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7 Apr 2010 : Column 1033

On the specifics of the order, will the Minister confirm what processes will be adopted to enforce the legislation? He referred to discussions with the Association of Chief Police Officers, but what guidance on the introduction of the order is intended to be issued to police forces? What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that local authority trading standards departments take appropriate action under trade descriptions legislation against those firms and companies marketing mephedrone in an entirely bogus and fraudulent way? He referred to a letter from the Home Secretary, but what follow-through does the Minister envisage? How are efforts being co-ordinated with local police and the Serious Organised Crime Agency to ensure that all appropriate measures are taken to get this drug off the streets once the order becomes effective? He has talked about a strategy, but it would be helpful to understand further what that means in terms of immediate action. What discussions has he had with Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government about joined-up enforcement with local authorities?

As I have said, the use of the internet has been a factor in the sale and distribution of such drugs. What discussions has the Minister had with internet service providers and other web hosting companies about taking down websites that offer to sell these harmful substances? What liability would the internet hosting companies have once they had been put on notice of someone using their online services to market these dangerous drugs? Will such companies have any responsibility to co-operate with law enforcement and other agencies?

We are aware that some head shops and other dealers have been stockpiling mephedrone in advance of the introduction of the order, and the Minister said that he has written, or that various agencies are writing to, those organisations. Can he confirm that appropriate action will be taken to seize those products at the earliest opportunity to prevent them flowing into illegal drug distribution networks once the order, if the House passes it, becomes law?

Mephedrone is a synthetic compound designed and created in a laboratory. There have been disturbing reports of chemists in China designing those drugs for use in this country, and of more such drugs being engineered. Can the Minister confirm the veracity of those reports? If they are true, will he ensure that the Foreign Office makes appropriate diplomatic recommendations to those countries that host such facilities? Can he confirm also what measures are being taken to increase the ability of our border agencies to interdict drugs before they enter this country? The Government seem to have downplayed drug seizures, and that is one reason why we believe that we need a proper border police force-to provide greater security and to help reduce the flow of drugs through our porous borders.

Certain parties and persons outside the House have raised questions about the legality of the order, and some have suggested that we need a three-month consultation period with the European Union before the measure can become effective. Will the Minister confirm that he, like me, is satisfied that that is not the case, and either that the relevant EU directive does not
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apply to this situation, or that there is an appropriate exemption to ensure that the order is effective and can be effective in a matter of days?

People have also queried whether the resignation of any members of the ACMD undermines the approval process and the council's advice in support of the order. For the record, can the Minister confirm that that will not impact on the order's effectiveness? He will be aware of the strong indications that many young people have taken the drug thinking that because it was legal it was safe. What public health or media campaigns does he envisage forming part of the order's implementation? In particular, does he acknowledge that simply passing the order this afternoon will be insufficient unless it is backed up by an awareness campaign to highlight the risks and dangers not simply of mephedrone, but of any other legal highs that might subsequently become available?

Allied to that is the issue of treatment for those who have become addicted to mephedrone. I was speaking to a father of a young man who has become a mephedrone addict. He expressed his frustration at simply not being able to obtain any appropriate advice on the treatment options for his son; how his son had become depressed and was exhibiting other psychological problems; and how he felt powerless to help, because no health professional seemed able to offer a suitable clinical pathway.

Drug therapists have told me of their surprise at how quickly addictive and problematic behaviour has been identified with mephedrone. People have suggested that it can become particularly addictive because it gives a short-term high, leading to binge drug-taking by some users. What steps is the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse taking to address that apparent gap in provision? What assessment has it made of the types of service that may need to be procured at local level? He has talked about advice and guidance in the health service, but what steps is the Department of Health taking to ensure that GPs and other local health practitioners are receiving suitable training to help meet the needs of patients presenting with clinical symptoms linked to mephedrone addiction?

Looking ahead, there is a strong suggestion that the napthyl analogue of pyrovalerone may be the next new psychoactive substance to hit the streets and the club scene. There are already reports that NRG-1, as it is being referred to, is being marketed as a mephedrone substitute. The ACMD has said that it intends to

When does the Minister expect that advice to be forthcoming? In the light of recent experiences, what steps is he taking to ensure that we do not have a rerun of mephedrone with NRG-1?

More generally, the current situation highlights the relationship between the Government and the ACMD. Whatever the Minister may claim, there has been a serious problem with the ACMD and its ability to function effectively and provide Ministers with much-needed advice since the Home Secretary's inept handling of the sacking of Professor David Nutt and the high-handed way in which he dealt with the AMCD subsequently. That has led to a lengthening line of resignations. Is it not the case that the Home Secretary's actions have caused inertia and damaging delay at the heart of Government drugs policy?

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Eric Carlin, who resigned from the ACMD over the bank holiday weekend, has said that the council is in "deep trouble". Professor Neil McKeganey, the Scottish drugs adviser, has said that

Will the Minister accept that the fracturing of the relationship, breakdown of trust and deep trouble lies entirely at the door of the Home Secretary? We need effective expert advice to inform policy making on drugs. The problems of addiction and multiple substance abuse are complex and multifaceted, and the ACMD has an essential and important role to play.

Keith Vaz: I am sorry to stop the hon. Gentleman in mid-flow. I know that the personality issue and the question of relationships is central to his argument, but is this not an appropriate time to consider the structure of decision making and the distinction between Ministers and advisers? Subject to the general election, he may be on the Government side of the House making decisions on behalf of a future Government, and it is time to examine that structure.

James Brokenshire: The right hon. Gentleman made an important point in an earlier intervention about the relative role of advisers and Ministers, and he made it well. Even if we pass the order this afternoon, there needs to be an assessment of the relationship between the Government and their scientific advisers. We look forward to the publication of the Ormond review, which cannot come a moment too soon. This has been a sorry episode for this increasingly sorry Government.

Dr. Harris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

James Brokenshire: I will not.

This episode has come at a time when an effective relationship between the Home Office and its drugs advisers could have facilitated a more effective and speedy response to the emerging harms of legal highs.

Dr. Harris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

James Brokenshire: Instead we have had disunity, disagreement, resignations and delay.

Dr. Harris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

James Brokenshire: To quote what is becoming an increasingly-

Dr. Harris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I think the hon. Gentleman has indicated that he is not giving way at the moment.

Dr. Harris: Why not?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. He is simply not giving way.

James Brokenshire: To quote what is becoming an increasingly well-worn but entirely apt phrase, we simply cannot go on like this.

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4.23 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): There is agreement, at least between the two Front Benchers who have addressed the House so far, that the Government have done the right thing in the current circumstances. I will not be sure what the Liberal Democrats' position is until we hear from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), but there is agreement about the decision that has been taken. I join the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) and the Minister in accepting that it was the right course of action for the Government to take. They acted speedily in respect of the recommendation from the ACMD.

The decision was speedy in that the report went to the Home Secretary on Monday, and on the same day he decided that the drug would be reclassified. It took the Government only a few hours to make that decision. However, I am concerned about the time it took for the advisory council to get to the position to make that recommendation to the Government. Well done to Ministers and, in the last instance, to the Home Secretary for making the decision quickly, but I am worried about the time it took for the recommendation to come before the Home Secretary. The concerns raised by the Minister, the hon. Member for Hornchurch and others in the House were first brought before Ministers a year ago. Those concerns-about how dangerous the drug was-were raised with the previous Home Secretary. So I praise the Government on their decision, but lament the fact that it took 12 months to get to the position to make it.

We have to look at how these decisions are made, and the purpose of the ACMD is central to that. The hon. Member for Hornchurch, in an election period, obviously makes hay with the fact that members of the council have been resigning over the past few months. I would be astonished if he did not use that fact for party political advantage in the current climate. Indeed, it is embarrassing that only last week another member resigned. So it is an appropriate time to look at the entire structure of how these decisions are made. As I said to the Minister in my brief intervention, in the end it has to be up to Ministers to come before the House, and to make and defend such decisions, and they must rely on expert advice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) is, of course, much more experienced than probably anyone else in the Chamber today in these scientific matters-I do not want to disparage anybody else-because he is a bona fide scientist. He is a doctor, so he must be. If we can divorce ourselves from the fact that we are experts in certain fields, we have to rely on the expert advice of people who have impressive titles, such as professors and doctors, to give us the advice and expertise that we do not possess.

We should look at the structure of the advisory council. We must not get to a position where such an important body, which makes representations to the Government on a very important area of policy, should have acting chairpersons, committee members resigning and members who do not understand that, at the end of the day, decisions have to be made by Ministers. It would not be right if such decisions were all made by experts. There is absolutely no point in a Government having a drugs policy as part of their portfolio if Ministers are not prepared to act. I hope that we can use the current episode to look at structures. Of course,
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it is difficult to do that in the middle of a general election campaign, but whichever party is in power-obviously, I hope it will be Labour-the Government need to look at those structures and ensure that the system is improved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is in his place, and the Government will have noted the last report of the Home Affairs Select Committee on cocaine and the increase in the amount of it entering the United Kingdom. We suggested that it is vital that there be better co-ordination of Government drugs policy. The hon. Member for Hornchurch rightly raised the point that even if mephedrone is reclassified, in various parts of the world-I do not know if it is just in China-people are sitting down, as we speak, to try to concoct the next drug for the market. We are, in a sense, powerless to deal with the fact that, whatever we do in this place and regardless of decisions made by Ministers, at the end of the day, in order to circumvent the reclassification of this drug, somebody somewhere on this planet will be devising the next drug to be made available to young people and others. The hon. Gentleman is also right to mention the importance of the internet, and although I am not sure whether people in China will be able to buy such drugs on the internet, given what has happened with China and Google, the fact is that people in this country might be able to do so. That is something that we have to look at.

That brings me to my penultimate point, which is about the European Union and its failure properly to grasp this as an important policy issue. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North came with us when the Committee visited Lisbon as part of our inquiry into the cocaine trade, but we came across the European research and drugs agency. We were treated extremely well when we went in, as I am sure parliamentarians from across the European Union are. There were half a dozen experts-or perhaps even up to a dozen-sitting before us telling us what the agency was doing on drugs policy. However, what concerns me is that although we have all those experts sitting around in Lisbon talking about policy issues, we still have an unco-ordinated policy in the EU. Mephedrone is banned in Sweden and Denmark, which are in the EU, and in Norway and Israel, which are outside it, but in France and the United Kingdom-until this order goes through, of course-there is no ban, and anyone who goes to Spain can buy it there, too.

The European Union prides itself on co-ordinating policy on serious and organised crime, counter-terrorism and so on, and here we have a policy that is crying out to be co-ordinated at a European level, yet there is no co-ordination. That is why it is important that Ministers, shadow Ministers and alternative shadow Ministers should look at the European Union's drugs agency and ensure that it does the work that was intended when the Government supported its creation, by providing research, information and expertise, so that the work can be done on a Europe-wide basis-the very issues that the hon. Member for Huntingdon referred to. The fact is that there are people in different parts of the world trying to second-guess the decisions that we are making and trying to create the next internet drug. Those in the European agency are the kinds of people who have the resources to ensure that we remain one step ahead of
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the people who wish to create the next-steps drugs. If we work in a co-ordinated way, that will make the policy easier to implement and absorb.

Finally, to return to my earlier point, I said right at the beginning that we should welcome what the Government had done, but lamented the fact that it had taken so long. There is no excuse when concerns are raised with Ministers and when Ministers say to the advisory council, as they did last November, "This is a serious issue. Please get on with making a decision as soon as possible." Let us look at the referral time. The Home Secretary asked the advisory council to look at the issue in November. Resignations aside, it is now April. We have had five months since the original referral. The process has taken far too long.

Leaving the structures aside, we need a measure that will allow an interim decision to be taken, at least in the short term, because since the matter was first referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), after the concerns raised by parliamentarians and our Committee-we have written to Ministers about the issue on a number of occasions, most recently a couple of weeks ago-some 25 young people have died. They include Louis Wainwright and others, and teenagers and young people go to nightclubs, where they have been able to buy mephedrone, every Friday and Saturday night.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend not touched on the nub of the problem? How do we persuade people, and particularly young people, not to take such drugs? Are we satisfied that criminalising drugs will resolve the difficulties? Doing so may well resolve them, and no one has suggested that we decriminalise all drugs-or, indeed, any of them-at this moment. However, the real challenge, in saving lives and saving people from serious injuries, is surely to persuade them not to take drugs in the first place.

Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is what the Select Committee report said. The need for persuasion and awareness is very important. The Minister has the Frank campaign to assist the Government, but we need more than that. We could simply say, "Take this drug and you will die", as 25 teenagers and young people have done since this matter was referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch. Those 25 young lives could have been saved if the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs had produced its report more quickly following the Minister's referral of the matter to the advisory council. They were not saved, however, because we have acted so slowly.

Dr. Iddon: Over the past few weeks, many people have been saying that mephedrone is killing young people, yet the evidence shows that the young people who are using it-I would not advise them to use it at all, frankly-are often using other drugs as well. Until the coroners' reports have been published, we cannot say whether mephedrone killed Fred Bloggs or not. We have to wait for those reports. The problem is that young people are often using another drug-usually alcohol-as well as mephedrone, and sometimes another drug in addition to those two. So the real problem is poly-drug use. May I urge my right hon. Friend, in his capacity as Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, to look at the poly-drug use problem when Parliament returns?

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Keith Vaz: I cannot give my hon. Friend an assurance on that, as it will depend on various factors. He is right, however, to identify that problem with mephedrone. Professor Iversen appeared before the Committee and said that mephedrone was an amphetamine by any other name, and that it could have harmful effects. My hon. Friend might be right about the individual cases, but my point is that 25 deaths were in some way related to the use of that drug- [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), for whom I have huge respect, is huffing and puffing-in a perfectly legal way-from his position on the Front Bench. The fact is, however, that I do not share his philosophy that people should just have any drug that they want. I am sure that he will have the opportunity to put forward his view in a moment.

I shall return to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, for whom I also have huge respect. He is very knowledgeable about these matters, and he is right. I will not jump on to the bandwagon about alcohol use, but, as a teetotaller, I believe that alcohol-related crime and deaths probably far outnumber those related to drug use. My hon. Friend is right; we need to look at this matter. I do not think that we should wait for the coroners' reports before doing what the Government are seeking to do today, however. We should act quickly and, if necessary, have an interim recommendation to the Home Secretary from the advisory council, so that he can act accordingly. This is the only lesson that we have to learn from the delays of the past 12 months. If we learn it, we will really be able to save lives in the future.

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