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14 Jun 2007 : Column 359WH—continued

14 Jun 2007 : Column 360WH

Let me declare an interest of sorts: I still sit as a Crown court recorder—a part-time Crown court judge. You will not be surprised to hear, Mr. Bercow, that a huge proportion of the cases with which the Crown court deals concern illegal drugs. We know, because there has been plenty of discussion of this today, that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 approaches the question of drugs through the ABC classification. As a sentencer, I have to consider, among other things, the classification of the drug involved in the offence before me as a guide to sentencing.

Paul Flynn: As a sentencer, is the hon. and learned Gentleman at ease with the fact that although someone might be sentenced to prison for drug use, there is not a single prison in Britain that is free of illegal drug use?

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman anticipates me and his intervention invites me to get ahead of myself. I congratulate him on the consistency of his approach to the issue. I do not always share his views, but it is important that the House of Commons contains people with different views. It is important that Government Back Benchers should feel free—indeed, ferociously free—to say the sorts of things that the hon. Gentleman has said on this issue, not just today, but on other occasions. I have seen him being severely put down by his Front-Bench colleagues over the 15 years in which I have been a Member of the House. It is a pity when people resort to ad hominem attacks, when arguments that might or might not be agreeable—

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. and learned Gentleman, but once again I have become aware that there is a Division in the House—unfortunately, the Division bell is not ringing in here today, but there is a Division. Therefore, I suspend the sitting for 15 minutes. The debate will resume at 4.37 pm.

4.22 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.37 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Garnier: By the time that I finish, hon. Members might think that it is not a bad idea to have a 15-minute break every now and then during my speeches so that they can recover.

I shall not return to my initial remarks about the intervention made by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn)—I think he got my point. I shall deal with my position as a sentencer in detail a bit later, but I make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that what I do as a Member of Parliament and what I do as a judge are entirely separate. As a judge, I do what Parliament and the law require of me; as a Member of Parliament, I hope that I make policy and law—whether as an Opposition or Government Member. As is proper, the two functions are entirely separate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give him a running commentary on every sentence that I have passed in respect of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

However, I invite the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members present to look—not now, perhaps, but later—at Ev 113, a page towards the end of the
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evidence section of the report. It contains a table that lists the drugs covered by the schedules to the 1971 Act and sets out the classifications of ecstasy, LSD, cocaine, heroin and the class B and class C drugs.

Notwithstanding the concern of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) about magic mushrooms, the most controversial drugs issue for the past year, or perhaps longer, has been cannabis. I shall not repeat the facts because that would be tedious and I am insufficiently well versed in the science. Various arguments have been made about what I would call modern cannabis, as opposed to the sort that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) did not take as an undergraduate some 20 years ago. The table that I mentioned contains a helpful list of illegal drugs and the way in which they are categorised, and despite the fact that the report is critical of the approach of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to classification, there must have been some form of intellectual process behind the grading of drugs under the ABC system. All I have to say on that subject is that the classes are a guide to sentencing. I shall not talk about a particular case, but when the courts are sentencing, they clearly need to know Parliament’s view of the seriousness of the harm—be it public, social or personal harm—caused by a drug as a matter of public policy.

When a judge sentences, he looks not only at the schedules, but to previous authorities from the Court of Appeal and, now, the Sentencing Guidelines Council to see what the higher courts consider to be the correct way in which to deal with an offender who has committed a drug offence. One considers the defendant’s previous history, the quantity of the drug that he has in his possession, the value of the drug—one often has to listen to expert, or less than expert, evidence about the street value of that drug—and the purpose for which he had the drugs.

It might be of some comfort to the hon. Member for Newport, West, although probably not much, to hear that if a defendant had a small amount of a class C drug in his possession purely for personal use, the court would, because Parliament advises it to do so, take a less punitive view than it would if the defendant was an industrial importer of a class A drug and the huge quantities of drugs with which he was caught were for resale. That is not a terribly difficult concept to grasp. It seems, at least from a criminal justice point of view—the debate is being answered by a Home Office Minister and I am a Home Office shadow Minister—perfectly legitimate to have a classification system for drugs so long as we continue to believe, and Parliament decides, that the possession of certain substances should be against the law.

Although I know that the hon. Member for Newport, West would like to have such a debate in Government time, today is not the day to discuss whether the drugs in classes A, B and C, or any other drug—alcohol, for example—should or should not be illegal. I urge hon. Members who have so carefully contributed to the debate and the report to bear in mind that that is at least one of the purposes of the classification system, albeit that I suspect that many of
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them have some disagreement about whether the drugs are in the right box of that system.

I do not want to be personally offensive to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, although I was tempted to be personally offensive to his colleague, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. However, I chide the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough as Chairman of the Committee. Although I do not think that he intended to be rude about the witnesses who appeared before him, and while I dare say that he was probably frustrated by the answers that he received, when one is preparing and publishing an important Select Committee report—I hope that he does not take this badly—it sometimes helps the discussion if one reduces the personal and increases the impersonal. That is my only criticism of his most valuable report.

When I say that that is my only criticism, I do not mean to suggest that I wholly agree or disagree with many of the recommendations. I agree with some, while some need further study and others probably will not be taken much further. None the less, the report is valuable and deserves the Government’s consideration. I could tell that the hon. Gentleman was a little cross with some of the responses that he received in the follow-up document and the evidence session with the Minister and the two witnesses from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

That aside, we are considering one of the most problematic issues with which any set of public policy makers or any Department—whether it is the Home Office, the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills or one of the ancillary agencies that take an interest in drug use, abuse and addiction—have to grapple. Irrespective of the ABC classifications, drugs are one of the causes of most problems in our criminal justice and health systems.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) set up a body called the Social Justice Policy Group, which reported earlier this year that there are 325,000 adult problem drug users in the United Kingdom. The report termed it “an explosion in addiction”. It has been found that Britain has a higher recorded use of opiate use—opiates are predominately class A—than anywhere else in the world. This country has the highest use rates for cocaine, another class A drug, in Europe and 6.8 per cent. of UK adults, more than 3 million people, have tried cocaine at least once—the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon proudly told us that he was not part of that 6.8 per cent. That information comes from an annual report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, “The state of the drugs problem in Europe”, which was published in November 2005.

Another factor that we must bear in mind is that the street price of heroin, a class A drug under the 1971 Act, has dropped by 45 per cent. over the past five years and the price of cocaine, another class A drug, has dropped by 22 per cent. Drug deaths have risen a hundredfold since 1968, when there were only nine drug deaths. One can see that in the past 40 years or so the effects of the misuse of drugs have become a huge social and public policy problem that has to be dealt
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with. According to the Home Office, the cost of dealing with drug abuse in Britain is between £10 billion and £17 billion a year.

How do I see the problem? As the shadow Minister for home affairs who deals with prisons, and as someone who has visited nearly 25 custodial institutions—adult prisons and young offender institutions—over the past 15 or 16 months, I have seen the evidence of drug abuse and addiction. I see people who are sent to prison who, it seems, do not care very much whether they are inside for the use of a class A, B or C drugs. They are inside, and this returns to the point about which the hon. Member for Newport, West asked—

4.48 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.3 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Garnier: According to the 2004-05 British crime survey published by the Home Office in October 2005, there are more than 1 million class A drug users in Britain. Since 1996, the number of cocaine offences has quadrupled—again, that is information from the Home Office. A total of 142,338 drug offences were recorded by the police in 2004-05, an increase of more than one quarter since 2001-02, when there were 113,500.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East remarked on the connection, or disconnection, between mental health and cannabis use. According to a recent written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Health Secretary, there has been an 85 per cent. increase in hospital admissions on mental health grounds resulting from the use of cannabis since 1997, and a 63 per cent. increase in the past five years. That information came from the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton).

To some extent, classification is important because it helps the sentencer, but I dare say it also helps the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to work out what is to be done within the criminal justice setting. The greatest cause of crime is drugs, followed closely by alcohol. The number of people in prison for drugs offences has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. What is more, although the prison population has grown, the proportion of the prison population who are drug offenders is also growing.

I have no information to verify this, but I suspect, by virtue of the fact that those people are in prison, that they are either industrial importers or sellers of class C drugs, or users of class A drugs, and the courts have reached a stage where there is little more that can be done with those individuals to prevent them from reoffending on the outside. The courts do not send people to prison lightly or on a whim. They fully understand that many people who are arrested for drug use and possession would do far better in residential rehabilitation centres outside prison, but there are not enough of them. Unfortunately, the courts have to deal with people who, for good reason or ill, are serial abusers of drugs and the drug laws, and there are not sufficient places for them to be dealt with outside the criminal justice system.

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That is regrettable. People who offend simply because of drug use would be far better dealt with not by sending them to prison but by sending them to places where they can be cured of their drug addiction. It is addicts who commit crimes; it is not criminals, by and large, who become drug addicts. As long as we understand that, and as long as we fail to do something about it, the overcrowding of our prisons will continue, if the figures continue on an upward trend as they have in the past.

There is, of course, a hidden drug problem in prisons. There are those who are in prison because they were found guilty of possession or dealing, or even burgling because of a drug habit, be it an A, B or C drug habit, and there are plenty of people in prison who manage to continue to use drugs. The hon. Member for Newport, West pointed out that there is no such a thing as a drug-free prison.

Dr. Evan Harris: Of course, I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman about the indisputable importance of using residential drug rehabilitation centres for the treatment of people who are addicted to illegal drugs, but is there not a consequence to what he is saying? First, would he say that our laws or the drug classification system that we are debating today must change as a result of what he identified as the failure of the prison approach? Secondly, does he think that there is a case for prescribing hard drugs to addicts to stop them committing criminal acts if there were evidence that that would be effective and cost-effective, and if that seemed more appropriate than a residential treatment centre; or does he want only residential treatment centres?

Mr. Garnier: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s last question is that I simply do not know. I do not have enough evidence to be able to reach a sensible conclusion on the best thing to do with such people or on whether the remedy that he suggests would be the right one. All that I do know is that what is happening in prisons at present is not working. It is not working for the prison system because huge numbers of short-term prisoners go in and out of, for example, our big London prisons, and the health staff inside those prisons can do very little for them. The prisoners are not there long enough to go on a rehabilitation course and be brought off drugs. They are kept alive, literally, because the prison health system is able to provide them with a replacement—for example, methadone—for the short period that they are in prison. If people are in prison for only one, two, three or four months and are then released back on to the streets of London, it is hardly surprising that they resort to the class A drug habit that may have put them in prison in the first place.

I stress that that is not a criticism of the people who work in the Prison Service. They have an impossible job. We need to think more intelligently about what we do with people who are affected by drug abuse and whether it is more appropriate to provide places for such people to be looked after somewhere other than Pentonville, Holloway, Wormwood Scrubs, Brixton or Wandsworth. We would then receive better value for money. There would also be better outcomes and a real reduction in crime.

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That is not something that the present Government or a future Conservative Government could do overnight, but we should try, in a collaborative spirit, to adopt such an approach because our constituents are paying £50,000 a year in taxes to house every individual offender in prison—the cost for every young offender is about £75,000 or £80,000 a year—and the rate of reoffending within two years of their leaving prison is just over 65 per cent.. The percentage figure for young offenders is actually a little higher, in the high 70s. We are wasting money and fooling ourselves if we think that we are increasing public protection. In fact, we are clogging up a prison system that needs to look after, reform and incarcerate dangerous, violent and deeply antisocial and damaging offenders who, despite their nasty habits and criminal conduct, do not receive the necessary programmes or education to make them better citizens. The proportion of prisoners who never come out of prison at all is very small—probably less than 2 per cent. or perhaps even less than 1 per cent. of the 81,000 people in adult prisons will never come out again. I am not suggesting that the Government should rush into sorting out the problems but, collaboratively, we need to take a different approach to how we deal with drug abusers inside prison and those who are inside because of their drug abuse.

I am acutely conscious that I have an awful lot to say about this subject and about the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, the Committee’s report and the wider policy issues that affect the classification of drugs. I should also have liked to discuss what we should do within the criminal justice system, with which my shadow Department and the Minister’s real Department have to deal. However, I am concerned about leaving time for the Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, to reply, particularly to what the Minister has to say. The Minister knows perfectly well what my views on the matter are—he probably knows better than many members of the Committee. If I bring my remarks to a close now, I hope to engage the sympathy of hon. Members. My speech has suffered from two 15-minute suspensions, and that has thrown the flow of the debate out of kilter. Let me take advantage of that by stopping. However, in doing so, I hope that others will not misunderstand what I personally and as a representative of my party intend and mean on this issue. I hope that there will be other occasions when we can discuss the subject more fully.

In conclusion, I repeat my thanks and congratulations to the Chairman of the Committee and his colleagues for their work. In addition, I hope that my somewhat critical remarks about the manner of some of the recommendations and comments in the report are taken in the spirit in which they were intended. Despite the differences of opinion among Government Back Benchers and others in this Chamber—I notice that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has not brought any of his party’s Back Benchers with him—I ask the Government to think carefully about how to make progress on this aspect of public policy. The issue should be dealt with in a way that benefits the public, the taxpayer and those who are wracked by drug abuse and addiction—not just individual drug users, but their families and the communities in which they live.

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5.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow. I also welcome other hon. Members who have contributed to the debate.

This is an extremely important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), the Chairman of the Committee, on the tone of his remarks. It augurs well for progress when a debate can be held in which passionate views are expressed and there are serious disagreements between people. Let it never be said, however, that there is any disagreement about the policy outcome that every hon. Member wants. There is real credibility among hon. Members who have turned up this afternoon, when there are many other things happening, to discuss one of the most important social policy issues that confronts our country and many of our communities.

The contribution of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and the Committee is rightly to challenge the Government and the ACMD to justify their policies. That means that there will sometimes be passionate disagreement, but the important point—I know that the hon. Gentleman will agree—is that it is not a clash of personality, but a clash of opinion, out of which comes better public policy and a better outcome. I know how passionately my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) feels about these issues. He has been one of the most passionate advocates of a particular way of addressing the problem and he knows that there are disagreements with him in his own party and within the Government. However, that in no way detracts from the integrity with which my hon. Friend put his points across. He has made an important contribution, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). It important to state that at the beginning—and it is not a patronising remark to the Committee.

It might be helpful to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough if I go through some of the differences that the report has already made to the way in which the Government conduct their business in this area and to some of our policy objectives, before I go on to other matters; as he will know, we disagree with one of the Committee’s major recommendations. I want to show that my remarks about the difference that Select Committee reports make to public policy is not an empty, vacuous, rhetorical statement made in Westminster Hall at 5.17 pm on a Thursday afternoon, but a real statement of the influence that he and his Committee have had.

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