Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2008

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Mr. Swire rose—
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con) rose—
The Chairman: I intend to call the Minister at 10.15 am. Two hon. Members have risen; one may have five minutes or they may both have two and a half minutes each.
10.11 am
Mr. Swire: I will take the two and a half minutes, Mr. Olner, to allow my hon. Friend the opportunity to speak.
I want to limit my remarks to how this Government as a whole have failed one element of society: the prison population. Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons said:
“Downgrading cannabis was a mistake because it made it out to be less dangerous than it is. Adult minds and adolescent minds are different and young people must not play games with this stuff.”
A Home Office study revealed that nearly three quarters of prisoners had taken an illegal drug in the 12 months pre-prison and, of these, more than half—55 per cent.—reported that they had committed offences connected to their drug taking, the need for money to buy drugs being the most commonly cited factor. That happens before they get into jail, but I am concerned about what happens once they are in jail.
Accurate figures are not available, because, as was stated in a letter from the Prison Service to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), prisoners are clearly “understandably reluctant to admit” to committing further crimes in “contravening prison rules”. However, it is commonly assumed that well over half of the prison population regularly consumes some kind of drug, be it alcohol, cannabis, amphetamines or heroin. The evidence is that cannabis has replaced tobacco as an informal prison currency and supply and demand is strictly controlled by prisoners, who will resort to intimidation and bullying to ensure regular profits. Although many prison officers will admit to turning a blind eye to the smoking of cannabis, because it makes prisoners more relaxed and emollient, prisoners’ letters to the Prison Reform Trust suggest that prisoners who have accumulated large drug debts risk being bullied and attacked. I ask the Minister to address that when resuming his earlier remarks.
The reclassification of cannabis is welcome. It was a huge mistake to downgrade it in the first instance. We are failing a large section of our society by not tackling the misuse of cannabis within the prison population. I hope that the Minister comes down strongly on those prison warders and others who allow cannabis into our prisons in the first place and thus contribute to the misery of those who get involved with it.
10.13 am
Mr. Syms: The contribution by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North was excellent. He made some good points, and there is no need for me to make the same ones.
Signals are important. Whatever the Government said when they reclassified, the press interpreted it differently and, unfortunately, people take most of what happens in this world from what they read in the press. That has led to a change in the climate. We have heard about the strength of the drug changing, but there is no quality control over the strength of an illegal drug or how it is produced. It is dangerous to downgrade a drug when the quality of that product cannot be measured.
All hon. Members in our surgeries have had letters from concerned parents who, whatever the evidence mentioned by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, see the effect that cannabis has had on the mental health of their child who has taken it. As we heard earlier, that has an impact on the whole family. Therefore, we need to take the preventive approach. If we are not entirely sure and there is not quite enough evidence, it is better if we err on the side of caution.
The measure proposed today is right. I hope that there is a big campaign, as the Minister said, on TV and radio. I hope that more money is ploughed into education, for the important reasons given by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North. More resources are needed for the police and for drug rehabilitation. We all know of people who cannot get on those courses, and there are so many pressures pulling the police in different directions. I hope that, if the Minister has the time, he will say more about the resources for continuing and policing the policy.
10.15 am
Mr. Campbell: This has been an interesting, if protracted, debate, in which many people who know a great deal about drugs have brought their experience and wisdom to bear.
The Chairman: Members must exercise their conscience when a vote is called. Whatever the result, it will be reported to the House.
Mr. Campbell: I feel that I was fairly liberal in giving way earlier, and I would therefore like to get through the points in the short time that remains.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North brought wisdom to the debate with his contribution, which was based not only on his knowledge of the issue but on his constituency work. He explained very well why the change that we seek is necessary, but he also stressed the importance of intervention and prevention. Although the hon. Member for Christchurch also brings a great deal of knowledge and experience to the debate, I was disappointed that he was not as supportive in acknowledging the work of the youth offending and drug teams in constituencies. They are making a difference, particularly in misuse assessment and appropriate intervention.
In response to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, I do not want to mislead him or the Committee, but I am advised that the advisory council was ignored on a previous occasion, which involved the reclassification of cannabis in the 1970s. Both he and I appear to have missed that. Regarding his particular view of the evidence that is available, he talks of certainty—I think that he used that word—before acting. He brings to the Committee both medical and scientific experience that many of us do not have; the Government, however, have a duty to consider evidence, and that evidence is rarely certain. We have a duty to act where there is evidence of harm, and we seek to do so with the measure.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch raised a number of issues, and I will try to respond to as many as I can. The first was about cultivation and the increasing number of cannabis farms. He suggested that that was the result of Parliament’s decision in 2003 to reclassify cannabis, but it is not a UK phenomenon; it reflects an increase in organised crime across the world. Other countries, including the United States, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands, are grappling with similar issues and problems, yet they have different enforcement regimes.
The hon. Gentleman talked about efforts to combat cannabis farms. There are, in fact, great efforts being made to combat those farms, through the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Serious Organised Crime Agency. I would not want anyone to underestimate those efforts. There are more seizures, and there is greater action against cannabis farms. For example, £46 million in assets have been seized in the past year, most of which we estimate to have come from the profits of drug dealers.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether penalty notices for disorder would be extended to other drugs. The guidance from the Ministry of Justice and ACPO will make it clear that only cannabis may be subject to a PND for straightforward possession. I hope that he is reassured on that point.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Pentip computer system and guessed when it might be available for use. I have given him the date by which we expect it to be up and running, and I have no reason to think that it will not be achieved. He also mentioned recording warnings locally and a robust approach involving the police and ACPO. It is important to make the point that we have worked with ACPO and the police throughout. We have asked them for their opinion on how an enforcement process could be made most effective. They have considered the matter of recording warnings and what they believe the escalation would be. The Government and the police have worked closely together.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the Frank campaign, which has had success. The people who tell us that are the young people themselves, who actually help to produce it. They give advice on what works and what they think are the best results. They tell us that it is working, and we should be careful before undermining it in any way.
The hon. Gentleman talked about advice and support for families, and he made a very good point. However, I hope that he was not suggesting that we are not doing anything. Interventions are made by local drugs teams and a range of agencies and groups, including voluntary groups and families. The Government resource much of that work and give it great importance. He suggested that the Government dragged our feet, but as soon as the Prime Minister announced the review in July 2007, we referred the matter to the council, as we are required to do by statute. We received the report on 28 April, and it was for the council to set the timeline for its work. Is he suggesting that we should have told it to report sooner? If we had done so, he would probably have accused us of compromising its advice. A Cabinet decision was made on 6 May, and following consultation with ACPO, we laid the order as soon as possible.
I pay tribute to my old adversary the Opposition Whip, the hon. Member for Reigate. He has, no doubt, had a part in suggesting which Opposition Members might be part of the Committee, as is his right. He has put on the Committee himself and the hon. Members for East Devon and for Poole, who bring a great deal to the Committee. I do not underestimate that in any way, but they took a common view in 2003. The other two hon. Gentlemen—the hon. Members for Hornchurch and for Preseli Pembrokeshire—were not here in 2003. Were you here?
James Brokenshire: No.
Mr. Campbell: You therefore did not have to make that decision on reclassification.
The Chairman: Order. Speak through the Chair, please.
Mr. Campbell: Sorry, Mr. Olner.
The suggestion that, somehow, the Conservative Members here today reflect the position that many of them took in 2003 is simply wrong, and I include in that the Leader of the Opposition.
Mr. Swire: Just for the record, I was here in 2003. I was elected to this great place in 2001.
Mr. Campbell: Yes, but my point is that the hon. Gentleman took a distinctive position—the same position as the hon. Members for Reigate and for Poole. They did not support the reclassification in 2003. I respect their position, but to suggest that the Government are somehow the only ones who have been on a journey and reached this decision is simply wrong.
The order is important for all the reasons that I have set out, and I commend it to the Committee.
Question put:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 12, Noes 1.
Division No. 1]
Allen, Mr. Graham
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Brokenshire, James
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Crabb, Mr. Stephen
Flello, Mr. Robert
McCabe, Steve
McDonagh, Siobhain
Stoate, Dr. Howard
Swire, Mr. Hugo
Syms, Mr. Robert
Wilson, Phil
Harris, Dr. Evan
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2008.
Committee rose at twenty-six minutes past Ten o’clock.
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Prepared 7 November 2008