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Mrs. Gillan: Does my hon. Friend agree that that makes it even more serious that it took the Government two years to bring to the House provision to make it an aggravated offence to sell drugs to children around schools? The Government originally announced that they were going to introduce such measures in 2002, and the Drugs Bill has got through its Commons stages only this week. That is two years that have been wasted by the Government.
Absolutely. Such action should have been taken a long time ago. I hope that the police will be given
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every support in cracking down on anybody who deals drugs to minors, particularly anywhere near schools, where they know young people go. We must be certain that the police will get full support. When parents send their youngsters off to school, the last thing that they would want to think is that their kids will be under any pressure whatever to take drugs. We all know about peer pressure, which is bad enough, but let us ensure that we crack down on dealers who perpetrate crime around schools.
We have talked about ecstasy, whose effects on youngsters can be harrowing. It can cause body temperatures to rise to dangerously high levels, it is linked to liver, kidney and heart problems, and it can activate urinary infection such as cystitis in women. My Bill will tighten the legislation on seven class A drugs: heroin, crack, cocaine, ecstasy, mushrooms, methadone and amphetamines prepared for injection. The aim is to prevent today's young people from becoming tomorrow's problem addict drugs users. The Government's own report, "Drugs Guidance for Schools", states:
"All pupils, including those in primary schools, are likely to be exposed to the effects and influences of drugs in the wider community and be increasingly exposed to opportunities to try both legal and illegal drugs."
We know that that is not dispute, but the Bill will make it clear to dealers that they now have a choicethey can deal and face a far tougher sentence than before, or they can stop dealing to the most vulnerable in our society, whether near a school or anywhere else.
As part of citizenship classes in schools, children are now taught about the harmful effects of drugs. I applaud the Government's guidance on this matter and the hard work of the educators involved. I also pay tribute to the life education initiative. I am a Rotarian in Clitheroe and, through their charity, the Rotarians support life education in schools throughout Lancashire, warning youngsters not only about the effects of drugs, but about other abuses.
Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I am grateful to my fellow Rotarian for giving way. I have been following his exegesis with great interest, and there is much that is superficially alluring in what he says, particularly about young people. Where in his Bill, however, does he address the problem that most of the drugs dealt in my part of the world are dealt by children under 16 on bicycles who are connected by mobile phone to some anonymous figure who may not even be in the same country, let alone the same city? What will he do in respect of those drug dealers?
Mr. Evans: Anybody who is dealing for profit to anybody under 18 will be dealt with by the Bill. I appreciate the sensitivity of the issue of young people dealing to young people and, indeed, the abuse of older people using minors to try to get around the law, but that issue will also be dealt with. There will be custodial sentences for anybody dealing for profit.
Sentencing will be available through the courts. It will be up to judges to use discretion, because the relevant part of the Bill allows for discretion in
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looking at all the effects. Clearly, we want to get to the big dealersthe people who manipulate youngsters to deal their drugsand they must be in no doubt whatever that, when we get to them, they are going to be dealt with harshly.
Mrs. Gillan: Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that it is a crying shame that, when I sought in the Committee stage of the Drugs Bill to lower the age provisions to take into consideration exactly what the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) is talking about, and what this House is worried about, the Government resisted the proposal so strongly and left the specified age at 18 instead of looking at lowering it to 16 or the age of criminal responsibility, as the Opposition advocated?
Mr. Evans: I agree. I can see that the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), who is sensible in most things, could almost be attracted to sitting on the Opposition Benches. Even if he does not come here now, he will certainly be sitting here after May. It is only a matter of time.
I welcome the approach to drug education of schools in my constituency, such as Clitheroe royal grammar school. Their aim is to enable pupils to make informed choices and to make up their own minds to reject drugs by increasing their knowledge, challenging attitudes and developing and practising skills. That is done by providing accurate information about drugs, increasing understanding about the implications and possible consequences of use and misuse and promoting a greater awareness of personal and social attitudes to substances.
The "Talk to Frank" website, which is sponsored by the Government, is imparting sensible information to youngsters and there is a 24-hour helpline. I think that the address is talktofrank.com, and I hope that not only youngsters who are worried about their own drug use, but those who are worried about their friends using drugs, will access the site. I hope that youngsters will use the helpline to get information on how to tackle the problem of dealing with friends who are taking drugs.
Although the percentage of children who use hard drugs is small, we must enact safeguards to protect them from the temptation that awaits outside the school grounds. We must also look outside schools to protect younger people in our society from the pervasive presence of drugs. Approximately 1 million children play truant, 100,000 children are temporarily excluded from school and 13,000 children are permanently excluded. The antisocial behaviour that leads to truancy and exclusions is part of the slippery slope on to drugs that we must try to curb through legislation.
Surveys show that truants and school excludees engage in high levels of poly-drug use, with cannabis, solvents, poppers and amphetamines featuring strongly. Heroin use, which is negligible among school attendees, affects 2 per cent. of truants and excludees on a lifetime basis. The level of consumption of any class A drug once a month during the past year is significantly higher for excludees than for those who routinely attend school. Other research into drug use by school age young people highlights a similar pattern of experimentation, with cannabis use most prominent, followed by the use of amphetamines, solvents, magic mushrooms and poppers.
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The links between drug use and criminal activity are well established and acknowledged. For young people living on the streets, lifetime use of the more harmful drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, crack, tranquilisers, steroids, solvents and hallucinogens, is highfour to 10 times higher than for those minors who have never been homeless. For that section of our youth, who are so often the forgotten minority, to be a habitual drug user is a life sentence. Not only must those young people drag themselves off the streets and face the problems that put them there, but they must stop the cycle of desperation that led them to, and keeps them on, drugs. Indeed, there is evidence that drug use in later life is far more likely among runaways and the homeless than among minors who remain under a roof for that period. My Bill will make all drug pushers think twice about whether they want to risk their futures and continue dealing to our youth.
I hope that we all agree that cannabis is a dangerous drug. It is easy for members of the public to forget that cannabis is still dangerous. The Government reclassified cannabis from class B to class C on 29 January last year throughout the United Kingdom.
Mr. Forth: I am puzzled, because my hon. Friend seems to be prejudging the deliberations and outcome of his own commission. He wants us to take his commission seriouslyI remain to be convincedbut he wants it to pose the exact question that he is already answering. Why should it waste its time if he has already got the answer?
Mr. Evans: Because nobody listens to me. [Laughter.] We are in oppositionI currently speak from the Opposition Benches, but soon I will sit on the Government Benchesand I was upset when the Government reclassified cannabis without reference to an independent commission. I have talked to a number of charities about the effects of cannabis and have made my mind up. I want to set up an independent commission to convince the Government that what they have done is completely wrong. Indeed, when my party gets back into power, we will reclassify cannabis to class B without any hesitation.
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