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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): We now have about three minutes if we are to get everybody in. When do we have until? Is it not until 6? [ Interruption. ] Okay, I will keep going and stick to time. If I have six minutes, I will be quite happy. I want everybody to have the opportunity to speak in such an important debate.

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I do not mind shortening my speech to make sure that other hon. Members can speak, but there are certain things that I must say.

I disagree with the Government’s objective of increasing the number of adoptions. Already in England, roughly twice as many children under five who leave care are adopted than return to their parents. In fact, the number returning to their parents went down last year. Of the 4,700 under-fives who left care in the year to 31 March 2010, 880 went to their parents and 2,000 were adopted. In Scotland, the reverse is true and the majority return to their parents. I define care as compulsory care and do not include all the section 20 children who go into care voluntarily. It is important to consider those issues.

Checks and balances are critical. I very much support the Munro report and think that the approach of being less bureaucratic is important. Sadly, I do not support the family justice review. The difficulty is that if one is to look at the process of dealing with a child who goes into the care system, one must consider all the aspects. Even if one considers just the local authority costs and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service costs for a child who is taken into care at birth and then adopted, one sees that half the costs are for foster care and half are legal costs, fees for experts and such things. If one is to look at how that process can be managed to work effectively, one has to consider both the judicial processes with its checks and balances and the decision making in the first instance. The Munro inquiry is about the process by which decisions are made and the process by which those decisions are given quality control. In my view, it is the quality control on the decisions that fails. That is why there are a lot of odd decisions and some very strange outcomes.

I thank the Minister for the efforts of his statisticians in producing a detailed analysis of the SSDA903 return. I have a copy here and anybody is welcome to see it. Obviously it is available under freedom of information. That analysis demonstrates what is happening to the children. Our priority should be what happens to the children and what is best for the children.

The problem when we get something substantially wrong, as I think we are, and when the practice is substantially wrong for a number of years, is that people continue to practice in the same way. Only many years later when the children grow up and wonder, “Why was that done to me?”, do things get reviewed. That happened in respect of the children who were sent around the world, for instance to Canada and Australia. That decision is now recognised as wrong, but at the time it was thought to be right. A similar situation is occurring in respect of about 1,000 children a year—that figure looks right when the figures in England are compared with those in Scotland—in cases of forced adoptions in which consent is dispensed with. That problem is of a reasonable order of magnitude and, in the end, it comes down to the need for individual case studies.

Another area in which the Government are missing out is in studying what happens to children who are adopted. In many cases the adoption is disrupted, so about a quarter of those children return to the care system and some are then adopted again, causing them additional trauma. If we are to assess the effect of adoption decisions, we have to include the effect on children who come back into care because they have

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had reactive attachment disorder, perhaps as a result of being taken into care too early and by overloaded foster carers. A lot of issues are not being looked at, and we need longitudinal studies of individual cases.

Many Members want to speak, and I have emphasised the points about adoptions that I keep making. The figures are there, and I thank the Minister for getting them, but he should take them into account.

5.31 pm

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): I add my welcome for the work of Professor Munro and the recommendations in her report. The huge challenge for Ministers is how to put them into practice. I welcome the Minister’s announcement of the group that will be set up, and the expertise of the people who will be on it. I ask him to consider including a member of the Opposition in that group—other than a Labour councillor. He knows what I mean by that.

I want to speak about my concerns about the speed of intervention and the impact of neglect that does not hit the headlines through serious case reviews. I should mention one of my interests in the matter—I am an adoptive parent. When I trained as an adoptive parent, we were presented with evidence that over an extended period, neglect is often, although not always, far more damaging to a child or young person than physical or sexual abuse. That is why it is so important to consider neglect.

I will quote the comments of a senior NHS professional, who writes:

“Child protection’s preventative role in protecting vulnerable children/young people from neglectful behaviours is hindered and hampered by a lack of clarity and legislative support to recognise the impact of neglect on a child or young person until it reaches a threshold for ‘significant harm’. This results in an inability to respond in a timely manner until it is too late to prevent harm from occurring.

Practitioner tools and chronologies to identify and recognise these neglectful behaviours do not provide the requisite evidence base to support care proceedings or child in need packages that put the child in focus.”

She continues:

“Legislation needs to provide clarity of definition and recognise the impact of neglectful behaviours. The practitioners need to be provided with definitions which are not retrospective; in other words the legal system needs to recognise neglectful behaviours as significant before ‘significant harm’ has been caused to a child or young person, by which time it is too late.”

The Minister spoke about the importance of trying to keep families together and used the phrase “fostering families”. It is important that that is given every chance, but I am aware—this is the point made by that health professional—that in far too many cases, the balance is skewed too far in that direction. It can take too long, and evidence of potential neglect is ignored. Early recognition, and action on it, is essential. The evidence that I have seen, of which other Members will be well aware, shows that the long-term damage of extended neglect is incredibly bad for people psychologically and for their mental health long into adulthood.

To come back to the comments that one or two hon. Members have made, those in foster care are not universally treated as one of the family, because there are too many

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barriers. Too many rules prevent foster carers from getting close to children for that to happen meaningfully in reality.

I welcome the Minister’s comments on learning from care leavers—that needs to continue. On the issue of neglect, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) said that striking the right balance between protecting the vulnerable child and the rights of the individual is incredibly important. From the experience of constituents who have spoken to me, far too often the rights of the individual parent are given greater prominence than the needs and rights of the child.

Because I am an adoptive parent, I shall speak briefly in the time I have left about adoption. I welcome the comments in the report on reducing the delay in getting children through to adoption, but there are serious blockages in finding families. Measures for finding good families in adoption and fostering are very important, as is providing long-term support. There is a lack of support for foster carers and a lack of long-term support for adopters. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board.

The delays in the courts cause great concern to professionals and families. The courts are still far too slow. I am aware of a case in which some children from a large family were adopted and some went into long-term foster care. One child ended up back with the mother because the court refused to look at the evidence from social services, which had originally issued the order for the family to go into care. The system is quite unworkable, because the neglect remained after the child returned.

I welcome the report. This is a long-term project, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House come together to support it.

5.37 pm

Jessica Lee (Erewash) (Con): I am pleased to speak in this extremely important debate on child protection. I find it quite startling that this is the first debate on child protection that has been instigated by a Government, as the Minister told us in his opening remarks. Given the difficulties and concerns over child protection, which have been ongoing for many years, I find that worrying. This might be the first such debate instigated by a Government, but I hope that it will not be the last.

I should declare an interest, because I worked as a family lawyer for about 10 years, specialising in child protection and adoption. I should also say at the outset that I welcome the conclusions in Professor Munro’s report. The point has already been made, but it is a quality report. It is extremely well set out and contains many helpful conclusions. I hope the Government implement many of its recommendations.

Over my years of working for and representing parties in care proceedings—that includes social workers and parents, or children, through their guardians—I have seen dozens or even hundreds of extremely dedicated, hard-working social workers, who try their best in very difficult circumstances to protect children. In my view, that is front-line work. It can be a dangerous job. Social workers must sometimes go into people’s homes when they do not know what is on the other side of the front door. They could find a parent under the influence of alcohol or find themselves in a violent situation. Children might need to be removed.

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I bear that in mind, which is why I hope that following the conclusions of the Munro report, we focus on empowering those social workers to exercise their professional judgment as best they can, without being hampered by other pressures in their day-to-day jobs. I would not like to make those decisions—they can be life-changing decisions—on whether a child should be removed, whether one should undertake a further assessment of a parent, or whether all has been done but it is time to draw a line and look for an adoptive placement for a family.

The Centre for Social Justice has produced some figures that remind us that although care leavers form only 1% of the population, they are four to five times more likely to have mental health issues; a third of homeless people have been care leavers; 30% of children in custody and 23% of the adult prison population have been in care; and more than 20% of women who leave care between the ages of 16 and 19 become mothers within a year, compared to just 5% of the general population. These are troubling figures and, as we seek to support social workers, we must remember that they are trying to achieve improved outcomes for all the young people in their care. I know that all hon. Members will be committed to improving those figures.

I pay tribute to the contribution by the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), who mentioned the important issue of neglect. There are different sorts of abuse that children can suffer—physical, sexual and emotional, as well as neglect—and more than 19,300 children are under child protection plans for neglect. That is a very high figure, and that kind of abuse can have long-term effects that are just as damaging as other forms of abuse. That is why the attempt to support early intervention work is so important. It is just those families in which neglect persists for several years, and who perhaps fall in and out of the attention of social work departments, who need our help to be able to move on.

Over the years I have represented local authorities, children and parents in some very upsetting cases. I do not wish to be over-dramatic, but some children arrive in foster care so thirsty that they drink out of the lavatory bowl. Some hide food in their room in case the food never appears again. Some have been shaken so badly that they are brain-damaged for life. I give these examples as a reminder of the pressures and challenges that social work teams have to face every day. Those examples are not from a Dickensian story set more than 100 years ago: they are happening in our country in 2011. We must all work harder to stop such abuse taking place.

Time is against me, but I shall conclude with my key point. We must take this opportunity to try to move forward with the Munro conclusions, empower social workers to make their professional judgments, and reduce bureaucracy.

5.43 pm

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): The greatest risk of dying a violent death is when you are less than one year old. And the greatest risk comes not from strangers, but from those who are closest to you in your own home—those who should love you and take care of you. Social workers are in the front line of the battle to protect babies and children. The importance

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of caring, motivated and well-trained social workers just cannot be overestimated. Frankly, if we do not recognise the massive potential of a good social worker to turn around life chances for babies and children in vulnerable families, we shall get the society we deserve.

I congratulate Professor Munro on her comprehensive report on what is generally recognised to be a difficult and troubled area. I want to focus today on recommendations 10 to 13 of that report, because I have spent the last 10 years of my life developing a passion for and a detailed understanding of why she may have made those points.

Recommendation 10 states:

“Government should place a duty on local authorities and statutory partners to provide sufficient early intervention services for those children and young people who do not meet child protection thresholds”.

That, to me, is the key recommendation, and I can encapsulate why in the shortest of slogans: prevention is kinder and cheaper than cure. Supporting vulnerable families and enabling them to form a secure bond with their babies in the first two years of life has profound consequences for society. Can anyone here imagine what the relationship is like between a mother and her baby if she would allow her boyfriend to stub out cigarettes on her little boy, as happened in the case of baby Peter? No, none of us can quite get our heads around what on earth possessed a mother to so violate the nurturing role of parent and carer as to allow her own need for a boyfriend to overrule the tigerish instinct of a mother. For my own part, I am quite sure I would kill rather than let anyone harm my children like that.

What makes one mother or parent neglect, abuse or even kill her own child, while another would kill to protect her child, is simple: the quality of the attachment between the carer and the child. This attachment begins during pregnancy, and its development is most critical during the first two years of a baby’s life. We could call it the Harry Potter syndrome. Harry was loved and nurtured by his parents until Lord Voldemort murdered them when Harry was two years old. He then suffered unspeakable cruelty and neglect at the hands of his uncle, aunt and cousin, but through it all he kept his unshakable sense of self-worth, personal resilience and his ability to make friends and form strong relationships. Those qualities are the reward for secure early attachment between baby and adult carer.

That is not just an entertaining story; the scientific evidence is overwhelming. When a baby is born his brain is significantly underdeveloped, but between six months and 18 months, as a result of the stimulation of a loving relationship, of peek-a-boo games and silly baby-language chatter with mum, the brain puts on a massive growth spurt and the central frontal cortex—the part of the brain that enables empathy and deals with social interaction—starts to develop at an astonishing rate. Conversely, the baby who is neglected, abused or treated inconsistently by uncaring adults will fail to develop a healthy frontal cortex. His ability in later life to form strong relationships with friends, a partner, work colleagues and so on will be severely impaired—and for a girl baby who does not form a secure bond, the incredible tragedy is that without help, she will struggle to form a bond with her own babies in later life, and so the cycle of misery is perpetuated through the generations.

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It is at the critical end of the spectrum of poor attachment that the social worker is the key to the outcome for the child and the family. Where a baby is severely neglected or abused, the development of the frontal cortex may simply never happen. Babies left to scream for hours at a time suffer other problems as a result of having constantly raised levels of the stress hormone. Those babies develop a tendency towards high-risk-taking behaviour, drugs, violence and self-harming. Our prisons, streets and psychiatric hospitals are full of the evidence of poor early attachment. It is in these cases—the most difficult to resolve—that social workers often represent the only chance of survival for the family. However, their challenges are manifold. How can they identify those particular cases? How can they tell if the problems are temporary or life-threatening, and how can they be supported in what is an almost impossible task?

I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that providing parent-infant psychotherapy will dramatically change the work load of social workers and the amount of support available for these vulnerable families before those problems happen. I wanted to give you a perfect case study, Mr Deputy Speaker, but time does not permit, so you will have to take my word for it that the Oxford Parent Infant Project, a charity that I have chaired for the past 10 years, provides an enormous amount of life-saving support for families in Oxfordshire by working with social workers to reduce their work load, to provide them with the support they need and to help these vulnerable children. OXPIP also provides training in the crucial understanding of parent-infant relationships. What is so sad, to my mind, is that for many of those who attend, it is a “road to Damascus” moment. Previously they had no understanding of brain development, the critical importance of early attachment and the possible interventions.

I would like to leave my hon. Friend with these two thoughts: first, we need to provide parent-infant psychotherapy across children’s centres in the UK, and secondly, we need to improve significantly the quality of education not just for social workers but for everyone who works with babies.

5.49 pm

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I want to make just one brief but important point that has arisen as a consequence of representations made to me by constituents about the regulation of the social work profession.

The regulator of social work has been the General Social Care Council, which is charged with issuing and enforcing standards of professional conduct and practice. For the past few years the council has been located in my constituency of Rugby, having relocated from London. However, last July the council learnt that it was on the list of non-departmental bodies to be disbanded by the Government. Understandably, the Government wish to reduce the cost of bureaucracy and regulation. Early advice from the Department of Health was that there was no compelling reason to retain the council, with a potentially significant benefit arising from social workers being placed on a footing similar to that of professional workers and regulation being transferred to the Health Professions Council, a body that will regulate all

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professionals, including those more generally involved in the delivery of health care. There will therefore be a transfer of functions between the bodies.

One consequence of that is that offices in Rugby will be closed, involving a certain number of redundancies, although the date is not certain. Since the announcement, I have met both management and members of staff at the General Social Care Council. Staff have concerns, principally that there will no longer be a body specifically dedicated to the regulation of professionals in the sector, and that the focus that currently exists may be lost. The Munro report draws attention to the important role of the social work profession in ensuring that all children are safe. Specifically, recommendations 11 and 12 reiterate the need for the robust supervision and training of social workers, supported nationally by a regulator. It is therefore crucial that the HPC should continue to monitor the ongoing professional development of social workers.

We have heard much in today’s debate about the value and importance of the role played by the social work profession in child protection. I hope that in summing up, the Minister can provide assurances that, in the interests of all the vulnerable people whom they support, there will continue to be proper and effective regulation of social work professionals.

5.52 pm

Mr Aidan Burley (Cannock Chase) (Con): Like the previous speaker, I do not intend to make a long speech. I rise to make just one point to the Minister before allowing him the time he needs to sum up the debate.

I welcome the Munro report and its recommendations. Everybody, on both sides of the House, would agree that it is important for the best interests of the child to be paramount in all child protection decisions. However, a number of constituents have raised concerns with me about the term “emotional abuse”, and how it is defined and interpreted by social services. I note that none of the recommendations of the Munro report relates to the term “emotional abuse” or its definition. We would all agree with the need for children to be taken away from such abuse, but some parents who have come to my surgeries are concerned that in some cases social services are being over-zealous or taking quite extreme action based on a rather loose interpretation of the term “emotional abuse”. In one case highlighted to me, social services removed a child from her parents because they felt that she had not been made aware of her father, the evidence for this being that there were no photos in the house. That seems to be based on a loose definition of “emotional abuse”. As part of the Minister’s review of child protection services, will he consider looking again at the definition of the term, to ensure that it is applied correctly and accurately?

5.53 pm

Tim Loughton: I did not expect there to be time for a proper summing up, but as there is, I will make the most of it.

This has been an excellent debate—well measured and exceedingly well informed—with the House at its best, and certainly its most earnest. Indeed, the implementation working group on the Munro report could have been formed of the hon. Members in the Chamber who have contributed today. We have two

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adoptive fathers who revealed themselves as such in their contributions. We also have two family law barristers, one of whom—my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson)—grew up with 90 foster children, because of the amazing contribution of his parents, as well as having adopted siblings.

We have two former social workers, who also happen to be the chairs of the all-party parliamentary groups on runaway and missing children and adults, and on child protection. They have always brought enormous expertise to the House on those matters. We have crossed swords, and also often agreed, in many Committees on many pieces of legislation over the years. We also have one former lead member for children’s services in a council, even if he was “only a shopkeeper”. Of course, Churchill said that we were a nation of shopkeepers, so my hon. Friend should not undersell himself in that way. My only regret is that we will never hear his fourth point. We know about the missing fourth man—

Craig Whittaker: Will the Minister give way?

Tim Loughton: I would be delighted to hear my hon. Friend’s fourth point.

Craig Whittaker: My fourth point was about the chairmanship of the local safeguarding children boards. There are still 23 authorities in the UK that have the director of children’s services as the chair of their board. Will the Minister ensure that in future the role of the chair is independent?

Tim Loughton: What an excellent fourth point that was! It was well worth waiting for. When we were in opposition we said that the chairs of local safeguarding children boards should be independent. I think that the boards should include lead members and perhaps directors of children’s services, in whatever role, but they should be independently chaired. If LSCBs are to make progress and have more teeth and more importance, that will be an even more important factor in the future. I am glad that my hon. Friend managed to get his fourth point in.

So, we have one shopkeeper turned lead member of children’s services. We also have one head of a very successful children’s charity who has enormous expertise in attachment. We have a Member who I think used his first Adjournment debate to discuss adoption, including some cases in his constituency. We have another new Member who has taken up the cudgels on behalf of constituents who are concerned about abuses of adoption. And we have one conspiracy theorist. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming); we disagree on many aspects of this issue, but he is assiduous and he rightly acknowledged that we had given him as much information as possible. We disagree on the interpretation of that information and we will continue to do so, but he has certainly got his teeth into this subject.

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We have had an excellent debate. I do not have time to refer to every point that has been raised, but the personal experience that has been brought to bear today does the House credit. There has been overwhelming support for the principle, the thrust and the exhaustive nature of the Munro review. The hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) said that it was well researched and the result of extensive consultation. She also said that too much of what social workers have to do may be technically correct but inexpert in its findings.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) made some excellent points. I thank him for his welcome for the report, and we look forward to working with Members on both sides of the House on carrying forward its recommendations. This is an evidence-based review, and I want to see Government policy guided by evidence, and by things that work and actually improve the outcomes for children at the sharp end. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich pointed out that this is not rocket science, and asked why it had not been done before.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) mentioned the very good work of the social work taskforce and the social work reform board. We acknowledge that that work was undertaken under the previous Government. When we set up the Munro review, the first thing I said was that it was not intended to take the place of or to rubbish the work that had gone before; it was to complement that work. The first person Eileen Munro went to see was Moira Gibb, the head of the reform board. Members of the reform board have worked on the review and are now working in the implementation group.

The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) mentioned the mixed destinations of siblings who are taken into adoption or care. That is a really important point, and I want to do a lot more work on it. I have heard too many horrific stories of families being broken up. At a time when they cannot rely on the stability and familiarity of their birth parents, it is crucial that they should have the familiarity of contact with their siblings when they desperately need some kind of anchor. My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) has had great experience of children in the care system, and she told the House that the incidence of mental health issues and homelessness was absolutely appalling.

I thank everyone in the Chamber for an excellent debate. We are absolutely determined to carry forward the recommendations of the Munro review. Today’s debate will help to inform our response, and I look forward to receiving the help of all hon. Members to ensure that we get this right. I am up for that challenge, as are the House and the Government, and we are going to make this work.

Question put and agreed to .

Resolved,

That this House has considered the Munro Report and its implications for child protection.

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Cannabis and Psychosis (Young People)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Duddridge.)

6 pm

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this evening’s Adjournment debate. It is appropriate that my debate follows an informative debate on child protection.

Up and down the country, too many families are suffering the torture of watching their children squander their futures—bright children who have so much to live for ending up with so little. All too often, that is brought about by an addiction to skunk cannabis—a drug that is ruining young lives.

I am not a clinician or a scientist, so I am not going to give a hugely exhaustive overview of the chemical content of skunk cannabis. All I would say is that the THC— Tetrahydrocannabinol—content of skunk cannabis is now six times higher than it was in the cannabis of the ’70s and ’80s: 18% compared to 3%. The CBD—Cannabidiol— content of skunk cannabis, which is the bit of the chemical that counteracted the psychotic effects of THC, has now been removed from the drug. What we see is young people suffering as a consequence.

It is believed that skunk cannabis works by releasing dopamine into the brain, which creates a sense of euphoria, but it also has many side-effects—hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, attention impairment and emotional impairment. The problem is that young brains do not properly form in adolescence; they do not do so until they are in their early 20s. What the drug does in its simplest form is to open up gates in the brain that may never close again, or, if they do close, only partially.

If a youngster smokes skunk cannabis, at best their academic performance will be retarded. So many teachers have told me about young, bright children getting to a certain age and then their academic performance just goes backwards—not slowly, but rapidly, as they go from being at the top of the class, to the middle, to the bottom and to not turning up in class at all. That is a tragedy; a young mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Too many young people suffer severe psychotic effects linked to skunk cannabis. One in four of us carry a faulty gene for dopamine transmission. If a youngster has that gene and smokes skunk cannabis, they are six times more likely to get a psychotic illness than the average youngster out there. If both parents give them two of these genes, they are 10 times more likely to suffer a psychotic incident and suffer long-term brain damage.

With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to read a few tragic stories. In a sense, I am a voice for all those parents who cannot be here tonight. Here is the first:

“Our son was a normal, bright, outgoing, sociable boy and good at sports. He started taking cannabis at about 15 years old. He experienced a dramatic change in personality at 23, which resulted in a major psychotic episode. In recent years, he has been under psychiatric care and on antipsychotic medication, and has not been able to keep down a steady job. He has been sectioned twice and remains under a community treatment order. His continuous use of cannabis has destroyed a fine young man who now has no ambition or awareness of responsibility. However, he is beginning to accept that the cannabis habit will lead to more severe mental health problems. It is hugely distressing to watch this lovely boy turn into a complete stranger.”

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Another parent wrote:

“George was our only son to turn to drugs. His addictions began early—tobacco in junior school, cannabis in senior. At first we were in the dark but George’s hand was forced by events and we were informed. He was warned. However, nothing stopped him. His life and 2 marriages were ruined. The French wife aborted their 2 babies—she could not cope with George in tow—the dangers, the poverty, the filth, the dark, loving, violent, mesmeric personality he had become. George asked me to drive him to the clinic and wept all the way in the car. I tried to comfort him but I ached for my unborn grandchildren. He knocked me down a few times—he always apologised—George was such a gentleman. He spent 2 years in a mental hospital. He was very schizophrenic by now.”

Sadly, George is now dead.

Let me read just two more stories to the House. Here is the first:

“Michael became noticeably unwell aged 16 in February 2003 whilst on a family holiday. I found some cannabis in his room. This was a shock as Michael didn’t even drink alcohol as far as I was aware. His mood changes were almost immediate. Laughing one minute, crying the next. He spent all day in bed and had no energy, no motivation. By December 2003, Michael was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. It was the worst day of my life—he cried for his parents and had to be held down. He just screamed—it was heart-rending. After being there for 3 months, he was discharged. I thought this was the end, it was unfortunately the beginning of a road that I would not wish on my worst enemy. It is like Russian Roulette who becomes psychotic.”

Nine years later, the torture continues for that family.

Here is the final story:

“We were a normal, happy, busy family with four children until our second child, 16 ½ became involved with a new group of friends and started taking cannabis. Within a very short space of time, our happy, funny, healthy son turned into a screaming, paranoid, unhappy young man. He refused to go to college, worked only occasionally, and became a violent thug. When confronted, he would turn on us both physically and verbally, on one occasion breaking his father’s ribs because his father had intervened when he was threatening me. He would kick doors in, smash glass panels, destroy washing baskets, crockery, ornaments, etc. Our lives became a living hell. He has been clean from cannabis for a year now and is gradually rebuilding his life. He still has flashes of paranoia, has no qualifications and will always have to fight to overcome his criminal convictions.”

Those are harrowing stories, and they have been repeated thousands of times across the country. Child and adolescent mental health services across the country are dealing with thousands of youngsters and adolescents who are suffering from severe psychotic illnesses, and there is a causal link with skunk cannabis.

For the past decade we have talked about harm reduction, and we have an organisation called FRANK that leads the educational process on drugs, but harm reduction is not enough. There is no safe amount of skunk cannabis that a youngster can smoke. I do not condone drinking, but a youngster can have a glass of wine or a bottle of beer and suffer little ill effect, although I would not recommend that young people do it. Taking skunk cannabis is like holding a loaded revolver to your head and playing Russian roulette. You do not know whether you have the gene, and you do not know when the gun will fire the bullet. Some people who become addicted to skunk cannabis end up with such severe psychoses that they take their own lives. It would be interesting to know from coroners how many young people who have committed suicide recently were addicted to skunk cannabis.

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Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I commend the hon. Gentleman for raising a matter that could well justify a full debate here or in Westminster Hall. In Northern Ireland, we have seen a rash of suicides as a result of this very drug. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the laws on drugs should be tightened? I ask because what is happening in his constituency is happening in mine, and throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr Walker: I am very interested by what the hon. Gentleman says, but this evening’s debate is not about classification. A Health Minister will respond to it. However, classification might be a subject for another debate here, and if the hon. Gentleman tables a motion for such a debate I shall certainly support him.

For many young people, smoking skunk cannabis is like holding a loaded gun to their heads. It might not kill them—they may continue to have a life—but if they suffer from severe psychosis or schizophrenia, it will not be much of a life. It might be just an existence.

The Government need to get to grips with this, but the problem is that law makers and the clinicians who advise them view cannabis through the prism of their own experiences in the 1970s and 1980s, and, as I said earlier, things have moved on since then. The drug with which we are dealing now is highly toxic and highly dangerous. We must talk not about harm reduction, but about harm prevention.

We are responsible adults. I have had enough of the current trend of everyone trying to make adults children’s best friends. I am not my children’s best friend; I am their parent—I am their father and I must guide them and have their interests at heart. That is the duty of adults. We must not abrogate responsibility. We have to make young people aware of the risks they run if they smoke skunk cannabis.

I have an admission to make here tonight. I was the beneficiary of very good drugs education at the age of 14 and 15. I was educated in the mid-’80s. I have not lived a blameless life. There are things I have done in my past that I am ashamed of and I wish I had not done, but, as the Prime Minister said, everyone is entitled to a past. There were many drugs, but the one drug I really did not touch was LSD, because I was told that if we take LSD just once, we can have a bad trip and that can be the end; we may never return from that experience—the gate in our brain that opens up may never close. If we are lucky enough in our youth to survive using it intact as a whole person, we might in our mid-40s—as I am now—be driving our children back from football practice and suddenly start hallucinating again. That terrified me. The idea that I could lose my brain and my future terrified me, and ensured that at a time when LSD was rife in London I never—ever—touched it.

Drug education works, but we need to educate the educators. They need to be aware of the research that shows a strong causal link between skunk cannabis, psychosis and schizophrenia. As I have said, our health trusts are full of young people suffering the consequences. Families are being destroyed.

I will conclude by saying just a few more words. In an ideal world—let us have lofty ambition and strive for an ideal world—I do not want any youngster to take drugs. It is not a good thing to do; it is not good for their health, their future or their prospects. I will just say this,

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however: it is a lot easier to repair a septum in one’s nose than to repair a brain. Once our brain is gone, often the best pharmaceutical drugs in the world will not bring it back again—that is it. I have talked to dozens of parents across the country who are facing up to the fact that their children—the children they love, and brought into the world and nurtured—now have no future but simply an existence to look forward to. I do not think that is good enough, and I do not want to settle for it.

So here is my call to action for the Government: please take this matter seriously. Skunk cannabis has changed over the past 30 years. It is a major public health risk. It is robbing thousands of people of an opportunity to live fulfilled lives. I have worked with the Minister, and she has been fabulous up to this point, and I am sure she will continue her efforts to get this topic higher up the Department’s agenda.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to my enormously good friend Mary Brett, a former teacher who has worked for decades in the interests of young people and their welfare.

6.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) for raising an issue that is not only important, but seems to be attracting more attention in recent years. It was a pleasure to meet him and representatives of Cannabis Skunk Support, Mary Brett and Jeremy Edwards. In part, this greater attention is down to my hon. Friend’s work and that of the all-party groups on cannabis and children and on mental health.

I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend because although he is always passionate, his passion for this issue shone through in his eloquent and, at times, moving speech. This issue affects us all. We have been young ourselves and he was very open about his personal experience. Many of us are parents and our children are growing up in an increasingly complicated world, and the problem cannot be ignored.

Cannabis is the most commonly used drug in England today, and its use is particularly common among younger people. One of the big problems is that of perception. Many people see cannabis as benign, harmless, a throwback to the ’60s—I am showing my age—’70s or ’80s, or a source of artistic inspiration, particularly when compared with other, harder drugs. That is a very dangerous misconception these days. For a start, when people talk about the cannabis smoked 50 years ago, they are referring to something very different from that which we see on the streets today.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the most common form of cannabis used today is skunk, which is, on average, about four times stronger than herbal cannabis, the type with which some in this House might be familiar. It does not take a leap of faith to understand that regularly using cannabis of this strength could be very harmful indeed. It could result in dependence, for example, or in the development of serious mental health side effects. Those can be both short and long term, and can be devastating for anyone, including children and young people, causing a host of problems, including family breakdown and debt, and the sort of tragic stories that we heard about from my hon. Friend.

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Questions still do exist about just how strong the link is between cannabis use and mental health problems, but there is without doubt a link—that much is certain. Using cannabis can lead to serious problems, such as psychotic episodes and other mental health issues. In the case of young people, whose brains are still growing and developing, that is a particular cause for concern. Any damage caused then could affect them for the rest of their lives. The fact is that the best way to prevent damage like that is to avoid cannabis in the first place, but we are not stupid and we know that many people, both young and old, will be put in situations where cannabis is offered to them, so we need to take some very clear action.

The drug strategy that we published in December 2010 outlined action that we will take to prevent and reduce the demand for drugs, by establishing a “whole life” approach to the problem. That involves breaking the intergenerational paths to dependency by supporting vulnerable families; providing good quality education and advice so that young people and their parents are provided with credible information actively to resist substance misuse; and, of course, intervening early with young people and young adults. My hon. Friend mentioned the need to educate the educators, and it is important that those giving support get continued support in their work.

The latest data show that almost 9% of 11 to 15-year-olds reported taking cannabis in the past year. Although that is a long-term decrease, it is still too many. Those data show us two things: that the situation is improving and that drug use is by no means normal behaviour among young people. That is an important fact for young people to take on board. The Department for Education is taking action to maintain that decline. A review is going on into personal, social, health and economic education, which includes drug education, to determine how schools can be better supported. Of course, schools are not the only setting in which we can undertake this sort of educational programme. I will also be meeting the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) to discuss these issues soon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne also mentioned FRANK. Our drug strategy highlights the important role that FRANK has to play in providing information and advice, both to young people and to their parents or guardians. A review of how FRANK is used showed that the vast majority of young people preferred accessing FRANK online. Based on that review, as I recently discussed with my hon. Friend, we are in the process of improving the FRANK service, making it easier to use the website. We are also updating the tone and style of its language, so that it is more relevant to young people and provides them with the information and advice they need in a way that is accessible and provides clear messages.

We are also taking other steps to help people who already have a problem. In March, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence produced guidance on the assessment and management of people with

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psychosis and co-existing substance misuse. It will help providers and commissioners to ensure that services are appropriate for young people with psychosis and substance misuse problems. We recently published a mental health strategy to improve services for those who are affected by mental health problems. The strategy focuses on the importance of improving the quality and productivity of services and on making efficiency savings that can be reinvested back into the service to improve it still further.

Over the next five years, we will be putting around £400 million into psychological therapies in all parts of England for young people who are dependent on drugs. Those therapies will include talking therapies, supported where appropriate by family interventions. This issue affects not only individuals but whole families. The strategy will also address issues such as mental ill health and homelessness. Currently, 24,000 young people access specialist support for drug or alcohol misuse and the figures are good—97% of them are seen within three weeks of referral. However, we have to ensure that the quality of support stays high, so that every young person who needs help is given what they need. We will continue to improve the quality of that support and to make sure that it responds to the right people at the right time.

The letters my hon. Friend read out were moving and evocative. They demonstrate the human story behind this problem. Child and adolescent mental health services have a part to play, but we need to do a great deal more. We need to get the prevention right and we need to get support in when those preventive measures have not helped. He talked about moving from harm reduction to harm prevention and I could not agree more. We need to ensure that young people grow up with the skills they need to make what are sometimes difficult decisions about the choices they face. Addressing legalisation is not enough; we all know about the legal highs. What we need is for young people to make good decisions about the choices they face. I commend my hon. Friend and those who have written to him on sharing those experiences with us today.

Our position on cannabis use is clear: we will continue to focus on young people because if they are protected right from the start, they will be safer throughout their lives. Not only will their mental health be safeguarded, but their exam results and social development will benefit, their future options will remain open and their chances will remain bright. It is terrible to hear about young people who are struck down by poor decisions that are often made through ignorance. I am sure that position is shared by my hon. Friend and all hon. Members present. Let me assure him that his call for action is being answered in full. I was pleased to hear his complimentary remarks about me so far—I noticed the slight equivocation—and I assure him that I do not think he will be disappointed in the future. I will do all I can in my position to ensure that we do everything possible to protect the health of young people.

Question put and agreed to.

6.23 pm

House adjourned.