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7 Oct 2008 : Column 7WH—continued

I want to talk about partnership working, which he mentioned, and the valuable part that the voluntary sector can play in this issue. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I also want to discuss funding of the voluntary sector. Thundersley Congregational church, in my constituency, is a large and fast-growing, fairly evangelical church that has an honourable history of doing outreach work on drug awareness, tobacco and alcohol, and bad behaviour on the streets. It uses a bus
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called the Bar-N-Bus. I went out with that bus 15 years ago, as it went around Southend and Canvey sea fronts, providing a safe haven for kids where we could talk to them, provide them with alternative diversionary activities, find out what their problems were and help them. The church has been doing excellent work locally for many years.

Richard Keeler and Ian Miles of that church recently came to one of my advice surgeries and told me that they are running a scheme in which they visit local schools and teach kids about drugs. I do not want to go into the matter too deeply, but one of those guys has extremely close knowledge of drugs and the devastation that they can wreak on a young life. He is doing superb work, and the kids will really listen to him, because he has something to say. He has enormous energy and that special knowledge—they are guided by their Christian ideals. I should make it clear that I am not a member of Thundersley Congregational church. They understand, in a way that many parents and some MPs do not—indeed, I did not, until recently—the pressure that kids today are under regarding drugs. I shall come to that in a moment, and to kids’ attitude to drugs. Those pressures are massive.

Richard and Ian wanted £550 to buy a drug awareness kit, a drug demonstration box and some DVDs, so that they could use them in schools and make their activity there more effective. I wrote to the Minister and tabled early-day motion 1283, which is in the Library pack for today’s debate. The EDM states that

I am sorry to say that no Members taking part in the debate signed the early-day motion, but that is probably because it was localised in respect of Thundersley Congregational church.

I got nowhere with obtaining the cash, so I got off my butt and held for the church yet another charity event—the third in two years—to raise money to buy the kit. We had a curry night at the Tandoori Parlour, a superb Indian restaurant, on Hart road, and we raised £1,100 clear profit, so we were able to buy the kit and to do more as well. The kit is now in good use. The drug display box and DVDs were obtained from the south-east Essex drugs partnership, headed by Ray Hatter, a professional and helpful guy who could do with more money. If he had more money, he could do more work, prevent more human suffering and save on costs to society in the long run. I see that the Minister is making notes; Hatter is spelt H-A-T-T-E-R. Actually, we are lucky to have such a superb Minister with us this morning, and I congratulate him on his promotion, which is long overdue. He is one of the best, most caring and able-to-listen Ministers in the House, and on this sensitive area of drugs and preventive measures he has always done all that he can.

As I speak, Richard and Ian are at the Deanes school, speaking to a year 9 group of 13-year-olds and taking a lesson on drugs. Yesterday, they were doing drug awareness work at a secondary school in my constituency, where they got a superb response from the youngsters. When a class of about 30 children was asked whether anyone had been offered drugs, taken drugs or been aware of anybody in their peer group who
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had taken drugs, about 50 per cent. put their hands up, and some gave examples. It is a massive problem in my locality, which is relatively crime-free and clean. A few kids go through problems growing up, but broadly speaking, in my constituency the young people are fantastic and decent.

I warmly congratulate Thundersley Congregational church, and Richard and Ian in particular, on what they are doing. Clearly, Richard and Ian could not do their work without the support of the whole church, and the Minister knows where I am leading now: just a small sum to support voluntary organisations could be very effective. I am sure that the message will get back to the Home Office. We need more flexibility to provide small grants, because £500 here or £500 there—used properly, particularly where people have specific knowledge of the disaster that drugs can cause families and society—could be very effective.

Finally, I shall make three brief points. First, the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) rightly raised the issue of smoking, particularly among teenage girls, which is not a problem that is going away. We must tackle it and address it more firmly if we can, particularly through parents, schools and education. Secondly, we need more residential drug rehabilitation places to allow people who are afflicted by drugs to change their lives. We will not do so without dramatically increasing the number of such places, and it would be a very cost-effective use of money. I see the Minister nodding. Thirdly, we need tougher action both to stop drugs getting into prisons and to deal with prisoners who are on drugs and end their addiction; otherwise, they will simply be in a revolving door. I know that the Minister agrees.

I congratulate the Minister and the Government on what they have done in respect of drugs over the past few years, because they have been moving in the right direction. I am not being picky; I just wish that we had a little more flexibility to divert some of the funds to voluntary organisations.

10.5 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I, too, congratulate the Minister on his promotion, but I shall keep my congratulations short, otherwise his head may swell from all the praise that he has received, and I do not want him to disappoint us when he responds. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on making a compelling case for early intervention. No doubt he could supply figures proving that investment in early-years education has a long-term benefit but, equally, the investment that he described will pay dividends in the longer term. Clearly, he has drawn extensively on his wide experience in Nottingham and of One Nottingham, and he has highlighted the importance of partnership. Partnership—the local authority working with the police, the voluntary sector or the health service locally—is the way to tackle the issue, whether it is drugs or, for instance, obesity, because all local bodies must be involved. We will hear when the Minister responds whether he thinks that the balance between early intervention and rehabilitation is right.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) on drawing attention to the important role that the voluntary sector has to play in tackling the issue. Clearly, Government and health service resources
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are limited and likely to become more constrained in the next few years, so as we face difficult financial times, the voluntary sector’s role is likely to grow rather than to shrink.

I hope that all Members agree that, currently, the approach to tackling drugs and alcohol abuse is not working as effectively as it could. It neither deters people from drug use or excessive alcohol consumption nor ensures effective education and treatment. This is in spite of the fact that, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the UK has one of the highest levels of drug use in Europe and one of the most punitive approaches towards drugs. The statistics, some of which the hon. Member for Castle Point referred to, are quite horrendous: half of all 16-year-olds have tried an illegal drug; one third of 16 to 24-year-olds have used an illegal drug in the past year; there are 270,000 problem drug users in the UK; and the average age of heroin users is going down in the UK, as opposed to up in other countries.

If anyone is in any doubt about the cost involved, I recommend doing what I have done in the past couple of months, which is to go to my local magistrates court, sit alongside first, the magistrates, to see how they deal with cases, and then, the Crown Prosecution Service prosecutors, to look at the cases before the courts and to make a mental note of how many involved drugs or alcohol. The overwhelming majority of cases that I saw and listened to involved drugs or alcohol as a major component of, or contributor to, the offences under discussion.

The Government have taken some positive steps. We welcome their approach in “Drugs: Protecting Families and Communities”, the 10-year strategy with an action plan to tackle the first three years, and its focus on mainstreaming prevention. That is what we are talking about today: education. We support most of what the Government are doing, as do other organisations.

I have just mentioned the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. It described the UK approach positively. It looks across Europe to find how different countries are tackling drugs and welcomes the fact that there is a focus on better education and intervention for young people and families, especially those who are most at risk, which means targeting those who need help the most. It commends programmes such as FRANK.

However, on schools—this was a point made earlier by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North—the centre goes on to say:

One must ask, “Why not all schools?” as opposed to “most” schools. If some schools are not willing to engage in that process, perhaps there needs to be a statutory requirement so that they do engage.

It is also very clear that young people want this education. Recently, I have had discussions with my youth parliament, the Sutton Youth Parliament, which I meet on a regular basis. It is about to conduct a survey of local school pupils to find out what they think about drug and alcohol education, as well as sex education, in schools. I am sure that those pupils will want more information on drugs rather than less and that they will want a consistency of education provided across all
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schools in the borough, rather than a pick-and-mix approach that leaves some children very vulnerable because they are not receiving the level of education that they need.

The rather patchy approach in schools, which the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has identified, could equally have been highlighted with regard to prisons. The latest annual report by the chief inspector of prisons, which was published in January, examined substance use in prisons. It said:

The report went on to say that the prisons not doing the needs analysis

that is, no programmes—

The report also said:

Finally, it said:

Clearly, education provision in prisons is patchy at the moment, and the Government need to address that. I believe that the 10-year strategy is trying to improve the level of provision, and I hope that the strategy will ensure that there is much more consistency in the education and support available in prisons.

We support other initiatives that are being promoted, including the national tackling drugs week. I wonder if the Minister is in a position to say whether any assessment has been carried out of the effectiveness of that campaign and how many partnerships were participating in it. Furthermore, can he demonstrate that it is an initiative that is making a very positive contribution, perhaps in raising the profile of best practice in tackling drugs?

I have already referred to FRANK, the Government’s national drug awareness campaign. Since its launch, FRANK has had some significant successes. For example, it has responded to 740,000 telephone calls and just under 50,000 e-mails, and its website has received a considerable number of hits. Again, however, although the raw statistics are impressive, I would like to hear from the Minister whether any comparisons have been made between FRANK and other types of information systems, to establish whether we are achieving best value in relation to those systems and delivering the best possible communication and information services for people who wish to access information about drugs, whether they are young people themselves or, indeed, their parents.

From a Liberal Democrat point of view, I would like to make a couple more points about where we think there is perhaps a need for greater focus. Certainly we would like the Government’s policy to be evidence-based. We disagree with the Government about their attitude to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. It is a body with experts in a range of fields who are examining the issue of drugs, hopefully in an impartial, independent
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and professional way. Those experts are coming up with conclusions that we think it would be appropriate for the Government to take on board, but in fact the Government are being selective about which of those conclusions they take on board and which ones they dismiss. It is wrong for a Government not to ensure that the actions they are taking are very much evidence-based, and the evidence that that body has put forward—for instance in relation to cannabis and what it thinks the classification of cannabis should be—is quite clear.

Drug misuse is very much a public health issue. The focus should be on education, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said. However, if the education process has not worked or if it is too late in the day for education, rehabilitation is required. The police resources that we have available to bring to bear on this issue should be focused very much on dealers and organised crime. The law must be credible and it must be tough.

I must use this opportunity to raise what is perhaps a parochial issue, although I suspect that there are many Members—if not among those who are here today, then among Members elsewhere in the House—who are affected by it, and it is that of head shops. For those Members who are not in the know, those are shops that sell drugs paraphernalia, and there a number of them up and down the country. There is one in my constituency, although I understand it is going to shut temporarily so that it can sell fireworks instead. I am not saying that selling fireworks is an improvement, but in any case it will revert to being a head shop.

There is clearly a huge inconsistency when cannabis is illegal—we can argue about the classification of it, but it is an illegal drug—but there are shops that are in the business of promoting and selling the materials that people need to consume it. From an educational point of view, I am very worried that we are saying to the children who go to the primary school just around the corner from that shop or those who go to the secondary school just down the road from it, “Drugs are something you should avoid” and “Drugs are bad” and so on, but they can then walk round the corner and see a shop—or they can see into it, because the door is always left open—and, because there is nothing illegal about what the shop is doing, they can then go in. There is no age limit on entering that shop, so a 10-year-old can go in and could buy anything on display. There is thus a huge inconsistency and it risks undoing all the good educational work in this sphere: we say drugs are bad, but people can go around the corner and see a shop that is selling what they need to enable them to consume drugs. That inconsistency must be cleared up.

I have had a meeting with Tim Hollis, the chief constable who is leading on this issue, and I will seek a meeting with the Home Office official who is dealing with the legal side—the legislation to establish whether it is possible, either under existing legislation or, if necessary, through new legislation, to address this matter.

Mr. Allen: I am following the hon. Gentleman’s arguments very closely. I would just like to go back, if I may, to the issues of assessment and evaluation. They take place at two levels. First, there is evaluation of what is done locally, and it is even more important that that evaluation is scientific and clear when there is a plethora of schemes operating in lots of different localities. I therefore hope that the Home Office might consider
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finding a way it could help people to evaluate effectively how the schemes are being implemented. In particular, if people are pioneering a scheme, as we are in Nottingham, I hope that the Home Office will consider helping at that local level.

Secondly, there is assessment of what policies are effective. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider joining those of us who feel that the situation here is rather like that which existed in the United States, where there were more than 600 different policies on drug education, bullying, early intervention and so on. The US Department of Justice then asked a university to rank those policies in order so that there would be a small group of policies, so that people who wished to pick up on those policies and do something effective could go to one source and have a national policy assessment centre to find which policies were most effective. I think that all parties could agree on having a similar source of information at the national level here—one which recommended the best of all the policies being experimented with.

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and entirely agree with him. It is indeed difficult for organisations to assess the range and variety of schemes in operation, which run from the individual who operates a scheme on a shoestring—a few thousand pounds a year—through to large national programmes that are funded with tens of millions of pounds. There is a need for assessment, and the same need has been identified in respect of projects that deal with knife crime. Again, a similar range of projects exists, but because there has been no real independent assessment of them, we are unable to judge which of them represent value for money. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman.

I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion in the next minute or so. I have focused much of what I have said on drugs as opposed to alcohol, but many of the concerns about drugs education apply equally to alcohol, particularly alcohol education in schools or, more precisely, the lack of any real education on the subject. There are the same concerns about the law and its credibility. That supermarkets are allowed to sell alcohol as a loss leader—below cost price—must change, and I hope that the Government will ensure that that happens swiftly.

There are solutions out there. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the St. Neots project in Cambridgeshire, which involves everybody, including schools and off-licences, in a real partnership to tackle the alcohol problem. The partnership has resulted in a massive fall in problems associated with alcohol.

Progress is being made on tackling drugs and alcohol abuse, but the Minister must respond to the challenge from the hon. Member for Nottingham, North about early intervention being neglected and rehabilitation being wrongly prioritised. We want the Minister to set out an action plan that will address the patchy drugs and alcohol education in our schools and prisons. If he can do so convincingly, he will undoubtedly receive our support.

10.22 am

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