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The Magistrates Association, which has been referred to a few times, has quite a few concerns about the use of PNDs and about the order before us, although I do not
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quite agree with one of them. The association is concerned that magistrates can be sidelined where PNDs are used. As I have already said, that is in part one of the benefits of PNDs for low-level disorder. The hope is that PNDs will catch minor offenders—presumably first-time offenders—and thereby prevent them from being taken to court, being criminalised and getting a record. Sidelining the magistrates courts and keeping such people out of the criminal justice system at that point would be a good thing, if PNDs are used in the correct circumstances.

Mr. Hogg: What the hon. Gentleman is saying is in part correct, but there is a disadvantage in respect of first-time offenders, which was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins). If someone has a drug problem that underlies the commission of that first offence, they do not have the opportunity to have it dealt with by a criminal court, which can make the proper provision.

Paul Holmes: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is quite right; indeed, that is one of the points that I was coming to and it is also one that the Magistrates Association has made. I disagree with the Magistrates Association on the general principle of magistrates being sidelined by PNDs, because the whole point is to try to avoid criminalisation at the first, low-level stage. However, there are a number of cases where PNDs are used—there would have been a lot more had the statutory instrument been introduced in December—where that might be appropriate.

The example that the right hon. and learned Gentleman gave is exactly one of those cases. Does the use of PNDs for more serious offenders tackle the root cause? If a shoplifter is given a PND the first time they are caught and if the reason they are shoplifting is that they are addicted to alcohol or drugs and trying to feed their habit, giving them a PND, which they are probably not going to pay anyway because of their disorderly lifestyle, will not lead them to the kind of treatment that might result from a court order higher up. As I keep saying, PNDs have to be used in the appropriate circumstances for quite low-level offences, which was the original intention in 2001.

The Magistrates Association has expressed other concerns. One is that magistrates courts have a much better success rate in collecting fines than the 50 per cent. for PNDs. The association has also pointed out that magistrates courts are not funded by the Government for all the extra work created as result of having to deal with the fall-out from whatever proportion of the 50 per cent. who do not pay their PNDs are sent to magistrates courts.

Magistrates are worried that the Government intend at a later stage—although obviously not with the order before us today—to reintroduce some, most or all of the 20 or so more serious offences that were intended in December, which magistrates do not think are appropriate for PNDs. Those offences include throwing stones at trains. I could see that a PND might apply if someone is throwing a very small stone. However, if someone is throwing things of any size at trains, it does not take much of a leap of the imagination to see them throwing a brick through a window and killing a driver, which has happened at least once. That is not a minor offence.
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There is therefore concern about what might be included at a future date if we move from minor offences to more serious ones.

There is some concern about inflexibility and the fact that the figure is £50 or £80, whereas magistrates can use a lot more discretion and judgment. However, that inflexibility is probably inevitable if we are looking for a quick and simple measure that police officers can use to avoid spending half their shift in the station filling out paperwork, rather than being out on the beat.

There are a number of concerns, then, about the way PNDs are working out in practice—or might be if they are extended in the way originally proposed—but the principle remains good.

Specifically on cannabis, there seem to be huge inconsistencies in Government thinking about the drug. Recently, and against all the scientific evidence presented to them—a point to which I shall return—the Government upgraded cannabis to a class B drug. Here, however, in this instrument, they are treating cannabis as a more minor offence that is suitable for a PND in the first instance. That is a complete contradiction: either cannabis is a serious class B drug or it is not, and no other class B drug is included. Ketamine, amphetamines and Ritalin are sometimes mentioned as drugs that can be misused, so why are they not on the list if the Government really believe that all class B drugs—now including cannabis—should be treated in a certain way related to how dangerous they are?

Keith Vaz: Did the Liberal Democrats support the regrading of cannabis from a class C to a class B drug?

Paul Holmes: I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows—but I am glad to put it on the record again—that we did not because there is absolutely no evidence to justify it, as I shall explain more fully shortly.

Maria Eagle: Let me clarify why cannabis does not equate to other class B drugs in this regard. It is because although cannabis is relatively simple to identify, some of the other drugs that the hon. Gentleman identified have to be carted off and analysed forensically, so they are not suitable for a PND.

Paul Holmes: I am grateful for that, but some confusion remains. If we go back to the original debate on the statutory instrument in January, we find some discussion of different types of cannabis took place—there is cannabis, but there is also skunk, for example, and they are of very different strengths. After the seizure of cannabis on the street on a dark night, how can a police officer identify it at first glance and say whether it is skunk or a less strong and thus less dangerous form of cannabis? As I have said, considerable confusion is evident: is cannabis a class B drug or not, and is it to be treated as a low-level offence or not? The whole issue seems to be riddled with inconsistencies.

None of that is surprising, given the Government’s approach to cannabis and their policy on upgrading it to a class B drug. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which comprises 31 scientific experts, including pharmacologists, psychologists and the whole range, is in a position to provide the Government specifically with expert and impartial scientific advice. It said overwhelmingly that there was no case for upgrading
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cannabis to a class B drug, but the Government went ahead anyway, just as they went ahead in the opposite direction by not downgrading ecstasy from a class A to a class B drug, which the same advisory council had said should be done.

This is not the way to make criminal policy or drug policy, as it is simply using legislation as a press release or as a means of getting tabloid headlines, which are a short hit with the voting public, but have no effect whatever on what happens in real life. We see a parallel example in the Policing and Crime Bill, which increases the fine for possessing alcohol in a prohibited public place. It is currently £500 and it is to be increased to £2,500, but nobody has ever been fined more than £250 and most people do not pay it anyway. It is pure grandstanding and pure headline making rather than serious criminal legislation or serious drug policy.

Many people were disappointed by the Government’s decision totally to ignore the overwhelming scientific advice on cannabis. When the Phillips report on the BSE disaster was produced, there seemed to be a general acceptance among politicians and the Government that, in future, public policy should be based on proper scientific research and evidence rather than a political knee-jerk reaction and whim.

David T.C. Davies: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I think that we have sat here listening to this “cannabis isn’t dangerous” argument long enough. If he feels that way, does he agree that it is disgraceful that barristers in courts of law often use their clients’ dependence on cannabis as some sort of excuse for serious offences? If he thinks that cannabis is not harmful, does he agree that that should never again be accepted in a court of law as an excuse for breaking the law?

Paul Holmes: I am puzzled by that intervention. First, I have never said and never would say that cannabis is not harmful—in fact, I am going on to say just the opposite—and nobody has said that during the course of this debate. I do not know where the hon. Gentleman pulled that one from—certainly not from anything I have said. Secondly, dependence on cannabis should never be used as an excuse for wrongdoing in a court of law. I agree that barristers sometimes behave in a disgraceful way when arguing their case, but then I have never been a barrister, and have never had any desire to be one.

David T.C. Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way again?

Paul Holmes: No, not if the hon. Gentleman’s intervention would be of the same standard as the previous one.

There is much to be said about the part played by facts and scientific evidence in the making of policy on matters as serious as drugs and criminal activity posing danger to individuals. Between 1998 and 2005, notwithstanding all the folk moral panics that the Daily Mail and others keep spreading, the number of instances of people being registered with doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists owing to problems such as schizophrenia were falling. We were told, however, that the number of cases of schizophrenic disorder were increasing because of the increase in skunk usage. The evidence suggested the exact opposite, but, as we have seen on a number of occasions, it was a case of “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good bit of knee-jerk posturing”.

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Following the decriminalisation of cannabis by the present Government in 2004, cannabis use decreased. According to all the knee-jerk posturing it had increased, but, again, all the evidence suggested the exact opposite—and again it was a case of “Don’t let the facts get in the way of preventing sensible policy-making”.

As for whether cannabis is dangerous, of course it is dangerous. Lots of drugs are dangerous. Aspirin is dangerous. Alcohol is dangerous. According to one member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt,

more harmful than cannabis, that is—

Alcohol is a legal drug, but, according to all the scientific evidence, it is more harmful than cannabis. People say that cannabis leads to harder drugs. It is 100 per cent. guaranteed that anyone who has ever taken a harder drug, although they may or may not have started with cannabis, drank alcohol before proceeding to harder drugs. People keep repeating a nonsensical theory of cause and effect. Of course cannabis is dangerous. Of course smoking cigarettes is dangerous, although at least it does not cause violent or antisocial behaviour. Of course alcohol is dangerous.

I have often been out on patrol with the police. If one asks what causes them the most problems during a typical working week out on the streets, they will say that, above all else, it is alcohol. Recently, when we were taking evidence during the Committee stage of the Policing and Crime Bill, I asked what substance needed most to be controlled. The answer was alcohol. Of course cannabis is dangerous—all drugs are—but we have a legal drug that is far more dangerous, and we treat it much more leniently than cannabis. Cannabis is less dangerous, but we treat it much more harshly.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but will he give an honest answer to this question? I do not know whether he has children, but would he allow his children to drink alcohol, and would he recommend the use of cannabis to them?

Paul Holmes: As one who has always found the drinking of alcohol more than enough of an issue—although at least alcohol tells people when they have had too much, because they start to slur, fall over and get headaches—I would not suggest that anyone should take drugs, illegal or otherwise. However, I do not think that that is the point. What we are discussing is the reality of the world in which we live. How can we deal sensibly with the misuse of drugs, whether or not they are illegal drugs such as amphetamines, ketamine, cannabis, heroin, crack cocaine, ecstasy and LSD? To me it seems self-evident that the sensible way to deal with such drug issues is to examine the scientific evidence and make rational policy based on it.

Why should we treat a drug such as cannabis, which the experts say is less harmful than alcohol, more severely than alcohol? That is illogical. I know that part of the reason is historical—alcohol has been around in western society for much longer than cannabis, and we
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are where we are—but that is no excuse for a Government of either party to keep digging themselves in deeper by ignoring all the scientific evidence on which they themselves have called, and then to say, “We’ll ignore all that, because we must get a tabloid headline.”

Mr. Malins: The hon. Gentleman is making plain to the House his belief that alcohol is more harmful than cannabis. Very well. He was asked a question earlier; let me now ask him to answer it in a straightforward way. If he had a daughter who said to him on a Friday night, “I propose, Daddy, to take three spliffs of skunk or three glasses of wine”, which would he prefer her to take? Let us have a straight answer in the context of a family situation.

Paul Holmes: I would prefer the wine. I could sit around the table and drink a glass of wine with that person—I do with my children, two of whom are now adults. However, I do not think that that is particularly relevant to what we are saying.

I wish to quote one or two more people who know what they are talking about on these issues. Professor David Nutt of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs said:

from cannabis use

We can also say that quite a large number of individuals get an unpleasant mental reaction from the misuse of alcohol. He continued:

but the Government went ahead anyway.

There has been a reaction from various bodies that work to help drug addicts and people with these huge social, personal problems. Transform, the drugs policy think tank that was quoted earlier, said:

I have accepted that it can be—

That is one end of the spectrum.

The independent drugs charity DrugScope said:

Cannabis is a harmful drug”,

as I have said,

rather than looking at the real effect based on the science,

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To return to a previous example, I remember when I was a teacher, about 15 years ago. It was exam season and the 16-year-olds were off on exam leave for their GCSEs. One lunchtime a group of them were in a classroom. They had not been at school for a week or two, and I went in to have a chat with them. They were arguing. Three or four of the girls were berating one of their friends because that night after the exam she was going to smoke some cannabis with her friends. She was arguing, saying, “Tonight, you’ll be out drinking lager in the town centre with all your friends falling over, vomiting and getting violent and shouting. I’ll be sat having a chilled, happy chat with my friends at home not doing that. Which is better?” That was that 16-year-old’s opinion some 15 years ago. As a teacher with 22 years’ experience, I can say that 16, 17 and 18-year-olds are smart, intelligent and savvy. If someone tells them lies about the impact of a particular drug, they are not going to believe them. We must base policy making on sensible, rational approaches, and making cannabis a class B drug is not such an approach, as every bit of scientific evidence shows and as every group of experts who work in the field have said repeatedly.

There are a number of questions, all of which I have touched on. Will the missing 20 offences be introduced after December and added to the PNDs, in which case there will be some concern that PNDs, which are good in principle, are moving away from minor, low-level offences into more serious offences? Which is inappropriate? Will some violent offences be included? They were going to be among the original 21. Apparently, the magistrates feel from lobbying the Government that they have won that one and those offences will not be included.

Will research on the effectiveness of PNDs be undertaken? As I say it is eight years since the experiment began. It was a very good one and probably should be working. However, we should know whether it is or not, and not just assume it. That was the point I made about drugs policy: let us base it on evidence and reality, not on what we think. Will other class B drugs be included at a later stage and treated in this way? Apparently, from what the Minister said earlier, they will not be, but it seems illogical. If cannabis is a class B drug, why treat it in such a low-level way with a PND and why not treat other class B drugs in that way?

There is no consistency in what the Government are doing. The order is poorly researched. It is illogical and inconsistent in singling out one class B drug. We believe, for reasons other than those advanced by the Tories, that the House should reject the order and that the Government should go away and think again.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I now have to announce the results of Divisions deferred from a previous day. On the question relating to the second strategic energy review and European energy networks, the Ayes were 269 and the Noes were 65, so the Ayes have it.

On the question relating to representation of the people, the Ayes were 402 and the Noes were 58, so the Ayes have it.

On the question relating to the Adjournment (Easter), the Ayes were 273 and the Noes were 195, so the Ayes have it.

[The Division lists are published at the end of today’s debates.]

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