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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who has been interested in drugs policy for as long as I have known him. He has looked at best practice in a number of countries that he has visited, identifying where things are going right and where they are going wrong. We should all be looking for examples from around the world, although we may not be able to replicate them exactly because ours is a different society. Some countries can do things that we simply could not replicate here because our culture is somewhat different, but it is still important to take note of those countries that have got it right, and to see whether we can take the best of what they do and put it into practice.
I agree that the Bill, which I shall certainly support, is modest, and we should try to improve it and strengthen it in Committee. This is an opportunity to see exactly what we can do to improve the quality of life of everybody in this country who is dogged by drugs in some way or other: those who are personally hooked on drugs and who want to get off them; the families who suffer as a result; and the wider community, which suffers because of the drug dependency of certain individuals. We need to tackle that problem and although the Bill is a step in the right direction, we can take some further tentative steps to ensure that it is more effective.
Indeed, and if Members can hear an echo reverberating, it is because I am at the bottom of the hole in question. As well as being a former chairman of the all-party group on drugs misuse, I am also a vice-chairman of the all-party music group, and it was in the latter capacity that I, along with the hon. Gentleman, was invited to that club. The hon. Gentleman made it sound as though I was a regular visitor, but that visit was the first for both of us. We were given a tour of the club and, as he said, we examined each of the several floors and the closed circuit television system, and considered the club's use of bouncers on the front door and the staff's general attentiveness. We were impressed by what the club was trying to do. Young people visit nightclubs and we want to make them safe environments for
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everybody. Although that club's policyas shown to the hon. Gentleman and me, at leastwas absolutely right, it clearly was not as effective as it should have been because, as he pointed out, it was closed down a couple of weeks later because of drug use and dealing on the premises. That does not alter the fact that all clubs have a duty to play a role in ensuring that their environments are safe for young people to enter, free from the scourge of drugs.
The Bill arrives against the very worrying backdrop of the United Kingdom's now topping the European league table for cocaine abuse; indeed, in that regard we have reached a level similar to the United States. UK levels are twice the average of any other country in Europe, apart from Spain. That is not a record to be proud of. An extremely worrying reported add-on is that 5 to 7 per cent. of Britons aged 15 to 24we should remember that age grouphave used class A drugs recently, with the levels in towns and cities likely to be "substantially higher".
On cannabis, the report in question says that English boys are more likely than other European teenagers to have smoked a joint, with 42 per cent. admitting that they have tried the drug. Some 42 per cent. of boys and 38 per cent. of girls aged 15 in England have tried cannabis at least once. In Greece, Norway and SwedenSweden has been mentioned time and again, so we should probably go there to find out exactly what is going onthe corresponding figure is 10 per cent. England also has the highest proportion of heavy users, with 10 per cent. of 15 and 16-year-old boys having smoked cannabis more than 40 times in the last year. That is a hugely worrying statistic, and drug crime is of course on the rise. Indeed, there are an estimated 1 million users of class A drugs in this country.
I agree with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw about schools. The picture is being painted of a school system completely riddled with drugs and drug abusers, but that certainly is not the case in my constituency. I am not saying that no instances of drug use have occurred during my 12 glorious years as Member of Parliament for Ribble Valleyof course they havebut the headmasters there have cracked down on the problem extremely well and have received great support from the local community in doing so. The problem does not exist in every school and classroom every day of the week, and we must ensure that that remains the case.
I support the Bill's provision on drug dealing within the vicinity of a school. One young person abusing cannabis or class A drugs is one too many, and if we can prevent that from happening by stopping dealing within the vicinity of schools, or within schools themselves, that is what we must do. I was interested in what the Home Secretary said about possible funding of drug-testing equipment for schools. All school budgets are clearly somewhat constrained these days, so in areas where the problem is prevalent, schools might want to use such equipment, which they cannot afford to buy. I hope that schools that desperately need such equipment do not fail to get it for the want of resources.
If such equipment is used and certain youngsters are found to have used class A drugs or cannabis, I hope that they will then get the counselling and attention that they need and deserve. As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw rightly said, such counselling should take place in the presence of parents. The parents will
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obviously be greatly worried and will want to take part in the counselling so that they can learn about the problems associated with drugs. Being parents does not make them know-alls about drugs; indeed, some are worryingly ignorant of what their children get up to.
As the shadow Home Secretary said, the distinction is often made that cannabis is not a hard drug and has a "sixties" feel. However, this is 2005 and the cannabis generally available today is 10 to 20 times stronger than that available in the 1960s. It is a completely different drug. It is often regarded as being less harmful than class A drugs, but that distinction worries me. It is true that it is different, but a number of studies have pointed to the long-term effects of its use, particularly for those who start young. Indeed, I have just quoted statistics showing that a worryingly large number of young people are starting to use cannabis at a young age. Everything must be done to educate them and to get into the classrooms information on the damaging effects of cannabis and of class A drugs.
Youngsters talk to each other, so they know whether dealing is going on in the vicinity of their school. I hope that they are encouraged to give that information to the head teacher, to Crimestoppers or to another known number, so that they can play their part in cracking down on the dealers, who should be behind bars, and in saving the lives of their friends. Those who get hooked on class A drugs, or on cannabis at the age of 14, face the prospect of death. Such an initiative would give some hope that the dealers can be taken out of the system, and that such youngsters might be given the chance, which comes only once at that age, that their lives can have some meaning.
I cannot believe that the Bill has been criticised for being populist. What is wrong with populism? If introducing the measures in the Billalong with some add-ons to stiffen it upis popular in the country, what is wrong with that? What is wrong with ensuring that kids will not face drug dealers at the school gates, or be dealt drugs by a sixth-former? What is wrong with stopping the problem at source?
Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Gentleman is falling into the same populist trap. Such conduct is already illegal, and this provision is characteristic of much that the Government do, in that, in order to be seen to be doing something, they criminalise an already illegal act.
Mr. Evans: Clearly, dealing in drugs is illegal, but ensuring that it is viewed as aggravated if it is carried out in the vicinity of a school is absolutely right. We should send that message out repeatedly to drug dealersthat they will be dealt with in a much more severe fashion if they are caught. Also, if youngsters are being used as couriers, that must be stamped out as well. Drug dealers are some of the worst people in our society, and they will stoop to all sorts of tricks to ensure that their dirty trade continues. If they can get away with using kids to sell to kids, they will do it.
I therefore support the Bill's provisions on dealing with drugs in the vicinity of schools. The Government know that my private Member's Bill is due on 25 February. I have been accused of being populist in
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respect of that, too, but I do not mind. My Bill is concerned with the people who deal drugs to youngsters. As the shadow Home Secretary mentioned, it is concerned not only with dealing in schools. For goodness' sake, young people go to a number of places, whether it be pop concerts, football grounds, youth clubs or whateverthey are all over the place. Frankly, anyone who deals to youngsters should be viewed as having committed an aggravated offence. That status should not be confined to those who deal within the vicinity of schools. I hope that we can look further into that in Committee to extend the red light to wherever young people are.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made a compelling point about the drug testing of drivers, which is important when accidents have taken place. We should ensure that drug testing happens. Everyone knows about the dangers of drink-drivers, but the same applies to drugs. In 1984I think that that was the date mentioned earlierI am not sure that the methods for testing were as sophisticated as they are now, so let us look further into that matter in Committee.
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