Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Clapham : The hon. Gentleman says that the strength of the communities that he represents has been undermined by heroin. Has he asked his CDRP—crime and disorder reduction partnership—whether it has done any recent research in relation to the audit that it will carry out, and does it show that there has been a decrease in heroin use?

Mr. Carmichael: To be quite clear, I said that there was a growing hard drug misuse problem in my constituency. It would be overstating the case to say that we have yet been undermined in the same way as some of the other communities in which I worked previously but do not represent. Heroin may have reached Shetland, but as far as I am aware, CDRPs have not yet reached our shores, although we may have similar organisations. The police and other social agencies in my constituency tell me that they are increasingly concerned about the growing use of hard drugs, particularly heroin. We may be five or 10 years behind the rest of the country in this respect, perhaps because
18 Jan 2005 : Column 719
we are better able to stem the flow of drugs into the community because of the limited number of entry points into places such as Shetland and Orkney. That is an obvious geographical advantage.

It is curious that much of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill does not deal with serious organised crime, yet clause 20 of this Bill amends the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill. That gives rise to a little cynicism.

The provisions in clause 1 seem acceptable on the face of it, although some scepticism was expressed by the Secretary of State's Back Benchers, who perhaps know more about the extent of the problem that clause 1 addresses. Certainly, aggravated supply was not a phenomenon that I came across in the years that I spent in prosecution and defence in criminal court practice. If we accept that there is a mischief, the manner in which the Government are dealing with it may not be as clever as it could be. The fact is that supplying in the vicinity of a school is already illegal, as is supplying anywhere. It is already illegal to use a courier, because they would be guilty of being concerned in supply under section 4(3)(b) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Why is the age limit of 18 stipulated for couriers? Why not 16? If the Government are to be consistent in their logic—although it is not necessarily to be commended—surely a 16-year-old school-leaver should be caught, as well as an 18-year-old.

If the procurator fiscal or the Crown Prosecution Service are on the ball, all such information should be put before the court as things stand. We should not insert a new section into the 1971 Act to say that age is an aggravating factor without determining the extent to which the sentence is to be aggravated, as happens with bail offences in Scotland. If an offence is aggravated by being committed on bail, the sheriff or judge has to make clear the extent to which that aggravation is reflected in the sentence. That is a rather more sensible way in which to proceed.

Dr. Iddon : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that whatever age limit we set, criminals will use even younger children? When I worked with Greater Manchester police on the police service parliamentary scheme, I found that children as young as 12 and 13 were conveying drugs around the Longsight and Moss Side areas of Manchester.

Mr. Carmichael: I fear that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and that that practice will arise. That reinforces my suspicion, further to the point made by the hon. Member for Newport, West, that the Bill owes more to window-dressing than to dealing with the problems that arise from drugs use associated with people of school age.

I have a less friendly interpretation of clause 2. Clause 1 is unnecessary, but clause 2 is potentially very dangerous. The Minister will be aware that case law already says that where the court is satisfied that the quantity of drugs alone is such that it can draw an inference of intention to supply, a conviction can follow. The Home Secretary said that different quantities would be specified in relation to different drugs. That is true, but I hope that he accepts that there will also be differences between what constitutes a dealer quantity,
18 Jan 2005 : Column 720
so to speak, in different parts of the country. An amount that would be a dealer quantity in London might differ from what would be the case in Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen. We will have to find some means of pulling all those different levels together, probably to the lowest common denominator, into one statutory instrument—but for what purpose? It will not leave the prosecuting authorities in any better position than that which they are in at the moment.

The danger is that a police officer who is inexperienced or not as well supervised as is desirable will find somebody in possession of an amount of drugs that is, say 2 or 3 g less than the prescribed level, and say, "We've not got enough for possession with intent to supply under section 5(3) of the 1971 Act, so we'll do them for simple possession under 5(2)." In that situation, the evidence will not be properly considered, even if it is possible to set the level in the way that the Government seem to anticipate.

As for clauses 3 and 4, it is only right that we acknowledge the practical problems that the police and other investigating authorities face in relation to people ingesting drugs, and we should try to tackle that. However, I should like the Minister to assure the House that the provisions will be used fairly sparingly and will be genuinely limited to those who are suspected of dealing and trafficking, and that meaningful safeguards will be in place to ensure that they are not used against those who would at most face charges of possession, not supply. I am thinking back to my experience as a prosecutor of having police officers coming to seek warrant applications in relation to supply allegations although all that was eventually found was a very small amount that would at most support a simple possession charge.

With regard to clause 3(5), which inserts new section 13A in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, I am uneasy about the court's right, in relation to a refusal to undergo an intimate search, to

Presumably those would be adverse inferences. I am not sure what is meant by the form of words that the Government have chosen to use. I hope that where such an inference is drawn it will not be akin to a presumption of guilt. As the Minister will be aware, the Home Office's own statistical bulletin shows that there were positive results in only one in seven of those who were subjected to intimate searches in 2003–04.

I am also uneasy about the right to hold people for up to 192 hours. Again, I want assurances from the Government that the provision would be used only when an X-ray or a scan shows that ingestion of some sort has taken place and some higher test than mere suspicion has been applied. If it has been established that a substance has been ingested, for example, a powdered substance in a condom is often mentioned, holding people until, one way or another, it is out—if I may put it that way—is sensible; otherwise, there is always a risk of the vessel that contains the powder bursting and the person in question suffering an overdose. I understand the force of the provision but I would like some reassurance about the guidance that will be given.

We have concerns about the provision for testing for class A drugs on arrest rather than charge and believe that it could be open to misuse. However, we will go
18 Jan 2005 : Column 721
along with it for the moment and simply say that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. We can judge it to be a success if it leads to a greater number of people who complete treatment. I hope that it might be used to develop arrest referral procedures. Although that is a voluntary scheme, it has great potential that has not yet been realised.

We shall try to explore several issues in Committee. We want to examine the way in which the results of testing and arrest will be used and the guidance, especially for police. Could any evidence that is adduced be used in relation to further, unrelated charges? We would also like some examples of the guidance that will be given to the police to ensure that testing for class A drugs on arrest is not used arbitrarily or oppressively, in the way that is sometimes suggested that stop and search has been used.

We broadly welcome intervention orders, for which clause 20 provides. In the spirit of co-operation that the Home Secretary mentioned, we are prepared to work with the Government to ensure that the orders can be made as easily workable as possible.

Let me deal briefly with the so-called magic mushrooms, which clause 21 covers. We must accept that the current position is anomalous but I am worried about designating those substances as class A. It is unrealistic to suggest that they are on a par with heroin and crack cocaine. It is the sort of provision that brings the drugs laws and this place into disrepute because it lacks credibility in the outside world. It is an example of the need to reconsider the classification of proscribed drugs in the way in which Runciman outlined.

There could also be legal difficulties about possession. A landowner who has substances growing on his land and knows about it fulfils the tests of knowledge and control that constitute possession under section 5(2) of the 1971 Act. If the Minister can provide an alternative explanation, I shall be interested to hear it. I wonder if the clause will prove to be the provision that puts into clink the remaining country landowners who have not already put themselves there by refusing to stop hunting.

The Misuse of Drugs Act was passed in 1971. It is ironic that we tend to revisit road traffic legislation every 10 years, yet we have had 33 years during which the 1971 Act has been largely unrevised in anything other than a peripheral and piecemeal manner. A comprehensive overview and re-examination of misuse of drugs legislation is long overdue. It is profoundly regrettable that the Bill is not that comprehensive re-examination. On the basis that half a loaf is better than no bread, we will support the Bill but look for something more in the future.

2.34 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page