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Waiting Lists

10. Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): What progress has been made since 1997 on reducing waiting lists for hospital treatment. [208910]

The Secretary of State for Health (Dr. John Reid): Since 1997, we have cut waiting lists by 314,000, or 27.1 per cent. This is the lowest level since comparable data were first collected in September 1987.

Dr. Palmer: I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. I welcome that progress, and today's announcement that two of the Nottingham trusts, including one mental health care trust, have been given foundation status will further accelerate that progress. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that although health care professionals are virtually unanimous in saying that there has been enormous progress, the public are still unsure? We really need to focus on the total waiting time from the patient's first contact with their GP to the time at which they get their treatment. Only then will we really make a breakthrough in regard to public confidence.

Dr. Reid: I agree with my hon. Friend. Substantial progress has been made. In 1997, 284,000 patients were waiting more than six months for operations; that number has been slashed to 62,000, and over the year it will be reduced to zero. For 60 years, however, we have measured the six months as starting from the time of diagnosis, not from the time when a GP was first consulted. The Labour Government will get rid of those hidden waits. I have pledged that by 2008 we will measure the time from the GP's door to the door of the operating theatre, and that it will be a maximum not of years, as it was under the last Government, but of 18 weeks. That, I think, will show a truly transformed NHS.

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Orders of the Day

Drugs Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

12.30 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Clarke): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time. It gives me great pleasure to do so.

This is an important opportunity to consider a Bill in the context of our overall drugs strategy. I am delighted to say that during the Queen's Speech debate there was broad cross-party support for it, and many of the provisions were discussed following consultation on police powers and publication of a progress update in November. I am sure that that discussion will continue in Committee, and the Government will welcome constructive proposals from members of all parties in that same spirit of broad cross-party support.

We have welcomed the feedback from our consultation, and we have worked closely with the police to develop the powers that are needed and for which the police themselves have asked. Those powers are designed to increase the ability of the police and the courts to tackle drug dealers, and to secure a measured and proportionate response in the tackling of harm caused by class A drugs that complements the drugs strategy that has operated since 1998. The strategy has focused on a number of key targets. It aims to reduce the harm that drugs cause to communities, individuals and families, on the basis of what actually works, and to tackle problems from every possible angle, involving all public services and voluntary and community activity. I think that we are starting to see positive results.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): The price of drugs has fallen dramatically. That disincentive seems to have been removed. Meanwhile, the reclassification of cannabis, the entry drug of choice, has left consumers—if we can call them that—with a mixed message: that they will not be prosecuted for holding supplies for their own consumption, but that the supply remains entirely in criminal hands. Is that not the worst of all possible worlds?

Mr. Clarke: I do not think that there is a mixed message. On the contrary, the message is very clear. People should not consume drugs, and we as a Government will work with all the agencies to try to ensure that they do not. It is true that the price is too low in some cases, which is to do with the balance between supply and demand. I shall say something about that in a moment. The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, on which we are focusing strongly.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): During a debate in the Chamber in 1998, all parties agreed on a 10-year strategy whose main aim was to reduce the consumption of all illegal drugs. Will the Home Secretary tell me by how much consumption has been reduced in the seven years that have elapsed since then?
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Mr. Clarke: Cannabis use among 16 to 24-year-olds is down from 28.2 per cent. in 1998 to 24.8 per cent. Amphetamine use has fallen by 60 per cent. in the last five years. Ecstasy use has also fallen over the last two years. We are making progress, and I think that that is a result of our policies.

Paul Flynn: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Clarke: I will in a moment.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) mentioned drugs gangs, of which more than 330 were disrupted in the 18 months to December 2003, since the updated drugs strategy. Some 150 crack houses were closed between January and September under the new powers that this Parliament has given to police forces. Some 8,000 misusing offenders entered treatment through the drugs intervention programme between April 2003 and September 2004. Nearly 26,000 drug treatment and testing orders have been issued since their introduction. On average, offenders committed 75 per cent. fewer offences while on such orders, and they reduced their spend on drugs—this point also relates to the intervention by the hon. Member for New Forest, West—by more than 90 per cent. Fifty-four per cent. more users are in treatment compared with 1998 and waiting times for treatment are down by 71 per cent. compared with the 2001 figure. Drug-related deaths are at their lowest level since 1998 and for every pound spent on treatment, £3 is saved on criminal justice costs.

The extremely important point that I am seeking to make is that none of us in this House should regard the fight against drug use as a hopeless struggle. We have made significant progress as a result of putting our strategy in place. There is, as both interventions have acknowledged, a need to make a great deal more progress and I believe that the Bill will help us to achieve that end.

I turn to the Bill's key points, which I shall go through steadily. By way of general introduction, I should mention the concerns that have been expressed about civil liberties. I want to make unequivocally clear the Government's view that it is the drug abuser who threatens the civil liberties of the law-abiding citizen, rather than the reverse, which is why we need to take legal powers to ensure that the state can prevent and inhibit drug abuse. That requires the kind of measures contained in the Bill, in order to ensure that the immense damage that drug abusers do not only to themselves but to society as a whole is prevented and driven out. We are building on a foundation of steady progress, but we need to go still further.

What does the Bill seek to do? Clause 1 puts in place aggravating factors in respect of supply of a controlled drug by a person aged over 18. For example, where supply takes place within the vicinity of a school and during the relevant time, or where a dealer uses a person aged under 18 as a courier for drugs or for drugs money, the penalties for such an offence will increase very substantially, for reasons that I hope are obvious to the House.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): How many recorded incidents are there of drug arrests in the vicinity of schools, and of subsequent convictions, in the past few years?

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Mr. Clarke: We do not have the detailed information that my hon. Friend seeks, but anecdotal evidence and comments from many of the agencies concerned suggest that this is an issue that we have to address. Indeed, it would be absolutely wrong of this House not to acknowledge that the supply of drugs in and around schools in some parts of the country is a serious issue. My hon. Friend has rightly developed a strong reputation for his work on this problem and taking the necessary powers through this Bill will enable us to attack it even more strongly.

John Mann: A slight amendment to the wording of the relevant provision might solve the Home Secretary's problem. Several hundred of the 3,000 constituents who wrote to me in response to my heroin inquiry suggested that drug dealing was taking place in the vicinity of local schools. We investigated every single complaint, but we could find evidence of only one such incident throughout the preceding 10 years. The reason was explained by the school pupils. Many of them said, "Why would we be so stupid as to buy drugs in or around the school and use them there, when we can buy and use them in social settings at will?"

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