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30 Mar 2010 : Column 642

Now that Dr. Polly Taylor has also resigned from the ACMD, can the Minister be confident that any ban that he imposes has been, or can be, reached in a lawful manner, and that it will not be subject to challenge in the courts? Finally, can he draw any other lessons from this episode, such as, for example, the need to introduce a pending category, ahead of the full deliberation, of the sort that exists-I understand-in New Zealand and Sweden?

Mr. Hanson: First, Dr. Taylor's resignation has had no material effect on yesterday's decision, which we believe is legally accountable and enforceable, and which, when approved by both Houses, will be operational. Dr. Taylor had the opportunity to contribute to the decision, as part of the council, and will have played her part accordingly.

Professor Nutt's resignation has also-

Chris Huhne: What about Dr. King's resignation?

Mr. Hanson: Professor Nutt's resignation, and indeed Dr. King's and those of other members, have not had a material effect on the consideration of these issues. These matters have been considered by the ACMD, and yesterday, for the first time, it presented a recommendation to the Home Secretary, and my right hon. Friend accepted it. I believe that that was the right decision and one that this House should accept, and rather than looking over the trails of resignations, the hon. Gentleman should support the decision and look at how we implement and, indeed, enforce it.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. A lot of colleagues wish to contribute. I am keen to accommodate them, but time is precious. We have an important debate to follow, in which many people wish to take part, so pithy exchanges are the order of the day.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): May I welcome the Minister's statement and the decision that has been taken? It is absolutely in keeping with the wishes of the Home Affairs Select Committee-we wrote to him last week on this matter. Party politics aside, however, the fact is that this has taken a very long time. As he just said, the former Home Secretary was alerted to the matter in March 2009. Since then, a number of young people have died, including three teenagers and one young person in the past 10 days. Can we please look at this process, from the time of referral to the time of decision, so that it is as speedy as possible? After all, this drug has been banned in Denmark and Sweden already.

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and his Committee for their consideration of these matters. In answer both to him, and to the third point made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), we have considered a possible pending category, but again we must ensure that we have a legal basis for such a decision, and that it does not ultimately impact on any possible legal use for a particular product that could fall into that pending category. We must also determine whether a pending category would lead to confusion about the use of a particular product awaiting a decision.

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We must examine those issues in the round. We have looked at this issue, we have waited for the decision of the advisory council, and I believe that the decision has been effective. We accepted that verbal decision, and within a couple of hours of receiving it, we acted to place an order before the House. We will publish the report in due course, and I hope that that will satisfy the House as a whole.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): The Minister says that cross-party support is required for the classification of mephedrone to be implemented before Dissolution. He will know that my party has given its unambiguous support for what he says, but can he indicate what discussions he has had with the Liberal Democrats, and, given the different strands of their opinion, will he say whether they support early action or whether they think that action should be delayed, as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) indicated yesterday?

Mr. Hanson: I hope that we shall be able to pass both orders through both Houses before Dissolution, which could still happen well into early May for all we know, so there will be every opportunity to consider them. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary spoke to the hon. Members for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and for Eastleigh yesterday evening about his decision and has received full support for it, which has been reflected in the House today. I hope that the orders will achieve early passage.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): The Tories and Liberals are both now nicking my ideas. Considering that the ACMD has never had a majority of scientists on it and considering that new compounds and synthetic drugs-legal highs-are now liable to be created all the time in laboratories, does the Minister agree that one of the priorities of the next Parliament will have to be to update the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 in full?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. He has been a sturdy campaigner against drugs in his constituency and throughout the country at large. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary keeps all such matters under review, and we will certainly examine all suggestions for ensuring that we have effective measures in place to protect the British public against illegal drugs that cause death and injury, but which, with the support of this House, will ultimately be banned, so that people will be protected.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I entirely agree with the Minister that due process is important, for all the obvious reasons, but it has taken quite a long time to ban mephedrone. Will he look again at the legislation to see whether the statutory procedures mean that the process takes too long and whether we should review the process with a view to introducing interim orders?

Mr. Hanson: I appreciate the right hon. and learned Gentleman's view on this matter. As I have said previously, we are trying to ensure that we proceed in a way that not only is legally sound and based on evidence, but ensures
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that we take the right decision for the benefit of protecting the British people from these dangerous drugs. That unfortunately means that, on occasion, we have to take some time to achieve those objectives. However, we will certainly look at whether there are lessons to be learned, because the bottom line for the House is about protecting people from injury and from drugs that are used by people to make money for themselves and exploit our citizens.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): As the principal psychoactive ingredients of the natural product khat are cathinones, will the proposed order also criminalise those who use khat?

Mr. Hanson: If I may, I might have to write to my hon. Friend about that in due course. I know that the order covers generic legislation relating to the control of a number of synthetic substances, and it will look at related compounds, including cathinone derivatives. However, I shall have to reflect in due course on whether the particular item that my hon. Friend mentioned is covered.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): In the light of the number of young people who have died through the use of mephedrone and the number of families who have been destroyed because of the loss of their loved ones, please can the Government look again at the processes, because this drug could surely have been controlled a lot earlier? Let me also thank the Minister for completely ignoring the advice of David Nutt. We already know from what he has said previously about cannabis, totally ignoring the mental disorders caused by its constant use, that he is totally out of touch with the people of this country.

Mr. Hanson: As I have said, the purpose of the process is to ensure that we do things legally and as speedily as possible, but that we do them on medical advice. We will certainly reflect on that, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will examine those issues. The circumstances of the resignation of Professor Nutt-

Dr. Harris: The sacking.

Mr. Hanson -are such that Ministers minister and advisers advise. That is the principal policy on this issue.

Having reflected very carefully on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) raised, I can categorically state that khat will not be covered by the order.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I welcome this announcement, although I share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) about the way in which the decision was taken. Will the Minister pass on the Government's advice to the police, schools and student unions in my area? This substance is available in schools at the moment, and leaflets openly advertising the drug for sale are being delivered all round the Headingley and Hyde Park areas. In the interim period, what is the advice on how to stop this unlicensed selling?

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Mr. Hanson: As I said in my statement, the banning of importation with immediate effect will mean that the UK Border Agency will be able to seize and destroy shipments of mephedrone at the border. That is the starting point in cutting off supply. We are also giving health warnings to public health departments, to the police and to other health services, as well as through the FRANK website. We are also distributing a new fact card immediately. The Minister for Schools and Learners has written to all head teachers about this. In the event of the orders being enacted, the severe penalty of 14 years in prison for the supply of these drugs will be introduced, and the police will be able to enforce it accordingly.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): The great majority of online financial transactions for the sale and purchase of mephedrone are processed by a Canadian company called AlertPay. Pending the classification of this drug, will the Minister undertake to alert the Canadian authorities to the involvement of AlertPay in this grubby and dangerous trade?

Mr. Hanson: I will certainly look at that issue and take advice accordingly from our colleagues on the practicalities involved. It is self-evident that our intention is to stop the supply of this product in the United Kingdom, and we will therefore use all legal means to do so, once the orders are approved.

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): The Minister mentioned future trends. It seems to be the way things work in society that the use of these drugs becomes more widespread much more quickly these days. Is it not inevitable, therefore, that our processes also need to become quicker?

Mr. Hanson: I have already said that we will look at the pace of activity governing the matter's consideration. The key point is that we needed to take this action based on evidence, and I am sure that the House would have criticised us had we not done so. Evidence takes time to accumulate, and it needs to be assessed. We also needed to look into the implications of the decision before we took it. We obviously had to look at how we should process the evidence in this case, but I believe that the right decision has been taken, and I hope that the House will support it.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I wholeheartedly welcome the Minister's statement today. Many lives have been blighted and many homes wrecked
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by these drugs. Can he assure us that, when this becomes law, the police will rigorously and vigorously take action right across the United Kingdom?

Mr. Hanson: I support the hon. Gentleman's contention, and I know how hard he has worked with the Police Service of Northern Ireland to tackle the issue of drugs in his own constituency. When legislation is passed, it is important that the police enforce it. The supply of these illegal drugs will carry severe penalties, and the new legislation will be enforced by the police, should both Houses approve it. I hope that, before Dissolution, the power will be given to the police in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom to execute the orders effectively.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): As one who has called for the banning of this drug for some time, I ask the Minister to accept that we all welcome his statement. However, the sane voice of Professor Iversen on the "Today" programme this morning suggested that a great deal of internecine warfare had been going on behind the scenes. That is an additional reason for ensuring that procedures such as these are speeded up. Unfortunately, it looks as though some people might have died unnecessarily.

Mr. Hanson: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept my assurance that there was no delay due to the challenges that we faced in relation to the advisory council over the past few months. This decision was expected at the end of March, and it has been delivered to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the end of March. He has taken his decision urgently, based on that advice, and the order was tabled as soon as was practicable after the receipt of that advice in order to expedite the outcome that the hon. Gentleman wishes to see.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Will the Minister make it clear in relation to any new, unclassified drugs that suppliers will not be able to hide behind descriptions such as "plant food" or terms such as "not for human consumption", because those terms do not give suppliers protection under the Medicines Act 1968? Will he assure the House that those suppliers will always be prosecuted to the full extent?

Mr. Hanson: Again, we have to look at the potential legal use of products, which is part of the advisory council's role. In the case of mephedrone, there is no legal use, so those descriptions are misleading. If the orders are approved, the police will act in a strong and effective way to ensure that we stop the supply.

30 Mar 2010 : Column 647

Points of Order

4 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Business questions has been dominated over recent weeks by the question of what progress is likely to be made on private Members' Bills. The Leader of the House has said on a number of occasions that she intends to progress these Bills. Will you use your good offices to ensure that that happens? Will you ask the Leader of the House to make a statement on how that can be done?

Mr. Speaker: If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, he is concerned about time. I understand that concern and I have listened carefully to what he had to say. He will, however, understand that I cannot make predictions about the near future: I take matters a day at a time, which seems to me to be a prudent way to proceed. He will also understand that the provision of time is not in the hands of the Chair, but in those of the Government, with whose representatives, I feel sure, he will have the necessary serious and earnest conversations. He has put his concerns on the record and I hope he is moderately satisfied.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You may recall that on 22 March, the Leader of the House made a statement about lobbying. I specifically asked her about meetings and undue influence involving Charlie Whelan, who is the top political officer of Unite and who is alleged to have an office in No. 10 Downing street. The Leader of the House said:

This very day I have received a letter from the Deputy Leader of the House, which says absolutely nothing about the Prime Minister's diary, nor about Charlie Whelan, nor about any meetings or undue influence that he might have with the Prime Minister. Sir, would it be possible to ask the Leader of the House to come back and answer this question when she is fully briefed or could the Deputy Leader of the House get the Leader of the House to write to tell me whether Charlie Whelan has met the Prime Minister about Unite in the recent past?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. My response is as follows. The Leader of the House is responsible for the content of her answers. I am saddened if the hon. Gentleman is saddened or dissatisfied by the content of the answer, but the responsibility lies with the Leader of the House. The hon. Gentleman is an observant fellow-he would have to be to be the deputy Chief Whip on the Opposition Benches-so he will have noted that the Deputy Leader of the House is present and that she will have heard what he had to say. The hon. Gentleman has served in the House, I think, for 18 years next month. If I did not know him as well as I do, I would have thought that through this attempted point of order, he was seeking to draw me into a debate. Because I know him as well as I do, I know that he would not engage in misbehaviour of that kind.

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Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: I call Mr. Andrew Gwynne and I welcome him back after his indisposition.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Further to the point of order by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), given that the amendments to the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill have been withdrawn-sadly, I could not be present in the Chamber for its proceedings-will you use your good offices to ensure that the Bill remains on the Order Paper next week, without the amendments?

Mr. Speaker: I have already ruled on this matter in response to earlier points of order. I understand the very real frustration that the hon. Gentleman, his hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) and others feel on this matter. He has registered that concern with his usual force and eloquence. Unfortunately, however, the questions of whether it remains on the Order Paper, of whether it is or is not reached and of whether it does or does not reach the statute book is a matter for others. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for seeking to boost my powers, but they are at present limited.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the response to the urgent question that we have just heard, the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism said twice that Professor David Nutt had resigned. What is the best way in which to give the Minister a chance to correct the record if he inadvertently misled the House? When we talk about civil servants or distinguished public servants in the House, we need to be accurate. Professor Nutt's treatment was highly contentious, and he was sacked. He did not resign.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is continuing the debate. He is committing precisely the sin that I knew the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) would not commit.

The hon. Gentleman, who is a perspicacious fellow, asked me what was the best method of putting the record straight, as he sees it. He has just done exactly that. He is now gesticulating from a sedentary position. It is true that the Minister has not responded, but the hon. Gentleman has put his point fairly and squarely on the record.

If the appetite of right hon. and hon. Members for raising points of order has now been exhausted, perhaps we can proceed to the next business.

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