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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I am constantly puzzled by the way in which the debate about drugs unfolds. I do not think that I am any clearer on the subject than I was when I arrived in this place nearly 22 years ago. I am puzzled because everyone says what an important subject this is—reference has been made to an all-party group—yet when my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) offers the House an opportunity to debate this vital matter in his well-considered Bill, we find a pathetically and tragically small number of people here. We know the numbers because we counted them earlier; looking round the Chamber, that is sadly reflected. I want to hear no more from my colleagues about how much they care about this subject, because when they are offered an opportunity not only to debate it but to legislate on it, they do not turn up. They do not come to the House of Commons when they have an opportunity to decide whether my hon. Friend's Bill would present a good way in which to deal with the problem that they all say is so important.

Mrs. Gillan: Will my hon. Friend support me in saying how appalling it was that, when we were legislating on this subject earlier this week, the Government allowed a pathetic three hours for Report and Third Reading of the Drugs Bill, which was entirely unsatisfactory. That showed that the Government did not want a reasoned debate on the subject.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. She is right that on a previous occasion, on which we need not dwell, the Government truncated debate, but the very people who were frustrated on that occasion could have turned up today and had a substantial amount of time for debate. These blessed Fridays are the one occasion on which the Government do not control the timetable, and colleagues had an
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opportunity today to discuss the matter covered by the Bill to which she referred. It is an irony that Members undoubtedly felt frustrated by the Government's attitude, but on the very occasion when they could have been allowed lots of time to debate the matter—today—they apparently found it more important to be elsewhere.

My puzzlement increases when I think about the extent to which our policy on drugs, broadly defined, has probably been one of the most consistent and massive failures of public policy for several generations. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley alluded to that and reinforced the point in his speech. We are talking about substances that are illegal and deemed extremely harmful to those who take them. Even on my hon. Friend's figures, however, they are more readily available than they have ever been, cheaper than they have ever been, the only beneficiaries are the criminal classes, we raise no tax revenue from them whatever, and they contribute considerably to the level of crime. On every conceivable basis and measure, the drug problem has got worse. We have failed completely, Government after Government and decade after decade, to deal adequately with this problem. That must be one of the most comprehensive failures of policy conceivable in the civilised world. I therefore conclude that our policy direction must be almost completely wrong.

We apparently cannot prevent these substances from coming in through our borders. When people sell them, we do not deal with them adequately through the justice and criminal system. We fail to raise any taxes from them, and we also apparently fail to persuade people, be they young people or adults, of the evils of these substances and the fact that they should not take them. There are no positives at all. It is a resounding, consistent, sad negative.

It is suggested that we should try to tighten our border controls, but that does not seem to work. It is also suggested that perhaps we should increase the penalties on people who use, or more particularly sell, drugs. That does not seem to work either, because the penalties are not sufficient or, more probably—I think that this was what my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley was hinting—because the judicial system, for some reason that none of us can understand, fails to use the penalties that are available to it. Perhaps it does so because our prisons are already too overcrowded—I do not know. We therefore have no success in that regard.

Historically, back in the 1920s, our friends in the United States, confronted with what they saw as a similar problem with alcohol, introduced prohibition. In a sense, what we have today is a modern form of prohibition. We are saying, as the Americans said back in the 1920s, that we believe that these substances are wicked and people should not be able to take them, so we will ban them and make them illegal. What happened with prohibition in the United States? Alcohol appeared glamorous as a result, speakeasies sprang up, the criminal classes benefited because they met the demand, and in the end the Americans had to accept the reality that prohibition simply did not work. Surely that is some sort of lesson for us.
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If we consider the paradox of the status of alcohol and tobacco in our society, the issue becomes even more problematic. Tobacco, in its own way, is just as addictive and harmful to the people who use it as many, if not most, drugs. Alcohol alters behaviour as well as damaging health and having effects on people's behaviour and relationships in just as bad a way as most drugs. Perhaps for historic reasons, however, alcohol and tobacco are legal substances, freely available and sold legally through shops, including the shop of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley. They raise tax revenues that go a long way to paying for our national health service, not to say our nuclear weapons and missiles. We also put warnings on alcohol bottles and cigarette packets about the harmful effects of such substances.

In those cases, we say that it is right to tell our citizenry that such substances, although they are legal and we derive huge tax revenues from them, might be, and almost certainly are, harmful to them. We leave it to their judgment as citizens to decide whether to consume them, while at the same time attempting as best we can to protect young people from using or abusing tobacco and alcohol until they are of an age at which they can make a decision. The paradox must be self-evident.

We are therefore struggling with a debate today about cannabis and other drugs and substances against a background in which two categories of substance that are in many ways just as harmful are already freely available in our society. The hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) referred earlier to the possible effect of cannabis use on driving. We acknowledge that in our laws, because although alcohol is a legal substance, we say that if one takes it and drives, one is committing an offence. Therefore, a parallel exists between alcohol and cannabis. The debate is all over the place, and it is not taking us anywhere productive.

I pulled my hon. Friend's leg earlier about his proposed commission, and I did so for a number of reasons. I am suspicious about commissions anyway, and even more suspicious of experts, as in most cases the advice that they give us seems to be either wrong or contradictory, usually both, and in the end is usually altered on further investigation. I therefore have an innate suspicion of commissions. When my hon. Friend is prepared, in his usual honest and open way, to prejudge the deliberations of his proposed commission, I get even more suspicious. If we are to have a commission of this kind, I would prefer its remit to be broadened to examine the whole subject of drugs, substances, abuse, consumption and the general effects.

The piece missing from the equation is an adult debate about drugs in modern society. I would go as far as to say—this is usually unspeakable, but I can say it in the Chamber today because I know, with confidence, that it will never be repeated—that surely there is a place for the legalisation of some or all drugs. In many ways, the logic of what I have said would take us in that direction. There should be a debate and argument about whether, were we to legalise such substances and treat them like tobacco and alcohol—to raise revenue from them, put health warnings on them, make them more freely available, decriminalise them and take away the benefits to the criminals—it is at least possible that we
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might deal with the problem in a much more effective way than we do now, when we are completely failing to deal with it.

Laura Moffatt: I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman, particularly in relation to having a sensible debate about legalising drugs. He might be interested to know that the all-party group regularly has sensible debates about the legalisation of drugs. Given the billions of pounds spent in the NHS on people who abuse alcohol and cigarettes, however, does he have any concerns that the same might occur should drugs become legal? I understand what he says about our debate being completely fractured, but does he have such concerns?

Mr. Forth: No, because I think that we would get a positive cash flow. The intriguing thing—the hon. Lady will know this better than I do—is that it is beyond dispute or debate that the revenues raised from the sale of cigarettes and alcohol far exceed the cost to the national health service of treating the ailments that arise from abuse of such substances. Sad to say, I would probably argue that in the unlikely event that we legalised these substances and taxed them—indeed, it is unlikely that we would even consider debating my suggestion—the same point would apply. The tax revenues raised from them would far exceed the cost of treating through the NHS those who used them. That is a reasonable assumption to make, based on the historical evidence of tobacco and alcohol use.

I welcome these opportunities to have such a debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley for this one, and from that point of view I welcome his Bill, but I do wish that we took such opportunities to broaden the debate and turn it into a serious one. The sad truth is that we politicians are afraid of articulating this debate in the way that I am suggesting because we assume that there would be a backlash from the electorate. As a result, with a few honourable exceptions—sadly, one particularly honourable exception, who consistently speaks out bravely on this issue is not here today, albeit for a doubtless very good reason—an opportunity for Members to debate this issue is again being missed. I regret that greatly.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his Bill and I will support it today, if only because it would provide a proper vehicle for further such debates. If it goes into Committee, as I hope it will, I will try to amend it to broaden the remit of his proposed commission, so that we can go somewhat in my suggested direction. For that reason alone the Bill is well worth supporting, but sadly, today is an opportunity that has been missed.

10.51 am

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