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House of Commons

Monday 23 March 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Drugs Strategy

1. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): What progress has been made in the implementation of the Government’s strategy to tackle drugs. [264795]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Alan Campbell): Drug use is now down to its lowest level in more than a decade, and we continue to see reductions in the harms caused by drugs. Enforcement action is reducing drug-related crime, more effective drug treatment is being delivered, and effective communications and information campaigns are getting across the message that drugs harm.

Mary Creagh: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. It is clear that children who live with drug-addicted parents face a specific set of risks, including emotional or physical neglect and abuse, and ingesting the drugs or substitute drugs that their parents take. After Lord Laming’s report, which was published on 12 March and detailed what went wrong after the death of baby P, what further steps will my hon. Friend take to ensure that the best practice that exists in some places becomes standard practice across the country?

Mr. Campbell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, because it raises an important issue. The first family intervention programmes targeting substance misuse are under way, and they are particularly important for chaotic families whose lives are affected by substance misuse. They help misusing parents to improve their parenting skills, and also offer protection to their children. We hope that up to 20,000 families will be able to access this support.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Given the Government’s treatment of Professor David Nutt, the independent adviser whom the Government appointed, in haranguing him after he had published an academic paper in his own right as an academic, do the Government fear that they will no longer be able to get good quality, independent advice on their drugs policy because scientists will be fearful of getting a morning call from the Home Secretary demanding that they apologise for disagreeing with her?

Mr. Campbell: The simple answer to that is no. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we take the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs very seriously. We agreed with much of its advice on cannabis and on ecstasy, but we have to take a judgment based on a wider picture, including the harm that drugs do. It is up to the advisers to advise, but it is up to the Government to take the decisions.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): We welcome what the Government have done and their proposals for the future, but does the Minister not agree that we also have to deal with the dealers? We need a hard-line policy to extend the amount of time that they spend in prison. Previously, people who ended up on drugs and went to prison could voluntarily go and get cleaned up, but that has now been taken away. What can we do to
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ensure that people who are on drugs get the support that they need, and that, more importantly, we take a hard line against the dealers?

Mr. Campbell: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that enforcement is a key part of the Government’s drugs strategy, but it is also important that we do not have a revolving door policy in relation to drug misusers and prison. That is why we must ensure that misusers have appropriate treatments before they get caught up in prison, as well during any time spent in prison, and that there is a seamless transition on coming back out into the community.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): This set of Ministers has done more than any other I can recall to fight the problem of drug abuse in this country. Will the Minister tell the House what action he can take to implement as soon as possible the control of gamma butyrolactone, the date rape drug that is becoming a real problem?

Mr. Campbell: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support, and I should like to pay tribute to the work that he has been doing on this issue. He will be aware that the chemical to which he refers is widely used in industry, and we are looking at how alternatives can be provided to allow legitimate practices in industry to continue. He should be under no illusion, however; we do intend to take the action that he is calling for.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I understand that my hon. Friend was in Vienna recently, at the United Nations General Assembly special session on the misuse of drugs. Will he tell us what position Britain took at that assembly, and what the general outcome of it was?

Mr. Campbell: We made no secret of the fact that the UK Government were disappointed by the political declaration that came out of the long deliberations, and also the conference itself. We did not support views on difficulties concerning use of the term “harm reduction” in the declaration. It is inconsistent to refer to millennium goals that talk about tackling HIV and AIDS, but to do and say nothing about clean needles. We signed up to the declaration reluctantly, but we will continue the process to ensure that harm reduction gets a fair hearing.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): If the Government think that their drugs strategy is working so well, will the Minister explain why heroin and cocaine are trading on British streets at prices that are at an 11-year low?

Mr. Campbell: I am not sure that we would agree with the hon. Gentleman’s figures, but let me tell him something about cocaine. There is no evidence that its use has risen in recent years. Its wholesale price is rising, as are seizures of the drug, and the purity of cocaine on the streets is falling. Taken together, those factors suggest that the action that we are taking on cocaine has been successful.

Violent Crime

2. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What recent estimate she has made of levels of violent crime. [264796]

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The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Vernon Coaker): The British crime survey is the best guide to trends in violent crime. The latest figures, for the BCS year ending September 2008, showed that 2.2 million incidents were experienced by adults in England and Wales. Since 1997, violent crime is down by 40 per cent., which is equivalent to 1.5 million fewer incidents.

Mr. Harper: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. He will know that many of our constituents are concerned about knife crime, given that the number of people being stabbed to death is at a record high. My constituent Mr. Roger Lambert, of Lydney, watched the BBC 1 programme “Stabbed: The Truth about Knife Crime”, and contacted me about the matter. He is so concerned about what happens to those who go out with a knife and take someone’s life that he wants—I said to him that I did not agree—the Government to consider bringing back the death penalty to deal with the problem. What can the Minister say to make Mr. Lambert comfortable about safety on our streets and the risk of being stabbed to death by a knife?

Mr. Coaker: What I cannot say to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent is that I am in favour of the death penalty or that it will be brought back, but I can tell him and other people throughout the country what we are doing to tackle knife crime issues, which are very particular in some parts of our communities. The hon. Gentleman could mention to his constituent that people found in possession of a knife are now far more likely to be charged, and on being charged they are far more likely to be imprisoned. That applies to possession offences, of course, but if somebody is caught using a knife, they can expect much stricter penalties. The hon. Gentleman could also use some of the latest statistics, which were published on 4 March. The Department of Health figures show that among those aged 13 to 19, there were 31 per cent. fewer admissions to NHS hospitals for stab wounds in the nine English TKAP—tackling knives action programme—regions from June to November 2008, compared with the same period in the previous year. That compares with an 18 per cent. reduction in non-TKAP areas over the same period, and it is extremely encouraging, although there is clearly much more to be done.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that almost half the victims of violent crime have stated that their perpetrators were under the influence of alcohol. Why have the Government not accepted in full the very sensible proposals of Sir Liam Donaldson to try to put a floor price on alcohol? Does he not accept that it is the cheapness of alcohol that has caused the binge drinking culture in our Committee— [Laughter]—in our city centres. Will he look carefully at these proposals and reconsider the Government’s approach?

Mr. Coaker: I must admit, Mr. Speaker, that I have never noticed binge drinking in the Home Affairs Select Committee, particularly as I often attend it at half-past 10 in the morning. Seriously, however, my right hon. Friend raises a serious point. The Government’s view is that the matter is of serious concern, but we do not believe that the introduction of a minimum floor
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price is the right way forward at this time. We do believe that the establishment of a mandatory code for alcohol, which will tackle some of the irresponsible promotions in our streets and city centres—the likes of happy hours and “Drink as much you can” offers—is one of the steps that we need to take if we are to tackle the binge drinking culture. We should also remind everybody that binge drinking is not acceptable and that using the influence of drink as an excuse for doing something is unacceptable to all hon. Members and indeed to the vast majority of people who drink responsibly.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Sadly, my student intern was mugged in Hemel Hempstead on Sunday. She is a very outgoing and gregarious young lady who is now very frightened about going back into the town centre. The town centre is covered by CCTV cameras, but she is worried, quite rightly, that the person who mugged her was not concerned about those cameras or about the punishment—he just wanted to get her money. What are we going to do about that?

Mr. Coaker: I am sorry about the horrific incident that happened to the hon. Gentleman’s intern. Such an incident would trouble us all and I am sure it is of great worry to her. The fact that the CCTV is there, however, will hopefully provide evidence, which can be used. One of the best deterrents for people who conduct such awful crime is the knowledge that they will be caught, put before the courts and—obviously, the evidence is needed—given the sentence that they deserve. For the sort of attack that the hon. Gentleman has described, the sentence should be a severe one.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend consider the issues surrounding incitement to violence? As he will be aware, many of my constituents and people across the UK were extremely angry at the attack made on our troops in Luton last week by a small al-Muhajiroun-related group with a history of attempting to incite violence and racial division in our town. Will he review the specific circumstances of what happened so that such an incident never happens to our troops again?

Mr. Coaker: It is fair to say that we were all appalled by the incident in Luton to which my hon. Friend refers. In many instances, incitement to hatred is against the law, and one would expect the incident to be investigated and prosecuted. Whatever else we can say, we all utterly condemn the sort of demonstration that took place on the streets of Luton a few days ago. It should not, and must not, happen, and those who break the law should be prosecuted.

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): The Minister will be aware that the use of dogs in violent crime and antisocial behaviour is becoming an increasing problem in many areas of the country, particularly the inner cities. Will the Government carry out a detailed assessment of the effectiveness of current legislation and consider how boroughs such as Wandsworth have utilised mandatory micro-chipping as a means of controlling this increasing problem?

Mr. Coaker: Of course we will consider any measure that needs to be taken to tackle the sort of phenomena to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The use of dogs not only as a status symbol for some people in gangs
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but as an offensive weapon is of increasing concern, as he rightly points out. We are trying to find out the extent of the problem. As for what we are doing, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire), who is also sitting on the Opposition Front Bench, will tell the hon. Gentleman that the Policing and Crime Bill contains gang injunctions, which can be used, subject to their being passed by Parliament. It can be part of such an injunction to ban a gang member from having or using a dog in the ways to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Serious Convictions (DNA Evidence)

3. Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): How many convictions for serious crimes were secured on the basis of evidence from DNA samples in the last 12 months. [264797]

6. Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): What estimate she has made of the number of convictions for serious crimes which relied on evidence from DNA samples retained on the national DNA database in the last 12 months. [264800]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): The national DNA database plays a key role in catching criminals, including many years after they might think that they have got away with their crime, eliminating the innocent from investigations, and focusing the direction of inquiries. In 2007-08, 17,614 crimes were detected in which a DNA match was available. Those included 83 homicides and 184 rapes. In addition, there were a further 15,420 detections resulting from the original case involving the DNA match. Those occur when, for example, a suspect, on being presented with DNA evidence linking him to one offence, confesses to further offences.

Ms Barlow: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The high figures that she quotes show how valuable DNA can be in both solving crimes and ensuring that the innocent do not suffer. I have been contacted by a number of my constituents who are concerned that cleared suspects’ DNA evidence is still held on police databases, however, despite that having been ruled unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights. What action does she plan on that matter?

Jacqui Smith: The specific ruling was on a blanket policy of retention of the fingerprints and DNA of those who had been arrested but not convicted, or against whom no further action was being taken. The Court also indicated that it agreed with the Government that the retention of fingerprint and DNA data

We are, however, looking at the key point in the judgment, and drawing up proposals that will remove the blanket retention policy. We will bring forward those proposals for consultation soon.

Anne Moffat: Although I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that the database is a breakthrough in modern policing in the country, does she also agree that young people, and particularly children, need to be dealt with sensitively?

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Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend raises an important point, and that is why I announced in December our intention to remove all those aged under 10 from the database. That has now been carried out. When we bring forward proposals to change the blanket approach to retention, we will give particular consideration to those aged under 18, and to how the protection of the public can be balanced with fairness to the individual.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): There will be considerable relief about the fact that the Home Secretary is going to end this blanket policy, but can she assure the House that there will not be so many exceptions to the rule as to make the change worthless?

Jacqui Smith: I can, I hope, assure the House that that is the case, and we will ensure that we discuss the details of our proposals with colleagues in all parts of the House.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): The report published today by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust on the proliferation of 46 Government databases, including the DNA database, makes alarming reading. It suggests that a quarter of those databases are illegal under human rights or data protection law. What assessment has the Home Secretary made of the legality of the databases, and will she undertake a full review to ensure that they are proportionate and protect privacy?

Jacqui Smith: I believe that the databases referred to which are my responsibility are fully legal. I have repeated today that, notwithstanding the case of S and Marper, the courts found that the function of the DNA database in those circumstances was legal and important. Of course we need to maintain a proportionate approach to the way in which we use data to safeguard and protect the British public. That is what I spelt out very clearly that I would do in a speech that I made before Christmas, that is what we are doing, and that is what we are in the process of ensuring that we do through our proposals and consultation.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): When compiling my recent parliamentary report, I issued a questionnaire asking people in Bridgend whether they supported the development of a national database. Of those who responded, 89 per cent. supported it. However, the questionnaire also asked whether the details of people who had been found innocent should be kept on the database. In this instance, 59 per cent. thought that those details should be removed, while 41 per cent. felt that they should be retained. There seems to be a lack of clarity in regard to the implications of the retaining of databases—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Lady is going to ask a question.

Mrs. Moon: I am, Mr. Speaker. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there needs to be a clear dialogue with the public about the use of the national database in solving not just current crimes, but old crimes?

Jacqui Smith: I agree that we need to be open about how we proceed with our proposals. I have been very clear about that. However, I am sure that people in my hon. Friend’s constituency would be interested to hear of cases such as that of Abdul Azad, who was arrested
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for violent disorder at his Birmingham home in February 2005. A DNA sample was taken, and he was subsequently released without charge. In July that year, a stranger rape occurred in Stafford, 25 miles away. There were no clues until skin from beneath the victim’s fingernails was profiled and found to match the DNA taken from Azad. The senior investigating officer commented that

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