Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who made a comprehensive speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who spoke before the hon. Gentleman, is promoting a private Member's Bill on drugs. He was lucky enough to come second in the ballot and is putting his good fortune to use in probably the best way possible, given the problem that the country faces.

Although I am sure that it was unintended, I got the impression from the Secretary of State's tone that he thought that the drugs problem was being beaten, but I submit that that is not the case. I support the Bill because it is an attempt to achieve that. Although I cannot demonstrate the deep knowledge of the matter that many hon. Members have shown, I want to speak in the debate because we are not beating the drugs problem.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) said, the Bill is a step in the right direction, but only a small one. I regret to say that it is an attempt to correct the damage caused by the Government—perhaps inadvertently—when they lowered the classification of cannabis. I will make no apology for returning to that point on many occasions. The House does not only pass legislation. After all,
18 Jan 2005 : Column 738
legislation can only do so much, so we must send messages. Lowering the classification of cannabis got far more publicity throughout the country than the Bill will receive.

As I said during an intervention, I recently heard that many young people think that cannabis has been legalised. One or two Labour Members said that the police are not bothering to arrest people for cannabis crime. Let us add those two things together: if young people think that using cannabis is legal and the police are not bothering to make arrests, why should young people not take cannabis? The Government are giving the message that drugs are bad, yet that taking the so-called recreational drug cannabis is not as bad as it used to be. We cannot tackle the drugs problem seriously when we give such mixed and misleading messages.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley referred to the Brixton experience. A pilot study was carried out, but because it did not produce the results that the Government wanted, the lessons drawn from it have been forgotten. The Government hired a drugs tsar, and because he did not say the things that the Government wanted to hear, he was moved quickly to one side. That is not the way to tackle the problem of drugs.

There are good messages in the Bill and although it contains some good measures that are too strong for one or two Labour Members to take on board or agree with, such messages and measures are pointing in the right direction. However, the messages about drugs are rather weak when we compare them to some of the other messages that we send out from this place. For example, we are rightly deeply concerned about binge drinking, but we seem to hear much more about the problems associated with binge drinking—I accept that they are considerable—than about the problems associated with drugs.

I return to my point that the message about drugs is not consistent and is not strong enough. Potentially, we are turning smokers into criminals, if the Government are returned. It seems that those who have a social drink or a social smoke are being treated like pariahs, yet drug takers are having far more tolerance extended to them. Sympathy they need, and I entirely support the calls, especially those made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), for better rehabilitation, but the message about the evils of drugs, including the evils of cannabis and the psychological difficulties caused by cannabis, must be advanced with greater strength.

We have heard arguments for the legalisation or decriminalisation, whichever term we use, of drugs, especially from the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), who made a thought-provoking speech. He demonstrated great knowledge but I disagree with the conclusions that he drew from the extensive studies that he has obviously undertaken. He said that if an activity is illegal, it arouses curiosity, especially in the minds of the young. I suppose that that is true. I suppose that many young people are curious about what it is like to purchase alcohol if they are not 18, but I did not hear the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we should legalise the purchasing of alcohol by those who are under 18. I do not think that we can follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument in terms of what
18 Jan 2005 : Column 739
happened during prohibition. When I challenged him on whether he would ban smoking in public places, he said that he would. However, that sends out an inconsistent message.

The hon. Gentleman almost suggested—I am sorry that he is not in his place to hear what I am saying—that the fact that it is illegal to possess and to take drugs made the committing of crime more prevalent. I do not follow that logic. The crime is committed to secure the money. If drug taking were legal, given their cost and their effects, many people would continue to commit crime to fund their habit. On that basis there is no logical or consistent argument.

Drug taking or drug possession must be illegal if there is to be legal consistency. The taking of drugs fuels crime and crime fuels the taking of drugs, not only crime such as burglary or theft—those are the obvious two crimes—but, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone said, prostitution. When prostitution is fuelled by drug taking, further problems ensue, such as the trafficking of young girls. The result is a terrible vicious circle. The outcome is also higher rates of other crime. In Northern Ireland, where I happen to spend a little time and carry out studies, the drugs trade is an industry in itself.

I cannot follow the logic of the argument that the problems would be removed if we legalised drug taking. If the crime that fuels the drugs is illegal, the drugs themselves should be illegal. As I pointed out in an intervention, if drugs are to become acceptable we would have to decriminalise them and make them legal. That process would send the wrong message. Are people who propose that drugs should be legalised suggesting that they should be sold alongside the Mars bars in the shop of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley? That would not be appropriate, but where would people obtain drugs if they were made legal? I believe that they would probably obtain them at the same places that they obtain them now. They would buy them from dealers, but cannabis dealers, I am afraid, also deal in stronger drugs. They do not just deal in what are sometimes erroneously termed soft drugs. Where will young people be advised to buy drugs if they are made legal?

People take drugs for different reasons. Some turn to crime to fund their habit, but others may be considered the silent victims, and are members of the working population, the middle classes—whatever that means these days—and even higher classes. I telephoned Gloucestershire constabulary for advice on my speech this morning and asked how many such people take drugs. They said that, by definition, they did not know, because those people do not break other laws or steal to finance their habit. People who take drugs who then commit crime are the visible drug takers who are in the public eye but, worryingly, there are others we do not know about.

The Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley has introduced is rightly concerned with drug dealers, although it also calls for a full survey of the evils of cannabis. I am advised that if the police take out a drug dealer and he goes to prison—I am not suggesting that that should not happen—another drug dealer steps into his place and continues the supply of drugs. In other words, the demand side is probably the bigger problem. That does not mean that we should not hammer,
18 Jan 2005 : Column 740
for want of a better word, drug dealers, but a more imaginative approach is needed to stem demand as well as supply. Stemming supply might reduce usage but it might increase the cost of drugs, which could have a knock-on effect on crime, which would increase as people tried to pay for those drugs. The solution to that problem is extremely difficult, and I shall return to it in a moment.

The law, as I have said, must crack down on dealers, and the police are using the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to do that. They say that it is helpful to be able to seize the assets of people who have been sent to prison for drug dealing because the police do not believe that prison is enough. Drug dealers, like many habitual criminals, regard prison as an occupational hazard. The police therefore find it useful to confiscate assets so that when those people come out of prison they cannot easily return to their evil trade. On the other hand, the police say that reducing those people to nothing may mean that when they leave prison, they are tempted to return to crime to get started in the drugs trade again. I do not know the answer to that problem—I am simply trying to highlight it.

The supply of drugs is highly organised and suppliers deal in all kinds of drugs. Indeed, they deal in the drugs that they can get at that particular time in order to sell on. If they can get a shipload of one kind of drug at a decent price, they will buy that drug and move it on. As I said earlier, people who supply cannabis also supply many other drugs.

Some aspects of the Bill are contentious. Testing on arrest does not seem much different from breathalysing somebody who is suspected of drink driving. If that helps the process, I do not see it as a problem. Another issue is the "reasonable" test when someone is caught in possession, to determine whether that person is a dealer, not just someone who takes drugs. "Reasonable" is probably the most important word in the English legal system, but it presents problems. What do we mean by reasonable? Is there any such thing as possessing a reasonable amount of drugs? I am not sure how the courts will determine that. The Committee may want to try to clarify the matter.

The supplying of drugs must be tackled, as must the demand. More joined-up thinking is needed. Before 1997, we heard how the Labour party would introduce joined-up government. We are still waiting for that, and nowhere more than in drugs policy. There must be a stronger link between education, health and the criminal process. We should not be afraid to teach young people about the evils of drugs, the damage they cause, the fact that they can be carcinogenic and addictive, and about how starting on cannabis often leads on to class A drugs. We should say that much more clearly than we do.

Next Section IndexHome Page