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3 Apr 2008 : Column 946

The Government are out of ideas, out of the real world and on the wrong path. The plan is an explicit admission of failure, which cannot be disguised by the hotch-potch of gimmicks cobbled together to masquerade as a strategy. We need a zero-tolerance approach to drugs from our shores to our streets, with a proper border police force, the reclassification of cannabis, abstinence-based rehabilitation, and drug treatment in prison.

Carl Gustav Jung said:

The Government’s addiction is not idealism, but image: they measure inputs rather than achieve outcomes; they want to spin perception rather than change reality; and they commission reviews rather than take action. Their time has come for a long spell in rehab.

12.59 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): I will not pursue the superficial speech of the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire), which will embarrass his party leader.

We are in a time of change, and we must have the honesty to examine our two 10-year strategies. One was introduced in the House—I recall the debate 10 years ago, when there was great optimism. The drugs tsar was to be appointed and things were going to change enormously. A reduction of 50 per cent. in drug use was proposed—a ludicrously ambitious figure. We are also signed up to another policy; indeed, the whole free world is signed up to the United Nations policy. It was decided in the same year, 1998, and its aim is the complete eradication of or a substantial reduction in all drug cultivation and use. Who could sign up to such a thing or believe that that was possible? That policy comes to fruition this year, but we have made virtually no progress on it.

What has happened since 1998? We have spent billions of pounds, with the agreement of every party in the House; there was only dissenting voice to the policy in 1998. The result is figures—I will give just one, as I do not want to spend my whole 10 minutes talking about the figures—that show a reduction in the number of deaths caused by heroin. There has not been a reduction; what has happened is that the base year was changed. A reduction of 2 per cent. is being claimed on the basis of setting the base year as 1999, but if we use 1998, the proper base year, we see that there has been an increase in deaths of 10 per cent.

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) made for him. The thrust of my hon. Friend’s point was that the Government are spinning perception. The hon. Gentleman is exactly right: figures have changed, statistics are manipulated and no progress is being made. That was the criticism.

Paul Flynn: I will not go into the details of why the speech that the hon. Member for Hornchurch made was superficial, but he missed the point. Cannabis is a minor part of the problem, and reclassification is of no importance whatever. There are much more serious
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problems, which the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) well understands. We need to get to the heart of them, and that is happening elsewhere.

There are two, or possibly three, optimistic signs. One is at the United Nations, which has recognised that world opinion is changing. There was a time when this country had very few drug users—fewer than 1,000 addicts. We became tough and had a zero-tolerance policy, doing all the things that the Opposition spokesman in this debate wants to do, but sadly we did not become intelligent about drugs. We had that policy in 1971. The result is that we now do not have 1,000 addicts; we have 280,000 addicts. We have a problem that is permanent and a great scourge among our young people.

We did not show an example to the people in eastern Europe, who effectively said, “When the iron curtain fell and drugs came into our countries, we looked to you guys in the west to tell us how to deal with them.” What they heard was a babel of conflicting voices and advice. The result is 5 million addicts in the Russian Federation. I had the experience of visiting a hospital in Moscow—I can feel the emotion churning up as I think of it—that was filled with thousands of patients, every one of whom was a child of a drug user or sex worker born with AIDS. Those things have happened because of our failure to tackle poverty and because of the self-gratification of the politicians. We want popular policies that give us good headlines in the daily papers, which do not tell us that we will go to pot if we are found in possession of an intelligent idea or something that works.

There is a new European convention, which was presented by a British rapporteur in the Council of the Europe in September and is supported by all parties in the House in the Council and by all 47 countries there. The convention is similar to another document called “The Rome Consensus”, which enjoys the support of more than 120 nations and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Those two documents—“The Rome Consensus” and the new European convention, which is yet to go to the Council of Ministers—say a great deal, but the basic argument is that our reliance on the criminal justice system for solving the problem of drugs has not worked. Substitution has worked. Every £1 that we spend on substitution, treatment, needle exchanges and so on is worth £12 that we spend on the criminal justice system.

The situation in our prisons is tragic. I had the awful experience of visiting the family of two young people in my constituency who would be classified as two of the great successes of our system, because they went into prison as heroin users and came out clean. The system was working—what a triumph; how wonderful. Indeed, I am sure that those young people are named somewhere in the figures. The young man who came out lived a day; the woman who came out lived a week. They went back to their drugs because they did not have the chance of being looked after. That is an abject failure.

We are now in an awful position. The hon. Member for Hornchurch said that we are the worst country in Europe for drugs, which is as it is. Every one of the countries that has shooting-up galleries and has taken a more compassionate line, treating drug users not as criminals, but as patients, has less harm. We are missing something and we are failing. We need to get to the
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point where we recognise that, despite all our self-satisfaction as politicians—our desire to get good headlines to get ourselves re-elected—we are failing a generation whose lives are being destroyed by drugs. That is the lesson of today.

I believe that there will be a change. The atmosphere is changing in the United Nations, which determines everything. The United Nations went along with the myth that we can control drugs at the supply—we tried that in Colombia for nearly 30 years and in Afghanistan, but it has been an utter, abject failure. After £250 million of taxpayers’ money being spent on drug eradication in Helmand province, the result is that the drug crops there are the highest in history and the price of heroin on the streets of London is the cheapest that it has ever been. That is failure from both angles.

Let us stop congratulating ourselves on what clever politicians we are, on what great successes we have enjoyed or on the press supporting us, including on the completely foolish idea of reclassifying cannabis, especially when all the evidence is that reclassifying it probably made very little difference, because fashion and many other things were involved. Indeed, the use of cannabis went down, and everyone admits that. There is another demand to reclassify it upwards, but the whole of drug-taking policy, in my 20 years in Parliament, has been an evidence-free zone that is rich in prejudice, ignorance and denial.

We are all drug users in many ways. We should look to a policy that puts the emphasis on education, the truth and the things that work. They include drug substitution, which has been mentioned, not some idiotic idea about zero tolerance, which does not work, or the other foolish idea, about khat. Khat is a drug with its own dangers, but if we decide to prohibit it, we will immediately drive a wedge between the Somali and Yemeni communities and the police, and drive the trade underground. Khat is currently legal, but if it became illegal, Somali areas would be divided up into territories that were guarded with guns. If we want to create another minor crime wave, we should prohibit khat, because people will keep using it—they have used it for centuries as part of their tradition.

Prohibiting khat is another instant solution that appeals to politicians. I urge the House to consider the position in the real world. We have a terrible record as politicians, but when I saw the parents of the young man who died in my constituency, did I blame myself for what I had done? I know that if the policies that I and others advocated in this place 20 years ago had been put into practice and come to fruition, those young people would probably still be alive today.

We have taken a path that is not based on the truth or on the practical ways of dealing with the problem. One of the best examples from other countries is from Portugal, which has already been mentioned. In 2001, the Government in Portugal decided to de-penalise all drugs. It was not a popular policy—the Government there were howled at by the press and the public thought that the politicians had gone mad—but the result was a reduction in the total number of deaths from drugs in Portugal of 50 per cent. in five years. That is the most spectacular result of any drugs policy anywhere in the world. Other countries have adopted bold policies—the shooting-up galleries, for instance—that have been unpopular with lots of people, but that is not the path
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of popularity, which is increased drug use and the continuing scourge of drugs that is affecting the whole world.

I know that many hon. Members wish to speak in this debate, so I will draw my remarks to a close by begging everyone from both major parties—indeed, from all parts of the House—to look at what was said here in 1998 and at the ambitions that were announced. None of them has been achieved. We have had 10 years of utter, abject failure from all angles—from the waste of money involved to the fact that not a single prison in this country is free of drug use. One Conservative Member told me that he went into a prison and was told by a prisoner, “I’ve got a toothache that I’d like to get an aspirin for, but I have to wait until tomorrow morning to see a doctor, yet I can go from my cell and get every illegal drug you’d care to mention within a quarter of an hour.” That is the reality of life in prison.

If we cannot keep drugs out of prison, what hope is there for all the brave policies of zero tolerance working in the community and in clubs in our society? We need to look at this issue through new eyes and to read the evidence, which says that the harm reduction techniques work. We need to concentrate on those techniques and end our reliance on the criminal justice system, which has increased the problem so tragically over the past 35 years.

1.10 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I welcome this topical debate. The reason for its topicality was the drugs strategy, but there has also recently been a leak from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the panel of 23 experts who are apparently going to recommend that there should be no reclassification of cannabis. That leak reminds us that we need to ensure that our decisions are based on evidence and science if we are serious about tackling the scourge of drugs, as the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) suggested.

The leak also prompts a number of questions, which I hope the Minister will be able to answer. If the leak is accurate, is he in a position to confirm whether he will follow the advice of the advisory council? Will he confirm that, if the Government chose not to follow that advice, it would be the first time that that had happened? Will he also tell us whether he has considered putting the advisory council on a more formal footing, to allow more expertise to be brought in and perhaps to give it a wider remit? Such a change could create the equivalent of a standing royal commission to look at the issue of drugs, to ensure that we were using science and evidence-based facts to devise the most effective policy for tackling the problem.

Mr. Brady: Would the hon. Gentleman accept that, at the time of the previous reclassification of cannabis, there was already considerable evidence to link the use of cannabis—particularly the stronger strains—with the incidence of psychosis and schizophrenia? However, the advisory council chose to ignore that evidence. It would be unsurprising if the council chose to stand by its earlier decision, but should we not be cautious about accepting its recommendation, given its record on this matter?

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Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman has made a strong point that in some respects strengthens my point about widening the remit of the advisory council or setting up a royal commission that would have greater expertise to ensure that its decisions took into account a wider range of views. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the Government would favour such a proposal.

We need to focus on all the links in the drugs chain, from production through to supply, if we are to tackle this issue. I am sure that the Minister would agree that one aspect of the problem is the glamour that is often associated with drugs. This was highlighted in the recent annual report from the International Narcotics Control Board, which stated that treating stars leniently undermined people’s faith in the criminal justice system and had a damaging effect on adolescents. Celebrities who are users might well be able to use their wealth to buy their way out of their habit through rehabilitation, but others might not be in that fortunate position. The Minister will undoubtedly agree that those so-called stars should be treated in exactly the same way as anyone else who is caught in possession of drugs.

I wonder whether the Minister is as sad as I am that some celebrities seem to treat drugs as a bit of a joke. I have informed the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) that I was going to refer to him in his debate. He is not in his place today. It was extremely regrettable that, on “Have I Got News for You”, he said:

I do not know what other Members think about that, but I believe that that comment sends out a message that drugs are not a serious issue and that they can be treated almost as a joke. That is extremely regrettable coming from a person who is seeking to become the Mayor of London.

There is much in the drugs strategy that we could not possibly oppose, including protecting communities through robust enforcement to tackle drug supply, drug-related crime and antisocial behaviour, and preventing harm to children, young people and families affected by drug misuse. The Government are going to have to demonstrate how they are going to achieve those aims. I had a useful meeting a few days ago with a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority. She referred to a family in which the mother lived off the proceeds of crime, the daughter was dealing and the son was in prison for having dealt drugs. There were also two children of primary school age in that family. It is exactly that type of scenario that the Government’s drugs strategy needs to address. How can we help all the different members of that family to get out of the situation that they are in? In particular, how can we ensure that those young children do not inevitably follow the line of business that the elders in that family have regrettably taken?

John Mann: The hon. Gentleman is giving the House an interesting analysis of the situation, but I am failing to hear any precise policies. I should like to draw his attention to Liberal Democrat policy briefing No. 10, which states that the Liberal Democrats’ policy involves:

Would that be his party’s policy regardless of what the advisory council might say? If not, why is it in his party’s policy document?

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Tom Brake: I can confirm that that is our policy. I am sure that, if the advisory council were to come up with a recommendation that cannabis should be reclassified, we would want to look at that policy area very carefully. However, the leak suggests that that is not what it is going to recommend. As the hon. Member for Newport, West said earlier, the evidence shows that cannabis use went down as a result of the reclassification, rather than up.

John Mann: I should like to clarify this important matter of policy. Is it the hon. Gentleman’s policy to accept the advice of the advisory council on any issue relating to drugs, whatever recommendation it might make?

Tom Brake: I can only say that our policy will be strongly influenced by the advisory council. I cannot prejudge what recommendations it might come up with in the next five years that might conflict with existing party policy. We shall have to cross that bridge when we get to it, but our policy is that we would like to establish a standing royal commission so that these issues can be addressed in a scientific and, perhaps, independent way. I think that most Members would admit that that is extremely difficult to achieve at the moment, because of the pressures that we face from outside. That sometimes makes it difficult for science to dictate the decisions that we make here.

We desperately need the Government’s drugs strategy to deliver. Our drugs policies are barely keeping a lid on this devastating plague. As other Members have pointed out, this country has one of the most punitive approaches to drugs, while also having among the highest levels of use. We need to combine placing a greater emphasis on tackling drug use as a public health issue with taking a much more focused approach to the dealers and organised criminals who peddle these drugs, destroying lives and fuelling criminal activity. If that is what the Government’s drugs strategy delivers, we will support it.

1.19 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) had to say. It came over loud and clear, and it sounded like a war on drugs. I have always been against waging a war on drugs in the way that the Americans have tried to do. I prefer to wage a war on the causes of drug misuse, which, as far as I am concerned, are social exclusion and poverty. I know which party put people into poverty. I also know which party is now trying to dig people out of poverty; it is the party that I support.

I believe that the Government have the political will to deal with the problem, although, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows, I do not always agree with them. The 10-year drug strategy document that has just been published marks a shift—no more than that—in the right direction. There is more talk about helping families, rather than about individuals who are addicted. An addict causes havoc in the entire family, not just the immediate family. There is also more talk about early intervention. As we know, in the case of all drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, the problem tends to start when a person is nine, 10, 11 or 12. If no one intervenes at that stage, the job is lost. The young
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person will truant, become an addict and a general nuisance, associating with the criminal element of society.

The United Nations has made some interesting comments recently. Its International Narcotics Control Board publishes a report in March each year, and I usually attend the launches. The press kit accompanying the 2005 report includes a statement from Professor Hamid Ghodse, of St George’s hospital in London, who said:

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