Drugs Bill

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Mr. Carmichael: It would help if the Minister could assure us that the commencement order under clause 24 will not be made until the other relevant orders relating to possession arising from the ownership of land are made.

Caroline Flint: I think that that is all right, but I will have a closer look at it to double check.

From what has been said by many members of the Committee, it is clear that retailers are fully aware that we are trying to close this loophole, so their awareness of what is going on is pretty much there. In relation to compensation, I do not think that it is right to compensate people for trying to find a way around the law. I think that such people are breaking the law. We
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need to ensure that it is clear beyond all reasonable doubt.

Mrs. Gillan: I agree. I do not think that anybody's business is going to turn on whether they continue to trade in this substance, but it is fair that whatever order is made should specify a time by which they should be aware of it. It would be unfortunate if the time limit were a matter of days. Obviously there is a large lobby, as the Minister said, but the substance is sold by what I think are called head shops, and news of legislation sometimes takes a little longer to reach such places. We should be fair to the traders rather than bringing the axe down immediately. A definite date should be set.

Caroline Flint: Yes, it is important to have a date of commencement.

In answer to the question of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, clause 21 will not commence until regulations are made providing for exceptions to the offence of possessing magic mushrooms. People are following our debate avidly, and through the normal channels, our Home Office websites and the newspapers, we will let them know when that clarification of the law comes into effect.

I should clarify something that I said earlier as I would not want to mislead the Committee. When citing a Dutch Government survey, I spoke about a usual dose of 10 g of fresh mushrooms, but there will be only 10 micrograms of psilocybin in the mushrooms. I wanted to clarify that because 10 g of psilocybin would almost certainly lead to allusions and hallucinations; I meant 10 micrograms of psilocybin.

When answering my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, I referred to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. However, I did not say that we were asking the council to review the classification of the properties of magic mushrooms. I said that we are in touch with the council about developments in the production and marketing of the mushroom.

I know that people feel that we should clarify the situation, but we are not minded to reclassify for the reasons that I outlined earlier, especially our commitment to the conventions that we have signed and the fact that the chemicals that we are talking about are hallucinogenic. We therefore think it right to keep them where they are. None the less, the council keeps drugs under review and will continue to do so. I hope that I have made it clear that it is not a new classification. We are trying to clarify the existing classification, and to deal with the way in which some people have chosen to get around the law. It is important to recognise that.

I hear what the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham says about young people. I am pleased to have support from some quarters for what we are doing. I have received letters from people concerned about the matter, and I know that the police are worried about it. I have said before that the open trading of those mushrooms in a way that misleads young people is potentially dangerous.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland cited a number of substances that he found on his internet
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searches. Many different plants and flowers can have negative effects, but we have to deal with the situation as it is—how the substance is being marketed and where it stands in relation to the law. For those reasons, I hope that the Committee will support clause 21.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 22

Financial provision

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mrs. Gillan: I have a couple of points that I want to put to the Minister. I would like her to explain paragraph 55 of the explanatory notes. It states:

    ''This will be implemented once the expanded workforce is in place and frontline efficiencies have been achieved. There are downstream costs to the Criminal Justice System but these are expected to be balanced by savings arising from reduced offending.''

As we are examining the detail of the Bill, an explanation would be useful of what front-line efficiencies are expected, who will achieve them, and where the cuts will fall in order to create the expanded work force. I am not sure that I fully understand the provisions, and others have raised the matter with me.

4.45 pm

I want to look at the implications for public sector manpower, which also fall as a burden. Paragraph 61 says:

    ''Clauses 1–6 and 8 will have a minimal impact on manpower'',

but clauses 8, 5 and 6 all have manpower implications. Indeed, even the estimate that police forces will require one additional supervising officer per day—presumably, on a 24-hour shift basis—represents quite an additional burden.

Rather than that, however, I would like the Minister to explain the suggestion that

    ''The extended detention provision will allow police forces to equip a custody suite''.

Do we have the correct financial provision to provide for custody suites? If not, there will be enormous issues about detaining people for a long time in police cells. In Operation Safeguard, police cells were used as prison cells because the prisons were overflowing. We must ensure that we have the correct safeguards and balances in place before the provisions bite and people can be detained for an extended period in police cells. Someone who is in a cell for the first time will be more vulnerable and susceptible to self-harm and suicide, and we do not want to inflict greater trauma on the individual or on police officers around the country. I would therefore like the Minister to explain those financial provisions.

Caroline Flint: On the efficiency savings to be achieved, I am pleased to say that because of the record resources we are putting into initiatives such as the drug interventions programme, we already have the basic structures in place in many areas with high levels of drug-related crime to meet the needs of those coming through the system. As we know, people are
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being tested on charge, but they are also voluntarily being assessed. One issue that we have addressed is how to make better use of the resources provided under such schemes and of arrest referral workers. However, a large number of the people who are currently being charged are likely to be seen anyway, although we are now moving that forward to arrest.

Mrs. Gillan: Annexe A of the regulatory impact assessment states:

    ''Benefits are derived from the reduction in individuals' offending (and therefore of crime more generally) as a result of entering treatment.''

I hope that the Minister will not wait for the reductions to feed through before she increases resources.

Caroline Flint: As I said, we are already putting in a huge amount of resources anyway. Our estimates indicate that about 200 extra drugs workers will be funded under the spending review 2004. That will accommodate not only the additional assessments that result from the mandatory assessment provisions, but the follow-up appointments. As I said, we have already made substantial efficiency gains as a result of the better management of the different schemes. In fact, we have done appraisals of arrest-referral and drug-testing arrangements in a number of force areas, and we have produced guidance for those areas so that forces can improve their operation of these schemes. That has helped with a recent renewal of contracts. That experience is certainly helping.

We have tried to ensure that there is a better fit between, for example, the hours of drugs workers and the demands of clients. Sometimes, by simply changing the working of some of the drugs workers, we have made significant improvements in the number of cases dealt with by individual workers. However, we have built estimates into the spending review 2004 to accommodate some of those issues.

The hon. Lady talked about the implications for police forces of extending the power to detain persons, and we debated custody suites. We think that about 20 to 30 police forces will choose to use the power to detain persons suspected of swallowing drugs, at a cost of about £15,000 to equip one custody suite. The total cost, therefore, is between £0.3 million and £0.45 million. In some respects it is for forces to consider how best they can deal with the type of criminal in question, having regard to the management of their capital and personnel resources. As I have said, I do not think that the facility is needed at every police station. It is something to be worked out locally, and it would be difficult for us to work it out nationally.

Mrs. Gillan: I have two worries. First, I am concerned about the scarcity of suitable accommodation at a police station to detain someone for that extended time. Secondly, I seek an undertaking from the Minister that the individual subject to the extended detention provision would never be taken to a prison to complete that period, because of the lack of suitable accommodation at a police station, with the result that they would in effect be on remand without having been charged.
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Caroline Flint: I do not want prison places to be taken up by people from whom an attempt is being made to obtain evidence to help with the charging process. I am happy to write to the hon. Lady in more detail about some of the issues.

Our aim is to shut down loopholes—I know that I used the phrase about magic mushrooms, but it is also relevant to enforcement powers—that allow suspects to slow down the system, use up court time, prevent the law from being enforced efficiently and effectively, and interfere with the judicial process. We want to shut down those opportunities for people to block the process of the law unnecessarily, and to introduce a deterrent factor.

Those initiatives have been discussed with the police, including through the Association of Chief Police Officers, and the police support them. I am pleased to say that the police have a very good funding settlement and record numbers of officers, and money to achieve what we want them to—catching criminals and achieving successful prosecutions and convictions.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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