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Mr. Carmichael: May I bring to the hon. Lady's attention the fact that the provisions in part 1 relating to the amendment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which is a UK-wide statute, apply north of the border?
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) speaks with great authority about mental health matters for my party, and his contribution showed his measured approach to the problem. He tacitly admitted to being addicted to politics among other things. He expressed concern that law enforcement is not enough in the fight against drugs and that treatment is essential. We can all agree on that. There seemed to be some issues with the Minister relating to the linkage between drugs and mental illness and perhaps we will have time to explore that in Committee.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), who is not in his place, made a guest appearance and talked us down memory lane and through the jazz clubs. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) made her usual excellent contribution and quoted my constituent, Mary Brett from Dr. Challoner's, who has done sterling work in drugs education. My hon. Friend raised issues relating to the "Frank" campaign, about which we are all concerned.The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) brought up the rear, not for the first time, and slipped in a magic little contribution. I commend his work with Narcotics Anonymous. Like him, I call for sound and sensible legislation.
In his opening remarks my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden welcomed the provisions of the Bill, and I agree that some of the basics are there. However, the proposals have come at the eleventh hour and are seen by some to be too little, too late. If the Government are serious about enacting provisions that will make a difference to drug abusers and to law-abiding citizens, the Minister will have the opportunity to consider and adopt the amendments and additions that we will table in Committee. I hope she will encourage her hon. Friends to table their own amendments.
The Bill has been put together in haste, and things that are put together in haste can be regretted at leisure. We intend to propose that khat be added as an illegal drug, and we will examine clause 1 and make sure that its terms are not limited to schools, but include youth clubs, skate parks, arcades and other areas where children gather. We must study the fine wording of the Bill, such as the provision that it is a reasonable excuse
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if somebody did not know that a school was being used as a school or that there were young people in it. That would allow people to wriggle under the net.
I am worried about the cash definitions. In the modern economy we know that it is not just cash that is traded between dealers and their runners. Other goods are also traded and I want to make sure that they are included. We want to encourage schools to begin random testing for drugs, and I hope the Minister will consider amendments to the Bill. Testing for class A drugs should extend to under-18s. We want to make it compulsory to complete a treatment programme, and I hope to explore with the Minister the ways in which we could achieve that. We also want to consider offering more residential rehabilitation.
I believe the Government do not care whether the Bill becomes law or not. The timing of its presentation, so close to a possible election, is cynical, and the Bill has been prepared with extreme haste, which is reflected in its provenance. The regulatory impact assessment reveals that there has been little, if any, consultation. In the words of the Home Office on page 13 of the regulatory impact assessment,
We know that about seven weeks ago No. 10 hosted a one-off meeting at which the Prime Minister, the Minister and about 20 police officers discussed the Bill's provisions. If, as we all suspect, a general election is called for 5 May, we will have only a very few sitting days and the Bill will have little chance of becoming law unless a deal is done over it. But that will allow the Government to grandstand and trumpet that they have been tough on drugs, and to point to the Bill as the so-called evidence. No. 10 cannot fool all of the people all of the time.
This is a serious subject, so as a responsible Opposition we will support the Bill, but we will work with the Minister to improve such an undersized piece of legislation. The subject is too important to be thrown away in a flurry of pre-election posturing. I regret that such a valuable opportunity to improve drug treatment and rehabilitationand even to deal with the wider issues of supply and public health, on which we have not had an opportunity to touchhas been rushed through in an indecent haste by a Government determined to cover all their bases for the next election.
We all wish to improve our society, and our route as politicians is through legislation. That legislation should be well thought through. We will help the Minister in Committee, and I hope, in the spirit of the Secretary of State's words, that we can improve what is on offer, despite the lateness of its presentation to the House.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): We have had an excellent debate this afternoon. It has demonstrated that everyone who has spoken, on whatever side of the argument, cares deeply about the impact of drugs and the way in which individual lives, families and communities can be shattered when the misuse of drugs gets completely out of hand.
Several Members, on both sides of the House, have tried to imply that somehow the Bill stands on its own, and have questioned why it does not cover a number of
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issues regarding treatment and so on. The reality is that the Bill is part of an overall Government strategy, in which the Home Office leads, to tackle drugs, crime and treatment for anyone who has a drug misuse problem.
The Bill is intended to complement what we have already achieved: unprecedented amounts of resources going into treatment; for once, Government policy that recognises the link between drug addiction and crime and that is trying to stop that vicious circle; and for once, mechanisms by which we can assess what treatment is happening and what is good, indifferent and bad, and by which we can try to address that. The Bill does not stand on its own. It complements what we are already achieving up and down the country, part of which is 54 per cent. more people in drug treatment.
If we are to have a reasonable debate on drugs, it is important to consider the Bill in context. I remind the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) and other Conservative Members that not long ago we issued to every Member of Parliament a copy of the document, "Tackling Drugs, Changing Lives", outlining in detail exactly what we are doing to expand provision and to tackle problems of supply, treatment, and importantly, prevention. The Bill and the measures contained in it have arisen out of several different discussions, both formal and informal, with different groups that have specialist expertise and knowledge of the problems in relation to both addiction and enforcement of the law. That is why we have considered measures that, rather than standing on their own, will enhance what we are already trying to achieve.
I want to deal with a number of comments that Members have made. If I do not respond to all of them, I will have to write to the Members concerned, or take up the issues in Committee. First, I want to comment on khat, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound). We take the issue seriously, and I have dealt with an Adjournment debate on this very subject. Currently, we are keeping the status of khat under review. Positively, we have arranged with Turning Point and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders to undertake two studies considering the level of khat use and misuse in communities. On top of that, we are actively considering what is necessary to communicate and engage with those communities for which it is a problem. That issue has been raised with me by members of the Somali community, in relation to how we get across information to them about the dangers of that drug. We are therefore actively considering that area.
Issues of organised crime were also raised. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill is currently going through the House, and I spent two days on it in Committee last week. We believe that the establishment of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and extended powers in terms of Queen's evidence and disclosure
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will greatly assist us in putting behind bars more of the Mr. and Mrs. Bigs who run organised drug crime and other forms of organised crime. That is another piece of legislation that complements what we are trying to do in tackling the problems of drugs in our communities.
On children and the aggravated offence of drug dealing in the vicinity of schools, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) pointed out that no direct evidence exists and that no figures are kept, but a number of different groups, parents, teachers and others have raised their concerns. We are examining how we can introduce preventive measures as well as how we can deal with the current situation. The legislation is directed at areas rather than children per se because the aggravating factor of targeting vulnerable people, which includes children, already exists, and we felt that that particular area was covered.
On mandatory sentences, I have not had a chance to see the private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). However, I remind him that section 110 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 requires the court to impose an appropriate custodial sentence of at least seven years on a person convicted of three class A drug offences. We must see the detail of the Bill before we explore that area further.
On drug testing in schools, the Department for Education and Skills guidance is clear. It provides advice and a number of measures, one of which is drug testing, for schools. Drug testing must sit alongside a school policy on what to do after a positive drug test. It is one part of the guidance, but knowing what to do and how to connect with agencies that might assist an individual young person who has a substance misuse problem is a real issue.
On testing equipment, a number of hon. Members raised the issue of how long drugs remain in a person's system. For example, cocaine can be out of a person's system within a couple of days, whereas cannabis remains for a lot longer. There is therefore a danger that we will not pick up those young people who are involved with class A drugs and that we will pick up the ones who may use cannabis. Drug testing is an option that should be open to schools, and where schools use it, we should examine how to support them.
On testing under-18s at the point of arrest, in the past year we have started to examine testing on charge for under-18s, and there will be provision to extend the age group, but at this stage we need to see how the testing process works with that particular age group.
A number of issues have been raised about the reclassification of cannabis, which is obviously not included in the Bill. We must have a credible discussion about the relative harm caused by different drugs. An evaluation of the Government's public information showed that 93 per cent. of under-18s understood that cannabis continued to be illegal after its reclassification. Estimates from January 2004 indicate that we have saved about 180,000 police hours in relation to the bureaucracy that was generated by policing the old offences that applied to cannabis.
I remind hon. Members that the Home Affairs Committee agreed that we should reclassify cannabis from class B to class C, which was supported by the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who is currently
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responsible for co-ordinating Conservative party policy, and which the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who is part of the Conservative home affairs team, did not vote against. It is not always clear where people are coming from on this issue.
With the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health, we are developing a series of health messages that will ensure that we get it across that serious issues exist in relation to the use of cannabis. We are working with a number of people who are involved with mental illness and mental health to ensure that materials are produced that make people aware of the dangers of using any drug, including cannabis, if one has a mental illness. The National Treatment Agency and the Department of Health have taken up dual diagnosis. It is important to ensure that we recognise the different issues, whether they concern mental illness or drug addiction.
I reject the suggestion that magic mushrooms are harmless, because they are equivalent in effect to LSD. The rapid increase in outlets selling magic mushrooms in what we consider a prepared form, which is illegal, has caused problems. The National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counsellors has said that it feels that the area needs to be clarified, which is why we have gone down this route. Indeed, a recent court case clearly made that point.
On legalisation, all I can say is that I am afraid we do not believe that it is a panacea or answers all the questions. Those involved in organised crime would simply regroup. If one legalised drugs and said to the public, "You can have a certain amount of that drug at a certain price," some criminals would try to undercut that price or offer more drugs than would be available through a regulated outfit.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) raised several issues relating to certain clauses that we can discuss in more detail in Committee. I should say that these measures originate from those on the front line who feel that gaps and loopholes allow dealers to get away with being charged for dealing offences. As regards detention, we are trying to target dealers, not mules.
My hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw, for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) and for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) made excellent speeches that drew on their experiences and knowledge of their constituencies. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw that we need to ensure that those involved in carrying out assessments and offering advice are able to do that job. If he wants to come and talk to me about his concerns, my door is open. We are looking to the National Treatment Agency to ensure that people are accredited. We are also encouraging more GPs to take up a role in this respect, as the fact that many have not wanted to do so has been a big problem. In the past year, we have worked with the Department of Health to ensure that primary care trusts take that responsibility more seriously. I hope that we can grow a new generation of GPs who see it as part of their core business.
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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone for his remarks about how well drug action teams and crime and disorder reduction partnerships are working in his area. He proved that the resources we are providing are making a difference on the ground.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East for his work on the all-party group on drugs misuse. He raised several issues. I agree that we need to consider substitutes other than methadone, and the NTA is actively considering that. We should be mindful of the need to give users choice, and we will address that proactively and in more detail in future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) was right to cite his experiences as a Scottish MP. I hope that the debate will be listened to in Scotland and that likewise we will listen to the debates in Scotland. He mentioned our measures on the proceeds of crime, which mean that at last we can take the assets from drug dealers. That, together with other sentences, will make a real difference to their lifestyles, as well as their investment in their drugs businesses.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley talked about the level of drug use in the UK compared with the rest of Europe. Those statistics are open to question and some of the figures are misleading. I am prepared to discuss that with him another time. Drug use in the UK has stabilised. I am not excusing its high level, but there have been rapid reductions among young people in several areas.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) expressed concern about cannabis and talked about the importance of teaching people about the dangers of drugs. That is exactly what we do through Talk to Frank, Blueprint and every other means at our disposal to engage with young people in whatever environment they may be, whether in school, youth clubs or elsewhere.
We have had a very interesting debate. This is an issue that we can never give up on. I do not like the term, "Fighting the war against drugs." We have to be mindful of how drugs change, and when new drugs come into our communities we have to be prepared to deal with them. The Bill allows us to build on our already positive record.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) said, this is about prevention as well. That is why we are working actively with the Department for Education and Skills to go back to the point before young people get involved in drugs. We want increasingly to consider the risk factors that may lead young people into drugs, early sexual activity, truancy or simply not thriving in school. If we can get there early enough, we can challenge some of the dangers that can lead them into crime and imprisonment in future.
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