Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Coaker: Certainly, one of the things to consider is how drugs get into prisons and to ensure that we are robust in that respect. A lot of measures have been put in place. We have increased the amount of money that is available for prison drug treatment, and it is now about trying to ensure that that treatment is effective. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a real interest in these matters. He is right to say that just because somebody is locked up that does not mean that they stop being a drug addict, and we need to take measures to deal with that. We need to consider not only what happens to somebody when they are in prison and what is the effective treatment in that situation, but what support is given to them when they leave prison. There are sometimes difficult issues to deal with involving chaotic lifestyles
3 Apr 2008 : Column 940
and so on. If that support is not available for somebody in those circumstances, the possibility of their returning to crime, whatever the rights and wrongs of that, is increased.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): A good place to start would be to look at the outcome of the billions of pounds that have been spent and the results of the policies adopted 10 years ago, which, I am sorry to say, have failed abjectly. One of those policies was to reduce drug taking among young people by 50 per cent. Virtually nothing has worked in 10 years of effort by this Government. Can we not at least say, “Let’s look at what happened—it went wrong”, and examine why it went wrong?

Mr. Coaker: I am sorry about that. I discuss and debate many of these matters with my hon. Friend at great length. We have tried to learn from what happened under the previous drug strategy. I know that he welcomes many of the things in the new strategy, such as support for families and making treatment more effective. I point out to him that the British crime survey figures show a fall in the number of 16 to 59-year-olds using all drugs in the past 10 years, during which period the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds reporting the use of drugs in the past year has also fallen. He asks whether what has happened is good enough, whether we are where we want to be, and whether we want to do more. Of course we want to do more and to be more effective. My point was that in developing the new drug strategy and trying to take forward the agenda, it is important to recognise that the previous drug strategy delivered a reduction in the numbers of those taking drugs, adults and children alike.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Does the Minister agree, though, that one of the most obvious ways in which we could tackle the problem of supply is to end the absurd situation whereby it is possible readily to buy seeds for strong strains of cannabis on the internet, which also gives advice on how to obtain resin from those strains?

Mr. Coaker: As the hon. Gentleman and I have discussed on several occasions, we need to monitor certain things that happen in respect of the internet. We keep all these matters under review. I am concerned about the availability of cannabis seeds on the internet, as well as some of the paraphernalia that is available from shops and elsewhere. He makes a reasonable point, and we need to consider what we can do about it.

The new drug strategy provides the Government and their partners with an opportunity to build on some of the successes of the previous strategy and to achieve a substantial and sustained reduction in the harms caused by drug misuse. Drug misuse poses significant challenges. It damages health, undermines family life and gives rise to high levels of crime. The costs to society are enormous in financial terms and lost opportunities. Reducing the harm caused by drugs must therefore remain one of the Government’s top priorities, and it is obviously a priority for this House.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): I probably speak for many Members on both sides of the House in saying that I welcome the Minister’s openness in meeting us
3 Apr 2008 : Column 941
and discussing these issues, which are incredibly important to us and to our constituents. I thank him for agreeing to reconsider the question whether khat should be a banned substance. It causes extreme difficulties, particularly within the Somali community, some of whom have recently been in touch with me and are very grateful to him for his intervention on this matter.

Mr. Coaker: A lot of representations have been made to me, particularly from the Somali community and from Members of Parliament. Indeed, I have just written to Members about the issue. We are looking to see what evidence there is with respect to this matter. We have asked for it to be looked into, and we are developing how we deal with it. We shall examine what comes back to determine how we proceed.

The Government are committed to be responsive to the needs of communities and to the views of our stakeholders and partners. The drug strategy will be delivered in partnership, and it is for that reason that it was developed in partnership. It is informed by the findings of a detailed, extensive and independently conducted consultation. Following the consultation, as hon. Members will know, the new drug strategy was launched on 27 February, and we are now working with stakeholders to put in place mechanisms to deliver the strategy in the most effective manner.

I am pleased to note that those same stakeholders, along with representatives of service users and members of the public, have generally welcomed the new strategy and provided very positive feedback. The new strategy builds on the very real achievements of the previous 10 years, while learning lessons, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) has pointed out, and it draws on the experience of all those involved in its delivery.

A few of the achievements that we can point to include drug use being at its lowest level since 1998; the fact that the number of people entering drug treatment has more than doubled over the same period, with average waiting times having fallen significantly so that 96 per cent. of clients are receiving treatment within three weeks of being assessed; a fall in drug-related crime of around 20 per cent. since the introduction of the drug interventions programme in 2003; and the introduction of a range of new powers that have allowed the police and other partners to strengthen our enforcement effort, seizing more drugs and drug dealers’ assets and closing crack houses, which can be so destructive to the confidence of communities. I am pleased to say that since the introduction of those powers in 2003, more than 1,000 crack houses have been closed, and all of us would like to see even more of them being closed.

Those achievements have delivered real improvements to the lives and experiences of families and communities all over the country, but we know that more remains to be done, including closing crack houses that are still open. Although we can see where the drug strategy has been successful, we can also see where more work is needed, or where we need a change of approach. For example, while drug-related crime has been driven down, we recognise that further support needs to be given to help people rebuild their lives, so that they do not fall back into drug use and crime—a point made by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies).

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): The Minister will have seen the representations made by the right hon. Member
3 Apr 2008 : Column 942
for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who has twice, in writing, proposed “shooting galleries”—injecting rooms. Has the Minister had the chance to consider the right hon. Gentleman’s idea, and does he intend to introduce such a proposal? If he does, please do not let it be in my constituency.

Mr. Coaker: We have no intention to introduce so-called shooting galleries anywhere in the country, including my hon. Friend’s constituency.

The Government’s vision is to produce a long-term and sustainable reduction in the harm associated with drugs, where fewer people start using drugs; where early intervention prevents and reduces the harms caused by substance misuse, particularly among those most at risk; where people with drug problems receive the treatment and support that they need to move on to lead healthy, productive lives; where communities are relieved of drug-related crime and the associated nuisance; and where organised trafficking networks are dismantled and their assets are recovered. That means that we want fewer young people and families to be harmed by drug misuse. We want to make sure that treatment is as effective as possible and that people get access to the support they need to re-establish their lives.

We want to continue to drive down drug-related crime, and we want to put communities at the heart of our approach, working with them to tackle problems and communicating more effectively with them to improve confidence. We have set four targets that will help us to achieve that vision: to increase the number of drug users in effective treatment; to reduce drug-related offending; to reduce the number of people who think drug-related antisocial behaviour is a problem in their area; and to reduce substance misuse among young people. The new drug strategy and the associated action plan set out the action that the Government and our partners will take to reach those targets. Both documents are based around the four priorities of protecting communities, preventing harm to children, young people and families, adopting new approaches to drug treatment and social reintegration, and communications and community engagement.

Before I say any more about those priorities and protecting communities, in the time I have left I want to say something about cannabis. Our message has always been that cannabis is harmful and illegal. Although its use is decreasing, there is real public concern about the mental health effects, and it is our role to be prepared to respond to new evidence that shows a new threat or potential for increased levels of harm. We must be confident that we have the right position on classification, which is why the Home Secretary asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review its position. The ACMD is continuing its review and will submit it and its advice to the Home Secretary at the end of this month. A decision about the reclassification, or not, of cannabis will be taken at that time, when we have received that evidence from the ACMD.

In conclusion, we believe that we made progress under the previous drug strategy. The new drug strategy will have an emphasis on enforcement, but it will also place emphasis on ensuring that treatment is more effective. We have to look at the outcomes that come from treatment, and much of that will relate to the support we give, not only to get people into treatment, but to ensure that such treatment is effective, allowing people to move towards drug-free lives as far as is
3 Apr 2008 : Column 943
possible. I thank hon. Members for contributing to this extremely important debate, and I am grateful for the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner). I will continue to listen to what others have to say, because we all want to reduce the harm to our communities and to individuals.

12.46 pm

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): Despite the Minister’s fine words, the UK has the highest level of problem drug use in Europe. In 10 years, total recorded drugs offences have increased by 43 per cent., and, by the Government’s own admission, class A drug use remains stubbornly high. The Government’s latest strategy to “protect families and communities” has therefore been greeted with understandable scepticism and, in some quarters, derision. Class A drug use generates an estimated £15.4 billion in crime and health costs every year. The drug and alcohol charity Addaction estimates that since this Government came to power the total cost amounts to £110 billion, which is more than the NHS budget.

It is a question of not only the monetary cost, but the human cost of drug addiction. In 2006, the number of confirmed hepatitis C infections reported from laboratories in England rose to 8,346—a rise of 10 per cent. in a year, with the Health Protection Agency forecasting an increasing number of deaths, transplants and hospital admissions for hepatitis-related end-stage liver disease.

The single biggest risk factor is injecting drug use. Illicit drugs are cheaper than they have ever been. Since 1997, the average price of cocaine has fallen by a third and the price of heroin has dropped by 40 per cent. Even the simplest economic and market analysis tells me that if the price has gone down that much, the Government have failed to control supply. That is reflected by declining enforcement. In 2005, 1,082 people were prosecuted for the unlawful importation or exportation of drugs and 1,061 were convicted. In 2006, the number had fallen to 904 prosecutions and 870 convictions.

The Government now try to offer us a new force to secure our porous borders, but this shiny new agency with its shiny new uniforms will have no police representation and no new powers of arrest. In reality, it is the existing border control badged under a different name. The effect is that it will not be able to arrest a single person caught with drugs. So much for the Prime Minister’s promise that this force would have police powers to deal with those suspected of criminal offences.

What of the Prime Minister’s other statements about changing cannabis from a class C to a class B drug? Last September, he said:

He was right about alcohol. The Government’s ill-conceived licensing policies have led to more violence on our streets late at night and to hospital A and E departments bearing the brunt, with alcohol related admissions rising by a quarter.

What is the Prime Minister waiting for? Why the delay? What more persuasion can he possibly need?
3 Apr 2008 : Column 944
Super-strength skunk cannabis now accounts for some 80 per cent. of all seizures. Its links with psychosis, paranoia and schizophrenia become more apparent every day. Even the Association of Chief Police Officers, which initially supported the decision to downgrade cannabis, now states:

We need action, not more delay. I challenge the Under-Secretary to make a commitment here and now to reclassifying cannabis. He has the evidence, the power and, frankly, the duty to do so.

Paul Flynn: The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made some perceptive and interesting comments about drug policy when he was a Back Bencher and a member of the Home Affairs Committee. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with him? What are his proposals for reducing the number of drug deaths in Britain?

James Brokenshire: As we know, 80 per cent. of seizures are of super-strength cannabis. We therefore urgently need to change the classification and send out the message that the Prime Minister said that he wanted to convey. I will deal with treatment, which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, shortly, because it is a fundamental issue and one of the failures that we must tackle.

The Home Office does not appear to know the scale of the problem. Its strategy document states:

The document continues:

Yet when we ask for a breakdown of the number of cannabis factories detected by each police force, the Home Office simply replies that that information is not kept centrally. So much for intelligence.

The flawed approach applies not only to enforcement. Drug treatment is mired—under the latest plan, it will stay mired—in muddled and ineffective thinking. It is telling that the latest policy document contains only two references to “recovery”. Neither relates to recovery from drugs—they both refer to asset recovery—and I will say more about that shortly.

Fundamentally, the Government’s approach is not about ridding people of addiction, but switching people from an illicit drug to a substitute prescribed drug. The necessity of abstinence, which is recognised as the key step on the road to recovery in other European countries, is notably absent from the approach. As the prisons and addictions forum of the Centre for Policy Studies says in its critique of the latest strategy:

3 Apr 2008 : Column 945

Philip Davies: Thanks to the Centre for Social Justice, I spent four days at St. George’s Crypt in Leeds, which deals with homelessness and addiction because the two usually go hand in hand. I commend that work to my hon. Friend. He might like to go to St. George’s Crypt to ascertain what is being done to promote abstinence—the very point that he made—to get people off drugs rather than using replacements. My hon. Friend is making a powerful point.

James Brokenshire: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recommending that work. It is important to recognise the great work that so many charities, voluntary organisations and the third sector do in providing treatment and support. One of the problems with the Government’s approach of regional commissioning is that it stifles such innovation.

We have only to examine the evidence. The cost of methadone prescriptions has increased by £6 million in only two years to £22 million. Last October, the BBC revealed that, of 180,000-odd people signed up for treatment, 20,000 never had any, 80,000 did not complete their treatment and only 5,000—less than 3 per cent.—left the Government programme free of illegal drugs.

John Mann: What would the hon. Gentleman say to hon. Members who have called for more methadone prescribing in newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph? One example is the right hon. Member for Witney, who did so in an article in The Daily Telegraph and another in the Edinburgh Evening News.

James Brokenshire: Methadone has its place in the treatment regime, for example when sex workers move from addiction and genuine desperation. My point is that people should not be kept on methadone, but moved from that through abstinence-based treatment, so that they beat their addiction.

With the Government, if one does not measure something, it simply does not matter. The new document provides an Orwellian definition of “effective treatment”, which is satisfied if someone is

As I said earlier, it is hardly surprising that recovery is the word that dare not speak its name.

Instead, the Government are supposedly offering us more rights of asset recovery, with the Home Office news release breathlessly promising that

No one has been able to explain what is wrong with the existing powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which include confiscation orders and restraint orders that can be sought from a judge before conviction. The policy does not bear examination. Even if there were a hypothetical need for more rights, the complete failure of the Assets Recovery Agency, necessitating its merger with Serious Organised Crime Agency, underlines where the real focus and attention should lie.

As for the Government’s apparent proposals to remove benefits from drug users dropping out of treatment, as one drugs charity kindly put it, the policy “needs further explanation”.

Next Section Index Home Page