Previous Section Index Home Page

I was not going to raise this issue, but as the matter has come to light today, I must now ask the Minister to ask her colleague to give me an answer to my question as a matter of urgency. The Government’s decision about the city of Exeter in today’s ministerial statement is profoundly flawed and will almost certainly be challenged. There is cross-party agreement on this,
26 July 2007 : Column 1092
although perhaps not from my neighbour, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who holds ministerial office. I imagine that he will be batting for the other side on this matter. These issues cannot be taken in isolation in a county such as ours.

I have watched on television the plight of the many people around the country who have suffered from their homes being flooded in the most dramatic way. I also speak from personal experience. In 1997, my house in Devon, in which I had lived for 30 years, was flooded by an overnight flash flood. It was the first time that it had ever happened. We left the house that night, and were unable to return for five months. It is the most traumatic experience that can happen to anyone.

A lot is being said about the lessons to be learned from building on flood plains. Opinions vary as to whether the recent levels of rainfall are unique, and there was an interesting article in The Sunday Telegraph last week by Philip Eden which gave the statistics from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. They showed that we are not experiencing unique levels of rainfall, but we clearly have to take account of what we now know about the predicted climate change when we propose to build on flood plains.

There are proposals to build a new town, Cranbrook, in my constituency, starting with about 3,000 properties and building up to 10,000. It is a pretty big development. An environmental study was carried out into the consequences of building a new town on an area of land, much of which comprises flood plains. The Environment Agency has approved the proposals, saying that although

it accepts that, in the case of Cranbrook, it would be defined on the basis of a 1 in 1,000- year event, which is much less likely to happen.

The real point, however, with any large-scale development—goodness knows, a whole new town is pretty big—is that a lot depends on whether the infrastructure to help with the drainage, the run-off and all the other problems associated with a lot of new build will be put in place on time. My experience of developments of this scale is that, regardless of any negotiations about the infrastructure to be provided by the builders, that is almost the last thing to happen. We can see the consequences of that, especially as drainage infrastructure needs to be among the first things to be built, rather than the last. That involves spending money up front on the basis that the developers will anticipate getting more contracts to build and that the planning will go ahead as predicted.

I will not rehearse the arguments about whether we should have this new town; that is a battle that I fought and lost many years ago. I will say to the Minister, however, that if we are genuinely to learn lessons, it cannot be acceptable to use predictive figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that have been on the books for a long time when planning large developments such as these. When this kind of infrastructure is required, we need to determine at what point in the development the developer should put it in. That will involve ensuring that the firms that win the contracts have the money and resources to provide that infrastructure, because there is often a
26 July 2007 : Column 1093
question mark over their own viability. They usually want to sell the houses and get the money into the bank before they invest too much in any infrastructure other than the basic bits, usually the roads. If lessons are to be learned from the tragedy that many people have experienced in the past few days, that issue must be looked at, particularly in the context of planning policy guidance note 25.

Finally, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I wish you, members of staff and all colleagues here present and elsewhere a very happy summer recess? Devon awaits you. It is looking glorious, as always. If you want a weekend break or have not yet thought about where to go, the county of Devon will welcome you all.

1.55 pm

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I start by offering my humble apologies to you, to the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons and to the Opposition spokesman? I shall not be able to be here for the winding-up speeches, as I have to go to a local health meeting at a hospital in my constituency. However, I shall read the whole debate with interest.

It is customary to say that we should not adjourn until we have discussed a particular subject. I do want the House to adjourn today, but when we get back, I want us to have a full-scale, grown-up, informed debate on drugs policy, the drugs industry and the drugs trade. I am not talking about pharmaceuticals; I am talking about the illegal drugs trade and its domestic and international ramifications.

I should like to draw to the attention of the House the best book on the subject that I have seen for years. It was published last year, and it is called “The Political Economy of Narcotics” by Julia Buxton, a senior research fellow at the university of Bradford. She gives a history of the subject, along with masses of information and a very good analysis. I got the book from the House of Commons Library, and I can tell that it is a good book because its source, the British Library, demanded it back straight away. I read it through to the end, however, and it should inform the debate. If there is more in-depth analysis of the subject, however, we should bring it forward. Indeed, the Government should bring forward their own in-depth analysis.

Ms Buxton refers to the United Nations and the international drug institutions, and to “institutional crisis and decline”. Yet I know, from a parliamentary answer that I have received, that the UK is a major donor to those institutions, and to this failing effort. She refers to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the UN international drug control programme and the International Narcotics Control Board. She talks of

Because of the institutions’ dependence on donor countries,

She goes on to say that,

26 July 2007 : Column 1094

Importantly, she concludes:

Four types of drugs are dealt with in the book: poppy for opium and heroin; coca for cocaine, crack and other derivatives; synthetic-type drugs such as LSD and ecstasy; cannabis and marijuana.

The book also provides valuable information about the financial value of the drugs sector—estimated by the UN as in the region of $300 billion to $500 billion a year, which is more than the market value of steel, cars, pharmaceuticals, meat, chocolate, wine, wheat, coffee and tea. In 2003, the global retail cannabis market was worth an estimated $140 billion a year; cocaine $70 billion; opiates $65 billion; and synthetics $44 billion.

In fact, the lucrative drugs market of north America accounted for 60 per cent. of amphetamine retail sales; 52 per cent. of ecstasy; and 62 per cent. of cocaine sales. That is interesting because America is the country most insistent on the prohibition policy—yet it has the biggest drugs market. What we have seen economically, because of the failure of the control system, is supply up, prices on the street down, demand up. Clearly, the current prohibition policy has failed.

What worries me most is the connection with crime. As with alcohol prohibition, which led to Al Capone and the US mafia, drug prohibition creates the most dangerous organised criminal gangs and threatens civil society beyond just drugs. For example, in Colombia, three presidential candidates were assassinated as a result of the drugs trade. The drugs industry almost went to war with the state in that particular case.

The book notes that drugs prohibition has been advocated by the US Christian evangelists, who also brought in alcohol prohibition: the US likes bans and prohibition. I see that its policy on drugs is “Just say no”. That same phrase, by the way, applies to HIV/AIDS in Africa—but again it is not realistic. The British and US Governments have fallen out over that issue and we recommend supplying condoms. America says no to global abortion rights, but abortion should be a right. I note that our International Development Ministers are to address the Marie Stopes conference—again that shows that we are adopting a different position from that in the US. If the US will not change, we should be prepared to adopt a different policy on drugs. The book also points out that US foreign policy takes precedence over its counter-drugs policy. The US will condone drug states or drug players if that is seen to be in its best interests. That factor will be used against whoever the US regards as its enemy.

26 July 2007 : Column 1095

The drugs industry and the prohibition strategy, which makes it so profitable, lead to wars—Afghanistan is a clear example—and narco-states such as Colombia. That was the status of that country in the past and perhaps still now. The response is unreasonable militarisation and the mass denial of civil liberties; and environmental damage when crops are sprayed. There are also employment and livelihood issues. Bolivia is cited as having almost half a million people—16 per cent. of the work force at one point—employed in the drug industry. As we know from Afghanistan, people often have no other feasible livelihood. While the trade remains illegal, producers get a good price and the process is highly organised. There would be a better chance for alternative production to be pursued if the bottom were to fall out of the market.

Julia Buxton says that the prohibition conventions of international organisations are out of date. They were brought in before the HIV/AIDS epidemic, before the collapse of communism and before globalisation. She argues that they spread harm while the real policy should be one of reducing harm. She refers to HIV/AIDS and drugs in prisons. Clean needle supply would help to combat the disease, and even safe supply could be justified. That would be better than the current practice, which ends up causing more HIV/AIDS as a result of dirty needles. The choice does not have to be between total prohibition or total liberalisation; Julia Buxton suggests that we could have a third way through regulation and an element of control. That is attractive because it would remove the worst of the criminality.

Let the House consider the equivalent industries that are also often viewed as unsavoury. There is the sex industry, for example. There are some bans, quite rightly in some respects, but that industry is not totally banned; indeed, most of it is legal and highly profitable, however unsavoury. The arms industry—most of us detest it—is not illegal; it is regulated. Tobacco is another example; it is legal, but we are quite rightly imposing ever more constraints on it. Alcohol is licensed. There is a third way, a third option, that could be adopted for drugs policy.

Whenever this matter is discussed, the debate is seldom thorough. It is all about soundbites—a simple matter of whether we are tough or soft on drugs. I admit that drugs have an impact on our streets and even in people’s homes when it affects their loved ones. It is, of course, a political issue, but we need to have a proper debate about it. I believe that we need to do what is best for public health and for society as a whole. I urge the House to have that discussion.

2.6 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I shall limit my remarks to the time recommended by Mr. Deputy Speaker in order to maximise the opportunity for all colleagues to contribute to the debate. I would like to put one national issue—mentioned earlier in the announcement of forthcoming business—on the agenda and then discuss issues related to my part of London.

On the national issue, I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will give us an update on whether active
26 July 2007 : Column 1096
consideration is being given to the case of the Sri Lankan Tamils on hunger strike in Harmondsworth, which is causing great concern not just in the Tamil community, but more widely. The case is predictable; it is about people who are afraid to go back to their own country, given the terrible civil war. Many of us would encourage the new team at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to put Sri Lanka high on its agenda. It used to be British; it is a Commonwealth country; it is a great country—but it will be a truly great country only when it has become peaceful for all the communities living there, whether Simla, Tamil or others. I am sure that we all share that objective.

Moving on to issues about London, my borough has a population of between 200,000 and 250,000. Like all inner-London boroughs, a significant increase in population is projected over the next 10 years. The official figures show that, but last night’s Adjournment debate suggested that they may well be underestimates and that the real figures are much higher.

In that context, housing is, as always, a huge London issue. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will confirm that the good words about housing, particularly council housing, in the Government’s recent statements represent a willingness to talk to boroughs and local housing authorities about the ability to build more council housing if that is what the people and their elected representatives want. There should no longer be any disincentives against council housing, forcing people to go down other routes. Council housing is often as well built and as well managed as any other housing. Our borough has the largest council housing stock in London, with more than 40,000 rented properties and another 20,000 bought under the right-to-buy arrangements. All three parties in the borough are determined to sustain that; we are all committed to that means of continuing to meet housing needs.

In that context—and in the context of the great environmental debate—we would also like the Government to think more about funding not just decent homes initiatives, as they have done across England, but environmental initiatives that would allow the best heating systems and the least wasteful energy systems to be used. We have district heating systems, but they are old style. If we are to make properties for the future, we need, bluntly, to retrofit new combined heat and power systems. That has a cost, and we would be willing to work with Government to make sure that we pilot such proposals on estates such as the Four Squares, the Manor and the Rennie, which are old but have decent homes. If they had modern heating that did not waste energy, that would be progress.

Secondly, I want to raise a health issue. South London Members of Parliament, my friend the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) who is present, and all other Members who represent Southwark and Lambeth seats, kept telling the previous Prime Minister’s Administration that it was a bad idea to endorse the closure of the 24-hour emergency clinic for the mentally ill at the Maudsley hospital on Denmark hill—the most well known London and national hospital for mental illness. Sadly, that 24-hour clinic has been closed. A promise had been made to open decent alternative facilities on the King’s college site
26 July 2007 : Column 1097
that would separate the mentally ill and non-mentally ill. That has not happened, and it does not look as though it will. I hope that Health Ministers will reconsider that decision, and I have written to the Secretary of State to that effect. A review is needed. Tonight, I hope to present another petition from users of those facilities and their friends and families. It is not appropriate to deal with difficult mentally ill patients at one of the busiest accident and emergency departments in London and Britain.

Thirdly, given the announcements made, many parliamentary colleagues have post office closures looming in their constituencies. My request relates to a Crown post office in my constituency that has an uncertain future. A few post offices, of which Borough high street is one, have had a stay of closure without an outcome, and further closures of sub-post offices around the country are in prospect. Before we start having discussions and are given the list, will the Government at least insist that the Post Office provide the facts that we need to evaluate the case? The Post Office has been dreadful at sharing the facts; it always says that it cannot tell us. We cannot engage in debate if we do not know how many users a post office has, or what its turnover is. If we get the facts, we can have an honest debate about the relative merits of post offices. The four Crown post offices in my patch have been much busier since the sub-post offices that previously existed were closed. The facts need to be provided, and then I will happily engage in debate in defence of my remaining post offices.

Lastly, I want to raise issues relating to transport, including train, tram and tube services. On trains, the Secretary of State for Transport’s welcome announcement on Tuesday about investment in the railways left in abeyance the issue of whether London will get Crossrail. There is a united cross-party view that London transport will be hugely better if it has an east-west link. We urge the Government to come down on the side of investment in Crossrail sooner rather than later. I know that the private Bill is going through the House, but a green light for Crossrail is needed soon.

Next Section Index Home Page