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Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Bill Olner
Allen, Mr. Graham (Nottingham, North) (Lab)
Blunt, Mr. Crispin (Reigate) (Con)
Brake, Tom (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)
Brokenshire, James (Hornchurch) (Con)
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester, Central) (Lab)
McCabe, Steve (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
McDonagh, Siobhain (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Stoate, Dr. Howard (Dartford) (Lab)
Swire, Mr. Hugo (East Devon) (Con)
Syms, Mr. Robert (Poole) (Con)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Sara Howe, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Chope, Mr. Christopher (Christchurch) (Con)

Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 6 November 2008

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2008

8.55 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Alan Campbell): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2008.
Good morning to you, Mr. Olner, and to the Committee. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. The order was laid before Parliament on 13 October. It will reclassify cannabis as a class B drug on 26 January 2009. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary advised the House in a statement on 7 May, the Government have decided to reclassify cannabis to protect the public and particularly the future health of our young people. Although use of cannabis remains widespread, it has fallen to its lowest level in 10 years and it is crucial that that trend continues. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has consistently advised that cannabis is a harmful drug that poses a threat to individual health and to society. There is clear evidence that it can produce physical harms as well as immediate and long-term mental health harms.
However, there is considerable uncertainty about both the role that cannabis plays in the onset of psychotic illness and the increased risk to mental health from the use of stronger cannabis, commonly known as skunk—more so if young people start to use it at an early age and more so if they binge smoke. The council’s view is that the evidence has become more rather than less confused in the past few years but, in the words of the council, the possibility of increased harm “cannot be denied”. Against that background of uncertainty, we now have clear evidence that skunk, with an average potency of 16 per cent., now dominates in the UK, with a market share of 80 per cent. of street-seized cannabis compared with an estimated 30 per cent. in 2002. That increase is the result of a massive growth in the commercial cultivation of cannabis by organised crime groups.
As the Committee will be aware, in April 2008 the advisory council reported to the Government that, based on its assessment of harm, the majority of the council’s members took the view that cannabis should remain a class C drug. I wish to make it clear that we do not dispute the council’s finding on harm; nor have we rejected its advice on classification lightly.
However, within the statutory process, there are distinct roles and responsibilities. It is the role of the council to provide advice on harms and it is for the Government to consider that advice, taking an overview and making a decision based on all relevant factors, including wider issues such as public perceptions and the needs of and consequences for policing priorities. It is then for Parliament, as it is doing today, to scrutinise that decision and ultimately change our law.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Is the Minister arguing that the council failed to consider the matters that the Government considered, including policing issues? Is he claiming that the police were not represented on the ACMD, or that if they were there they did not say anything, or that if they did say something they were ignored? Or is he saying that the ACMD did consider that, but despite that the Government are rejecting it?
Mr. Campbell: I am not saying that those matters were not taken into consideration. For example, the council did consider public perception. I am saying that the council has a particular and distinct role. We ask it to do a particular job; we ask it to produce advice. The Government then decide whether to take that advice. We took a wider view, based on our view of public perception, on our conversations with the police and on policing priorities, and we reached a different decision. That is the point that I am trying to make.
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Would this be an appropriate time for the Minister to apologise for the Government’s muddle-headed thinking on the reclassification of cannabis and all the misery that their confused messages have caused in the past few years?
Mr. Campbell: Not at all. I hope that we will come to those points later, but I remind Opposition Members that there is no monopoly of wisdom on such matters; all Governments, over time, consider drugs issues carefully, and they work on the basis of the evidence as they see it before them. There are many people in the House who have made a journey in the past few years—not least the leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party.
I understand, looking across the Committee today, that a number of those present have in the past taken a very black-and-white view of the issue; they always opposed what happened in 2003, and in 2008 they are asking why we did it. I respect that view. There are more hon. Members present in Committee who did not support the reclassification to class C than might be appreciated.
However, it is right for the Government to keep matters under review. I am sure that as the debate unfolds we shall find that there are many different views on and interpretations of what is often complex evidence. The problem for Government and for Parliament is that they must alight on a position. The fact that Parliament took a view in 2003 does not necessarily mean that it was wrong, even if we want to change that view in 2008.
Mr. Swire: I do not quite follow the intellectual journey that the Minister is on. Clearly, what is before the Committee today shows that the view taken at that time was the wrong one. I ask again, is this an appropriate time for the Government to apologise for the reclassification, admit that it was a ghastly mistake, and inform the Committee how much that decision has cost the country in the intervening years?
Mr. Campbell: I may follow the intellectual points that the hon. Gentleman is making, but I do not really know where he has been for the past five years. I intend to set out why the situation has changed. Perhaps when the hon. Gentleman appreciates that certain factors have changed in the five years since 2003, he may realise why we reached the decision that we want Parliament to endorse.
Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Is it not the truth that the totality of the body of evidence about the problem has not changed hugely in the intervening five years? At the time in question, the Minister’s predecessor, the present Minister for Europe, described the strategy of downgrading cannabis as “honest and credible”. Is the Minister willing to admit today that it is neither honest nor credible, and is no strategy at all?
Mr. Campbell: No, I am not willing to say that, because it is not the case. When my hon. Friend made those remarks in 2003 she was basing what she said on the evidence that was available. The hon. Gentleman has a luxury that is not available to everyone in the Committee; he was not here when the decision was made. I think that he has a slightly different view from that of other members of the Committee.
The people in this Room had a different view in 2003, but Parliament arrived at a position based on the evidence that was there, and on an honest assessment of it. I shall today set out an honest assessment of where we are now, and why we are asking Parliament to change the classification of cannabis back to class B.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): I thank the Government for being brave enough and big enough to look at the issue again. At the time when the previous decision was made I certainly felt out of step with everyone else who had a very liberal view on the issues. My concern was for the mainly young black boys in my constituency who I could see were—I am looking for the official rather than the street words—taking the drugs in question; I could see what the effect on them was. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend is doing this morning, and for the fact that the Government are dealing with the matter. It is not an issue that we can turn away from if we want to do something for some of the most disadvantaged people in our constituencies.
Mr. Campbell: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s remarks; I know that she takes the matters seriously, as we all do. She is right to say that the proposal that the Government have put forward is controversial and demands a degree of bravery. I do not mean bravery from politicians, but that it is a brave decision because of the effect that it will have in communities.
Perhaps if I develop the point that I am making, Opposition Members will see how the situation has developed in the past five years and why the change is necessary.
Dr. Harris: The Minister is being generous in giving way to interventions and we appreciate that, because the issue is controversial. Before he moves on with his remarks, may I ask a question? He has said that the ACMD considered the matter and the Government reserve their right to reject the advice. Where have the Government published the additional evidence on which they based their decision? All that the Minister referred to, as far as I recall from his earlier remarks, was conversations with the police.
We have all had conversations with the police. I presume that the Government’s position, in rejecting their expert council’s view, is based at least on some published conversations with the police, or even on some harder form of published evidence.
Mr. Campbell: If I gave the impression that it was just a conversation with the police, I apologise. I do not think that I said that, and I hope that that was not the impression that I gave. However, obviously the Government take advice from the council, and take it seriously, but they also take advice from a wide range of agencies and organisations, and must then alight on a view. I cannot point the hon. Gentleman towards the evidence, but perhaps if he will allow me to I shall do so later in my remarks.
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): Before we leave the topic of the ACMD, will the Minister set out what he sees as its continuing role, given that there has been such a significant departure from its advice, and particularly in the light of the review that is going on in relation to ecstasy?
The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, I advise hon. Members that when he has finished speaking there will be an opportunity to ask questions, to which he will respond.
Mr. Campbell: I am grateful, Mr. Olner. Perhaps I may respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. I refer him to the statement made by the Home Secretary in the House on 7 May, and to the Government response to the council’s report.
As to the point made by the hon. Member for Hornchurch about our relations with the council, I met the new chair of the council last week, and we discussed several issues, including the one that is before the Committee. The council obviously has a view on the 21st recommendation on cannabis, which we did not accept; that fact is the forerunner to today’s order. However it is very pleased that we did accept the other 20 recommendations on cannabis.
The council is of course from time to time able to undertake reviews, sometimes at our behest, sometimes independently. It brings forward proposals, which we consider case by case. That is what we have done in the past and will continue to do. I do not want to send out a message that we do not value the work of the council, because we do. All that I can say is that on this issue we have reached a different conclusion, which forms the basis of the order that is before us today.
I am conscious, Mr. Olner, of your remarks, and want to explain how the Government believe that the situation has changed in the past five years. Class B status reflects the fact that a stronger drug now dominates the cannabis market. It takes full account of the known health risks, as well as of potential yet uncertain long-term impacts on health, the evidence about which may not be clear for some years. Accompanied by strengthened enforcement the classification reinforces our national message that cannabis is harmful and illegal, and helps to drive enforcement priorities to tackle commercial cultivation.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Will the Minister give way?
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Prepared 7 November 2008