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The Prime Minister: It is right that households are suffering as a result of what has been happening in a
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world downturn and it is right that fuel prices have gone up—and it is unacceptable that so many people have lost out as a result of that. That is why we have postponed the fuel duty rise, that is why we have increased the winter allowance by £50, and that is why we have negotiated with the utility companies a deal that, next year, £100 million will go to help low-income households in this country. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that none of that happened under a Conservative Government when people were suffering.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Last week, Nestlé opened a brand new £15 million chocolate factory in my constituency. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that that is a vote of confidence by a foreign multinational company in the British economy, and in the city of York? Will the Prime Minister come to York, or ask his Business Secretary to come to York, to see the fundamental strength of the British economy?

The Prime Minister: I congratulate the companies in my hon. Friend’s constituency that are expanding; long-term unemployment in his constituency is down by more than 80 per cent. The reality is that, while unemployment is rising in other countries, employment is rising in Britain. That is because of the fundamental strength of the British economy—something that I believe that all people who look at that will accept. We will continue to create more jobs in this country.

Q12. [203750] Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Does the Prime Minister ever wonder why on earth he took the job?

The Prime Minister: I took the job for the reason that I gave in my answer to the last question: to create jobs for people; to create better public services; to tackle poverty; and to make Britain a better place. Is it not remarkable that not one question coming from the Tory Back Benches is about the substance of policy? They cannot face up to the big policy questions facing this nation.

Q13. [203751] Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/ Co-op): The Prime Minister referred earlier in his answers to colleagues to affordable housing. Can he tell us more about what he is doing to ensure that those who are struggling to pay their mortgages have the leeway to manage their budgets?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are in discussions with the Council of Mortgage Lenders to enable people to get a better deal when they are faced with difficulties in paying their mortgage bills. At the same time, we have put forward proposals for a shared equity scheme that will allow more people to buy a percentage of their house, if they are not in a position to buy all of it as a result of the changes in the rates that are being charged for mortgages. We will do everything that we can to help young homebuyers to get on to the first rung of the housing ladder.

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12.32 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the classification of cannabis. In July 2007, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minster announced that we would seek the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, as we are obliged to do by statute, on the classification of cannabis. I am grateful to the council for its work, and I have placed a copy of its report in the Library of the House. In reaching my decision, I have also taken into account the views of others, particularly those responsible for enforcing the law, and the public—58 per cent. of whom, according to a survey carried out for the council, favour upgrading cannabis from class C.

Cannabis use is falling significantly across all age ranges, and this is a testament to the success of the Government’s drug strategy. However, I am concerned to ensure that the classification of cannabis reflects the alarming fact that a much stronger drug, known as skunk, now dominates the cannabis market. I want it to be clearly understood that this powerful form of cannabis is an illegal and harmful drug.

Today I am publishing the results of a study undertaken with 23 police forces across England and Wales. This provides clear evidence that skunk now makes up 80 per cent. of street-seized cannabis, compared with 30 per cent. in 2002. Furthermore, its potency has increased nearly threefold since 1995. The advisory council’s report confirms that cannabis use poses a real threat to health. The council is concerned about its use among young people, and points to growing evidence of a causal link, albeit a weak one, between cannabis use and psychotic illness.

The council acknowledges that use of stronger cannabis may increase the harm to mental health. Young people may be more at risk if they first use it at an early age, and the council refers to the average age of first use being 13. It suggests that some young people might “binge smoke” to achieve the maximum possible intoxication, in the same way as some treat alcohol, and it concludes that if they do, the consequences

The council also believes that the evidence of the impact of stronger cannabis may not be clear for some years to come. It has recommended that cannabis remain a class C drug.

I have given the council’s report careful consideration. Of its 21 recommendations, I accept all bar those relating to classification. I have decided to reclassify cannabis, subject to parliamentary approval, as a class B drug. My decision takes into account issues such as public perception and the needs and consequences for policing priorities. There is a compelling case for us to act now rather than risk the future health of young people. Where there is a clear and serious problem, but doubt about the potential harm that will be caused, we must err on the side of caution and protect the public. I make no apology for that. I am not prepared to wait and see.

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To reflect the more serious status of cannabis as class B, I am clear that a strengthened enforcement approach for possession is required. As the Association of Chief Police Officers said last week:

I firmly believe that while our response must remain proportionate and offer discretion to police officers, a system of escalation is necessary. I have therefore written to ACPO today, seeking its views on a clear and workable system of escalation that is consistent with reducing police bureaucracy and maintaining discretion. That will include considering cannabis warnings, which were introduced by ACPO in 2004 to ensure that action was taken when someone was found in possession of cannabis. Prior to that, the police had to choose whether to make an arrest or to take no action. I am not against cannabis warnings, but I believe that it is unacceptable for someone to receive more than one warning and for that warning not to be properly recorded.

I am fully aware that the system we adopt will be delivered by those on the front line, and I have asked ACPO to involve other police organisations and criminal justice partners in developing its proposals. The new approach to enforcement will not, of course, preclude officers from immediately effecting arrest. For those under 18 caught in possession, I am content that the current procedure, which uses a reprimand, a final warning and then charge, provides an appropriate escalation mechanism.

In the last few years we have seen a massive growth in the commercial cultivation of cannabis in the UK. This cannot be tolerated. We know that the “cannabis farms” are controlled by organised criminals who stand to make large profits and who, as the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has found, will stoop to using trafficked children on such premises. Reclassifying cannabis will help to drive enforcement priorities in shutting those farms down.

ACPO and the Serious Organised Crime Agency are responding to this threat. There is a dedicated ACPO lead on cannabis cultivation and it is working with SOCA on a co-ordinated, targeted and robust approach to cannabis farms. That involves building a national profile of these criminal activities, using forensic and other intelligence to make the links between individual farms and organised criminal gangs. We must also focus on other ways to combat the problem. Energy suppliers are currently losing significant revenue through abstraction by organised gangs running cannabis farms. I have today written to the chief executives of the six largest energy suppliers, asking them to work with us to identify abuse and target those groups.

We have already introduced statutory aggravating factors where supply is made on, or in the vicinity of, school premises, and where a courier under the age of 18 is used. I accept the advisory council’s recommendation for additional aggravating factors to be introduced concerning the supply of drugs in the vicinity of colleges and universities, mental health institutions and prisons.

I also accept the council’s recommendation for more effective regulation of the trade in cannabis paraphernalia. It is unacceptable for cannabis use to be
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glamorised in any way. We will work with ACPO to look at how existing legislation and powers can be used by the police, local authorities and other partners to curtail the sale and promotion of such items.

As the council makes clear, this is an important public health issue, and one that a change in classification alone will not resolve. Through campaigns such as the “Frank” campaign, we will continue to make the public aware of the health harms associated with cannabis use. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will also ensure the following: that we update our messages on the harms caused by cannabis; that we look into providing more advice on the health risks and where to get help through NHS Direct, NHS Choices, the Smoking Helpline, Drinkline and other public information points; that we publish a report on the health risks associated with smoking cannabis and tobacco, and, where appropriate, include advice on cannabis misuse in NHS smoking cessation services; and that we seek the advice of the four UK chief medical officers on what more needs to be done to reduce the risks to public health.

My decision to reclassify cannabis is part of the relentless drive to tackle drugs and the harm they bring to families and communities, and I will seek to do that by the end of the year. This is the right action to protect the public, particularly the future health of young people and the most vulnerable, and I commend this statement to the House.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I thank the Home Secretary for giving me advance sight of her statement. First, may I say that I fully support the Government’s decision to upgrade the classification of cannabis to class B, even if their decision to do so has come rather late? The Government’s historically lax approach to drugs has been a hallmark of our broken society under Labour. The UK has the worst level of overall drug abuse in Europe. Drug crimes have increased by almost a half under this Government, and Britain has the highest rate of teenage cannabis abuse in the European Union. We all hope that today’s statement means that the Government now recognise that cannabis is a very dangerous drug—that it wrecks lives, is a gateway to harder drug abuse and fuels crime.

Let us examine the hard facts. As the Home Secretary intimated, since the 1970s the strongest psychiatrically damaging component of cannabis—THC—has increased by about four or five times in skunk cannabis, and the other chemical composition of the cannabis may have altered in a way to exacerbate the psychiatric harm. A survey of 35 studies published in The Lancet medical journal concluded that modern cannabis users are 40 per cent. more likely to develop psychotic illness. Certainly the number of anti-psychotic drugs prescribed to young people has doubled in the last decade.

Much of this information has been known for years, so does the Home Secretary accept that, on the grounds of psychiatric damage alone, the 2004 decision was an utterly avoidable mistake? The Government’s decision in January 2004 to downgrade cannabis sent out precisely the wrong message, by encouraging the public and impressionable young people to believe that cannabis did not cause serious harm and would not be taken seriously by the police.

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Last week, the Prime Minister—I am glad to see that he is still present—said about cannabis-taking that

Does the Home Secretary accept that the downgrading of cannabis by her predecessor in 2004 sent entirely the wrong message both to young people and to the police force? Does she recognise that since that reckless decision, the number of cannabis factories, to which she referred, has more than doubled? Furthermore, the number of adults treated for cannabis abuse has increased by 51 per cent.; hospital admissions for mental illness connected with cannabis have risen by nearly a quarter; and cannabis has served as a gateway to even more harmful drugs, with class A drug abuse increasing by 43 per cent. in the past year alone. Does she accept that the effect of the policy change has been to increase the size of the cannabis market and to damage, if not destroy, many more young lives?

This long-awaited U-turn has followed delay, dithering and indecision, when the country cries out for leadership. As the Prime Minister is sitting here, I have a question for him. He announced his intentions on this policy a year ago, but in the meantime, he wasted a year by handing it to an advisory body, which he has now ignored. The Home Secretary told us in her statement that that was required by statute—but I am unaware of any statute that required them to take a year to consider evidence that has been around for half a decade. On the Home Secretary’s own figures, 2,000 new cannabis factories will have started up during that delay, and thousands of young people will have become addicted to cannabis unnecessarily. In due course, many will end up on hard drugs or in hospital unnecessarily, all because this Government could not make up their mind.

Jacqui Smith: I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s support for my statement. However, I must take issue with his suggestion that, somehow or other, we have taken a lax approach to drugs in this country over the past 10 years: we have not. That is why drug use is falling; that is why we have doubled the number of people able to get drug treatment; and that is why, as a result, the acquisitive crime most closely linked to drug use has fallen by 20 per cent. All that is due to the decisions and the success not only of the Government’s drugs strategy, but of many people working in both law enforcement and drug treatment services. They should be recognised for their efforts in supporting that strategy,

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the links to mental health. It is precisely the relationship between the increased strength of cannabis, particularly skunk, and, as the advisory council points out, the potential future danger of young people, in particular, binge smoking it, and the uncertainty, at least, about the resulting impact on their mental health that have driven today’s decision.

However, the right hon. Gentleman then accuses the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs of delaying the decision. That body was set up under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and when considering the reclassification of a drug, it is a statutory requirement to take advice from it. As I said in my statement, I thank the advisory council not only for the 21 recommendations that it has made today, the vast majority of which I support and
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we will implement, but for the careful way in which it took evidence, not only from large numbers of professionals and academics, but from the public, 58 per cent. of whom agreed with the decision that we are taking today. The right hon. Gentleman may wish to rush to decisions and to throw out such important processes and evidence gathering, but I do not believe that other people do.

Finally, I must mention the right hon. Gentleman’s brass neck when he referred back to the 2004 decision. I must give him his due, because he has probably always taken a consistent approach to the reclassification of cannabis—

David Davis indicated assent.

Jacqui Smith: Unfortunately, that has not always been the case with everybody on the Conservative Benches. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) supported, in a Home Affairs Committee vote—on the record—the downgrading of the classification of cannabis from B to C. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) talks about reckless decisions, but perhaps he would like to take the matter up with his own leader before he levels that charge at us.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I strongly welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, especially what she said about toughening up enforcement. In the Select Committee’s last meeting to consider this issue, it accepted the harmful effects of cannabis and the fact that its use should be discouraged. What steps is she taking with her Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that his Department works with the Home Office to get the message across to young people about the need to discourage cannabis use? What new resources will she allocate for that purpose?

Jacqui Smith: My right hon. Friend makes an important point, especially about young people. We are allocating more than £6 million this year, partly to the “Frank” campaign, which has proven very successful, with a high rate of recognition among young people, and in increasing by 12 percentage points the number of young people who now recognise that cannabis impacts on mental health. The drugs strategy, published at the end of February, made it clear that, together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, we will work closely with parents through a new coalition of family charities; improve the information and guidance available to all parents; and continue to provide important drug advice through “Frank”, and also through improving universal education and information for children and young people about drugs, alcohol and other volatile substance misuse. That drugs strategy, together with the proposals that I have set out today, forms a coherent approach that sees reclassification as the start of the process, not the end. It also takes seriously the responsibility to ensure that the public health messages sent to young people and others are communicated clearly.

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