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If anyone asks me what has happened about drugs in my constituency, I can tell them. If they had walked
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down Bridge street in Worksop five years ago, they would not have got five yards without being accosted by a young person on heroin. Now, although there are one or two problems with the Tory council, lots of cars are being parked illegally, the Tory leader drove illegally the wrong way when he made his fleeting visit, and the police are failing to tackle cyclists, someone walking down Bridge street would struggle to find a drug addict. That is what is happening in the real world, so quantifiable proof exists: I recommend cost-benefit analysis.

The other thing that I strongly recommend to the Government—this concurs with what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said—is to examine causation. My analysis of my constituents who have been on heroin is that the vast majority have now come off it since my heroin inquiry in 2002. By far and away the key factor in young people getting involved with drugs is major trauma. That can be identified in different ways. For example, it might be a major change in economic circumstances, but it is more likely to be the death of a parent, often a father—my amateur research base tells me that—or a messy divorce, a split in the family situation, abuse or attacks. Those are by far and away the factors that lead young people into drug addiction. Such things can be identified. It is now far more acceptable to talk about things such as child abuse within a family in society and societal organisations than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Such things can be addressed, but we do not pull the two issues together. That is where the improvement to the Government’s strategy can be tweaked in a big way. We can use the data on outcomes, but we must put them together more cleverly. We must examine causation, and in particular, the role of major trauma among children and young people in leading to addiction.

We know what the Government’s drugs strategy is, and we know that not all Labour Members have agreed with it. I generally do agree with it, because it generally works. We know what the Conservative policy is, because it has been outlined recently: before, everyone would have been put into residential rehabilitation, but now they will be put into secure residential rehabilitation. The proposal has not yet been costed, although my costings of it show that it would be quite expensive, and the definition of “secure” has been left a little vague. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) did not outline it further. I am sure that he and his colleagues will take the opportunity to explain about the 280,000 secure residential places, or however many the number is; a figure has not yet emerged. The Conservatives’ recovery policy has also been clearly outlined, even though their leader repeatedly and consistently took totally the opposite approach—his was more in line with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West; it could have been the same speech. The Tory leader is out of synch, but I am sure that he is accommodating himself to the current policy and learning it. There will be some interesting tensions there.

We know, from a speech made by Fergus Ewing today, that the Scottish National party has stolen lock, stock and barrel the Tory party policy of recovery and abstinence. We know that Mr. Souter, who has helped the SNP in various ways, has inspired its new policy in his recent meetings with the party. At last the SNP has a policy! It is identical to the Conservative party’s policy, which will make for some interesting debates.

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We still do not know what the Liberal Democrat policy is—individuals have different views, not least on cannabis—but we do know about the proposal by its new leader. His one statement on the matter was made on 21 December 2002 on the European Parliament proposal for a recommendation—B5 0541 is the paper—in which he makes it clear that he is in favour of the legalisation of drugs. We are beginning to see a policy emerge; it is in process. I hope that the Liberals will give us more of an opportunity in the near future to let us know—

Tom Brake: I want to inform the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) has made it very clear—much more recently than the example given by the hon. Gentleman—that he is opposed to the legalisation of skunk, for example. Would the hon. Gentleman like to withdraw his comments?

John Mann: The would-be Home Secretary from the Liberals has not commented on drugs, or anything else, since the change in party leadership. We look forward to the Liberals having policy on this matter; that would contribute to the debate.

1.49 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): In the few minutes remaining, I am pleased to contribute to the debate. One of the first things I did when I was elected to this place, as a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, was take part in an investigation of drugs policy entitled “The Government’s drugs policy: is it working?” I do not often agree with the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), but I agree that the policy was not, and still is not, working. I do not think that any of us would underestimate the enormity of the problem, or the task of dealing with it.

Everybody here has the good will to acknowledge that there is a problem, and to try to do something about it. Of course, opinions on how to deal with it are varied. During its investigation, the Committee took evidence from across the opinion spectrum. We took evidence from the legalisation lobby—from people who would make all drugs freely available and supplied by the Government. At the other end of the spectrum, we heard some heartbreaking stories from parents who had lost children to a drug habit. My view, then and now, is that there is an imbalance in drugs policy. It focuses too heavily on harm reduction and the provision of rehabilitation, important though that is, and not enough on drug prevention. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said how important it is to warn very young children about the dangers of drugs. The age at which that needs to be tackled is, sadly, getting younger and younger.

I was unable to agree with the outcome of the investigation, and I was the only person on a cross-party Committee to do so. I tabled about 80 amendments, all of which were blown out of the water. I thought that I was right then, and I still think so now.

Today’s announcement—or leak—from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was disappointing to me. I believe that the message that reclassification would send out to young people—many of whom believe that
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taking such drugs is not only legal but harmless, and a purely social occupation from which no harm will come—is very important. We all know, not least from the evidence heard by the Committee and that which we have seen since, that mental health professionals are extremely worried about the increase in psychotic illnesses, depression and so on that arise from cannabis use. If it transpires that the council advises that cannabis should not be reclassified, I hope that the Home Secretary will think long and hard about the evidence that comes from other quarters before she makes her decision.

The hon. Member for Newport, West thought that reclassification was of no importance. I fundamentally disagree with him. The message given to young people is very important. No young person should be in any doubt about the dangers that can flow from the use of illegal drugs. We have to start with cannabis, which is probably the most easily available. Most drug dealers now are poly-drug dealers. If young people buy cannabis, the range of harder, more harmful drugs is readily available to them. The temptation to try other drugs, which can lead to serious habits from which there is often no return, is an important message that would come from any reclassification.

Several hon. Members have referred to the availability of drugs in prisons. The challenge of ridding prisons of drugs is enormous, but we have to take every action we can to help people with drug habits who have been given custodial sentences because of acquisitive crime, because they will not get rid of their habits if drugs are easily available in prison. People who are given custodial sentences for other reasons, and do not have a drug habit, often acquire a habit while they are in prison, and add to the body of people who require rehabilitation treatment.

I want to make some brief comments on the Government website Frank. I looked at it yesterday and today and it provides a helpful A to Z of drugs, including yaba, zero and isobutyl nitrate. I learned more about drugs from looking at Frank than I would ever have found out in any other way. It has videos about parties where drugs are being taken, jokey commentaries, and comic cartoons about replacement brains. I do not think that that website will deter a single young person from taking illegal drugs. It does not present the subject in anything near a serious enough way. I am dismayed to notice that I have run out of time. I had so much to say— [ Interruption. ] The Minister tells me I can have a little longer; that is very kind.

Frank also advertises free information on drugs 24/7, and tells lots of frank stories. We need to give young people serious warnings about what they are doing to their future, their education, their employment prospects and their families, friends, colleagues and neighbours. People do not take drugs in isolation. They affect all the other people around them. Nowhere on the site could I see a simple message such as, “Don’t do it. It’s illegal and it will harm you.” We need to get down to plain simple language rather than wrapping it up in jokey cartoony videos that do not do what the site is intended to do.

1.56 pm

Mr. Coaker: I thank all hon. Members for the quality of the debate. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) was very complimentary, which was nice
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of him. The debate shows some of the difficulty in reaching a drug strategy that commands general support. With drugs charities, drug misusers, others Members of Parliament, parliamentary groups and all sorts of individuals, I have tried to build consensus around the new drugs strategy. We have tried to get away from the false debate about whether we should crack down hard on dealers and those who bring misery to our communities—whether we are therefore tough on drugs—or whether we should support families, provide better treatment and ensure that the outcomes of treatment are more effective, to avoid the sorts of horror that have been described, which is what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) was talking about.

I was disappointed by the comments made by the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire), which is unusual for me. The new strategy was not met with derision, because we had tried to reach that consensus. That does not mean that every person in the country and every group would support it wholeheartedly. One or two would deride it, because they want drugs to be legalised or completely decriminalised. The Government attempted to ensure that we had a radical policy that moved forward, and moved away from the false choice between tough enforcement and just treatment. We tried to bring those together. Our approach was not met with derision, with due respect to the hon. Gentleman, but with general support from the vast majority of people, simply because it moved away from that choice.

My hon. Friends the Members for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) and for Bolton, South-East, who have in the past been very critical, have recognised the shift in our policy. I cannot answer all the points that have been
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made in the few minutes I have left, but it is essential that we enforce the law against those who deal in misery in our communities by dealing drugs. Every person in this House will accept that. The asset recovery panels are significantly different, because they allow us to take action on arrest rather than on conviction. They will enable us to take the action that people want against those in our communities who deal in drugs.

The key is to make drug treatment more effective. Some hon. Members picked up on that point. If the hon. Member for Hornchurch and others read page 28 of the drug strategy, they will see that it mentions abstinence, and states that we need a menu of options, and that a person’s needs will be a matter for a clinical decision, made by a doctor, as to what is appropriate for them. For some people that will be methadone—and I agree that we should not just abandon people on methadone. For others it will be residential treatment, but it is a clinical decision based on the person’s individual needs that will make the treatment effective, not some grand statement that everybody should go into abstinence straight away or that everybody should be on methadone. It is about ensuring that there is appropriate treatment for the individual.

I apologise to hon. Members for not answering all their questions specifically. Education is obviously important, and we will wait for the ACMD review of cannabis. I agree with my hon. Friends that it is important to tackle causation, and I thank hon. Members for their contributions to the debate.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed without Question put, pursuant to the Temporary Standing Order.

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April Adjournment

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

2.1 pm

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I appreciate your calling me so early in the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall return home to Telford and search out the remaining Easter eggs in my cupboard, and send them down to you in the following week.

I should like to raise four issues that are important for the House to hear about before we adjourn for the recess.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I am sure that what the hon. Gentleman is going to speak about is very important. Given that, no doubt he will wish to stay for the winding-up speeches, which finish at 6 o’clock, so he may be a bit delayed in getting back to his constituency.

David Wright: Of course I will be here for the winding-up speeches. I will then return to Telford and hunt out those Easter eggs for you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and return with them in two weeks’ time if I have not already demolished them.

The first of the four issues that I wish to bring to the House’s attention is audio description on television. Yesterday, I met Caroline Ellis of the Royal National Institute of Blind People to discuss how we can ensure that digital television is fully accessible to people with sight problems and to examine some of the latest technology. Television plays a pivotal role in the lives of people with sight problems. Some 73 per cent.—nearly three in four—spend five hours or more a week watching television. It is a major source of information, news and entertainment, and 86 per cent. of people with sight problems would watch more television if more programmes were accessible.

With that in mind, the RNIB is encouraging more of the 2 million blind and partially sighted people in the UK, including about 3,000 in my constituency, to watch TV by switching on a free existing service called audio description. Many of the nation’s favourite TV moments have never been fully enjoyed by blind and partially sighted people. Relying on the soundtrack means that they cannot follow what is going on.

I was shown a clip of a programme yesterday—it was “Doctor Who”, which is one of my favourites and has a new series starting on Saturday. If I closed my eyes or looked away from the screen, I could not tell what was going on. One advantage of audio description is that in addition to the speech in the programme, there is commentary that fits in between the dialogue and describes the body language, expressions and movements of people on the screen. It makes the story clear through sound and is a fantastic innovation.

As well as giving people with sight problems access to the nation’s favourite entertainment and drama programmes, audio description stops people feeling isolated and excluded, because they can discuss programmes with family and friends who are watching at the same time. At the moment, about 13 per cent. of programmes on digital TV have audio description, which is not nearly enough. Many of those programmes are repeats on channels
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such as The History Channel. It is still worth while tuning in, but we need to ensure that more programmes have audio description.

The service can be accessed on Sky, Virgin Media and some freeview boxes and integrated digital TVs. People can call an audio description hotline to get help, and I believe that the service brings a clear benefit to those with sight problems. The downside, as those with digital TVs will know, is that one has to navigate one’s way through visual menus on the screen to select programmes to watch, which is difficult and frustrating for people who are blind or partially sighted. Audio description may be available on a programme, but they cannot access it because the digital menu is visual in nature. We need to take action on that so that people who are blind or partially sighted can navigate around the screen and secure access to the new services. We cannot have a large proportion of our population, including, as I have said, about 3,000 people in Telford alone, excluded from the service, given that in future digital television will be the only option.

Digital switchover will come to the Central ITV region from 2011. I know that there will be a help scheme to ensure that households that have a disabled person or an elderly person over 75 in them, including those registered blind or partially sighted, can convert to digital TV on one set. Eligible people who are partially sighted or blind could do with securing a quality set-top box with audio description and easy-to-use remote controls, so that the TV guide on the screen tells them what programmes they are selecting and what is coming on next.

The Government have not yet committed to ensuring that providers put audio description support into set-top boxes. It is important that they do so soon, so that all digital services have a talking menu, and a talking recording menu if there is a hard drive on the box. It would be good if the Government could commit to that initiative, which I am sure will secure cross-party support. It is important to thousands of people in constituencies across the country, and I would like to see it delivered as soon as possible.

The second issue that the House needs to be made aware of before what I see from the annunciator is the April Adjournment, rather than the Easter Adjournment, is post offices. This week, we had the long awaited announcement about post office closures in Telford. I think that it is fair to say that the impact on the constituency was not as great as many had predicted. It had been suggested that at least four post offices would close in Telford, but in fact just one, at Randlay, has been named for possible closure. Ten others will remain intact. The main problem with Randlay post office is that it is very close to Telford town centre and a short bus ride from a Crown post office less than a mile away. I have spoken to the postmaster at Randlay, visited the post office there and written to every resident in the community. Throughout the six-week consultation period, I will help local people to make the case for the post office to stay open.

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