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The British taxpayer is also the source of money that spills into all parts of the island of Ireland-north or south-from our net contribution to the European
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Union. It would be remiss of me not to mention that subject, because it raises the question of the relationship between taxation, responsibility and democracy. If the moneys are provided through research, grant in aid, assisted area status and redevelopment grants, a question arises about what the United Kingdom is being expected to do. Members of this Parliament, who represent the taxpayers of the constituencies to which we are about to return, are in effect paying a lot of moneys for important functions that are being devolved in a modern world.

I leave the House with this thought. There is more and more movement towards greater and greater degrees of responsibility. It is called devolution, but the relationship between responsibility and taxation is important, so there is a constitutional issue at its heart. It is well known that I am great supporter of those in Northern Ireland, and I am conscious of the fact that our taxpayers have to bear the costs of whatever emerges from the EU and is then paid back to us. In that context, the Bill is important because it is obviously something of which Members of the Northern Ireland legislature approve, so I am concerned that we have a coherent structure. Nothing is perfect and nothing can be resolved simply by writing down words-it is a question of the manner in which people come to believe that they can exercise authority through the rule of law in the appropriate manner. I do not want to make too much of a meal of this: I simply believe that we are moving inexorably towards a greater degree not merely of devolution but of political responsibility.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I now have to announce the results of Divisions deferred from a previous day. On the Question relating to children and young persons, the Ayes were 259 and the Noes were 152, so the Question was agreed to.

On the Question relating to EU strategy on jobs and growth, the Ayes were 254 and the Noes were 158, so the Question was agreed to.

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Dangerous Drugs

3.52 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Alan Campbell): I beg to move,

If the order is approved, it will bring mephedrone and other cathinone derivatives-a group of so-called legal highs-under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, as class B drugs, from 16 April 2010.

As required by the Act, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been consulted, and the control of the drugs fully reflects the council's recommendations. I place on record our thanks to the advisory council for its thorough advice and continuing commitment and work in a very important area. The council's assessment is integral to our ability to respond effectively and in an informed way to the threat posed to our society by emerging harmful drugs.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I welcome what the Minister has said so far, and I hope to catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye and contribute to the debate. With the resignation last week of another member of the advisory council, it is right that we re-assert the position that although the council is there to advise, at the end of the day it should be Ministers who make the decision and are prepared to come to the House to defend their decision.

Mr. Campbell: As ever, my right hon. Friend speaks wise words. Of course Ministers ultimately decide and advisers advise, but there is a strong relationship between the Home Secretary and the council and its new chair, and we value the advice that is given.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The Minister describes the current relationship as strong, but recently there have been two resignations, so how many resignations would he anticipate there would be if the relationship were weak?

Mr. Campbell: One just has to look at the order, the agreement between the council and the Home Secretary, and what I hope is the widespread opinion in the House and throughout the country to see that when the relationship works well, it works very well indeed. I will not go down the path on which the hon. Gentleman tries to lead me, but if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will listen carefully to his comments because, as ever, he has a great deal to say.

There is shared concern about the harm that such drugs can do and the pace at which they have become available. Cathinones are stimulants with effects similar to amphetamine. The advisory council has provided its assessments of the risks that those drugs pose after undertaking a full review of their status by examining their use, pharmacology, and physical and societal harm. The harmful effects of the drugs include over-stimulation of the cardiovascular system, which creates a risk of heart and circulatory problems, and over-stimulation of the nervous system, with the consequent risks of fits, agitated and paranoid states, and hallucinations.
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Mephedrone has been linked with a number of deaths in the UK and one confirmed death of a young girl in Sweden.

The advisory council advises that the harm posed by such drugs is of a level that justifies their control as a class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has rightly waited for advice from his independent expert advisers and, as I said, the Government continue to value scientific advice and remain committed to evidence-based policy making in this area, as elsewhere.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): It is perfectly true that neither the Minister nor the Home Secretary are trying to avoid their responsibility by accepting the advice that has been given. However, they must acknowledge that they are acting on that advice and accepting the evidence to which the Minister referred. In that context, and in the light of all that we have heard, how on earth could anyone reasonably argue that mephedrone is not something that causes the death of young people and generates all the symptoms that he described? Does he agree that those of us who have campaigned against this drug did so for the very best reasons and that there is no rational or reasonable case for continuing to allow it to remain on the market?

Mr. Campbell: Of course that is the reason why we are bringing forward the order. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and others who have campaigned on this issue. The important advance is that we now have the clear advice from the advisory council, and that is the evidence on which the order is based.

The advisory council's advice is very much in keeping with our approach to the control of synthetic substances such as synthetic cannabinoids, which were controlled by Parliament in December 2009. We are introducing generic definitions of the drugs. By enshrining a generic definition of cathinone drugs in law, rather than specifying each one individually, we will capture a wide range of cathinone derivatives. As far as we are aware, that is a world first for this group of drugs. A number of such derivatives have already been seen in the United Kingdom including methylone, methadrone and butylone. Our controls also try to deal with future trends and to stop unscrupulous, illicit manufacturers who work for organised criminals and tweak substances to circumvent our laws.

The enforcement response will initially focus on people who peddle and traffic these harmful drugs, rather than the young people who might be found in possession of them. We do not intend to criminalise young people, but we expect the police to respond proportionately.

Keith Vaz: Britain cannot deal with the problem on its own. Is it not important that we work with our EU partners? Should we not give greater emphasis to the work done by the drugs agency in Lisbon? I am not absolutely certain what that agency does, but surely it offers a way in which the 27 EU countries can work together. If they do not work together, drugs will find a way into the UK.

Mr. Campbell: We do work with our colleagues in Europe and, indeed, further afield. What my right hon. Friend says is important, but it is also important that we decide on the way forward for the United Kingdom.
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My point is that by making the order as we have, and in particular by dealing with a generic family of drugs, we are setting the bar very high and leading the field.

Dr. Harris: The Minister says the Government's intention is not to criminalise young people. What is the age cut-off for the criminal offence?

Mr. Campbell: I shall come to that in a moment, but let me first finish my point. When talking about criminalisation and the importance of the order, I want it to be clear that after 16 April mephedrone will be an illegal drug; those in possession of it will be breaking the law; if caught, they will face being prosecuted and acquiring a criminal record. Those trafficking these drugs will face a substantial term of imprisonment-for a maximum of 14 years-and, when they have profited from what will be an illegal trade, we will seek to seize their property and other assets under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. We are working closely with the Association of Chief Police Officers and other agencies to develop a comprehensive approach to tackle the sale of these drugs. The Serious Organised Crime Agency and the United Kingdom Border Agency will take effective enforcement action against the criminal gangs that traffic the drugs across our borders.

As well as bringing the order before Parliament the day after we received advice that the drugs are harmful and dangerous, the Government took a series of other immediate actions. First, to limit the supply of mephedrone, specified other cathinone derivatives and all products containing those drugs, we banned their importation and instructed UKBA officials to seize and destroy shipments of mephedrone at the border, unless the shipment was licensed by the Home Office. UKBA has already seized a number of suspected mephedrone importations as a direct result.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary wrote to local authorities urging them to consider what action they could take under consumer protection legislation when mephedrone is inaccurately advertised as being for use as plant food or bath salts. Police forces and other agencies are contacting head shops and other premises thought to be supplying the drugs to warn them of the ban and to make clear their enforcement powers if suppliers fail to comply with the ban, once it comes into force.

Legislative control is, of course, only part of the solution. Education is of paramount importance so, thirdly, in respect of our health messages, our drugs information service Frank provides information on cathinones, including mephedrone, with clear information about the risks those substances pose. Frank has already updated leaflets providing advice on mephedrone for young people and parents, which will be available from various sources, including the National Union of Students. Our Crazy Chemist information campaign run in late 2009 included warnings about mephedrone and targeted young people on websites and when they search to purchase legal highs. My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners has written to all head teachers, providing guidance on dealing with mephedrone in schools. Mephedrone and legal highs will also be included in the new drugs guidance for schools.

7 Apr 2010 : Column 1030

Fourthly, the Department of Health has issued a formal alert through the public health warning system to ensure that all front-line hospital staff, medical staff and drug treatment staff have the most up-to-date information about the harm posed by mephedrone.

The concern about mephedrone and other cathinone derivatives has been well publicised in recent weeks and users of those drugs should therefore be aware of the changes we are making.

If the order is approved, the Government will publicise the changes in the law through a Home Office circular, and through the Talk to Frank and websites. Reference to the law change and to health risks relating to the drugs will be included in future Government materials for young people.

Dr. Harris: I am not seeking to interrupt the Minister, but I was not sure whether he was going to answer my question. He said it was not his intention to criminalise young people. That implies that under the order there is an age cut-off with regard to the criminalisation of users and people who possess the drug. Will he clarify whether there is an age cut-off, or what he meant by saying that young people would not be criminalised?

Will the Minister also say what his outcome measure is for deciding whether the policy is a success? What level of use are we talking about? If the level of use becomes lower, will he say that that is good? If it goes up after the order is introduced, will he say that perhaps it was the wrong policy?

Mr. Campbell: I will perhaps return to the hon. Gentleman's second point in my closing remarks, if I may. On the point about the enforcement approach taken with young people, one of the important things that we do, in using the law in this way, is send out a very clear message to young people that mephedrone is illegal and does them harm, and is something with which they should not get involved. Those found in possession of an amount for personal use need to be dealt with in a proportionate and appropriate manner. It is, of course, at the local level that the police will make judgments on operational matters, but there is a statutory process for young people under 18, which is set out in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. That offers formal escalation, with referral at any stage to a youth offending team for a substance misuse assessment and appropriate intervention, through treatment or other support. We are not reinventing the wheel; we know how to deal with the issue with regard to other substances. Of course we have learned lessons from that and will apply them in this case.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): As the Minister will be aware, when cannabis was reclassified as a class B drug, a separate regime was put in place: a fixed penalty ticket can be issued for possession of that drug, even though it is a class B drug. It is the only one in the class B category that has that provision attached to it. Is he suggesting that that will also apply to mephedrone?

Mr. Campbell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, because that is not what I am suggesting at all; that is not our intention. The difference with cannabis is that most experienced police officers can recognise cannabis, as compared with other drugs.
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They may therefore be able to make a judgment about what an appropriate response is. It might be that a penalty notice is an appropriate response. That is why we explained what we expected to happen when cannabis was reclassified. The difficulty with mephedrone is that it is very difficult to distinguish it from a range of other drugs, so it would not be appropriate in this case to take the route that we went down with cannabis. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to put that on record.

We will continue to make it clear, particularly to young people, that so-called legal highs cause serious, and sometimes considerable, harm to those who use them, as well as great distress to people's families and friends, and to communities. Our aim is to ensure that everyone, and young people in particular, are well aware of the risks associated with using such drugs. That is why we are absolutely determined to crack down on so-called legal highs. We need to be vigilant and responsive. In particular, we need to tackle those who have no motive but greed, and who have no regard to the harm that they cause. We must ensure that our children know the harms of drugs, and know that even if someone describes them as legal highs, they are not safe. We ask Parliament to approve the order, which we believe will protect the public, and particularly young people, from those dangerous drugs. I commend the order to the House.

4.8 pm

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): We support the order. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has given clear advice that mephedrone is a harmful, psychoactive substance and should be classified as a class B drug within the scope of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It is right that the order should seek to capture the cathinone group, of which mephedrone is one analogue, so that those who manufacture and seek to market those synthetic substances do not simply modify the drug slightly to create a new substance that would fall outside the scope of the controls. Methylone and various other drugs would have been the next problematic substances, as the Minister has said, and it is right that those drugs, as well as mephedrone and the other cathinone analogues, are addressed by virtue of the order.

However, the issue is the time that it has taken to get to this point and the process that has been followed. It is frankly absurd that the ACMD should have written to the Home Secretary before Christmas, warning of its concerns as to the prevalence and potential harms of these compounds. It would seem that the Home Office knew of this problem months before. Why did not the Government act sooner? Why does it sadly seem to have taken the reporting of the deaths of several young people to finally prompt the Government into action? It should have been possible to develop policy in a measured way, rather than reaching the sudden realisation that there was an issue because of media coverage.

It has been apparent for some time that there has been an emerging problem with this group of so-called legal highs. It is desperately sad that as many as 25 deaths have been linked to mephedrone in some way, and our thoughts go to the families who have lost loved ones. The question that needs to be considered is whether any of these tragic cases could have been avoided if the Government had acted sooner and a more robust
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mechanism had been in place for addressing newly emerging psychoactive substances, and if that had been in place, what its effect might be. We should certainly not forget that the Government were also slow to act in responding to GBL. It took the Home Office 18 months to implement the recommendation of the ACMD that the drug should be classified. We need to learn the lessons from these experiences.

What has been disturbing about mephedrone has been the way in which it has been sold. Rather than being offered by a drug dealer down a dark alley, it has been spuriously marketed on the internet as plant food or fertiliser. As the ACMD has made abundantly clear, this is a drug akin to an amphetamine, and more likely to poison than promote the growth of our petunias. This has been a con, a deception, a spurious device to subvert the medicines control legislation, to suggest that this substance was not for human consumption and therefore not being sold as a drug. It is a despicable deceit, simply aimed at entrapping the unwary. It has also exposed the inadequacies of the system for responding to new and emerging drugs in the internet age.

Even though we may pass the order, we need a speedier mechanism for addressing public safety issues linked to new drugs intended for human consumption, however they may be falsely marketed. We have called for the introduction of a new temporary classification for a period of up to 12 months for newly emerging problematic substances. During this period, controls on sale, importation and supply could be imposed where public health concerns have been identified. This would also allow a period of expert input and analysis, to be provided in a considered and careful manner, as to whether a formal classification should be applied to the drug. It would also allow for specific public health alerts to be issued in a managed and focused way, without stoking up demand for the new substance, as I fear that the coverage in recent weeks has done in relation to mephedrone.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the UK Drug Policy Commission made a category X proposal some time ago?

James Brokenshire: I am aware of the policy or the promotion of the idea that the hon. Gentleman suggests. The proposal that I am setting out is subtly different in some ways from the proposal that he refers to, although that is certainly helpful in terms of promoting a debate as to how we can respond to the newly emerging psychoactive substances.

"Frank" was desperately slow to react to mephedrone, and while steps, to which the Minister has referred, have now been taken to promote the appropriate advisories, there should be a speedier way to ensure that advice is available in a more effective manner once a new and problematic substance has been identified.

More generally, there is also a need for an early-warning mechanism. In its report on mephedrone, the ACMD called for the development of data sets from drug amnesty bins to provide an early warning of emerging trends, which is a sensible suggestion. As part of the follow-through on the order, will the Minister confirm what steps he is taking to advance this proposal? Does he agree that there is a need for a new temporary classification, as we have suggested?

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