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4.37 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the speech of the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz)-made without notes, I see-even though he was wrong. The fact that he was wrong was also confirmed by the tremendous speech made by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). Despite my warning to the right hon. Member for Leicester, East not to be dazzled by titles such as "Doctor" or "Professor", I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East is indeed an expert in this area. He must be mortified by the way in which drug policy has been handled in this country over the decades-and, increasingly, now-by politicians and by the media. I say that not because he is some kind of drug-crazed libertarian; I know that he is not. I spend time with him on the Science and Technology Select Committee, and I know that he is concerned about ensuring that we have the right evidence-based policies and that the harms are minimised. That means not always jumping to the beat of the tabloid press. He was right to point out that the report produced by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which everyone is praising, makes it clear that we cannot say that the 25 deaths linked to the use of mephedrone were caused by mephedrone.

Keith Vaz: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris: I want to make some progress first.

The position of the Liberal Democrats is that we should, by and large, follow the properly formulated advice of the ACMD, as it is an expert body. We have said that on previous occasions. We do not know that
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that advice was not properly formulated, and, working on the basis that it is indeed sound, we support the statutory instrument that the Government have proposed, as well as the ban on mephedrone, and its classification as a class B drug. That does not mean, however, that we should suspend all inquiry into some of the issues and possible consequences of the decision.

Allegations have been made that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which gave this advice, was not properly constituted, that the advice was not correctly considered-these are concerns coming from within the ACMD-and that although it did its best, it had to make recommendations based on inadequate data. I think that those concerns are framed by the contributions made not only by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, but by the Conservative spokesman, to the effect that the ACMD was hampered in its work and there was delay, because it was short of its chairman for quite some time and suffered a number of resignations.

When the ACMD makes a recommendation, the Government are, of course, entitled to accept or reject it. If the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee read the excellent report by the Science and Technology Select Committee on how to use scientific advice, he would see that that unanimous report-there was considerable input to it from the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East-made absolutely clear the Committee's view, which is also the Liberal Democrats' view, that politicians who are accountable should make these decisions, and that the role of advisers is to give advice.

The key thing is that politicians must consider that advice, and when they reject it they should be very clear about why they reject it, so that they cannot pretend that they are taking the advice and basing their policy on evidence when they are not doing so. It is perfectly legitimate for politicians to base their policy on things other than the evidence, such as manifesto commitments, ideology-if hon. Members remember that term-economics or other matters. They can even base it on their desire to kowtow to the tabloid media. They will then be accountable for all those things; what they should not do is claim that they are taking an evidence-based approach when they are not.

Keith Vaz: I agree to this extent: the hon. Gentleman is coming round to the view that scientific advice is, in the end, only advice, and that what the Government have done represents the right approach. People can advise, but at the end of the day Ministers have to make the decision.

Dr. Harris: I have not come round to that; it was my position five years ago. If the right hon. Gentleman looked at the record, he would find that that is what I have been saying. The point is, however, that what we cannot do-I hope the right hon. Gentleman will agree-is so to bully our advisers, or threaten them with the sack if they give the "wrong" advice, that they provide the advice that they think Ministers want to hear. It ill behoves the Conservative spokesman, particularly in view of the BSE fiasco, not to bear in mind the very clear conclusions in the Phillips report of 2000, which said that scientific advisers should not have to go back and do it all again because the Minister is not happy with the content of the advice. We must have clear published advice, and the Government must consider it properly. I shall return to this issue again in a few moments.

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What the ACMD usually does is consider the harms that drugs cause, and then consider the harms of illegality. It is important to be aware that there are risks and benefits both ways. There is no doubt that mephedrone is harmful. Although I am only a medical doctor, my advice to people is very clear-that they should not take this drug. I am possibly one of the few Members who can say that they have never taken an illegal drug, which may say something about my university time, as I was never offered it. I am also very clear and passionate about alcohol abuse and, indeed, nicotine abuse.

It is nevertheless important to recognise that banning a drug has potential harms, and these are aspects that we would expect advisers to consider. First, the purity will be impacted by the substances with which the drug is cut by people illegally peddling it for profit. Secondly, criminal gangs can take over. Indeed, in paragraph 6.6 of its report, the ACMD points out that in Guernsey, where mephedrone was banned, criminal gangs have taken over and violence is now associated with accessing the drug, which was not the case previously. Although the ACMD listed that under "Societal Harms", it is actually a harm of criminalisation.

Thirdly, users-if they are not prevented from using the drug-will be driven into the hands of those who want to sell them even more addictive and more harmful substances. Alternatively, they will turn to another substance which is still legal and may be more harmful. Furthermore, a ban may cause the price to rise, and acquisitive crime is more likely to be committed by people who are addicted to the substance. That is a logical consequence. I accept that drugs ruin lives, but criminal records ruin lives as well. Criminalising people, whether they are under 18 or young adults, has a consequence for those people which we cannot discount.

I have not heard a word about any of those issues in the media coverage, or from the Minister or the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire). I think it wrong for Ministers, or people who want to become Ministers, not to address any of the potential downsides of the policy. I still support what the Government are doing, but at least I have considered those issues, and I question whether the ACMD had a chance to do so. I urge the media, when they see parents of young people who are upset that their child, or young adult son or daughter, is using the drug and bemoan that fact, to bear in mind that banning it will not cure the addiction.

Paragraphs 5.12 to 5.17 of the ACMD report deal with deaths. The report states that

and that

It continues:

the 18 deaths in England-

We know, then, that one case was a "not" and the others are only "maybes".

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I shall not repeat what was said by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East about poly-drug use, but this drug is used in combination with other drugs, which may themselves be the cause of death. The same applies to the other reported deaths. I do not for a moment minimise the potential impact of the drug, but we must think carefully before stating as facts things that are not facts. We are all entitled to our opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts.

I realise that there is not much time for the Minister to respond, but I want to say a bit more about the ACMD. As the hon. Member for Hornchurch pointed out, the problem lies not with the ACMD but with the Home Secretary. However, I should like to know whether the hon. Gentleman, who seeks to be a Minister, thinks that Professor Nutt should have been sacked for the lecture that he gave at King's college, as professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial college, and, if so what he should have been sacked for. I tried to ask the hon. Gentleman that, but he would not allow me to intervene, which is not a good sign. Someone who wishes to become a Minister dealing with these matters should be expected to be able to answer questions of that kind, whether they come from parents, enforcement agencies or experts.

I invite the hon. Gentleman to tell us now that he agrees with the Home Secretary-and the shadow Home Secretary, who needs as much help as possible at the moment-that Professor Nutt should have been sacked, and should have been sacked earlier. If he does end up as the Minister, he will find that, on that basis, people will be unwilling to give him the advice that he seeks.

I have written to Lord Drayson asking whether the Government's own principles for the treatment of scientific advice were not breached five times last week by the Government, who acted not just without considering the report-which they were bound to consider under the Government principles issued on Budget day-but before it had even been published. In fact, according to Eric Carlin, who resigned last week, when the chair of the ACMD left to brief the Home Secretary for a press conference the ACMD had not even finished the report. The Government responded to the press not only on a report that had not been considered, that had not been published and would not be published for three days, but on a report that had not yet been completed. That makes a travesty of the advisory process.

If, as a result of that, this statutory instrument, if-or rather, I suspect, when-it is passed by both Houses, is challenged in the courts as being ultra vires and the Government lose the case, something which, as has been said, should have been done much earlier, will be delayed by months. The Government will find that people are unwilling to give advice if they break their own rules and pre-empt the work of the experts. The Government do not have to take that advice, but they promised to consider it properly and I do not believe that in this circumstance, they did so. Although the Liberal Democrats are happy to support the order, it is with sadness that we do so at a time when the advisory system on which we rely for proper policy is in crisis. It is not just the Government who suffer if they do not get good advice; we all suffer, because we end up with bad policy.

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4.50 pm

Mr. Alan Campbell: In the short time available to me, I wish to comment, in reverse order, on the main points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) made a number of serious allegations. The first was that the ACMD was not properly constituted when it came to this decision; we reject that view. He said that evidence was not properly considered; we reject that view. He said that this decision was based not on evidence but on tabloid headlines; we reject that view. He said that advisers were bullied and threatened by Ministers into making this decision; we reject that view, too. The hon. Gentleman needs to examine the evidence that the chair of the ACMD gave to the Select Committee on Home Affairs on 23 March-I believe that was the date-because he would then see that the relationship is very different from the one that he describes. If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about the process that we have gone through, and so concerned that the principles on which he relies for good decision making have somehow not been matched on this occasion, he should stick to his principles and to the logic of his arguments and oppose this order, instead of trying to dance on the head of the pin with the logic of his argument.

One of the allegations made by the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) was that the Government have "downplayed" drugs seizures during our time in office; that is not true. He talked about the work of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the UK Border Agency, and I have outlined their response to the issue before us. There is a fundamental misunderstanding in the question that he asks, because SOCA does have a role to play. However, it often has a role to play downstream; it is no good simply strengthening borders-we are, however, doing that-because we have to address the issue of drugs further downstream.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) raised the issue of poly-use and of drug and alcohol use. I welcome his contribution, because what he says is right. Whoever carries out this role after the general election, and whichever party is in government, they and this House will have to return to this issue, because it is important.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) again raised the issue of policy at a European level. There is disagreement among European countries about the best way to develop drugs policy, but there is a growing acceptance of the need for a harm-reduction approach. I also very much welcome the evolving approach of the new Administration in the United States.

4.52 pm

One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, t he Deputy Speaker put the Question (Order, this day) .

Question agreed to.


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Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill

Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee.

Clause 9

Duration of Act

4.53 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I beg to move amendment 2, page 6, line 32, leave out subsection (3).

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 3, page 6, line 37, leave out subsection (6).

Mr. Leigh: These are simple probing amendments. This Bill is clearly important, and it will have to be considered by the other place before it becomes law. In one sense clause 9 is clear, because it says:

At first sight, that would appear a perfectly sensible provision, because one presumes it would give time for the House and the Government to consider whether a more permanent Government Act should be placed on the statute book. I think that sunset clauses, as they are described, might often perform a perfectly useful purpose, especially when we are dealing in areas such as this, which have not been tested sufficiently by the Government and by courts in the past.

Subsection (1) is quite clear. My amendment is purely a probing amendment, which will give the Minister an opportunity to explain what is going on. It states that we should leave out subsection (3). Subsection (1) states:

which is fair enough. However, subsection (3) states that

That is what I am slightly worried about. If this Act is to have permanent effect-after all, we are talking in terms of the wash-up of Parliament, and this is a private Member's Bill involving the Government in difficult areas-I would prefer to have more protection for Parliament. Why can the Government just decide that the Act should have permanent effect? If this Act is to have permanent effect under subsection (3), why does subsection (1) state that

This is purely an opportunity for the Minister to explain his thinking. Presumably, he can come to the Dispatch Box and give all sorts of reassurances to Parliament. He can say that there will be a proper debate and proper evaluation. I have been doing interviews today in the context of my role as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee about there always being proper evaluation of value for money. I am sure that the Minister can reassure us on this point.

My second amendment, which also relates to clause 9, would leave out subsection (6). Again, I hope that the Minister can help me on this. I have no particular axe to grind one way or another. I am neither in favour of the Bill nor against it but I presume that the Minister can explain to me in simple language what on earth subsection (6) means-I have tried to understand it, but I am totally confused. It states:

7 Apr 2010 : Column 1045

You are a much cleverer man than me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but if you understand that I pay tribute to you-I have always paid tribute to you for your high intelligence. I simply do not understand what that means and I hope that this most excellent and skilful Minister will be able to explain and justify subsection (6) to the House, so that we can proceed without further ado.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I am pleased that this Bill has made it into the wash-up. It is a tribute to the business managers all round that that has happened. There is cross-party support for this important Bill. I am very sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) is ill again, and I am therefore standing in for him.

It is a great shame that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) did not talk to those on his Front Bench about the sunset clause. The arrangement for the sunset clause was agreed with his party. Given that he is a senior member of that party, I would have hoped that the terms of the clause would have been discussed very carefully, and if issues were unclear they could have been clarified in the meantime. I will go through some of the political points about his amendments and then some of the technical points and explain why, as the person who has been taking the Bill through the House, I do not support them.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am sure that the hon. Lady knows that I am extremely keen on all help that can give a reasonable footing to third-world and developing countries. However, I am a little puzzled about the reference to a sunset clause, because the Bill clearly states that the Act "expires at the end" of a period "beginning with commencement", but it is also subject to two other subsections that would mean that the sunset would be

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