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Westminster Hall

Thursday 22 January 2004

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Illegal Drugs Trade (Northern Ireland)

[Relevant documents: Eighth Report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 2002–03, HC 1217-I, and the Government's response thereto, First Special Report, Session 2003–04, HC 180.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Angela Smith.]

2.30 pm

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con): Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Mr. O'Hara.

Mr. Mates : I beg your pardon, Mr. O'Hara. That, too, has changed since I was last here. I was about to say that Labour Whips are getting better looking.

It gives me great pleasure to open this debate on the report by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs on the illegal drugs trade and the drug culture in Northern Ireland. I put on the record our thanks to the many witnesses who spoke frankly to us about their concerns. I pay tribute to those who are working hard on the front line—in enforcement and in health and social services—to tackle the problems caused by the drugs trade. We were very impressed by the commitment and energy that they bring to their work, which is often difficult and sometimes dangerous. I also express our thanks to the Minister and to hon. Members who were not on the Committee for attending the debate. We are glad to see them, and I am sure that their support for a debate on this important subject will be much appreciated in Northern Ireland.

The previous Northern Ireland Affairs Committee first considered the issue of drugs in 1995–96. At the time, demand for drugs in Northern Ireland was relatively small. None the less, the Committee warned that that drug-free status could not be taken for granted. Seven years on, although the main drug of choice is still cannabis, there is a flourishing market for ecstasy, and increasing evidence of demand for heroin, cocaine and even crack cocaine in some areas.

In the intervening period, the development of the peace process has enabled organised crime to flourish. One often talks of the peace dividend, but the growth of organised crime represents a peace penalty. The reduction in security and surveillance measures has allowed organised crime to move into the drugs world and to operate more freely than before.

Criminals, including paramilitaries, have exploited and even nourished the growing demand for drugs. One witness warned us that Northern Ireland had three years to get its drugs strategy right if we were to prevent an explosion of hard drug use. Such warnings, when set alongside the other evidence in our report, need to be taken seriously.

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Our report was published last November, and the Government response was published last week. It is appropriate to note that the reclassification of cannabis comes into effect in a week's time, on 29 January. The debate is therefore timely.

Although the Government's response contained some helpful comments, our overall impression was that it was disappointing. Fundamentally, it lacks the sense of urgency that will be necessary if we are to prevent Northern Ireland's drug-using population from reaching critical mass. I therefore hope that the Minister will be able to give us further reassurances.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP): One welcomes the Government's general response, but is there not a degree of absent-mindedness in the way in which they speak about not allowing heroin to get a foothold? We discovered that it had more than a toehold not only in Ballymena, but in North Down and elsewhere. The Government are surely not in touch with reality, and the issue of cannabis, which is causing confusion in the minds of the police and others, will lead to more problems.

Mr. Mates : The House will note the remarks of the hon. Gentleman, who lives and works in that part of the world. That is, indeed, the situation, which is one reason why we tried to give a sense of urgency to our warnings that something needed to be done.

Our inquiry covered enforcement, education, prevention and drug treatment. Our primary concern as regards enforcement remains the cannabis trade. As the Government response acknowledges, there is a legitimate concern that serious criminals will use the profits from the cannabis trade to cross-subsidise other activities, including fostering a greater demand for harder drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. The whole of the United Kingdom is getting into a muddle because of the reclassification of cannabis. We found evidence in Northern Ireland that people think that it is already legal to use cannabis, which, of course, it is not. It is not the Minister's fault that the reclassification is happening, but it will have consequences for her at the Northern Ireland Office. It must be made clear to the whole community in Northern Ireland that although cannabis use has been reclassified for reasons best known to the Home Secretary, it remains a criminal activity and should be treated as such.

We welcome the continued commitment of the Police Service of Northern Ireland drugs squad to tackling the supply of cannabis, but remain to be convinced that it will get the help that it needs from enforcement agencies in Great Britain and overseas. Once cannabis becomes a class C drug, it will be less of a priority for Customs and its overseas counterparts than other matters that claim their time, so it will become harder for the PSNI to make a case for seeking assistance from those agencies to disrupt the supply at the most effective point, which is as likely to be in the Netherlands or Spain as in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister assure us that the continuing importance of cannabis to organised crime in Northern Ireland will be impressed on the other agencies, and that there will be no diminution in the efforts to tackle the trade, wherever it appears?

On education, we acknowledge in our report the difficulty of conveying a message about the danger of drug use to young people. We recognise the reality of the

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situation presented to us by the Health Promotion Agency: for many young people, the portrayal of drug use as inexorably leading to addiction, antisocial behaviour and criminality is unconvincing; it does not tally with their experience. There is a fine line between appearing to exaggerate the harm that drug use can undoubtedly cause and impressing on potential users the risks that they take—especially with their health—when they experiment with illegal drugs. One of the answers to the problem appears to be to start communicating the message early. We are grateful for the Government saying that a primary-level programme is being piloted in some schools. We hope that the outcome of the programme will be reviewed and acted on as quickly as possible.

For the remainder of my time, I shall focus on the health issues associated with the drugs problem. Although we knew that the situation in Northern Ireland was different from that in mainland Britain, we were surprised to discover how little prepared Northern Ireland was in some respects. That was particularly the case in relation to class A drugs and the facilities needed to treat users. Official approval for a programme of substitute prescribing as a means of treating heroin addiction was not granted until last February, and there are only eight needle exchange schemes in operation at community pharmacies. We were told that some drug users were deterred from using them because it was difficult to do so discreetly. None of us will forget being told that drug users in Ballymena had to hide behind the pharmacy's sunglasses rack in order to exchange their needles in privacy.

The Government's response on those and other points leaves something to be desired. We were told that the extension of the needle exchange scheme is merely under review and that pharmacists are satisfied with the siting of closed-circuit television cameras in and around their shops, but did the Government also seek the views of needle users who are legitimately and responsibly using the pharmacies' services? It appears not.

Some of the most telling evidence that we received came from a panel of health and community workers who have regular contact with hard drug users. Their primary concern was the risk that intravenous drug use would lead to a greater prevalence of blood-borne viruses, such as HIV and hepatitis C, in Northern Ireland. They were very disturbed that a hepatitis C strategy, which was scheduled for issue in summer 2002, has yet to appear. When we asked about its progress, we were told that plans for a strategy had been put on hold because staff were needed to deal with severe acute respiratory syndrome. Of course, SARS did not emerge as a threat until 2003. In their response to the report, the Government say that a strategy will now be developed in 2004. It seems that that strategy will be at least two years later than promised.

That case typifies our concern about the lack of urgency in dealing with drug use in Northern Ireland. Although SARS is obviously a concern, for the present it remains a relatively small risk. On the other hand, drug use that is likely to lead to the spread of hepatitis C is already present and flourishing in Northern Ireland's community. One might add that the failure of the

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Government to provide other facilities such as needle exchange encourages drug users to behave in ways that will encourage such diseases to spread.

When we went to Dublin and the Netherlands to discuss their drugs policy, people told us that we were lucky that the situation in Northern Ireland was not worse. However, they also said that it could get a lot worse rather quickly, and that if we were not careful we would find ourselves in a mess. We were warned that if we do not put the facilities in place to deal with the problems of hard drug use before it becomes an issue, it will take us years, possibly decades, to get on top of the problem. That was the case in mainland Britain all those years ago when hard drug use started to emerge.

In all seriousness, I tell the Minister that this is an urgent matter. An impressive framework for the drugs strategy has been put in place over the past seven years but, with the best will in the world, it will not help us if the number of heroin users suddenly rises and we do not have the beds and the support services to treat and rehabilitate them or the facilities to stop users sharing needles and infecting each other with hepatitis or HIV.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I see from the report that the Committee thinks that voluntary organisations must be involved. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the dangers is that because so many community and voluntary organisations have been involved directly in trying to resolve the troubles, as we know them, they have not been as involved in other social ailments? The Government need to invest in that.

Mr. Mates : The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. However, the troubles, as we know—or knew—them have been over for quite some time now. We need to address the issue with more urgency.

It will not help us if, as we were told, a secret community in Northern Ireland, which we cannot reach and therefore cannot treat, is manufacturing and using crack cocaine. The problem is not going to go away.

Will the Minister consider three other questions? First, the Government undertook in their response to ensure that the comments and conclusions in our report would be used to help guide the forthcoming review of the drug and alcohol strategy. However, the lack of any overall sense of urgency does not bode well for the review and I am concerned that its timing has already slipped considerably. Can the Minister assure us that the warnings highlighted in the report will be heeded?

Secondly, we expressed our concerns about the Home Office's recent decision to restructure the recovered assets fund so that Northern Ireland's communities lose any chance of getting support from it. The Northern Ireland Office undertook to discuss that with the Home Office. Has it done so? If so, has there been a response? If there has, what sort of response has it been?

Thirdly, we note from the Government's response that some drugs projects within the criminal justice system face a shortfall of funding from March 2004 onwards. During our inquiry we had the opportunity to meet the staff of some of those projects, particularly the staff of the drug arrest referral scheme and the scheme at Hydebank young offenders' centre. We were impressed by what we saw and by the evidence that the staff

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presented for the success of such interventions in drug users' lives. We would be very concerned if those important initiatives came to a premature end. Can the Minister tell us which projects are under threat, and assure us that steps are being taken to address the funding problems?

I know that other hon. Members wish to raise their own concerns, so I shall not take any more time. However, we would be grateful for further reassurance from the Minister. I commend the report to the House.

2.44 pm

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South) (Lab): I hope that there are no problems today as a result of my being a Scot involved in a report on Northern Ireland. That happened in the Chamber yesterday, where some people wish to disfranchise me. I hope that I am welcome. I felt a bit alone on this side of the Chamber until other colleagues turned up. I thought that there was an array massed against me, but I am quite happy now.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members claim what they call Ulster Scots ancestry and so will feel akin to him?

Mr. Tynan : I thank my hon. Friend. I am aware of that, and we receive wonderful support from most of the Opposition Members here.

The report was announced on 22 August 2002, which seems a long time ago. The scope of the inquiry was extended because the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended, and that meant that we could consider the issues further than we could have done otherwise. The evidence sessions were conducted in the spring and early summer of 2003, although I could not attend as often as I would have liked, because I was involved in consideration of the Fireworks Act 2003. I am sure that the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), accepted my apologies on that basis. An interim report on cannabis reclassification was published in May, and a Government response was released in July. I think that the reclassification of cannabis is a mistake and will be detrimental to the drug culture in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Committee made its final report to the House on 4 November, and the Government published their response on 9 January. The Chairman modestly made a statement that was as valid then as it is now. He said:

The Minister should take cognisance of the Chairman's statement, which was made on behalf of the Committee. We must stress again the importance of getting the strategy right, in practice as well as in theory. The biggest lesson that the inquiry taught us was probably the importance of having facilities in place before drug use reaches critical mass. The Chairman has referred to that.

Rev. Martin Smyth : It has been said that if we had known the effects of nicotine when cigarette smoking

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first started, we would have banned it straight away. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the British Medical Association's findings and its warnings about the addiction problem and other health issues that will arise from cannabis misuse?

Mr. Tynan : I have no problem whatever with that. The BMA has made it crystal clear that there can be serious problems, and I will come to those.

The facilities should be in place before the situation reaches critical mass. That applies not only to Northern Ireland, but to every part of the UK. Through our report, we can lead the way and point the Government in the right direction to deal with the enormous problems that drugs create. The Committee wanted to ensure that the Government knew what was required to get the strategy right.

The Government responded with a simple statement:

I hope that that is absolutely true, but it is a bland statement, and unless we put meat on its bones, there could be serious problems. Despite our beliefs about what is required, we might not be able to deliver in the long term. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee intended not just to assess the current drugs situation, but to do so in the context of its previous review in 1996. The Committee will probably revisit the matter but we must ensure that the Government are answerable and accountable on the basis of the evidence that we have taken.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the report could virtually have been written about the west of Scotland 10 to 15 years ago? Does not that make it all the more remarkable that the Chairman of the Select Committee has spoken about the apparent lack of urgency in the Northern Ireland Office about tackling the problem? Surely we should be able to learn from the experience of other parts of the United Kingdom, and not keep reinventing the wheel.

Mr. Tynan : The hon. Gentleman is correct. The report could reflect the state of the west of Scotland and other parts of the country 15 years ago. The problem is a growing one that we have not managed to deal with. There have been suggestions about drug courts, but I think we must seriously try to get to the root of why people get involved in the first place, and then try to rectify the problem. I shall return to the hon. Gentleman's point.

The Committee report gave 47 conclusions and recommendations on a range of issues from supply to the consequences of use. The Government made individual responses to each of those. What is striking is that, out of line with most previous practice, and I do not know whether it was just a civil service blip, the Government response contained no introductory overview, and, perhaps more surprisingly, no welcome for the Select Committee report.

I am sure that that was just an oversight, but it would have been useful if the Government had recognised the

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seriousness of the report and the need to welcome a report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. The overall tone of the Government response is conciliatory, but it could be regarded as complacent. The nature of the Government strategy would appear to be fixed, with little opportunity for change or development. It does not strike me as a responsive approach.

There are certain grounds for congratulating the Government. The first recommendation concerned the need for separate counting of cocaine and crack cocaine seizures, and I understand that that is already in place. The entry of crack cocaine into the UK is a growing problem. It is one of the most dangerous aspects of drugs. Unless the Government deal with that, limit its entry into the country and prevent its use, we shall have a host of serious problems, with effects on young people in particular. Separate counting is important. If crack cocaine use is found to be growing, we shall need to find a way to deal with it.

I congratulate the police and customs officers on their commitment and on what they have done in Northern Ireland. They operate in difficult circumstances. I realise that entirely. They must be funded adequately to deal with the problem. I know that any Committee will look for additional Government funding, but the issue is so serious that we must make dealing with drug misuse in this country, and in Northern Ireland in particular, a priority.

Recommendation 9 noted the success of time-delay safes in community pharmacies. The Government advised on their continuing success and relevance for the UK. Their use is a very positive approach, which should be extended to the mainland, and it would certainly help with the problem of daily attempts to break into pharmacies in the UK.

Recommendation 11 included a call for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to be given new powers to deal with drug driving. I understand from the Northern Ireland Office that to deal with that very problem the PSNI yesterday launched a new field impairment test, backed by a £100,000 campaign to publicise it. A quarter of drivers killed in Northern Ireland in the past three years tested positive for drugs. The campaign shows that the Government are listening and are acting on a crucial part of the drug control problem. I welcome that.

Recommendation 14 refers to concerns about the lack of a co-ordinator for the northern drug and alcohol co-ordination team. The Government conceded that the situation was unacceptable and the vacancy was filled on 27 October, for which they are to be congratulated.

Recommendation 33 does not agree with the Select Committee's proposal, but the Government noted the options that were explored before the concept of drug courts had been rejected. Pilot schemes for drug courts had been set up on the mainland. I am not convinced that drug courts will be effective unless they take appropriate action to deal with the people brought before them and unless there is considerable back-up to wean those people off drugs. We must not simply pass a sentence and then forget about them, but must deal with the problem in a very structured way.

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Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): I am sorry to have interrupted the hon. Gentleman mid-flow. As he will know, our very good Home Secretary has increased the maximum penalty for those trafficking in class C drugs from five years' imprisonment to 14 years. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on how effective a deterrent he believes that will be?

Mr. Tynan : I hope that the hon. Lady will allow me to go through my points. If I do not answer her question now, I hope that she will remind me of it later.

In recommendation 4, the Select Committee expressed concern about discrepancies in the figures given to demonstrate the availability of drugs. The evidence used to support that concern included two examples of different figures; the PSNI gives the street price of ecstasy tablets as being between £5 and £10 each, whereas the probation service says that it is £1. That is a large discrepancy. The recommendation also highlighted the disagreement about the availability and use of cocaine. The Government response is that there is simply a need for better and more timely collection and sharing of information. That is a bland statement, which concerns me. It sounds as if the Government are saying, "There might be an increasing problem with cocaine use, but we are dealing with it." I am concerned that the Data Protection Act 1998 may prevent organisations and groups from being able to exchange information, thereby preventing them from dealing adequately with the problem. I may be taking too long and talking too much, but this is a very serious matter, and I would be grateful for a response from the Minister.

The seizure of cocaine in Lurgan in October, which I understand is still the subject of a court case, highlights these problems as never before. The Government hailed that as a major seizure of more than £1 million worth of cocaine, and media reports indicated that 18.5 lbs, or about 8.4 kg, were seized. Putting aside the issue of the possible use of bulking agents, which are used to mix down cocaine, the fact that 8.4 kg of cocaine is worth £1 million indicates an estimated street price of about £120 a gram. The Select Committee estimated that the price was between £60 and £80 a gram. There seems to be a wide discrepancy between that and the £1 million of cocaine seized. I do not know whether the seizure was made in order to hit the headlines, but we are dealing with a serious problem, and we must ensure that the information is correct. If 8.4 kg of cocaine was seized, we should get the price right. I am not saying that the information was deliberately misleading, but the figures do not add up. Another concern is that Lurgan, which has been an area of paramilitary activity, is away from Belfast, Londonderry and Ballymena, where the use of hard drugs has been more prominent. The fact that the problem is moving to the outskirts suggests that it is growing throughout Northern Ireland.

Recommendation 20 focused on the use of profits from cannabis to fund other drug-related activities, particularly the introduction of hard drugs, and the likely consequences of reclassification. The Government believe that the consequences can be dealt with and are containable, as stated in their response to the interim report. The Select Committee's report was noted when the issue was discussed on the Floor of the House in a debate lasting an hour and a half. Many Members wanted to participate in that debate because both sides

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of the House felt that we are going the wrong way on the reclassification of cannabis. There are concerns about the mixed messages that have been sent. When people were interviewed for the report, they said that they thought that cannabis was legal now. It is a tragedy if young people believe that it is a drug that can be used, and used regularly. If it is available enough and cheap enough, we will create an opportunity for the very people who benefit most from drugs to make considerable amounts of money.

As has been mentioned, the BMA has concerns. Comments this week by Professor Murray made it clear that there is evidence that the long-term effects of cannabis, especially on people who use it in their teens, can include mental disorders. That is a frightening prospect; young people's brains are not fully developed and taking cannabis can cause them mental problems. That is another reason why the Government should carefully examine reclassification and the effects that cannabis has on the population, and to ensure that we will not have a major problem.

I will move on to discuss the Assets Recovery Agency. Tackling Mr. Big by taking the money and confiscating the big cars and the house is the way that I want to go. All too often, the people dealt with on the street are expendable—the ones who are told, "Here, we will give you the job to do." They are the small fry; we catch them and they are replaced by others. Tackling the Mr. Bigs is absolutely necessary.

The problem in Northern Ireland, as was the case in Scotland, is that the proceeds from seizures by the Assets Recovery Agency go to the Treasury. In Scotland, it has been decided that 50 per cent. of that money will go to the Scottish Parliament, and it will be able to use that to assist communities that are blighted by drugs. We must examine a similar set-up for Northern Ireland; there should be a similar division. Although Northern Ireland can draw from the fund, allocating resources to communities in Northern Ireland would be a giant step forward, and we must take it. Will the Minister confirm that discussions with the Home Office have started on that issue and that the drug-damaged communities in Northern Ireland will get their share of the recovered assets?

I have a considerable amount more to say, but I recognise that a number of hon. Members want to participate. In a number of areas the Government's responses are weak and some of the formal responses to the Committee's report are of concern. The Government's conclusions state that the current model is "flexible" and that there is no complacency. I hope that that is the truth. The sentiments of Northern Ireland Ministers are commendable, and I accept that they have done some positive things. However, there is much more to be done. Today's debate should focus the Government's mind and ensure both that they are aware that the report was a serious attempt to contain the growing situation in Northern Ireland and that they learn lessons.

Lady Hermon : I wish to repeat—although from a slightly different angle—the question that I posed earlier. I will repeat it for the very good reason that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has stated:

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Does the hon. Gentleman think that that is an effective deterrent?

Mr. Tynan : I thank the hon. Lady for reminding me of her question. I suffer from industrial deafness. Not answering it was a trick to get her to repeat it for me.

Increased sentences are not an effective deterrent. If people are going to peddle drugs on the streets of Northern Ireland, or anywhere else, raising the sentence from five years to 14 will not make any difference because the people who get caught are the small fry. We should be after the people who bring in the drugs in bulk and send them out to the minnows, thus creating havoc in communities across the UK. Increasing the sentence from five years to 14 years is not a replacement for reclassifying cannabis.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Increasing the sentence may not be a deterrent, but if people are caught and the sentence is imposed on them, they will at least be kept out of circulation for a longer period, and will not be able to involve themselves in the drugs trade.

Mr. Tynan : I admire my hon. Friend's view that we live in a wonderful world in which things are simple and easy to understand. Five years should be a big deterrent to people selling cannabis. If they will sell it when the sentence is five years, they will continue to sell it if the sentence is increased to 14 years. That is my personal opinion, but my hon. Friend may be correct. I fear that reclassification is a major problem. It will send all the wrong signals, and it will encourage young people to take up cannabis use. The mental effects of that will haunt the population of this country in the future.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to participate in the debate. I look forward to receiving the Government's support on many of the issues that I have raised.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): At least six Members are trying to catch my eye. The Front-Bench contributions will start no later than 5 o'clock. I hope that Members will bear that in mind and tailor the length of their speeches.

3.7 pm

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): As a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, I fully support all the recommendations in the report. Indeed, I commend the recommendations and conclusions to all those who want seriously to address the problem in Northern Ireland, and I appreciate the constructive comments made by colleagues.

I, too, take this opportunity to congratulate the Police Service of Northern Ireland for its notable success in smashing illegal drug rings and for seizing millions of pounds' worth of illegal drugs in recent months. In County Armagh in November five people appeared in court on drug charges following the seizure of cannabis

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with an estimated value of £250,000. In the same month, the police arrested a man coming off the Liverpool ferry who was in possession of an estimated £300,000 worth of cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis resin.

In October, the PSNI broke a major drugs ring operating in the Mid-Ulster area, which had connections to the Loyalist Volunteer Force. The drugs, which had an estimated street value of £1 million, were recovered during operations in the Lurgan and Lisburn areas. I pay tribute to the officers involved and trust that such successes against drug smuggling, drug dealing and the smuggling of other goods will continue.

It could be argued that the problems of drug use and drug trafficking in Northern Ireland have not yet reached a critical stage. There is no room for complacency. It is our tendency to reflect on the relatively minor presence of a drug culture in our society which has left us lagging behind in our ability to stem its growth. We cannot afford merely to react to problems as they arise. On the contrary, we must put in place thoroughly researched and properly thought-out strategies to prevent drug use in Northern Ireland from becoming a problem that is beyond our control.

I will focus on supply. As the report outlines, the main reason for the increasing demand for illegal drugs is their increasing availability. For the most part, those behind drug trafficking to and from Northern Ireland are the organisations—the paramilitaries—that traditionally took an anti-drug line with people in their communities. We are all aware that the paramilitary organisations have, since the ceasefires, also turned their hands to other areas of organised crime, such as racketeering, the illegal trade in petrol, oil and tobacco, and counterfeit goods and money. Those organisations can use the same national and international criminal networks that assisted them in trading arms and raising money. They already have their local communities carved up "under their protection", as they would say. That was an easy, natural transition for them to make, and the disturbing paradox is that the peace process seems to have facilitated it.

We are all aware of which organisations are involved in these crimes. The Minister, the PSNI and the public know who are involved. That prompts the question of why we have yet to see a successful prosecution of any of the major players. The wife and son of the notorious Johnny Adair were charged in Bolton last month with conspiracy to supply heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine after a three-month investigation by Greater Manchester police. English authorities were swift to home in on the Adair family and their involvement in drug trafficking. Why were the Northern Ireland authorities not all over the Adairs when they still resided in Northern Ireland? Are we to believe that they only became involved in the illegal drug trade on their arrival in Bolton, or are there different attitudes to tackling paramilitary drug dealing in England and Northern Ireland?

Countless numbers of others in Northern Ireland flaunt their wealth to such an extent that no effort is made to hide its origins. That is not just confined to loyalist groups. A wealth of evidence suggests that the IRA is up to its neck in drug dealing. It has been linked with FARC, a terrorist group involved in the worldwide

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Colombian cocaine trade. When Martin McAuley, James Monaghan and Niall Connolly were arrested in Bogota, they were found to be covered in traces of both explosives and cocaine. It is, therefore, not an unreasonable assumption that the republican movement was teaching FARC how to launch urban bomb attacks in exchange for fixing up a lucrative drug and weapons connection.

The case of the Bogota three is not the first time the IRA has been linked to drugs. In 2000 Neil Mackay in the Sunday Herald uncovered the fact that during the trial of another three IRA men in Florida, details emerged of a huge arms cache in Colombia, which the IRA wanted to ship to Ireland. That was linked to a convicted American drug dealer, Robert Flint, who had flown cocaine out of Colombia for organised crime gangs. When he was arrested in Galway, Mr. Flint—who incidentally was also a major contributor to Noraid, one of Sinn Fein's big US donors—claimed that Seamus Moley, a senior IRA man, was also involved in a complex plot to transport five tonnes of cocaine to Iran, where it was going to be used to pay for weapons from Poland, which would be shipped to Ireland via Rotterdam in Holland. Yet Sinn Fein-IRA still insist on portraying a public image, through groups such as Direct Action Against Drugs, that is firmly against drugs and therefore not involved in drug dealing. Perhaps the Government's reluctance to come down too hard on those paramilitaries involved lies in their reluctance to disrupt the activities of the political wings of the organisations involved in the political process.

Rev. Martin Smyth : In pursuing that position, does my hon. Friend recognise that in the past the IRA and some loyalist elements were getting the rake-off from the drug dealers, but when so-called peace broke out the drug dealers did not have to pay the fees, so the real reason why Direct Action Against Drugs came into being was to punish the drug dealers who were not paying their dues?

Mr. Beggs : There are strong suspicions that paramilitaries were losing out and not benefiting to the extent that they thought they ought to from the sale of drugs. Unfortunately, some people paid the ultimate price for getting on the wrong side of paramilitaries and were murdered, so they were cut out of the frame altogether.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (David Burnside), who is in Dublin this afternoon facing up to some of the Sinn Fein representatives, raised the issue of Sinn Fein's funding several times on the Floor of the House recently. There can be no doubt that organised crime, which clearly includes the illegal drugs trade, is inextricably linked to the funding of a supposedly democratic political party. Surely it is not unreasonable to expect no distinction to be made between paramilitaries on the periphery of political life and those within it, yet the Government appear content to go along with Sinn Fein's duality. We remember too well Sinn Fein's strategy of the Armalite and the ballot box. However, for democrats in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein's current strategy of the ballot box and the smuggler-counterfeiter drug dealer is just as difficult to swallow.

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The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was yesterday in receipt of a final report from Professor Ronald Goldstock, who was tasked with looking into organised crime. Professor Goldstock's remit was to establish which loopholes in legislation pertaining to Northern Ireland are open to exploitation from criminal gangs. I am aware that that report is not to be made public, but can the Minister assure us that the Government will move swiftly to mend loopholes, implement Professor Goldstock's recommendation and abandon political expediency regarding the peace process and drug dealing?

Efforts to break Northern Ireland's drugs trade should never be considered in exclusively national terms; rather we must recognise that drug trafficking is an international problem. Northern Ireland is not a drug-producing country. Illegal drugs are brought in from the Netherlands, Colombia, Afghanistan and other countries around the world. It is therefore in the interests of the Government, not just the Northern Ireland Office, to establish links with intelligence services in those countries to break the chain before the drugs find their way to Northern Ireland.

Channels are already open to us for cross-border co-operation with the Republic of Ireland, and there is no reason why that should not be widened. Indeed, we have already seen how a closer working relationship with the Republic can be effective. In October last year, police investigating loyalist paramilitary drug dealing were led to Holland, where they were able to seize several million pounds' worth of drugs.

Before I finish, I shall highlight the dichotomy in the Government's thinking on Northern Ireland. On the one hand, we are witnessing the reduction of security staff at our ports and airports, yet on the other we are hearing how drug trafficking through our ports and across borders is increasing. Is it not time that the Government regarded security and law and order as entirely separate from the political demands of republicans?

The Government are intent on achieving normalisation, but I cannot understand how reducing police presence and security will help us beat ever-increasing crime in our society. True normalisation in Northern Ireland, to bring us in line with the rest of the United Kingdom, should entail treating drug dealers as the criminals that they are, not judging them on a case-by-case basis from the perspective of what semi-political organisation they are affiliated to. No one in Britain would put up with that, and no one in Northern Ireland should have to put up with it either.

3.19 pm

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab): Today's debate is relevant, although as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) said, it could have taken place in the west of Scotland 15 years ago. In the past five years, the north-east of Scotland has also had experiences similar to those described in the report.

Such a debate allows us to take steps early on to lessen some of the worst effects of the illicit drugs trade. By the time I joined the Committee, it had conducted extensive and excellent research. Throughout the report, we see the firm but fair hand of the Chairman as he guided the Committee to its final conclusions.

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Northern Ireland is not yet at the stage of the full-blown crisis that exists in many parts of the United Kingdom; it has not reached that critical mass. It is important that these strategies are put in place so that we provide services for people who are suffering, and those who will undoubtedly suffer in years to come, from taking drugs.

The Committee made good recommendations on the education of the young. Early education—especially at primary school—is an important element in any drugs strategy. I have children who attend primary school. Children are made aware from an early age of not accompanying strangers, of not taking drugs and of the side effects of drugs.

I attended school when the anti-smoking campaign started, when the link was first discovered between lung cancer and cigarette smoking. A large number of pupils were subjected, week in and week out, to slide shows and films, and many of us never took up smoking. If a survey were conducted the results would probably show that many of the pupils from those classes that were targeted in the 1960s never went on to smoke. It is good that there are pilot programmes in Northern Ireland.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is ludicrous that the Government have reclassified cannabis? The wrong signals are going out to young people that there are such things as good drugs and bad drugs, and it will be very difficult to explain that to young people.

Mr. Luke : I have read the comments in the report and heard those made in the Chamber. I support the Government on declassifying—not decriminalising—the use of cannabis. I listened to an excellent programme on Radio 4 several weeks ago on the changing social situation in Northern Ireland and the exciting club scene to be found in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland. There is a greater chance of young people in those clubs taking ecstasy, because of its growing popularity, rather than cannabis. Ecstasy is a greater threat than cannabis. Declassification—not decriminalisation—allows police forces throughout the United Kingdom to develop a strategy to tackle harder, and potentially more dangerous, drugs that are unfortunately available throughout the United Kingdom.

Rev. Martin Smyth : Is it not significant that in Northern Ireland there have been more deaths from taking ecstasy than any other drug? The police have not been able to tackle that. Are there any hopeful signs that they will be able to deal with a drug by declassifying it? Surely it will cause confusion.

Mr. Luke : I am not soft on drugs. I have a young family and am greatly aware that drugs are available in schools and on streets throughout the United Kingdom. When I said "declassifying" I meant "reclassifying" because cannabis is still classified. All drugs pose a danger. Indeed, I discussed the issues raised in a recent programme on the north-east of Scotland with the local chief constable because they were relevant.

The big issue on the streets of Dundee is not cannabis—although cannabis is obviously a drug, involves criminal offences and needs to be tackled—but

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crack cocaine. That is a killer. It is very addictive and has hugely harmful effects. We have to allow the police to concentrate on such drugs while continuing to look at the effects that all drugs have in a proportionate and balanced way.

Mr. Tynan : There is a danger that we might get involved in a debate on cannabis instead of on the report. However, Professor Murray made it clear that people who smoke cannabis in their teens could, at a later date, experience serious mental health problems and go on to mental institutions. On that basis, does my hon. Friend not agree that it is far better to be safe than sorry?

Mr. Luke : The position that the Government took on the reclassification of cannabis was in the light of evidence and of expert opinion from the police, put before Members by the Home Secretary. I hope that the Government are sensitive enough that, if we need to review this reclassification in the light of further medical or police evidence, they would undertake such a review and, if necessary, reclassify the drug again. The decision was taken in the light of the scourge-like effect that crack cocaine is having throughout the UK and the knock-on effect that that has on crime. Hopefully, that can be stemmed in Northern Ireland before it suffers the effects that many other areas have experienced.

I am obviously aware of the need to put strategies in place. The points have been well made on the issue of cannabis, and the conclusion that one should draw is that we should never be complacent about drugs or about new information from research on the effects of drugs. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) said that some of the arguments in the Government's response to the Committee's recommendations seemed slightly complacent. The strategy is based, to an extent, on historical data, although it has some relevance to the current situation.

We need to take a wider view by looking throughout the UK and western Europe at the implications of some of the drug scenes there. We also need to put in place strategies that are far reaching and far sighted. I mentioned education, especially education aimed at the young. We also need to consider creating residential rehabilitation accommodation throughout the community. The ideal is to treat problems within the community by offering advice and providing local centres. It is a real strength to have a residential rehabilitation and treatment centre where people can concentrate on the worst aspects of a problem. It gives them a chance by taking them out of the community, isolating them, treating them, and trying to equip them to cope with going back into the outside world and facing up to the temptation of drugs.

Although the Government are working on that issue, I note from their response to recommendation 43 that there is some slippage in the timetable for considering that specific problem. As it remains a priority, hopefully we might be able to push them on it because it is a useful facility to have in light of the problems that can occur in communities.

Another thing that was stressed by some of the more eminent and knowledgeable members of the Committee was that since the cessation of paramilitary violence—I

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am not suggesting that such organisations have gone away—there has been a move from terrorist activities to criminal activities, with the aim of raising money. I saw that happen on the mainland two years ago when the Red Hand Commando of Ulster carried out a raid on a public house in Dundee in broad daylight to raise money for its activities in Northern Ireland. It was good that the police apprehended the criminals, who were part of a local cell based on the east coast of Scotland. They have now been dealt with and have received custodial sentences. However, Dundee is not Belfast, where the disciplined nature of such groups allows them to carry out their criminal activities very effectively.

Lady Hermon : Given that the Assets Recovery Agency has done an excellent job to date, will the hon. Gentleman, other Labour Members and, indeed, the Minister have a loud or, if they prefer, a quiet word with the Home Office to ensure that the agency's budget does not stagnate at the current level, but increases to enable it to do the job that we all expect it to do extremely well?

Mr. Luke : The hon. Lady always makes important and relevant interventions, and I am glad to respond. All Back Benchers should put pressure on Northern Ireland and Home Office Ministers to ensure that the agency's funding is not cut. To take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), the Scottish solution, whereby money raised through crime by people involved in paramilitary activity is repatriated across the border to the Scottish Parliament to fund community projects, is an enormous step forward. I would be glad to hear that something similar was to happen in Northern Ireland, because it would be all to the good.

The report notes the need for a strategy to tackle the new move by paramilitary organisations into drug-related activities and other criminal activities, and to ensure that such illicit fundraising is stopped. If there is evidence of connections between paramilitaries and political groups, those groups should be investigated. If connections exist, groups should be banned from political activity and from taking part in elections.

Mrs. Robinson : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Irish Justice Minister and the Republic's Fine Gael leader have both commented on links between IRA criminality in the south of Ireland and the funding of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland? Would he condemn such links?

Mr. Luke : I am aware that a question was asked on the subject in either Northern Ireland questions or Prime Minister's questions. I would condemn such links. If a political party is committed to the political process, it must, like every other political party, operate in a way that is seen to be above board and within the law. Any party that accepts funds that are raised illegally by other groups is acting illegally and should not be allowed to participate in legal political activity. I therefore agree with the hon. Lady.

The issue is controversial and much more work needs to be done. The report highlights that and the fact that the essence of tackling much of the drugs trade in Northern Ireland lies in tackling the illicit paramilitary organisations that deal in drugs. Doing that would benefit all.

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No one can deny that things are getting better in Northern Ireland. As the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) said, the cessation of warlike military activity by the paramilitaries, as they move on to other activities, and the removal of restrictions, as the situation improves, mean that drugs are becoming readily available. The time-warp situation in which the hostilities retarded the use of drugs and their flow across borders has been reversed.

I said that Belfast is highly rated as a nightclub area. That is breaking down the sectarian divide, because young people from both sides of the community come together to enjoy the benefits of what would be thought of as normal life in any other UK city. However, that has a negative side effect in that ecstasy is sold in such clubs, creating a drug problem that must be tackled. There is a price to pay for normality and we must be clear that the drug problem is always be high on our agenda.

Lastly, the report is very good in that it looks at the subject in great depth. Its one weakness is the fact that we are considering it here. For a strategy to be successful it has to be dealt with at a local level. As I have said before, the forum in which such a report should be considered and acted on is a devolved Assembly in Belfast, not Westminster Hall. We have done a great job in raising the issue—this is the second report that we have produced—and I hope that before the next report comes out, there is a devolved Government in Stormont to take up the points that have been made and to ensure that the strategies that we are told are being developed are completed and used successfully to ensure that the scourge or blight of drugs is lessened. It will never be combated completely, but we should be able to eliminate some of the problems that have been experienced in the mainland if we get our act together now.

I commend the Committee on its report. It makes interesting reading and is relevant to the lives of the citizens of Northern Ireland, especially the young, who are the ones who will suffer from drugs. I hope that the Government response will be in place as quickly as possible, so that future problems are countered successfully.

3.37 pm

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate. As has been said, it is only days since Professor Ronald Goldstock, the former head of New York's organised crime task force, presented to the Government his report on gangsterism in Northern Ireland. I should have liked as much as possible of that report to be placed in the public domain but, unfortunately, that will not be possible. Like the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs), I hope that the Government will act to close any loopholes that are revealed by his findings. However, I recognise that it will require a sustained effort on the Government's part for any meaningful improvement to occur. I agree with the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) that it is a matter of the utmost urgency that the Government provide all the necessary resources to deal with the scourge.

At last week's Northern Ireland questions, one of my party colleagues pressed the Minister on the scope of the Assets Recovery Agency. It has achieved some success

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in tackling the so-called loyalist paramilitaries. The same vigour does not yet seem to have been applied towards republicans. Many law-abiding people in Northern Ireland feel that kid gloves have too often been used in the interests of the so-called peace process. I trust that we can be assured that investigations of the Assets Recovery Agency will never be hampered by political considerations. I am sure that we all welcome the encouraging fact that the funding of the ARA is to increase next year by 19 per cent. to £15.5 million.

It turns the stomach of the law-abiding majority on both sides of the community to see thugs feathering their nests, first on the back of decades of sectarian murder, and now by diverting attention to newer pursuits that destroy young lives. There was little evidence of a serious drug problem in Northern Ireland until a decade ago. Now, however, class A drugs are more readily available, and what is described as the recreational use of other drugs is more widely tolerated. Waking up to morning news reports of drug seizures has become a regular occurrence. I pay tribute to our police force for its hard work and achievements in that field.

Criminal networks, boosted by paramilitaries, are devoting ever greater energy to organised crime and the drugs trade, to the extent that the number of known gangs has reached three figures. The relationship between terrorists and other criminals proves mutually beneficial. They can combine connections and expertise in evading detection and, as a result, the bully boys are able to exert greater influence in the social housing estates in their general locality. That has led to lavish lifestyles and extravagant homes for some people who have no other discernible source of income.

There is a marked overlap and co-operation between loyalist and republic paramilitaries. I note that of those currently subject to drugs squad investigations, 30 per cent. are connected with loyalist and 15 per cent. with republican paramilitaries. However, another 11 per cent. have connections in both camps, and that concerns organisations that are self-proclaimed freedom fighters.

The years since the Belfast agreement have seen drug dealers being murdered by paramilitaries, including by the IRA. The Committee's report highlights two reasons why they murder drug dealers. First, they can appear to act as defenders of their community, and secondly, they can exert control over the area. Surely, however, the uppermost benefit in their minds is self-interest. With the competition out of the way, it is much easier for them to capture a greater share of the drugs market. Their involvement in the drugs trade shows up the terrorists in Northern Ireland for what they really are. There are some things that Armani coats and suits cannot always hide.

I hope that the report has proved beyond any lingering doubt the true nature of those despicable individuals. The drugs problem is symptomatic of many of the Province's problems, post-cease-fire. Many of those in the golf clubs and garden centres are relatively content, but others who may live less than a mile away in the social housing estates see no peace dividend. There, the grip of the terrorist is stronger than ever. Rather than destroying paramilitarism, the agreement gave it credibility and strengthened it.

The report details a rogue element theory regarding the terror organisations, but I challenge that. If it is present, it can be only minimal and short-lived. Those

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organisations are extremely tightly controlled, with little occurring that has not been sanctioned from on high. A semi-blind eye might have been turned to some of those individuals immediately after the agreement, but nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of the law enforcement agencies now weeding them out of society. Provision in Northern Ireland for limiting the granting of bail could prove useful, not just for drug trafficking but for other serious offences. I hope that the Government will seriously consider that aspect of the report.

I am concerned at the inevitable consequences of reclassifying cannabis. The range of drugs commonly used in Northern Ireland remains different from that on the mainland. Class A drugs are rarer, and cannabis continues to provide a large proportion of income for our criminals. I fear that new supply routes could emerge as a result of Government plans to reclassify cannabis.

I have been concerned for some time about the extent of addiction services in Northern Ireland, and I recently learned through a parliamentary question that there are only 54 in-patient beds in the Province for the treatment of addiction. That, of course, includes alcohol addiction. The Ulster Community and Hospitals trust in Strangford has just seven such beds. The largest allocation is 14, in the Down and Lisburn trust area. Realistically, the total number of beds must be increased, or else young people will die while waiting for appointments for an overstretched service. I appeal to the Government to ensure that the necessary funding is made available to improve services for such young addicts. Apart from the addiction aspect of mental health, the use of cannabis, amphetamines and other drugs is recognised as a cause of psychosis. We have little idea of the future effect of that on our health resources.

According to a Royal Automobile Club study, drug-driving is the greatest killer on the roads in Great Britain. Just yesterday, the Police Service of Northern Ireland launched an anti-drug-driving campaign, to which the Minister has referred. One in four fatalities on the Province's roads were found to involve evidence of drug use. Drug-driving should be treated as severely as drink-driving, and I am on record encouraging the introduction of drugalysers.

When the Assembly was sitting at Stormont, I learned about work done on the mainland, including work on targeting the proceeds of drug trafficking, community involvement in the development of drug strategies, diverting young people at risk of drug misuse to healthier pursuits and reintegrating abusers into training and employment. The "Positive Futures" initiative was a successful venture providing sporting programmes for drug abusers, and I would welcome extending it to Northern Ireland.

I commend those who have been willing to roll up their sleeves and play a constructive part at community level in combating the scourge of drugs. In the north Down area, a support group has been set up by a mother whose family was tragically affected by the curse of drugs. Curiosity in teenage years can have disastrous consequences for the individual and cause heartbreak for family and friends. I trust that, as a consequence of

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the report, the Government will leave no avenue unexplored to rid Northern Ireland's society of those whose despicable actions can only lead to greater heartache.

3.46 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): I apologise to other hon. Members, Mr. O'Hara, because I have to leave Westminster Hall at 4 o'clock. That means my doing a particular discourtesy to the person speaking after me, in that the normal custom of the House is to stay and listen to that speech in particular. Depending on how long I take, I might hear a little of it. If the sitting goes on for its allotted time, I shall certainly be back in time to hear summings-up, but there is some doubt about whether it will.

In paragraph 21 of its interim report, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs said that it did not question the arguments for the reclassification of cannabis. That sort of negative Committee language has allowed Committee members to take different positions in the debate. The Minister may see that as something that takes us towards her position, but the interim report does not say that we support reclassification of cannabis. It is the other way round; we are not questioning it, though perhaps that is only for the practical reason of getting a report together.

My position on the reclassification of cannabis has hardened as a result of the Select Committee's experiences in our investigation. At one time, I would have quite readily accepted the Government's proposal, but I have become quite worried about what has taken place. There is nothing like research, knowledge and experience to help move one to better understanding.

In paragraph 25, we concluded that the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive must intensify their efforts to communicate the fact that the use of cannabis remains illegal and harmful. In the current absence of the Northern Ireland Executive, that applies to the Northern Ireland Office. We are asking it to take action to communicate the problem. That is exactly what the Home Office has done today in making the announcement about spending £1 million on an advertising campaign to stress that cannabis is still illegal, which ties in with the Select Committee's recommendations.

The Northern Ireland population is only 3 per cent. of the total population of the United Kingdom. If the money is shared out, I work out that only £30,000 will be available to Northern Ireland, but since my maths is not great as I failed O-level maths, I hope that hon. Members will check that. I realise that the money spent on publicity will sometimes apply to the whole United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland will benefit, but there is a case for saying that more should be spent on advertising the problems in Northern Ireland because of the situation there.

Mr. Mates : Perhaps this is an appropriate moment to ask the Minister what proportion, if any, of the £1 million has been allocated to the Northern Ireland

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Office. I doubt whether any has. In turn, is the Northern Ireland Office allocating any of its money for its own publicity in the local media in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Barnes : Those are certainly pertinent questions. I might not be here to hear the answers, but I hope that the Minister will respond.

In paragraph 1 of the interim report, the Committee says that the drug of choice for the majority of users in Northern Ireland remains cannabis rather than class A drugs. The proportion of the problem connected to cannabis is therefore greater in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

An additional problem described by hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs), is the supply of drugs by organised gangs that have links with or which are themselves in paramilitary organisations with links to political parties. The handling of general problems in Northern Ireland becomes tied in with what the report deals with. I therefore hope that the Minister responds to the points that were raised by the Chairman of our Committee.

Lady Hermon : Given that the hon. Gentleman must leave at 4 pm, I would like it to be known that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), has confirmed that the campaign in Northern Ireland is in line with, and will be as effective as, that planned elsewhere, while having a distinct local emphasis. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman reassurance before he leaves.

Mr. Barnes : My point is that it should be more than that. The hon. Lady's comment suggests that Northern Ireland will get its fair share. However, a fair share may be unfair for the situation that exists in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) made several points about matters of security, and what has been spent and what has been cut. As I have said time and again, with a peace process in operation—it might not be perfect, but I support it—there is supposed to be a peace dividend too. There is a clear case for saying that considerable compensation should begin to be available to organisations in Northern Ireland.

An advertising campaign is only one of the actions that the Select Committee recommended should be taken. The role of the PSNI in achieving several successes in interrupting supply routes was pointed out; it needs to be in a position to do that in the future, as the hon. Member for East Antrim said.

The role of Customs and Excise is somewhat different because it applies essentially to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but it is important. It has received an improvement in resources; it has been transformed since I became involved in its investigations because of the great petrol smuggling problem in Northern Ireland. Resources are sometimes diverted into other areas, but although the border may not be the major route by which drugs enter Northern Ireland, it must be properly controlled, and Customs and Excise has a key role to play.

The Northern Ireland Office is responsible for education at present, but we hope that the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly will become

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responsible for it once again. There is a role to play with regard to schools and the youth service. There is a special emphasis on primary schools because there is a problem with solvents. Youngsters are moving into that area, and they are the people who become involved with drugs.

What the Select Committee learned about the movement of drugs by air, ship, lorries, postal services and human carriers reveals how difficult it is in an open society to control the drugs trade. We are not in a position to say that we have an ideal solution to that, and that we can get to a situation where there is no drug use or that it is minor, but there is a window of opportunity to stem the tide in Northern Ireland, where the scale of the problem is not yet as serious as it is elsewhere, even if it is serious enough. The situation there has not yet caught up with that in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

The cases of Northern Ireland and the Republic show how drug problems develop along with what is otherwise a welcome opening up of societies. In the Republic of Ireland, the dominance of the Catholic Church and the norms associated with it has declined somewhat in recent years. That makes it easier for the drug culture to position itself. As the peace process has moved on in Northern Ireland, the loosening control of the Army and the police, and of the paramilitaries on occasions, has led to the problem continuing and growing.

I do not doubt that the west of Scotland has also been affected by strong cultural changes, which are a part of modernisation processes. Concentrating on stemming the drug culture in Northern Ireland could provide important lessons for the rest of the United Kingdom. We have passed the stage that Northern Ireland is at with regard to that problem, and we cannot draw lessons back through time. However, significant factors must emerge from a close concentration on the situation in Northern Ireland. We must try to learn the lessons.

I have run out of time. There were other points that I wished to make but they can wait for another day. I am glad that I have had the opportunity to make some general points about cannabis, the drug culture, and the situation in Northern Ireland.

3.59 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Like everyone else, I bring my background and experience to this debate. Before election I worked as a solicitor and was principally involved in criminal court practice, initially as a prosecutor and latterly as a private practice defence agent. Much of my work was in direct drugs cases, which involved the supply or simple possession of drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, or in cases of indirect drugs crime, such as acquisitive crime, housebreaking and acts of violence that sometimes result from drugs. The one thing that I learned over the years in the criminal courts was to be exceptionally suspicious of anybody who claimed that they had the answer to the drugs problem. There is no such thing as "the drugs problem"; rather, there are as many drugs problems as there are people who have problems with drugs. As a result, there will be as many answers to those problems. Whether people need total abstinence or a programme of harm reduction, all methods should be available to people who suffer from drugs misuse in our society.

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Accordingly, my party is pleased to welcome the report of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which is exceptionally well researched. The Committee has come up with lucid and coherent recommendations. I particularly welcome the fact that the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) and others said that the Committee would return to the issue later. The hon. Gentleman, who is Chairman of the Committee, hit exactly the right note about the Government's response, saying that it lacked a sense of urgency. That is my own feeling. As I said to the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), the report could probably have been written about Aberdeen 10 years ago, about Glasgow 15 years ago and about London 20 years ago. Given what we now know about how the drugs problem escalated in those communities and the speed at which that happened, I find the lack of urgency in the Government's response a bit more than concerning. I hope that the Minister will take that on board as the Government continue to deal with the issues that the report raises.

It is almost a cliché to say that we have a massive drugs problem in this country. However, a new aspect to the problem was brought home to me when I met Customs and Excise enforcement officers in my constituency last Friday. They brought a Customs and Excise cutter to Shetland, into Lerwick, and showed us its capabilities. That is relevant to Northern Ireland Members, because the same boat will service the north channel. As part of the presentation, the Customs and Excise officers showed us a money scanner. They said that 90 per cent. of bank notes in circulation are contaminated by illegal drugs of some sort. We all nodded politely in response, thinking that it was probably an exaggeration. I was therefore more than slightly embarrassed when a fiver that I produced from my wallet, which a London taxi driver had given me in change that morning, went through the scanner and tested positive for cocaine and heroin. Some 90 per cent. of the bank notes in circulation have been handled by somebody who has been using drugs or has been in proximity to drugs. That is a quite shocking illustration of the scale of the problem that our society faces.

Other hon. Members have spoken about the extent of cannabis use in Northern Ireland, which is clearly a major issue of concern. However, I want to reinforce the point made by, I think, the hon. Member for Hamilton, South about the cross-fertilization between cannabis and other drugs such as MDMA, or ecstasy, as it is called, cocaine—particularly crack cocaine—and heroin. They are particularly pernicious and addictive substances.

The people who sell those drugs are generally the same ones who sell cannabis. The fact cannot be ignored that if cannabis is targeted and there is a large seizure, people are put in a position that results in their using more serious drugs. That is how people get into heroin or crack cocaine. They go to the dealer and say, "Can we get cannabis?" They are told, "It's all been taken. I haven't got any cannabis for you today, but why don't you try a wee bit of this?" That is how people first try

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heroin or crack cocaine. Because those substances are so addictive, they are hooked and the cycle continues downwards.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I caution the hon. Gentleman and ask him to exercise discretion about the structure of events that he has just formulated. The theory that drinking milk leads to drinking whisky and that cannabis leads to heroin has been the staple of sensational journalism for 20 or 30 years. Empirical evidence absolutely denies it. All the criminal evidence is that the people who deal in cannabis are not those who deal in heroin or cocaine. They are different dealers for different drugs. Cross-fertilisation may well exist, but on nothing like the scale that the hon. Gentleman implies.

Mr. Carmichael : I had not spoken of the scale. We can perhaps debate that another time. I do not subscribe to the tabloid view, which I think the hon. Gentleman was alluding to, that someone who uses cannabis will necessarily go on to heroin or cocaine. Evidence from Holland, for example, where the link between cannabis and hard drugs has been much more effectively broken by the use of so-called cannabis cafés, is that the average age of a heroin user is somewhere in the high 30s. In this country, I reckon it would be the late teens or early 20s. That suggests that heroin users in Holland are people who got into the habit before the link was broken.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which is that the drug use of many young people in Northern Ireland is totally recreational. A study in 1992, I think, put the number of young people who engaged in recreational drug use, or who had tried drugs, at about 15 per cent. That rose to 38 per cent. in 2000. Does not that prove that drug use is recreational for many young people in Northern Ireland, and linked to nightclubs and dancing, which is something totally separate from use of crack cocaine or heroin, which prohibits recreation by those who take it?

Mr. Carmichael : Yes, and I suspect that that is the pattern of the increase in and shape of drug use in Northern Ireland; it is not different in that from the rest of the United Kingdom. My plea is that we should not view any illicit substance in isolation. We must look at the question of drug misuse in its totality. Use is often recreational, but everyone starts with recreational use. Very few start at the top of the ladder, as it were, going straight to heroin or crack cocaine. The challenge is to break the bridge between recreational use of less harmful substances and the use of more addictive substances.

Perhaps the most important part of the report, for me, is the recommendation about the increased use of resources from the voluntary sector. The Government will no doubt find that attractive, because it almost removes responsibility from them at one stroke. However, it is crucial, if we are to tackle the problem effectively. It comes down to community involvement. We are wasting our time even trying to tackle the problem unless we can get the community behind us in the fight against drugs.

Lady Hermon : Will the hon. Gentleman extend the point that he just made? As well as helping the voluntary

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agencies, surely the legal system should be in place to help individuals whom the paramilitaries have targeted to traffic serious drugs in Northern Ireland? Will the hon. Gentleman, his colleagues and sister party in Northern Ireland—the Alliance party of Northern Ireland—support non-jury trials where witnesses are intimidated when drug traffickers are prosecuted?

Mr. Carmichael : No, I do not support non-jury trials, as the hon. Lady well knows. There are wider issues, and the hon. Lady's argument risks throwing the baby out with the bath water. Tinkering with any legal system is exceptionally dangerous. I do not understand the great stress that some people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland place on jury trials. I am a trained Scots lawyer, and the right to a jury trial in Scotland is determined by the prosecutor.

Lady Hermon : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman allowing me to intervene for the second time. Having non-jury trials is not "tinkering with" the legal system. Section 44 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 applies to Northern Ireland and allows for non-jury trials

In other words, it is already on the statute book.

Mr. Carmichael : I imagine that anyone can be intimidated as a witness, whether or not a jury is present. I thought that juries were removed because of the intimidation of jurors rather than witnesses. With respect to the hon. Lady, just because the measure is in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 does not mean that it is not tinkering. The Government have done many things that tinker, rather than tackling whole issues.

I was talking about the importance of involving the community through the voluntary sector. I believe that the war against terrorism finally turned in Northern Ireland because the community was persuaded that it would not put up with it any longer. The same is true of the war against drugs. There is a real prospect of the challenge being met if people in individual communities are prepared to lift the phone and report the people responsible for drug dealing to the appropriate authorities—the police. The involvement of voluntary organisations will be crucial to that community support, without which the Government and the police service will be trying to push water uphill.

I add my weight to hon. Members' pleas for assets recovered by the Assets Recovery Agency to be returned to Northern Ireland. Again, that would be a very positive message to send to the community in its efforts in giving information about drug dealers to the police and to the other agencies involved and helping to remove those drug dealers from the community.

The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) intervened on the hon. Member for Hamilton, South to ask about the increased sentence for class C drug trafficking. She was absolutely right to do so. It is probably a necessary alteration to the sentencing structure in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 as a result of the reclassification of cannabis as a class C drug. I do not believe that it will be sufficient, however, because unless resources are committed to ensure that the people are caught and properly prosecuted for those drug trafficking offences, it will be little more than a gesture.

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A number of hon. Members spoke about the reclassification of cannabis as a class C drug. I am mindful of the fact that I speak from my party's Front Bench, and perhaps I should not say this. However, we are all friends here, and nobody will mind. I agree with the hon. Member for Hamilton, South; I think that reclassification was a mistake. If one considers the drugs listed as class C under the misuse of drugs orders, they are essentially prescription-only medicines obtained without prescription; drugs such as temazepam and diazepam. Frankly, when one considers that list and sees cannabis in the middle, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

The classification of cannabis along with drugs such as amphetamine sulphate, which is a class B drug in its powdered form—it is class A in its injected form—was unsatisfactory. That illustrates the need for a comprehensive revisiting of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It seems remarkable that we have a road traffic Act every 10 years on average but that the Misuse of Drugs Act, the subject of which has been the largest single growth area of business through any criminal court over the course of those 30-odd years, has remained largely unaltered. The time has come for the Government to grasp the nettle.

I have taken longer than I intended, although there is still a generous amount of time for the Conservatives, and for the Minister to answer all the points fully. I congratulate all members of the Select Committee who are present. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response and to what the Committee will have to say when it revisits this most important problem, as it said it would.

4.17 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) and his Committee on, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) said, a comprehensive, well-researched and well-articulated report that has managed to cover a range of disparate subjects. Those subjects taken together provide an analysis of the drugs challenge in Northern Ireland and a series of proposals to remedy it.

I drew a number of general conclusions from the report. First, as a number of hon. Members have mentioned, Northern Ireland—in part because of other problems—has lagged behind the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of the severity of the drug problems that it faces. However, there is no doubt that the problem in Northern Ireland is getting worse, and appears to be doing so at an accelerating pace.

Figures given in the report show that seizures of ecstasy and cocaine are on the rise, although seizures of cannabis have remained roughly steady in recent years. I am aware that when talking about seizures one has to be careful not to consider figures that might describe an increase in enforcement activity rather than an increase in the trafficking and consumption of illegal drugs. However, other information collated in the report reinforces my suspicion that the figures for seizures suggest a real increase in the severity of the drug problem. We can see that in the past four years street prices have fallen quite dramatically, although they remain higher in Belfast than in the cities in Great Britain.

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The Police Service of Northern Ireland estimates cited by the Committee are that the street price of cannabis in Belfast between 2000 and 2003 fell from £120 an ounce to £80 an ounce, a reduction of no less than a third. Over the same period, the street price of heroin fell from between £100 and £120 a gram to between £80 and £100 a gram. Those figures suggest that the supply and availability of drugs in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland is on the increase. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) said, the shocking figures released yesterday by the police show that no fewer than a quarter of all drivers killed in road traffic accidents in Northern Ireland are found to have prohibited drugs in their bodies.

The second conclusion I draw from the report is that the links between drug trafficking and supply and the paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland are strong, and that any serious strategy to confront and check drug trafficking in the Province has to take account of that reality. As the hon. Lady said, no fewer than 56 per cent. of people investigated by the drugs squad in Northern Ireland are thought to have paramilitary links. In its inquiry on cannabis, the Committee took evidence from Assistant Chief Constable Albiston, who said at paragraph 141 of the evidence that

He went on to argue that things that are welcome to the law-abiding majority, such as the removal of checkpoints and the scaling down of security measures, have also made life easier for criminals; it has made it a lot more convenient for people who want to move drugs or other illegal goods around Northern Ireland.

Lady Hermon : May I repeat the question that I asked the Liberal Democrat spokesman? Do the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the Conservative party agree that the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 should be used if there is a risk of jury tampering by paramilitaries who are themselves so involved in drug trafficking in Northern Ireland? Will the Conservative party support non-jury trials in the prosecution of those serious criminals?

Mr. Lidington : I would be prepared to look at the arguments and evidence of the police and the prosecuting authorities as to whether jury trial was a serious obstacle to the effective prosecution and conviction or organised criminals. However, I must say plainly to the hon. Lady that my starting position would be one of scepticism to a further move away from the right to jury trial beyond what is already provided for in counter-terrorism legislation, particularly by the Terrorism Act 2000, and its special provisions for Northern Ireland.

Although I understand the hon. Lady's arguments, I believe that there is always a cost—in this case, in the public's confidence in the criminal justice system—when we try to do without jury trials. I would look at the strength of the case, but I would require to be persuaded that the evidence justified the measure that she is advocating.

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The Government need to do four things to tackle the paramilitary links, although I appreciate that they are not always things that fall immediately within the power of any Minister. First, there needs to be rigorous, effective policing on the ground. It is important that there is rigorous, impartial policing without political considerations getting in the way of the need to deal properly with people who are trafficking in illegal drugs. I have no doubt that the Chief Constable and the PSNI intend to apply the law in exactly that way.

Mr. Clarke : I do not wish to dilute the obvious link between the paramilitaries and Northern Ireland's drug trade, but that does not explain one of the baffling aspects of the Committee's work. On moving away from the estates of Belfast and Derry we found that the hotspot for heroin and cocaine abuse was the loyal, God-fearing hamlet of Ballymena. I fail to see how we will get to the heart of Northern Ireland's drug problem—which seems to know no boundaries in terms of paramilitary links, urban areas, or rural sprawl—just by chasing the paramilitary links.

Mr. Lidington : I have never argued that it is only a matter of dealing with the paramilitaries. In the PSNI figures that I quoted earlier, 56 per cent. of people being investigated by the drug squad have paramilitary links, but 44 per cent. do not. The paramilitary organisations are the most firmly established and long-established organised criminal bodies in Northern Ireland; that is common sense and can be read in the evidence given to the Committee, and in its conclusions.

During the brief time that I have held my Front-Bench responsibilities I have had conversations with the authorities in Northern Ireland and become aware of their view that as a result of the cessation of bombing and shooting, many people who have known no other way of life than gangsterism have been moving towards gangsterism associated with drug trafficking, oil smuggling or other illegal activity. Effective policing is vital. The police must not be deterred from their responsibilities by the fact that paramilitary organisations with political links are involved in such activity.

This would be a good opportunity for those political parties with links to the paramilitaries to demonstrate that when they protest that they oppose drugs, they are serious. If Sinn Fein in particular could bring itself to give a wholehearted endorsement to the PSNI—which it deserves—it would enable the police to carry out their job more effectively in republican and nationalist areas. Drugs are a scourge of Protestant, Catholic, nationalist and Unionist people alike.

Secondly, we need to have effective data sharing between different organisations. That challenge is not unique to the difficulties of dealing with crime related to paramilitaries; it is particularly important in trying to deal with organised criminal gangs. I was concerned to read that there were worries in some of the evidence taken by the Committee that the application of the Data Protection Act 1998 was getting in the way of effective action against drug trading. I hope that the Minister will provide some reassurance on that count.

Other hon. Members have mentioned that rigorous action to recover assets is needed, because that is one of the strongest measures in our armoury against

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organised crime of all types. I add my support to the comments of other hon. Members about the risk that recent Home Office decisions may lead to Northern Ireland getting an unfair share of the recovered assets.

I will make one final point on the subject of paramilitaries and organised crime. In view of recent comments made by the Justice Minister in the Irish Republic, we must examine the problem of organised crime—and drug trafficking in particular—alongside the review that the Government will, I believe, carry out within the next year into the operation in Northern Ireland of legislation that applies to donations to political parties. At the minimum, I ask the Minister to accept that on foreign and anonymous donations, exempting parties in Northern Ireland from the normal rules that apply to political parties elsewhere in the UK would inevitably make it easier for drug money or other money from criminal activity to be laundered to fund political campaigning.

Mrs. Robinson : Will the hon. Gentleman also request that the Government encourage funding bodies not to support groups within the community that are fronts, particularly for paramilitary groups? That is happening at the moment.

Mr. Lidington : If there is evidence that any group is a front for a paramilitary or terrorist organisation, Government agencies should sup with a long spoon.

A number of other things come out of the report that require ministerial reassurance and Government action. My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire talked about what he felt was a lack of urgency in the Government's response to the report and the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) talked about the Government's response being slightly complacent; I think that that was the phrase he employed.

I accept that there are difficulties, complexities and, at times, uncertainties about information when one tries to deal with a subject as complex as the challenge posed by drugs. When I read the Government's response, I felt that there was a little too much of the touch of Sir Humphrey running through it; it contained his language, which seemed designed to provide reassurance without demonstrating much in the way of conviction.

I was concerned—as were other Committee members who have spoken—about the gap that appears to exist between the official perspective and the view of people in voluntary or Government agencies on the ground who deal with drug misusers and with this problem daily. There were differences about the level of street prices and the reliability of historical data in giving an accurate picture of how fast the challenge of the drug problem is growing in Northern Ireland.

I agree with the hon. Member for Dundee, East about the need for greater provision of residential treatment, as well as treatment within a community setting. In Northern Ireland—as elsewhere in the country—at least some of that residential provision should be secure. If people can be helped within their families and communities, that is all well and good. All of us know of people in our constituencies who live such chaotic and undisciplined lives that they do not have the support of family, friends or community organisations that would

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help to get them away from a drug habit. Their only chance of breaking free and establishing an ordered way of life lies in being able to go to a disciplined, safe place where treatment and rehabilitation have a chance of making some sort of impact.

Before I close I turn, unavoidably, to the matter of cannabis. I join the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland in saying that, somewhat to my surprise and probably to his consternation, I agree with the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan). It is a moment of comradely solidarity that we shall, no doubt, both treasure. The Government response contains plenty of good intentions and, I am happy to acknowledge, many examples of initiatives and activity that I welcome and that are likely to command broad cross-party support.

However, in the case of cannabis, the Government have made a rod for their own back. The decision to reclassify the drug has already led to confusion among the people who are at greatest risk of becoming misusers of cannabis. Page 18 of the Committee's report refers to the evidence of a project run with schools by the Council for Education in World Citizenship, which told the Committee:

It is not sufficient for the Government to say that everything is all right because they have also put up the maximum sentence for trafficking in cannabis. That prompts all sorts of questions about how often the maximum penalty is going to be applied by the courts. More seriously, it is often difficult to prove intent to supply, particularly when the quantity of cannabis that is found on a person is relatively small. The police might believe that it was almost certainly being used to supply other people in the area, but that is very difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt in court if the individual either maintains silence or continues to argue that the drug was for his or her personal use only.

The change in the maximum sentence for trafficking is inadequate and the change in classification is sure to lead to a further increase in the consumption of cannabis in Northern Ireland at a time when it is already the most commonly used illegal drug. That increased consumption is certain to lead to an increase in the medical problems with which cannabis is associated and which are described in the report. The evidence given to the Committee by doctors in Northern Ireland is that the consumption of cannabis is leading, particularly among young men, to more cases of psychosis, of depression and of paranoia. The link between cannabis misuse and mental health problems should concern the Government and all Members of Parliament, from whichever part of the United Kingdom they come.

Today we face the ludicrous spectacle of the Government spending £1 million of taxpayers' money in order to explain to the British public what they meant by their policy in the first place. That £1 million would have been much better spent on community nurses in Ballymena or Ballymurphy, on local drug addiction teams, or on help for voluntary organisations that are working on the treatment and rehabilitation of drug misusers. It is a scandalous waste of taxpayers' money in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom,

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and it flows directly from a misguided and ill-thought-out policy that should be reversed at the earliest opportunity.

Despite that real and serious disagreement on cannabis, I conclude on a more harmonious note. I believe that the Committee has worked hard to identify the problems associated with drug trafficking and misuse in Northern Ireland. The Government have largely accepted the Committee's analysis, but I share the concern of other hon. Members who believe that a bit more energy and drive are needed, rather than just words of good will from Government Departments. I am sure that neither the Minister nor any of us in this debate want to come back in five years to debate the same subject and to consider evidence from a future Select Committee that the drugs problem in Northern Ireland has got far worse because insufficient urgency was displayed by the Government today. I hope that the Minister will reassure us not only about the Government's good intentions, but about the energy and drive that they will show to tackle the problems before they get even worse.

4.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela Smith) : First, I welcome the opportunity afforded by this debate to discuss issues arising from drug misuse in Northern Ireland, and I am grateful for the many informed contributions to it. I acknowledge the expertise and commitment of the Select Committee and its Chairman, the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates).

My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) highlighted an important matter. Perhaps I owe him an apology; he certainly did not feel loved or wanted as a result of the ministerial response. We welcome the report, and I am sorry that that was not clearer in our response. There is certainly no complacency. I was saddened by comments made by the hon. Member for East Hampshire and others, who felt that the report was complacent. I assure them that that is not the case. I take issue with the comments made by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) about Sir Humphrey; if that makes me Jim Hacker, I am extremely disappointed.

The drugs situation in Northern Ireland bears similarities of nature and scale to the drugs situation in the rest of the United Kingdom, the British isles and western Europe as a whole. However, there are also crucial differences, which the report outlined. I commend the Committee; it is tricky to highlight such similarities and differences in the same report. I welcome the constructive comments and the analysis found throughout the report.

I will try to cover as many of the points raised as I can, but many of the issues addressed by the report cut across departmental and sector boundaries and cover the work of three Northern Ireland Ministers: myself, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar). Health is one of my direct responsibilities, and I will deal with the issues relating to that. My ministerial colleagues, who have responsibility

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for education, criminal justice and organised crime, would have been present today, but unavoidable, pre-arranged Government business demands their presence elsewhere, for which they apologise. I will pass on to them any points relating to their responsibilities that require their attention.

To a large extent, the Committee's concerns have been reflected in the debate, and they cover three broad areas: drug misuse, problem drug use and issues arising from the illegal drugs trade and trafficking. Given the timing, it was inevitable that several Members also wanted to concentrate on the reclassification of cannabis. I emphasise "reclassification", as several Members referred to "declassification", which has led to some misunderstandings. I will say more about that later.

The Government's response—through the drug strategy joint implementation model, of which the Committee was aware—has been to support activities and initiatives in education, prevention, treatment and enforcement. It is noticeable that the bulk of the report's comments and recommendations cover those three broad issues and responses.

On a more general point, the report provides an assessment of drugs in Northern Ireland, but several hon. Members referred to the fact that people's perception of the situation differs. The Government draw up an overview of the nature and scale of drug misuse from various sources, in a process that has been described as putting together a jigsaw puzzle. One problem is that we do not always have all the pieces, while some are newer than others and may seem more relevant. Our evidence includes official statistics, reports and surveys, but also anecdotal reports from people who work in the field and, indeed, from those who take drugs.

The evidence does not always fit together as neatly as we would like, but it is all taken seriously, and we look at it all to try to get a picture of the current situation and to develop an indication of past trends and, if possible, of new trends and issues. In no way does that indicate complacency over the issue. In fact, exactly the opposite is true. The Government response shows a determination to get things right and to respond effectively. It is worth highlighting that these issues are complex, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) explained, albeit from a lawyer's perspective, which I regret.

On the specific issues, my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) referred several times to giving priority to drugs education at primary level, and he was right to do so. The existing guidelines, which were produced in 1996, already advocate that primary pupils should be made aware of the dangers associated with illegal drugs. Of course, different approaches are appropriate to different age groups, and I agree with the Committee's recommendation that we need a co-ordinated response that involves children and parents. The Department for Education and Skills is committed to working with the Department of Health along those lines.

The hon. Member for East Hampshire mentioned the conflicting evidence that had come from the Police Service of Northern Ireland and community workers on the availability of cocaine and crack. I have highlighted

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some of the reasons for that and referred to the different information comes through. However, we concur with the police view that there is a growing problem with cocaine, although its use is still relatively restricted, and there is little evidence of crack cocaine use. The drugs misuse database supports that view but suggests that the number of people using cocaine is increasing, albeit from a very low level. In drugs raids, the police have found no evidence of the equipment needed to make crack cocaine, and there have been few seizures of either drug. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Ballymena, where there has been a seizure, but that appears to be a local phenomenon and is not particularly widespread.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Northern Ireland Office projects that had received funding up to 2004. He asked for an assurance that they would be funded in the longer term, and I can give it to him. Seven of the eight projects have been secured until March 2006, including the ones that he mentioned. I hope that he is satisfied with that response.

Mr. Mates : Seven eighths satisfied.

Angela Smith : The eighth project has not yet won funding, but the other seven will be fully funded until March 2006. Seven eighths satisfied is probably better than the hon. Gentleman would get from a lot of Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned pharmacists. The issue of needle exchanges and substitute prescribing highlights the work that they do and the contribution that they can make. My Department and the Department of Health have provided £500,000 to fund the installation of time-delay safes. They have now been introduced and there have been no successful armed thefts involving controlled drugs in the past six months, which we welcome. We also encourage pharmacists to offer wider services, including smoking cessation clinics, because they are often accessible to the whole community. The needle and syringe exchange scheme is another service.

The apocryphal story of the sunglasses in Ballymena has been mentioned several times. Obviously, such things are not acceptable. As I said in my evidence to the Select Committee, pharmacies were given up to £5,000 each to improve security and safety, possibly by installing CCTV. We must make every effort to work with pharmacists to protect not only people's privacy and dignity, but the security of pharmacy staff.

We have had interesting discussions with pharmacists about whether it would be appropriate to have consulting rooms. Not all of them thought that they would be appropriate for their own security and safety, but they took on board the points about people's dignity, security and safety, and several pharmacies have used amounts up to the £5,000 available to provide that kind of service.

The hon. Member for East Hampshire also raised concerns about the delay in producing the hepatitis C strategy. I acknowledged in my evidence to the Committee and in the Government response that that delay was not acceptable, and I hope to produce an explanation in early March as to why it happened. The explanation will acknowledge the problem and will not be an excuse. We are working towards the March target,

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so it should not be too long before it is produced. On the issue of substitute prescribing, I can inform Members that all boards are now signed up to substitute prescribing, and we are making progress on that.

Several Members raised the issue of involving users of drugs in the planning of services. Users' use can be made known through the voluntary and community sector networks and the independent sector forums. Any individual who has knowledge of, information on or an interest in drug and alcohol matters can make their views known to the drug and alcohol strategy team communication database, which has proved to be very valuable. It has played a significant role in the development of substitute prescribing services.

The issue of vacant drug and alcohol co-ordinator posts was also raised. I noted that some hon. Members welcomed the appointment of a co-ordinator, who took up the post on 27 October 2003 and is making progress. The negotiations about the additional five junior-grade drug and alcohol co-ordinators are almost complete and they should be appointed by summer at the latest, so there has also been significant progress in that regard. I think that we are all disappointed that those posts have been vacant for so long, but that should not happen again because the funding has been made recurrent. That issue has been dealt with, and we have responded to the Committee's concerns.

The Committee stated in its report that the post of regional drug and alcohol strategy co-ordinator is central to providing drive and momentum to the strategy. We certainly accept that. The appointment of the new co-ordinator provides a new opportunity to reaffirm the Government's commitment to continue successful implementation of that strategy. Ongoing meetings show how valuable that post is.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has raised concerns about the involvement of the voluntary and community sector. He has been right to state how vital that is, because unless we have grass-roots and community sector support, we do not bring people along with us. We really need that support, particularly from those implementing services on the ground, and from users. One mechanism is the drug and alcohol implementation steering group, or DAISG, which I chair. At our meetings, the most recent of which was on Tuesday, we are able to get reports from voluntary and community sector representatives. Their participation in that steering group has been invaluable and I am grateful for their work. Each of the four drug and alcohol co-ordination teams involves members and supporters of the voluntary sector. They recently extended their membership, which is a valuable opportunity for the community to be involved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South and the hon. Member for East Hampshire made comments about the review of the strategy, and the latter asked for reassurance that the comments in the report would be taken on board for the review. I can tell him that they certainly will be. The review was slightly delayed. I know that he regretted that, but it was tied in with the appointment of the regional co-ordinator. The review will be comprehensive and extensive. It will take into account various elements: the drugs and alcohol strategy; the joint implementation model; and the Northern Ireland drugs and alcohol campaign.

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We have already begun work on the terms of reference and at our meeting on Tuesday the relevant material was circulated. We expect responses by the end of January, so that the terms of reference will be established by then. I am pleased that the work is moving on, and I am sure that the hon. Member for East Hampshire welcomes that assurance.

Several hon. Members made comments about the Assets Recovery Agency. I am pleased to inform the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) that the budget is increasing from £13 million this year to £15.5 million in 2004–05. That is an increase of just over 19 per cent. That shows the value of the agency's work.

As to concern about money not returning to Northern Ireland from the fund, I can report that the recovered assets incentivisation fund has proved successful with its bid, and that there will be an allocation of £240,000 from that bid. However, I completely take on board the comments about the Community Fund. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley, has been in contact with the Home Office about the matter. We have not yet received a response, but have asked for the Department to reconsider and to respond as soon as possible.

Lady Hermon : I appreciate that the Minister has only a few minutes left. Will she just confirm that the Assets Recovery Agency has no cash-flow problems and is content with the budget allocation for the forthcoming years?

Angela Smith : I have had no indication that it is not content with the budget. That question would be better addressed to the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree. A 19.2 per cent. increase in funding is one that many agencies would welcome.

I should tell the hon. Lady that I could go on for another half an hour, but I promise that I will not; I saw her look of horror at the suggestion.

Several hon. Members referred to the new test of impairment and the campaign on drug-driving. Wearing my other hat, as Minister with responsibility for the environment, I launched that campaign with the PSNI yesterday. Its aim is to show how dangerous drugs and driving are; that includes legal as well as illegal drugs. Sometimes people forget that some legal drugs, including over-the-counter medicines labelled "May cause drowsiness", make it dangerous to drive. The money is being spent to ensure that people are aware of the problem. There is a direct reference to cannabis in the campaign, and that is appropriate. I think that it is a very valuable campaign.

To make a slight correction to what hon. Members seem to have understood from the figures, approximately one in four of drivers and riders killed in accidents whose bodies were tested for drugs showed evidence of drugs. Not all drivers were tested. In cases where someone dies some time after the accident, there might not be testing. However, the figure is alarming, and we want to work closely with the police on this matter. There is considerable advertising on the issue, and it will be heavily supported by police enforcement, which is the key to making the campaign work.

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It would remiss of me not to deal with the reclassification of cannabis. I understand people's concerns, particularly given the misuse of terms such as "declassified" and "decriminalised", which are not accurate. I shall do my best to lay to rest hon. Members' concerns. I was interested when the hon. Member for East Hampshire said that people were unclear on the matter. He focused on whether people thought it was legal to smoke cannabis before the announcement this week.

There has been considerable confusion. The message must be that cannabis remains illegal and harmful and that it is not just illegal drugs that are harmful. As Minister with responsibility for health, I am very concerned about the effects of smoking. Tobacco is a very harmful drug, but I would never suggest—no hon. Member has this afternoon suggested—that it be made illegal. Legal and illegal drugs can cause harm. There is a health issue; we need to ensure that the Government's message gets across.

As things stand, law enforcement agencies throughout the UK will continue to enforce the prohibition of all drugs. Cannabis remains an illicit substance, as the hon. Member for North Down mentioned several times. It is a significant deterrent that the penalty for supplying cannabis is to be increased to 14 years.

Mr. Mates : I hear what the Minister says, and she acknowledges that there has been confusion on the matter; but the problem—this shows the complacency of the Government machine—is that although the announcement about reclassification was made eight months ago, the campaign is starting this week. That is why there have been eight months of confusion. People were so confused when we talked to them while carrying out our inquiry.

Angela Smith : The Government campaign will clear up any confusion and will help enormously. Quite erroneously, there has been an acceptance that cannabis is not harmful, but it is. The campaign is unprecedented across the UK; no previous Government have run such a campaign to highlight the problems with cannabis. The campaign will make a distinct difference. The PSNI and myself are confident that co-operation with police forces in Great Britain and the National Crime Squad, and internationally, will not be compromised by re-classification, an issue raised in the debate. We have had the same response from Customs and Excise; its procedures are also unlikely to change.

Mr. Barnes : Will the Minister give way?

Angela Smith : If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall first address an issue that he raised. It might prevent me from having to give way. I also welcome him back to the Chamber.

I was asked how much was being spent in Northern Ireland. The Home Office budget is separate. The approximate figure for Northern Ireland this year is just

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over £60,000, but I can give my hon. Friend the actual figures. Proportionately, it is significantly more than is being spent in the rest of the UK.

Mr. Barnes : How much of the £60,000 comes out of the £1 million that has been announced, or was the money provided for earlier? Could not a wodge of the £1 million be added?

Angela Smith : I apologise to my hon. Friend if I was not sufficiently clear. What I was trying to say—I thought that I had made it clear—was that the £60,000 is completely separate from the £1 million. It is from a completely separate budget from the Northern Ireland health budget, and is not from the Home Office budget. Proportionately, the sum is significantly more than the Home Office is spending.

Mr. Barnes : Will any of the Home Office budget be used for Northern Ireland?

Angela Smith : No, because the Home Office spends its budget with reference to the different situation in England and Wales. We are talking about the Northern Ireland budget, which, per head of the population, is significantly more; I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes that. The situation is different in Northern Ireland. I want to ensure that the message sent out in Northern Ireland is tailored to the circumstances there. That is what the separate budget enables the campaign to do, and I am happy to supply my hon. Friend with some of the campaign materials if he is particularly interested. I think that they strike home. They deal specifically with Northern Ireland and the circumstances pertaining to it.

Mr. Tynan : On the reclassification or declassification—however we want to put it—of cannabis, there is medical evidence that cannabis is creating enormous health problems, both in throat cancer and in mental disease. It has been said that the evidence for changing the classification was based on evidence from people who are regarded as experts in the field. However, the experts that the Government involved in cot death syndrome have created an enormous problem because the evidence has been found to be false. The same situation may be found to apply to the evidence that justified the reclassification or declassification of cannabis.

Angela Smith : I understand my hon. Friend's point. We could probably debate the issue for another half hour or hour, and I would be happy to do so with him at some point, but the key message has to remain that cannabis is illegal and harmful. No one is saying anything else. We have to have some credibility on the issue, and I do not think that we have any when we put cannabis in the same category as amphetamines. There is a difference.

Mr. Carmichael rose—

Angela Smith : If I could finish the point, it is important to publicise the differences in the risks that drugs pose. The Government campaign is not saying that there is no harm or risk from cannabis. It is saying that cannabis presents a different kind of risk, which is the reason for the reclassification. My hon. Friend the

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Member for Hamilton, South talks about language, but we are simply talking about a reclassification; there is no way that that should be seen as declassification.

Mr. Carmichael : The Minister makes a perfectly valid point. To classify cannabis with amphetamine sulphate was wrong. By the same token, does she not agree that it is incongruous to see cannabis among prescription-only medicines such as diazepam and temazepam?

Angela Smith : It seems that I am more in line with the view of my Front Bench than the hon. Gentleman is with his. I do not agree with him. The penalty for trafficking cannabis is different; it is 14 years, which is not the case for all class C drugs. This is an issue of credibility. I am not dismissive of hon. Members' concerns, which I understand, and that is why the information campaign is so important.

Mr. Lidington : Following the reclassification of cannabis, does the Minister believe that the consumption of cannabis in Northern Ireland is likely to go up or down?

Angela Smith : A lot depends on how we get the message across. The advertising and drug-driving campaigns provide us with an opportunity to send out a message in a way that we have not done before about how drugs can be harmful and impair driving ability. I hope that that awareness will have a positive effect in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) raised the Goldstock report and asked what was being done about it. It was received on Monday and is being considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree. I am confident in their determination to tackle these problems. The very reason why they asked for a report from Ron Goldstock was so that they could act on the findings and deal with a serious problem. I have no reason to distrust their commitment.

The hon. Member for Hamilton, South and the hon. Member for Aylesbury asked about the Data Protection Act 1998 and whether the PSNI will share information with other bodies. I assure hon. Members that the PSNI is prepared to share information on seizures and arrests, although the Act prevents it from commenting on individual cases, and that also applies to patient confidentiality. Information can be shared, and joint working between law enforcement agencies is especially important.

The hon. Member for East Antrim made the slightly unfair point that the police were acting against paramilitaries. In particular, he mentioned Johnny Adair, whose licence was revoked by the Secretary of State because of his behaviour, which included drug dealing. The police have taken considerable action against paramilitary organisations involved in drug dealing in Northern Ireland, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that; he even mentioned some of the cases in his speech.

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Mr. Beggs : We welcome what has been done, but the community in Northern Ireland as a whole wants to see much more being done. There is a perception that some parts of Northern Ireland are still no-go areas.

Angela Smith : Operational matters and deployment of police officers are the responsibility of the Chief Constable. Over the next three years, £2.1 billion has been allocated to the police as a result of the recent spending review. That is more than £400 per head of the population per year, which is two and half times greater than the average for the rest of the UK. Significant resources are therefore available to the PSNI over and above what is available to the rest of the UK. The Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003, of which I know the hon. Gentleman is aware, provides for significant changes that will help the Chief Constable.

Lady Hermon : I am delighted to hear that we have the Minister until half-past 5; she has a long while to go until then. I know that the Minister is not responsible for criminal justice at the Northern Ireland Office, but as she was speaking on policing and justice a moment ago, will she confirm that the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 in relation to non-jury trials talk about where there is evidence of a "real and present danger " of jury tampering taking place? Will she confirm that the Government would have no hesitation in using that provision in the prosecution of drug traffickers in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. Before the Minister responds, I point out to hon. Members who may wish to intervene further that we hope to allow the Committee Chairman a little time to respond. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind.

Angela Smith : Your calling us to order, Mr. O'Hara, allowed me to recall the exact provisions. The hon. Lady is correct that section 44 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 could be used to hold non-jury trials, but that overarching power has not yet commenced in Northern Ireland. It is unlikely to be enacted there until 2005.

Lady Hermon : The Minister's reply spurs me to rise to my feet again. Her opening words were that the Government were "not complacent" about the drugs problem in Northern Ireland and that the Government needed to be effective in the measures that they took. What on earth is the reason for section 44 of the 2003 Act not being implemented in Northern Ireland for another 18 months? It is quite unreasonable.

Angela Smith : The hon. Lady seems to suggest that nothing else is happening, and that the 2003 Act would solve all the problems. The Government are not complacent. I understand that that is what was agreed by the Ministers who took that Act through Parliament, and I can ask my colleagues to write to her explaining the reasons. It would not be fair to say that because it does not come into force until 2005, the Government are complacent. The other measures that I have outlined today that were addressed by the Committee show that the Government have no complacency on the matter.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, I am appreciative of the interest shown by the Committee in an important social and public health issue, and I

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welcome the constructive comments made in the report. I also welcome the additional comments made this afternoon.

The key to tackling drug misuse in Northern Ireland, an issue that impacts across all sections of our community, is to develop a co-ordinated and integrated response. That was the intention behind the original drugs strategy that was launched in 1999, and the subsequent joint implementation model that was launched in 2001. Through that plan, over 300 regional and local activities and initiatives have been funded, covering education, treatment and control. They are designed to reduce the level of drug-related harm in Northern Ireland by reducing actual drug use, by treating and preventing problem drug use and by addressing those issues involved with drug trafficking and drug-related crime.

I am pleased to tell the Select Committee and hon. Members present today that the process of reviewing the strategy and the joint implementation model to take action to address those issues for a further five years has just begun. I assure the Committee that the report and its conclusions and recommendations will be taken into account during that review. It was with an excellent sense of timing that this debate took place today. I emphasise that there is no lack of understanding in the Government, nor a lack of commitment or determination to tackle the problem.

5.14 pm

Mr. Mates : This has been a useful debate, and I congratulate all those hon. Members who took part. I particularly thank the members of the Committee who took part; nine of the thirteen Committee members are here today, which is good on a Thursday afternoon and with no Whip. Some were here for a slightly shorter time than others, but I am grateful to them not only for being here and contributing to the debate, but for the work that they did in getting the report published.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I am aware that some of the questions that we put to her were not for her Department, and one or two may have been slightly above her pay grade. Nevertheless, the fact that we have been pressing her is an excellent example of the use of a Select Committee. We produce a report, and we say what we think, unanimously and on a cross-party basis. That galvanises Ministers into action, because they have to come to the Chamber to answer the report. That in turn galvanises the officials. I venture to say that none of the announcements that you have made this afternoon would have been made today if the Minister did not have to come here.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. I am not aware that the Chair has made any announcements.

Mr. Mates : The moment I said "you", Mr. O'Hara, I realised that I had gone wrong. I had hoped you would not notice, but that was in vain, too.

The whole purpose of the Select Committee system has been shown in very good order today, and we have had some answers which perhaps would have churned rather longer through the bureaucratic machine had it

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not been for the discipline of today's debate. I think that I speak on behalf of all my colleagues when I assure the Minister that we will return to this subject, we will keep watching what the Government are doing and we will want to be more satisfied about the urgency with which this problem is being tackled. As I have said, we have two or three years to get this strategy right, otherwise the

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problem will be as out of control as it became in the rest of the United Kingdom. I and all my Committee very much hope that this will not happen, and we intend to keep a very sharp eye out to see that it does not.

Question put and agreed to.

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