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House of Commons

Monday 19 January 2004

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Drug Offenders

1. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): What plans he has to increase the number of offenders with drug problems who enter treatment. [148323]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): Research shows that treatment for problematic drug users works. The number in treatment has increased by 41 per cent. since 1998–99 and waiting times have reduced, but they need to reduce further. We are investing more than £400 million through the criminal justice interventions programme to make sure that offenders with drug problems have and take every opportunity to benefit from that treatment. We are on course to meet our target of 200,000 problematic drug users in treatment by 2008.

Dr. Iddon : What hope can my hon. Friend give my constituent, whom I shall call A? He served a short prison sentence and came out on 31 December. He is 32 and has been taking heroin for 16 years. He has already lost his brother to heroin and has a supportive family. This weekend, he was desperate to give up heroin and unsuccessfully tried cold turkey. We tried to get him emergency treatment but the doctor would prescribe only dihydrocodeine, the hospital did not want him and there is a three-month waiting list for the community drugs team. What hope can my hon. Friend give such people? Surely we need emergency treatment when people want to give up heroin.

Caroline Flint: I agree with my hon. Friend. We need quick and effective treatment for people in that position. We are considering how we can improve matters, especially for those who serve short-term prison sentences. We have had several pilots for those serving short-term sentences and on remand, which is also crucial. The results will be available shortly and we shall consider how we can extend the pilots.

My hon. Friend is right: we need to examine several issues. The other week, I had a meeting with

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representatives from the Department of Health and people in my Department about prescribing. We must do a job of education so that general practitioners are aware of the alternatives that should and must be available for people with specific drug use problems, especially with heroin.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Given that more than 60 per cent. of all property crime is drug-related, would it not be cost-effective to invest even more in immediate treatment, to follow up the question of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon)? May I stress to the Under-Secretary the need for early discussions with her colleagues in the National Assembly for Wales, because there are fewer than 15 treatment beds for drug addicts in the whole of Wales?

Caroline Flint: We are spending an additional £500 million, but we need to ensure that the money is well used. I hope to go to Wales and Scotland in the near future to speak to my colleagues about what they are doing. The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to identifying drug use as a reason for committing crimes. The extension of our criminal justice interventions programme—arresting people on charge, and considering how we can further spread the net to cover early identification in the custody suite and follow that through into the courts, prison or community sentences—is one way of ensuring that health treatment runs alongside criminal justice interventions.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that voluntary sector organisations have a big role to play in combating the drug problem as well as other social problems? Does she also agree that if a council such as mine in Leicester is determined to make cuts in the voluntary sector, it is likely to make the specific problem and other social problems worse?

Caroline Flint: I agree with my hon. Friend's first point that the voluntary sector provides a great deal of innovation and expertise. For a long time, especially under previous Governments, it managed without the help that the Government are providing today. Voluntary organisations can innovate, they have good practice and I encourage the expansion of their services.

If my hon. Friend would like to see me about his specific point, I shall look into it. It is a question of partnership between the drug action teams, law enforcement, the national health service and GPs, and the voluntary sector. If the action proves effective and provides results, people should consider carefully before cutting such a service.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The Department's statistics show that 149,000 drug users used some form of treatment centre last year, but British crime survey figures show that there were approximately 1 million hard drug users in the country. That means that only 15 per cent. went into treatment, for 60 per cent. of whom the outcome was failure. Only 5 per cent. of the addict population were therefore successfully treated. What more can we do to improve that figure?

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Caroline Flint: My information is that there are 250,000 problematic—class A—drug users, who cause the most crime. The hon. Gentleman's comments are interesting. We are increasing access to treatment and, as I said earlier, we are on target to reach 200,000 people in treatment. It costs money, which we are putting in. Would his party match our investment in, and dedication to, tackling the problem? I believe that the answer is no.


2. Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): What action he is taking to protect children from paedophiles operating on the internet. [148324]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): We have, in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, introduced a new grooming offence and risk of sexual harm orders to help to protect children from paedophiles who use the internet. Earlier this month, we launched the current round of our media campaign to raise awareness in children and their parents of how to use the internet safely. Through the Government's task force on child protection on the internet, we continue to work with law enforcement, industry and children's organisations on the issue. The police identify and target individuals and groups of offenders, both domestically and internationally. The National Crime Squad has implemented a database of seized images of child abuse, which is available to all forces to support investigations, and has developed a law enforcement website aimed at paedophiles looking for illegal images.

Mrs. Campbell: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will she look carefully at the case of Michael Wheeler, a Cambridge resident who was recently convicted of grooming two young girls over the internet but who did not sexually abuse either of them until they had passed their 13th birthday? Will she examine ways in which penalties can be increased for people such as Wheeler? Many parents will be looking carefully at what the Government have to say on that.

Fiona Mactaggart: The 2003 Act introduces a new grooming offence with a maximum sentence of 10 years, and allows prosecution where a paedophile travels to meet a child with the intention to commit a sexual offence following prior communications. In addition, the new provisions in the Act include tougher sentences for people who commit a sexual act with a child aged over 13 but under the age of consent. When those new powers come into force, there will be a very powerful mechanism to deal with cases such as that which my hon. Friend described.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): More than 18 months ago, the FBI gave the British police, under Operation Ore, the names of 5,000 individuals suspected of accessing and purchasing child porn. To date, 2,000 of those individuals have not been investigated and there have been only 200 convictions. Does the Minister share my concern that there has been a breakdown

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there, and will she confirm to the House today that the Government still intend those names to be investigated fully?

Fiona Mactaggart: This is an operational matter, for which the police are responsible. There have been 277 convictions, and more than half the names passed on through Operation Ore have been investigated. The priority for investigation has been decided on the basis of risk assessment so that those who have access to children are investigated first. The Home Office has given extra resources to increase the number of forensic officers available to police officers, which is required if such cases are to be followed up.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the comments made last week by her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills who said that some local education authorities have misinterpreted his Department's guidelines on photographing children in schools? That has led my county council in Essex in effect to ban parents from photographing their children in nativity plays. Everyone wants there to be the maximum number of laws and rules possible to try to minimise paedophilic activity, but will the Minister have a word with her right hon. Friend because it seems unfair for parents to be deprived of the ability to photograph their children as a result of a misinterpretation of Department for Education and Skills guidelines?

Fiona Mactaggart: I do not think that that is a problem, but I shall ensure that the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are clear. The problem might be naming children rather than photographing them, and I shall ensure that any advice that he gives is congruent with the advice that the Home Office offers through the police service.

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