicts in order to prevent extra people from joining the list of addicts.

I, along with my right hon. Friends the Members for West Dorset and for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), have seen the success that has been achieved in Sweden. The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) always makes the same point about Sweden, but if I may I shall lay one canard to rest. He says that one effect of what happens in Sweden is an increase in drug deaths, but we were told firmly by all the experts whom we met in Sweden that the simple explanation is that they measure their statistics much more fully. [Interruption.] I see that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw is nodding in agreement. In Sweden, the death of anyone who has the remotest link with a drug is counted as a drug death. That is why the Swedish figures are higher—they are not evidence of a failure of Swedish policy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster confirmed, Sweden is one of the success stories. I know that the Minister wants to take this matter seriously, and we need to learn the lessons of the success of the Swedish experience.

In an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) pointed out

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that many dedicated GPs are trying to help with this problem. I had a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said when he argued for the greater involvement of health professionals in drug action teams. It would help if there were a greater understanding of the health effects of drugs use by those who make the policy. My drug action team in Surrey involves health professionals a great deal, and I think that that could be repeated elsewhere with advantage.

In a well-advised intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) talked about the prevalence of drugs in prison. We must ensure that our prisons become drug free. As my right hon. Friend says, we should be able to ensure that at least those who are in custody are not receiving drugs. There has to be more coercion and much tighter supervision of prison visits.

It is essential that we stop spending British taxpayers' money on providing drugs to prisoners. The Minister may or may not realise it, but the Scottish Executive, to our amazement, have introduced a policy of spending taxpayers' money on providing drugs to inmates of Scottish prisons. I think that most people would be horrified to think that their taxes were being spent on providing drugs for prisoners, but it is happening in Scotland. If the Minister was not aware of that, I hope that he will look into it, because my colleagues in the Scottish Parliament have raised it.

In an intervention on my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) talked about the difficulties of the drinking and drugs culture, which have been made worse by the Government's relaxation of policies against alcohol. He was quite right to raise that.

When the Minister responded to my right hon. Friend, he said that he had not previously taken his alternatives terribly seriously but that he would do so now. We welcome that approach. The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted the Government to spend a great deal more. However, he has a problem in that the Government's much trumpeted drugs tsar, Keith Hellawell, was unable to support what the Government were doing; he was unable to accept their abandonment of their own drugs target and said that there was a lot of spin to disguise failure. Given that the Government's drugs tsar, so lauded when he was first appointed, talked about a culture of failure and about setting, missing and abandoning targets, the Minister has a real problem, despite his sincerity.

As my right hon. Friend said to the Minister in an intervention, we need to pilot what we are suggesting. We are not suggesting that the Government should turn round the supertanker of Home Office policy instantly and abandon everything that it is doing. Instead, let us pilot what we are suggesting against the Government's proposals and see what works. We believe that what we have suggested, along the lines of what works in Sweden, would work here.

There is undoubtedly a concern about some of the drugs charities and the way in which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster said in an excellent speech, they appear to inform vulnerable schoolchildren about drugs rather than educating them away from drugs. I hope that the Minister will take the initiative of asking

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the Charity Commission to look carefully at whether some of those organisations are entitled to charitable status. The kind of leaflets that my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster talked about appear to promote drugs or concentrate on the policy of Xharm minimisation", which is really code for legalisation. Perhaps they should not be charities; they certainly should not receive taxpayers' money.

In an intervention on the Minister and in his speech, my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon pointed out that the reality is that of 38 people who were arrested and received drug treatment and testing orders in Plymouth, 28 have been arrested and have committed further drug-related crimes while under the drug treatment and testing order. That is not an example of the Government's policy working but of the failure of Government policy that my right hon. Friend described.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) spoke, as he has done repeatedly, about the views of DrugScope—a rather discredited charitable organisation—on cannabis. The Minister said that he always took notice of DrugScope. Perhaps, in the light of the leaflets described by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, he should not take so much notice of it.

The problem is undoubtedly extremely complex. The Minister was right to talk about tackling the routes of supply of drugs. However, we need intensive policing, a point on which the Government—at least in their intentions—and the Opposition agree.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) talked about a retreat from certainty. He will forgive me for saying that the Liberal Democrats are never certain about anything, particularly not on drugs. He also said, however, that the drugs trade is a major motor for gun crime, and I certainly agree with that.

This has been a high-quality debate and I hope that the Government will take seriously the ideas proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset and my colleagues.

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