Psychoactive Substances Bill [Lords]


The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Sir David Amess  , † Mr George Howarth 

Brine, Steve (Winchester) (Con) 

Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab) 

Burrowes, Mr David (Enfield, Southgate) (Con) 

Cleverly, James (Braintree) (Con) 

Day, Martyn (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP) 

Doyle-Price, Jackie (Thurrock) (Con) 

Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab) 

Harris, Carolyn (Swansea East) (Lab) 

Morris, Grahame M. (Easington) (Lab) 

Penning, Mike (Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice)  

Pow, Rebecca (Taunton Deane) (Con) 

Stephenson, Andrew (Pendle) (Con) 

Sturdy, Julian (York Outer) (Con) 

Thompson, Owen (Midlothian) (SNP) 

White, Chris (Warwick and Leamington) (Con) 

Woodcock, John (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op) 

Ben Williams, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Public Bill Committee 

Tuesday 27 October 2015  

(Morning)  

[Mr George Howarth in the Chair] 

Psychoactive Substances Bill [Lords]

9.25 am 

The Chair:  Before we begin, I have a few preliminary announcements that I hope will be helpful. First, the Committee’s quorum is six members, including the Chair. Secondly, will people be good enough to switch any electronic devices to silent? I remind the Committee that, regrettably, tea and coffee are not allowed during sittings. Any Members who wish to remove their jacket, or any other limiting item of their apparel, should feel free to do so. 

We will now consider the programme motion on the amendment paper before considering a motion to enable the reporting of written evidence for publication. In view of the time available, I hope we can take those motions formally without debate. 

Ordered,  

That— 

(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.25 am on Tuesday 27 October) meet—

(a) at 2.00 pm on Tuesday 27 October;

(b) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 29 October,

(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 3; Schedule 1; Clauses 4 to 39; Schedule 2; Clauses 40 to 56; Schedule 3; Clauses 57 to 59; Schedule 4; Clauses 60 to 62; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill;

(3) the proceedings on the Bill shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00 pm on Thursday 29 October.—(Mike Penning.)

Resolved,  

That, subject to the discretion of the Chairman, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—(Mike Penning.)  

The Chair:  Copies of written evidence received by the Committee will be made available in the Committee Room. 

We now begin line-by-line consideration of the Bill. The selection list for today’s sittings is available in the room and shows how the selected amendments have been grouped together for debate. Grouped amendments are generally on the same or a similar issue. A Member who has put their name to the lead amendment in a group will be called first, and other Members are then free to catch my eye to speak on all or any amendments within the group. A Member may speak more than once in a single debate. I will work on the assumption that the Minister wishes the Committee to reach a decision on all Government amendments. 

Please note that decisions on amendments take place not in the order they are debated but in the order they appear on the amendment paper—in other words, debates

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occur according to the selection list and decisions are taken when we come to the clause that the amendment affects. I hope that explanation is helpful. I will use my discretion to decide whether to allow separate stand part debates on individual clauses and schedules following the debate on relevant amendments. 

Clause 1 

Overview 

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning):  I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 5, after “9”, insert “and (Possession of a psychoactive substance in a custodial institution)” 

This amendment is consequential on NC2.

The Chair:  With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: 

Government amendment 7. 

The motion to transfer subsection (9) of clause 6. 

Government amendments 10, 17, 18, 26, 30 and 33 to 36. 

Government new clause 2—Possession of a psychoactive substance in a custodial institution .  

Mike Penning:  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I also look forward to serving under Sir David’s chairmanship. Thank you for setting out so concisely how the Committee will proceed. 

I thank Her Majesty’s Opposition and the Scottish National party for being so supportive of the principle behind the Bill, on which there was extensive discussion in the other place. One area that was discussed extensively in the other place is the use of psychoactive substances in prisons and other custodial places. The Lords sought to address the issue by amending clause 6 to make the supply of psychoactive substances, and offers to supply psychoactive substances, on prison premises a statutory aggravating factor. On reflection, we are content with the Lords amendment, not least because the governors and the Prison Officers Association support making possession a specific offence. 

We also support the Lords amendment following the campaigning by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who has spoken to me privately about this matter on more than one occasion—I can see the shadow Front-Bench team nodding. He really understands the matter and has been campaigning on it for many years, and it would be inappropriate if we did not acknowledge that. 

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester is a member of the Committee. He knows all too well that the substances are a dangerous and pervasive problem in prisons and other secure estates, not only for prison officers but for other staff and prisoners. Having reflected on the Lords amendment we are content to retain it; Government amendment 7 simply makes some drafting improvement so as to ensure that the measure is tight and, in particular, to provide a definition of a custodial institution. 

We have concluded, however, that we need to go further, with new clause 2 introducing a new offence for a person who is in possession of a psychoactive substance in a custodial institution. I think everyone agrees that the use of psychoactive substances needs to be addressed,

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and it is not about just prisoners; it is about other staff who may, sadly, wish to bring such substances on to the premises, and visitors. The safety of visitors, prisoners and staff is, of course, paramount. 

The introduction of a possession offence in prison would enable the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to pursue cases of prisoners, visitors or staff being found with small quantities of psychoactive substances in prison, and would support the stance that psychoactive substances are not to be tolerated in prison. The measure is fully supported across the House, by all the experts and panels, and within the Prison Service and other custodial suites. The measure concerns not just prisons, but any form of custody, particularly immigration detention centres and youth detention centres. I hope that in that way, along with the help we have had from the Lords, a simple case will be made about the possession of a psychoactive substance in prisons and other custodial centres, as opposed to in the community where it is not an offence. That is needed, to make a difference. We have listened carefully, and that is exactly what we will do. 

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab):  Mr Howarth, I look forward to serving under your chairmanship and receiving your guidance. This is my first outing as a shadow Minister on a Bill, and I know that I am sitting under two experienced Chairs who will make my life so much easier than it might otherwise have been. That is a plea, in case you had not worked it out. 

As I made clear during my speech on Second Reading, we support the Bill’s principles and general approach. The 2015 Labour manifesto included a commitment to ban the sale and distribution of dangerous psychoactive substances. A blanket ban with listed exemptions appears to be the most effective means of beginning to tackle the serious public health problems that the drugs have brought about. During the Committee stage, we will look at the weaknesses in the drafting of the Bill, and will table amendments to try to improve it. I hope that the Government take our critique and suggestions in the constructive manner in which they are intended. We want to work with the Government, through the Committee, to make the Bill as effective and robust as possible. 

The Government have elected to insert a new clause into the Bill, which will make it an offence to possess a psychoactive substance in a custodial institution. The new clause amends clause 1, which is consequential on the new offence. The Bill already contains offences of supply, and of possession with intent to supply, psychoactive substances, which apply to prisoners and staff as much as to the rest of the public. The new clause makes it an aggravating factor to supply such substances in or around a prison, meaning that the only new power would be the ability to further punish those involved with psychoactive substances. Although I share the Government’s concern about the problem of such substances in our prisons, I am not convinced that we lack enough statutes to bring charges against prisoners, staff and visitors. 

I also assume that many of the prisoners in possession of and taking psychoactive substances in our custodial institutions are likely to be addicted and are possibly in prison because they needed to feed their habit. It would perhaps be better to treat such instances as a health issue rather than one of enforcement. As I have said, the

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Bill already contains offences of supply and possession with intent to supply in or near a prison as an aggravated offence, so I am not convinced that the addition of possession is necessary. 

As I said on Second Reading, I am concerned by the findings in the prisons and probation ombudsman’s report of July of this year that new psychoactive substances had been a factor in at least 19 prisoner deaths between 2012 and 2014. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons’ annual report was just as concerning. It found that the availability of new psychoactive drugs has 

“had a severe impact and has led to debt and associated violence.” 

New psychoactive substances are undoubtedly a real problem for our prisons, which I am sure is what motivated the Minister to table the amendment. However, neither of the reports asked for legislation to help deal with the problem. Indeed, the drugs that the reports mention as causing problems, Black Mamba and Spice, are already controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, meaning that possessing the most problematic substances in our prisons is already a crime. In addition, the Prison Service already has powers to discipline and punish prisoners for possessing psychoactive substances though prison rules. 

Both reports stress that better detection mechanisms for new psychoactive substances need to be in place. HMIP stated that many new psychoactive substances do not show up in mandatory drug tests, making it difficult for prison officers to know what they are dealing with and the scale of the problem they face. Too few drugs tests are taking place, due to inadequate staffing. The prisons ombudsman highlighted that the sniffer dogs used by prisons to detect drugs often could not identify new psychoactive substances, and that it was still waiting for X-ray body scanners to detect substances concealed in body cavities. 

I understand that the prevalence of Spice in prisons can be high. Will the legislation have a deterrent effect? Is it practically possible to enforce, or will it be like handing out speeding tickets at a grand prix? Will the Minister explain what prompted his desire to introduce criminal sanctions for possessing a psychoactive substance in a prison? Does he genuinely feel that the prison system has enough resources to tackle the direct supply and demand of such substances? It does rather feel that the amendment has been tabled out of a desire to do something about the problem in our prisons because the Minister and the Government have not been able to do the right thing, which is to address the staffing and resources issues raised by HMIP and the prisons and probation ombudsman. 

During my Second Reading speech, I stressed that we have to reduce supply and demand for such drugs, meaning that we need to focus on education, including education for prisoners and, I suggest, their families. The Minister’s letter to the Chairs of the Committee states that the new offence provided by this amendment will complement the work of the National Offender Management Service to 

“educate prisoners, staff and visitors.” 

Will the Minister update us on what changes the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice have made to the drug education strategy since July, which is when the prisons and probation ombudsman report recommended

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that the Prison Service should put in place a specific education programme about the dangers of psychoactive substances? 

In conclusion, I am unconvinced that the new offence would provide any useful tools in tackling the problem of novel psychoactive substances in our prisons. It is already against prison rules to possess a psychoactive substance. It is also against the law to possess Black Mamba and Spice—the NPS that currently cause the most damage in our prisons. They are already banned. Custody professionals seem clear that the priority needs to be ensuring that prisons have the resources to deal with these substances and to educate their staff and prisoners. I think that makes sense and I agree with them. 

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con):  Unsurprisingly, I support the Government amendment. I will let my right hon. Friend the Minister answer directly the points made by the shadow Minister; I just want to make a couple of comments. 

As I said in my Second Reading speech last Monday evening, there is unquestionably a huge problem in the secure estate. I referred to the work of RAPt—the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust. Before the debate, that excellent organisation sent hon. Members a research briefing, “Tackling the issue of New Psychoactive Substances in prisons”. It lays the situation out pretty starkly. As I did not last week, I will not pull my punches now. RAPt says that NPS use has quickly become widespread among prisoners. The annual report from NOMS affirms that increased NPS use among prisoners is generating high levels of debt, intimidation and violence between prisoners and is likely to be the main catalyst for the recent rise in attacks on prison staff. I will come on to my constituency experience of that in a moment. RAPt says on the scale of the problem: 

“The number of prisoners using NPS varies across prisons”— 

across the estate— 

“but some estimates suggest as many as 60% to 90% of the prison population use, or have used, NPS.” 

As the shadow Minister said, Spice seems to be the NPS of choice at the moment. It is also known as Black Mamba—I cannot ever say that without smiling—or Clockwork Orange. Some of the quotes in the report by RAPt are shocking. They include the following: 

“Prisoners who had used Spice described it as being ‘like a crack addiction’ or ‘like cannabis, just a lot stronger’…Others have seriously injured themselves head-butting mirrors thinking they were being attacked…One prisoner had witnessed ‘someone bury a knife in someone’s neck [on Spice] ’cause they were paranoid’…There is also a game that is becoming popular in prisons”— 

this has been reported to me— 

“It is often called the…50 pound challenge. In the game, prisoners are challenged to smoke £50 worth of Spice. If they manage to smoke it all before breaking down or passing out, then they get it for free. If they fail they have to pay for it.” 

We can see how this is becoming the new currency in prisons. When I first started going into prisons for my work on the Justice Committee and in my constituency, tobacco was the currency, but without question NPS are becoming the currency. I have Her Majesty’s Prison—

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and young offenders institution—Winchester in my constituency. As I said on Second Reading, Dave Rogers, who is a very good governor, is struggling to deal with the effects of Spice at the moment inside Winchester prison. He told me that last month there were three ambulances on the estate at one time for three prisoners who had taken NPS in the exercise yard and were unconscious. That is gravely concerning to me. 

The shadow Minister says that we currently have powers. Under the Bill, simple possession of a psychoactive substance in the wider community is not criminalised, but the Government have rightly concluded that the problem is such that it requires a different approach in the context of the secure estate because it is particularly destructive there. All my experience of working inside and outside prisons is that control and order is fundamental to prison life. When that breaks down, we have anarchy and people unfortunately die. People are dying in prisons at an alarming rate. There are many and varied reasons for that, but they are dying under our care. The state is their guardian and they are dying under our care. 

I completely agree with and want to restate this point made by the Minister in his letter to us: 

“The introduction of a criminal offence for possession…in a custodial institution would complement the continuing work by the National Offender Management Service to educate prisoners, staff and visitors about the harms caused by psychoactive substances and…enable firm measures to be taken to punish those who possess psychoactive substances in prison.” 

The shadow Minister is right to say that at the moment there is an offence that can add 42 days to an offender’s time in custody. [Interruption.] I think that the Minister agreed from a sedentary position. However, this measure takes that on much further and sends a much clearer message. 

Lyn Brown:  I completely agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. I want to ask him, however, about education. If we are going to deal with individual prisoners for possession rather than supply—pushing—I am absolutely with him, but surely education and treatment would be more beneficial to not only the prisoner but the community at large. 

Steve Brine:  I was just about to come on to that; the shadow Minister is a visionary. I want to have my cake and eat it too; I want to strengthen the law in this area, but the wider challenge, as the governor at Winchester prison said to me, is that the debate today is not only about making NPS illegal and changing the law on possession in prisons. In my experience, prisoners will always want to use illegal substances. They will always want to get “loaded”, as I said on Second Reading, whether that be through a class A drug, a class B drug or NPS. 

9.45 am 

The challenge is supporting prison governors and staff to help those who want to kick the habit, which the vast majority of prisoners want to do, in my experience. Prison services are being hugely stretched. Punishments need to be substantial—those were the governor’s words—but the trick is to be careful that the clause does not incentivise more bullying and coercion to convey on behalf of prisoners, given that this is now quite an expensive currency within the secure estate. 

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I could not agree more with the shadow Minister’s wider point about tackling drug use. The Prime Minister said in his conference speech in Manchester last month that we need to get away from the “lock ’em up or let ’em out” mentality, to which I nearly stood up and said, “Hallelujah!” That would not have been a fantastic career move on my part, so I said it internally. The shadow Minister mentioned the detection of drugs, whether NPS or any other substances, as they come into prison. I said last week on Second Reading that the drug dogs we use in my constituency prison and across the estate are not trained in detecting NPS. They are highly intelligent creatures but do not spot those substances, so we have a problem. 

We have a problem with drugs getting into prisons. Anyone who has worked in prisons knows the incredible ways in which prisoners and their families get drugs into prison and the risks they will take, often involving children and relatives. For most of my constituents, it beggars belief that we have a drug problem in prison at all. They are secure institutions, but the problem is a massive one, and we must do an awful lot better. The Minister for Prisons, Probation and Rehabilitation, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), to whom I speak regularly about this, is acutely aware of the issue. 

I mentioned what the Prime Minister said because of the much wider point of prison reform. When I was on the Justice Committee, we went to Texas. People always laugh when I say this, but we went to look at how Texas do criminal justice. Actually, Texas do criminal justice in a much more enlightened way than we do in this country. The guy in the state legislature who was behind the Right On Crime initiative said that of the people in prison, we are scared of 30% and mad at 70%, and that we need to get a bit smarter about the people we are mad at and ensure we lock up the people we are scared of. That sums up the philosophy we should have in this country. 

I was incredibly pleased to see that the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice recently went to Dallas and Houston to look at the work being done there, in terms of drug courts and getting much smarter about how we tackle abuse and addiction in our society. Abuse and addiction in society will ultimately end up in the secure estate, because the secure estate is merely a reflection of our society, whether we like to admit it or not. 

We have to get smarter about how we use criminal justice and correctional facilities in this country; that is the wider point. Amending this piece of legislation on possession in prison is the right way to go, but it is just the icing on the cake. The much bigger picture is dealing with the cake itself, which is who we lock up, why we lock them up and what we do when they are in there. At the moment, they are bored to tears; half the reason they are bored to tears is that they have nothing to do, and the devil makes work for idle minds. Without going into a Christian diversion—I can see I have already tested your patience, Mr Howarth—there is a huge dark side in our prisons, and right now, this is the greatest manifestation of that inside the secure estate. I therefore support the clause. 

Owen Thompson (Midlothian) (SNP):  I, too, appreciate the opportunity to participate in the Committee. This is my first time, so please bear with me. My party has also

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tabled amendments, and I look forward to discussing them. I welcome, as do others, the fact that there is broad agreement on many aspects of the Bill. We all want to point in the same direction but the issue is how we get there. 

I echo much of what the shadow Minister said, in absolutely recognising both the need for action to be taken on prison estates and the challenges that involves, but I am not yet entirely convinced that the measures will achieve the outcomes we want. My party certainly does not oppose the amendments at this stage, but we wish to see further consideration on Report. 

In many ways, the issues regarding prison estates are slightly different from the wider issues covered by the Bill. There is an absolute need for a greater education programme, to ensure an awareness of the effects of NPS. In its evidence, the Trading Standards Institute made a point about testing. How can systems be put in place to ensure that substances that enter prisons can be identified as psychoactive and then isolated and taken out of the equation? I again echo the shadow Minister in saying that in the prison estate the need for treatment is even greater than elsewhere. For those who find themselves in a secure estate as a result of an offence caused by NPS addiction, treatment is critical because removing the addiction is the only way to start to take the substances out of the equation—to remove them as today’s currency of choice. 

I will be brief at this point, but I again state that we want to see a far greater focus on education and treatment while recognising the need to take action that focuses on prisons in particular. 

Mike Penning:  I fully understand many of the points raised by the shadow Minister and other colleagues. The measures are not a silver bullet; I think we all accept that. Action needs to be taken in the context of better treatment programmes. We are starting to understand that. Addiction to NPS is a particularly difficult matter. The action taken categorically has to be about education, and in the prison estate it also has to be about detection. 

The blanket ban helps. We spoke earlier about Spice and Black Mamba. Those are generic terms for a substance that is tweaked by chemists every time we chase the matter. We are here now because we have not been able to get on the front foot, in front of the people who are trying to destroy others’ lives and, frankly, make a small fortune as well. 

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, and the shadow Minister, rightly pointed out that there are already sanctions, but they are fairly limited within prisons, to be honest. We need to listen to the experts, to the people who deal with secure estates on a day-to-day basis. If they say that the substances are a major issue not only in that they are a currency in the estates but because of the safety of staff, visitors and prisoners, we need to act. We have tabled the amendment and are making an exemption regarding possession within prisons because that is what we have been asked to do. My Prisons Minister has told me that it is what is being asked for. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester has spoken to some prison governors and I have spoken to others. They have asked for the measure. Is it the only answer? No. NHS England in our part of the world, NHS Scotland and NHS Wales need to step up to the plate and do some more work, because they run the treatment programmes within the prisons. 

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The director general of NOMs is specifically chairing across groups to make sure that we get a better understanding and better education for staff and visitors. The best option here is not actually to convict anybody but to convince people that they should change their behaviour; but we live in the real world and I acknowledge that that is not going to happen. Nevertheless, we have to send a message. That message was sent to me as the Minister from the people on the frontline that they needed this, and it is my job to make sure that they have it, so I hope that we will approve it. 

Amendment 1 agreed to.  

Mike Penning:  I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out “Section 10” and insert “Section (Exceptions to offences)” 

This amendment is consequential on amendment 11 and NC3.

The Chair:  With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: 

Government amendments 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 28, 29 and 37. 

Government new clause 3—Exceptions to offences .  

Government new schedule 1—Exempted activities.  

Mike Penning:  The Government made a commitment in the other place during the Bill’s passage there to review the existing exemption for research activities and to strengthen it. That commitment was important and we shall push forward with it now, as we would all agree that bona fide research is a vital area. In doing so, we are following the consultation of the Academy of Medical Sciences and others, and we are confident that this exemption is necessary, sufficient and robust. 

The new schedule also provides an exemption for healthcare-related activities, which I think we would all support. That is obviously very important. We do not want to make a problem for individuals. We see that this exemption has a complement in the exemption of medical products in schedule 1. In providing the new exemption we are going for a belt and braces approach, and we fully accept that that is what we are doing. I think that is very important. 

New clause 3 enables the Home Secretary to add and vary a list of exempted activities in a new schedule. This regulation-making power replaces that in clause 10 of the Bill which covers the same ground, so we will effectively be removing clause 10 and replacing it with new clause 3. In the light of what we have seen in the other place, we felt that that is important. When we get to clause 10, obviously we will not move it. Hopefully we can move on, because I think this is an agreed part of the Bill. It is important that as different substances become available, the Home Secretary has the powers to add to and vary the list. 

Lyn Brown:  Government amendment 2 is consequential on later Government amendments, providing for exceptions for medical and academic research. One of the concerns raised by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was about the impact of this legislation on legitimate scientific work. As the ACMD made clear, in the original

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drafting there was an exemption for clinical trials but no mention of exemption made for laboratory research in academia or industry. 

The Academy of Medical Sciences also wrote to the Home Secretary to raise its concerns. An example picked out by the AMS is that the Bill could criminalise neuroscience researchers using psychoactive substances as experimental tools to help us better understand the causes of some mental illness. Several Members of the House of Lords raised that as an issue prior to Report in that place. Lord Rosser, who led on the Bill for Labour in the House of Lords, highlighted on Second Reading that it is of vital importance that the Bill does not 

“inhibit or restrict important medical research that will help us to improve our knowledge of drugs and their impact”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 June 2015; Vol. 762, c. 1964.] 

I thank Lord Rosser for highlighting that, and for seeking assurances from the Government that the original clause 10 of the Bill will not inhibit or restrict legitimate research by the terms of the Bill. I also thank him for emphasising the need for procedures relating to medical research to be made exempt under the Bill. Without his diligent work, the Government’s new clause, which deals with many of the inadequacies of the original drafting, may not have been possible. 

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, who spoke passionately on Second Reading about the need for clearer exceptions for medical research. He was absolutely right to raise concerns that the vague definition of psychoactive substances in the Bill will impede legitimate research. 

10 am 

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab):  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s flattering remarks. The United Kingdom is a world leader in research of this kind. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the unintended consequence of parts of the Bill may be to inhibit some of that research? We need to ensure, therefore, that the Bill is absolutely tight, so that that research can continue. 

Lyn Brown:  I certainly agree. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend said: 

“Would it not be a tragedy if the United Kingdom, one of the leading research nations in the world, avoided finding a cure for some awful psychiatric disorder due to our failure to include the appropriate exemptions for scientists?”—[Official Report, 19 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 779.] 

Thanks to pressure exerted on the Government, Lord Bates, who led the Bill through the Lords for the Government, wrote to Lord Rosser and other peers to state that the Government were actively considering the issue and were in discussion with the ACMD. He pledged that the Government would table amendments addressing concerns about medical research during the Commons Committee stage. His colleague, Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen, stated that the Government have no intention of stopping “bona fide research”. I am glad that the Government listened to Labour’s concerns and have delivered on Lord Bates’s promise by introducing a new clause that will specifically exempt academic activities. I absolutely support the amendments. 

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However, I cannot help but feel that the Government could have avoided the need hastily to draft the amendments and table some significant information if they had properly consulted the ACMD before they produced the first draft of the Bill. This has been a very quick—I would not say rushed—Bill. We had Second Reading in the Commons a week ago and here we are in Committee, and there are still issues that are yet to be completely ironed out in Committee to make the Bill enforceable in our courts of law. 

We need to take into consideration organisations such as the ACMD, which consists of leading experts on drugs, many of whom work in academia. If they had been consulted on the original draft of the Bill, they would undoubtedly have spotted the problems with the Government’s original plans. The amendment could have been in the Bill from the beginning, and parliamentary time could have been spent more productively in looking at the goals of the Bill and how well the Bill will help the Government to achieve them. 

Mike Penning:  At the outset, I want to say that legislation is passed in Parliament by introducing a draft Bill, which is then scrutinised. I welcome the scrutiny that took place in the Lords. The reason why the Bill started in the Lords—this is probably above my pay grade—is that there are so many genuine experts there. Perhaps if it had started in this House the same amendments would have been introduced by colleagues on both sides of the House. I do not mind that; colleagues who know me well enough know that I am pragmatic. 

I have a couple of points about the shadow Minister’s comments. This should have been done years ago under previous Administrations—I think we all know that. For every day that we do not do this, people are dying. I accept that it is rushed, to a degree—there was a huge gap between the Bill being in the Lords and coming to us—but it is right and proper for this House to expedite the Bill, while doing everything possible about any anomalies that generally concern groups of people, in particular on the research side. If there were any such anomalies in the legislation, I would let no one prevent us from changing things. That is why we have tabled the amendments. Unashamedly, I have already mentioned belt and braces. If we need to amend things further as we go on, we will do so, so that we do not prevent research in such an important area. 

I wanted to touch on the scrutiny work done in the other House. I sat in on the debate on Second Reading and Report, on the steps of the Throne—it is a great honour to be able to do such things—and it was fascinating. One group of people was fundamentally opposed, as in our House, but it was a tiny group. We got around bits such as “Will this affect people in churches with incense?” and, once we had got rid of that stuff, we could actually ask, “Does the Bill do what it says on the tin?” and “Does it allow the research to continue to take place?” which is absolutely vital. New clause 3 would improve the Bill, and that is why we can take out clause 10. That is because we were listening, and this is the way forward. 

Amendment 2 agreed to.  

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill. 

Andrew Gwynne:  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. 

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The Committee has the benefit of a two-for-one offer from the official Opposition: we have not one shadow Minister, but two. We feel strongly that we are dealing not only with a home affairs issue but a public health one. As Labour’s shadow public health Minister, I think it is important for us to have a health voice in Committee. 

I will not test your patience, Mr Howarth, by going over what we discussed in detail on Second Reading, but I want to make it clear in the clause stand part debate that we support the general aims of the Bill. The Labour party committed to banning legal highs before the last election, and we do not shy away from that commitment today. On Second Reading we pointed to evidence from the Republic of Ireland and it is true that the only way to draft an effective Bill is to include a blanket ban. Most if not all Members of the House of Commons— 

The Chair:  Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is about to address his remarks to clause 1— 

Andrew Gwynne:  Oh yes. 

The Chair:  I look forward to that with great anticipation. 

Andrew Gwynne:  Absolutely, Mr Howarth. I was only stating our agreement. The clause constitutes the overview of the structure of the Bill and creates a blanket ban on the production, distribution, sale and supply of psychoactive substances in the United Kingdom. That is why discussion of the blanket ban was relevant to the stand part debate. 

We have to place it on the record, however, that we recognise the need to control the production and supply of such substances, and the need to educate young people about the real nature of the drugs, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said. The Minister was right that drugs such as Black Mamba and Spice are already banned, but they can be tweaked and we need to be on the front foot. We also need to look at the health of prisoners, which is why I am pleased that the Minister has tabled the Government amendments. I am pleased that the issue of research has been clarified, because that situation needed fundamental improvement in the Bill. I am satisfied that the Minister has committed to further improvements on Report, if necessary. We will hold him to that. With that, we fully support the Government’s aims and intentions to ban legal highs. 

Question put and agreed to.  

Clause 1, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.  

Clause 2 

Meaning of “psychoactive substance” etc 

Owen Thompson:  I beg to move amendment 51, in clause 2, page 1, line 14, leave out subsection (1) and insert— 

(a) is not prohibited by the United Nations Drug Conventions of 1961 and 1971, or by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, but which may pose a public health threat comparable to that posed by substances listed in these conventions and

(b) is not an exempted substance (see section 3)”

This new definition includes part of the alternative definition of psychoactive substances proposed by ACMD which clearly merits debate and clear reasons why it should be rejected - if it is to be rejected. This would also incorporate reference to harm.

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The Chair:  With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: 

Amendment 43, in clause 2, page 1, line 15, leave out paragraph (a) insert— 

“(a) is a compound capable of producing a pharmacological response on the central nervous system or which produces a chemical response in vitro, identical or pharmacologically similar to substances controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and”

Together with amendment 44 this would replace the definition of psychoactive substance within the Bill by the definition recommended by the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs.

Amendment 44, in clause 2, page 1, line 18, leave out subsection (2) and insert— 

‘(2) For the purpose of this Act

“substance” means any compound, irrespective of chemical state, produced by synthesis, or metabolites of those compounds.

“synthesis” means the process of producing a compound by human instigation of at least one chemical reaction.

“compound” means any chemical species that is formed when two or more atoms join together chemically.’

Together with amendment 43 this would replace the definition of psychoactive substance within the Bill by the definition recommended by the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs.

Owen Thompson:  We felt that there was a weakness in the Bill around the definition of a psychoactive substance. This is a fundamental aspect of how we move the proposals forward. As the Minister has mentioned, often when substances are brought on to the market, efforts are taken to make them illegal. The chemists go back to the drawing board, try to tweak the formula and the same thing comes out with the same effect but with a different formula, so it is not covered. We need to make sure that the definition is as strong as possible, so that action can be taken where required. 

Our amendment moves forward some of the issues on definition that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs raised at the Home Affairs Committee. We accept that the Opposition Front Bench also has amendments on similar lines which do likewise. However, questions remain on how action can be taken because, even with a stronger definition, how can prosecutors prove that something is capable of having a psychoactive effect? This point was commented on in relation to prisoner status. How are tests done? What are the tests, and who carries them out? Would expert evidence be required in every instance where a substance is being looked at? Would that be considered under the definition and who would carry out that function? 

I will be brief, because I simply want to make sure that we can have as strong a position as possible around a definition. I am not seeking to press the amendment to a vote, but to raise the matter with Ministers to make sure that on Report, these comments can be taken into account to make sure that the definition is as strong as it can be. 

Mike Penning:  Like all things in this House, events are often superseded. I looked carefully at the ACMD’s evidence to the Home Affairs Committee and colleagues now have copies of letters from that very expert panel as to whether it is now confident that we can define “psychoactive”. We will use its expertise as we go forward. 

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Earlier, we touched on why we had not consulted more with the ACMD when we formulated the Bill. Several colleagues at Second Reading and, I think, the shadow Minister earlier raised that point. Incidentally, the chairman of the ACMD and two members of the Committee were on the expert panel considering the sphere of issues that we needed to bring forward, so we did consult them. Obviously, with the chairman of the ACMD physically present, there was a huge input from the council. The ACMD is working with us. Its letter clearly states that it thinks we can define “psychoactive”. That is very important. 

My concern around amendment 44 is the move to “synthesis”. Initially, the ACMD was in that position, but it has moved away from it. We are absolutely adamant that a definition cannot be arrived at through “synthetic”; it has to be a blanket ban. I think everybody is agreed on that. The Irish situation was exactly the same. We have learned from what happened in Ireland. Other countries are now following us. If we were to limit the Bill in the way that the amendments indicate, it would be quite difficult. I will wait to hear the shadow Minister’s comments. 

10.15 am 

Lyn Brown:  I fear the clause gives rise to three issues, which it is important to consider. The first concerns the intended scope of the Bill and how it has apparently widened with Government drafting. The second issue is how the state can prove that a substance is psychoactive, particularly when seeking prosecution. Our amendment is based on language recommended to the Home Secretary by the ACMD, which offers a new definition of a psychoactive substance. We believe that the ACMD’s language may provide a better response to these issues than the current drafting. 

The final and related issue is that we need to know whether we have the necessary resources in place to test for psychoactivity. The Committee will be aware that one concern that the ACMD raised about the drafting of the Bill is that it refers merely to psychoactive substances, whereas in previous discussions of the problem—including the impact assessment for the Bill and the expert panel report, which recommended the approach taken by the Government—the words “psychoactive substance” have always been prefixed by the word “novel” or “new”. 

According to the ACMD, the prefixes of “new” or “novel” indicate that we are referring to substances that have been produced in order to mimic the effects of controlled substances but currently sit outside the controls of the 1971 Act. The ACMD is concerned that, by excluding the words “novel” or “new”, the Bill has expanded in scope beyond its intended target and is now disproportionately broad. 

The Home Secretary has written to the ACMD and indicated that she thinks that the inclusion of the words “new” or “novel” in the Bill would be unworkable, as that would suggest that substances that existed before the Bill came into place ought not to be controlled. She also pointed out that many of the NPS that we want to control are not new, in the sense of being newly created; it is just that they have only recently been used for recreational purposes. For example, mephedrone was first synthesised in 1929 and “forgotten” until it was rediscovered in 2004. Its use became widespread around 2007. 

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However, on Lords Report, Baroness Meacher proposed that the word “synthetic” be inserted before “psychoactive substances” in order to restrict the Bill to its intended scope of drugs synthetically designed to mimic existing drugs. 

On 17 August the ACMD wrote again to the Home Secretary with a series of recommendations of how the definitions in the Bill could be tightened. One recommendation was to include a definition of substance in the Bill to include the word “synthesis” and specifically to mention an effect that has a pharmacological similarity to drugs controlled by the 1971 Act. That would, it argued, cover the intended scope of the legislation. 

On Friday, the ACMD wrote once again to the Home Secretary and reiterated that its recommendation was that language be used that invokes pharmacological similarity to drugs controlled by the 1971 Act. Our amendment is based on the language recommended by the ACMD. 

I am sorry that I am not able to take in the information just laid before us. I will use my lunch break to read, digest and understand it. I am a woman who did not know what poppers were until two weeks ago. It is not a feasible idea for me to listen to the Minister and the debate and take in this new information. 

On Lords Report, it was argued from the Government Benches that adding the word “synthetic” would be inappropriate as there are organic substances such as salvia and kratom that are both psychoactive and harmful and ought to be controlled. In the Home Secretary’s letter to the ACMD she makes a similar argument. She suggests there are substances that have long been tolerated in the absence of a more comprehensive legal framework, yet have known harms. 

If these organic substances have known harms, will the Minister tell us why they cannot be controlled by existing powers in the Misuse of Drugs Act? After all, it is surely not possible for drug producers to come up with hundreds of new organic compounds and so overwhelm the authorities in the same way as they have managed with synthetic substitutes. The ACMD does not seem to be worried by a reference to synthesis and has said: 

“The small number of problematic psychoactive natural products could be considered by the ACMD for control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.” 

We should take seriously the issues raised by the ACMD and look carefully at the language it recommends, so that we can be sure that the Bill targets as well as possible the problem that we all want it to tackle. Currently, there is much feeling that the definition is too unspecific and does not adequately define a psychoactive substance. Unfortunately, that could lead to a situation in which the Bill is unenforceable and open to legal challenge on whether a substance is psychoactive. 

I understand that the latest letter from the ACMD to the Home Secretary, published last Friday, suggests a more objective, technical definition with reference to specific groups of psychoactive drugs. Many substances in those groups have been tested and researched and those found to be harmful have already been controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Including a specific list of classes or groups of substances that are associated with psychoactivity and harm, as in the Misuse of Drugs Act, makes it more likely that new related substances will have the same psychoactive capability. 

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On rereading amendment 43, I wonder whether two different interpretations are possible. The possible ambiguity is in what the phrase 

“identical or pharmacologically similar to substances controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act” 

might refer to. My initial understanding was that it referred to the pharmacological response or the chemical response—that is, a substance would be controlled if it produced a response identical or similar to the responses produced by substances controlled under the MDA. However, I wonder whether the phrase could refer to a compound, and so imply that a substance would be controlled if it produced any pharmacological or chemical response and is identical or similar to substances controlled under the MDA. 

If interpretation one is correct, the clause captures substances according to their effect, which is what I would have expected; but if interpretation two is correct, the clause would seem heavy-handed as, in principle, it would capture a benign substance that had only a limited effect but happened to be similar to a drug controlled under the MDA. Many exclusions might then be needed. If interpretation one is correct, the approach would capture all substances the ACMD has dealt with to date. Also, I would have thought that adding an inclusion list to the definition of psychoactive drugs would make it easier to manage an exclusion list, as well as helping on the resources required for that. 

The Minister will see that I am genuinely struggling on this: we all want the legislation to work, but unless the definition is strengthened and underpinned with ways of testing psychoactivity, the Bill might not result in successful prosecutions or controls. What response does he have to the difficulties I have outlined? If he will not accept the amendments, will he give this matter full consideration before Report and Third Reading? 

These are not party political concerns but concerns that emanate from a desire to see this Bill have a proper effect and safeguard all our communities. I genuinely believe that we do not have this matter right as yet, because major loopholes might emerge as attempts are made to prosecute the producers and suppliers of these pernicious drugs. 

I now move on to the issue of proving that a substance is psychoactive. I am sure that the whole Committee is aware that the ACMD has written to the Home Secretary warning her that we will have to rely on proxy measures of psychoactivity, such as in vitro neurochemical tests, to prove psychoactivity, and again these tests “may not stand up” in court. It could result in a very resource-intensive forensic strategy and legal costs could well rise due to the need for expert witnesses, who obviously may disagree with each other. In vitro tests—that is, tests carried out in glass test tubes—are not conclusive and some substances that seem to be psychoactive in a test tube have been found not to be psychoactive in vivo, that is in humans. A conclusive test of psychoactivity would require randomised tests on human beings for definitive proof, and obviously that is fraught with difficulties. 

I suggested on Second Reading of this Bill that we should take the ACMD’s warnings seriously. There have been only five prosecutions in Ireland since similar legislation was introduced in 2010. Police in Ireland admit that one of the reasons that there have been so few prosecutions there is that it is difficult to prove

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psychoactivity. Detective Sergeant Tony Howard from the Irish Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau told the BBC: 

“We are relying on scientists to assist us with these prosecutions and, unfortunately, they haven’t been able to provide the evidence to us.” 

We need assurances from the Government that they are making good progress with the ACMD in resolving this issue. Without the credible threat of prosecution, it will be much harder to disrupt and break up the supply chains. 

Amendment 43, which I remind the Committee is based on an ACMD recommendation, would define a psychoactive substance as 

“a compound capable of producing a pharmacological response on the central nervous system or which produces a chemical response in vitro, identical or pharmacologically similar to substances controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971”. 

It is my understanding that one of the benefits of this definition is that it would be harder for defendants to challenge proxy evidence of a substance’s psychoactivity, because legally psychoactivity would be defined by proxy indicators. It is important that the Minister outlines why this wording would not be more legally robust than the current wording, because psychoactivity is, after all, right at the heart of the Bill. 

If the definition of psychoactivity is limited to the known drug groups, we know that the resources required would be more manageable, and a series of simple biological tests could be done on known targets to indicate the drug group of a substance. According to chemists and toxicologists, this is 

“run of the mill profiling”. 

Thus, a library of known compounds could be built up and additional testing would only be required where the law was challenged. Leading chemists, including Professor Les Iversen, assure us that it is highly unlikely that new substances will be found that fall outside the known drug groups. If the Minister cannot accept the limitation to known drug groups, I would appreciate his telling the Committee why that is and outlining his difficulty with such a limitation. 

Finally, I will move on to the issue of resources needed to test for psychoactivity. The Government will recognise that the proposals in the Bill are not immediately cost-neutral. As we have already seen, this clause gives rise to the need for neurochemical tests in order to prove the psychoactivity of substances. These tests need to be paid for, presumably both by the prosecution and defence teams in any court case. The Forensic Science Service, a public body, was abolished in 2011 and what we now have is a patchwork collection of commercial forensic science providers. 

10.30 am 

Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab):  With some laboratories charging up to £100 per test for each individual product to be tested, would my hon. Friend agree that trading standards would need extra financial resources to make any future legislation viable? 

Lyn Brown:  I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. The expert panel on new psychoactive substances make it perfectly clear that those forensic science providers will only take on the work if they consider it commercially

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viable. The state will have to pay competitive rates if it wants to test for the psychoactivity of drugs. I would like the Minister to assure us that the burden of paying for these tests will not fall entirely on the prosecution services or local government. The Bill is a radical addition to our drugs control policy and the Home Office has a responsibility to ensure that it is not acting as a drain on already depleted resources at the CPS. Local authorities and police forces may also want to test for psychoactivity before pursuing action against local suppliers. They too need support in this area. 

In the Home Secretary’s letter to the ACMD she argued that data sharing in the police and forensic community would be the key factor in the forensic response to the Bill. She also pledged that the Home Office would drive for the mechanisms to ensure data is shared efficiently. I would like to ask the Minister what progress is being made on this front. We do not want unnecessary duplication adding to the expense of enforcing the Bill, nor do we want prosecutions not be brought because prosecutors do not have the same knowledge of a psychoactive substance as a police force or indeed the Home Office. 

The Home Affairs Committee report on the Bill highlighted a number of concerns regarding the expenditure needed to achieve a prosecution. The Chartered Trading Standards Institute argued in its written evidence to the Committee that proving psychoactivity in order to gain prosecution would require 

“rigorous scientific testing and analysis to obtain a toxicology report detailing the specific chemical components found in the drug.” 

That point was made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East. The CTSI estimated that the approximate cost would be greater than £100 per substance to conduct a basic test. What is more alarming is that typical head shop investigations will require multiple tests to be conducted due to the content of NPS being different in different packets of the same branded drug. One packet of something exotic bearing the same name as another packet will contain different compounds. That just will not stand up in court. 

Owen Thompson:  A Scottish Government expert review group that reported in February this year included a recommendation that a toolkit be developed to support trading standards staff tackling NPS in our communities. Does the hon. Lady agree that it would be particularly useful to roll that out, so that we can ensure the best possible approach, consistent across the country? 

Lyn Brown:  The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that data sharing across police forces is essential to ensure we get the right information and can prosecute cases where possible. Police Scotland has voiced similar concerns, stating that a successful case would require evidence from a qualified expert with experience of working with NPS who could identify the substance and prove its psychoactivity. Furthermore, Police Scotland also states that every case that involved NPS offences would require the suitably qualified medical expert to provide evidence in court, which would also incur a cost. 

The critical issue in the Bill—the definition of psychoactivity—still has to be addressed, although I suppose there might be something in the letter that has

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been submitted to the Committee. The ACMD published further advice on 23 October and is still of the view that 

“the current definition on the face of the Bill is too unspecific and does not adequately define a psychoactive substance”. 

Essentially, the Home Secretary has rejected any qualification of psychoactive substances—for example, by including only synthetic products. The definition in clause 2 remains as originally drafted, without reference to harm, to which we will come later. 

Much of the detail of the Government’s discussions has not been published, so the reasoning behind their position is not entirely clear to me. They have not accepted any suggested amendment to the wording of clause 2. It is unfortunate that there has been no agreement between Ministers and the statutory body of expertise, the ACMD. I fear that that risks destabilising the overall soundness and public perception of the proposals, by which I mean the ability to prosecute successfully. If the definition remains largely unchanged, there will be consequences relating to harm measurement, proportional sentencing and credible messaging. If the criminal sanctions apply equally to substances of widely different harm thresholds, that will remove the possibility that sensible and honest messages about health harms can be created. 

We tabled our amendments not to be difficult or party political but to try to secure clarification from the Government on the intended scope of the Bill. We need to know that they are certain that they can legally prove that a substance is psychoactive and secure prosecutions. We want to know what provisions they have made to ensure that the necessary funds and resources are available to conduct extensive and expensive tests for psychoactivity. 

Mike Penning:  I thank the shadow Minister for her detailed and extensive comments, which I take in the context in which they were delivered. 

I want to address some of the points that were made. The SNP spokesman mentioned the idea of a toolkit—we do not need to reinvent the wheel every time, do we? In England, local authorities, which have responsibility for public health, spend £830 million a year on tackling drug and alcohol misuse. That is 30% of the national budget, which makes it logical to address the issue. 

The explanatory notes set out that the measures will be cost-neutral to the police and local authorities. Let me use some anecdotal evidence to show why. Take, for example, Belfast and Lincoln, two very diverse communities where head shops were banned using local powers. I still do not understand why other local authorities have not used those powers, but there we are. The cost and type of policing in those communities changed dramatically, without the Bill, just by banning head shops. Belfast, which I know all too well from my time as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, was transformed simply by people saying, “We do not want that sort of product sold in shops in our communities because people will think it is legitimate and safe.” 

I understand that there are concerns, and I know that there are different views coming back from the Republic of Ireland. I went and met the Irish Minister and his scientific experts. I asked why there had been five prosecutions, and the answer was twofold, and not exactly what we have heard so far today. In Ireland, they felt that they had got the prosecutions they wanted using powers that are also in the Bill. A huge part of the

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Bill has nothing to do with the CPS and the police prosecuting, but is about local authorities. What happened almost overnight after using those powers was that the head shops and the industry collapsed, because people had been educated correctly. Where the local authorities were using their powers—powers that are also in the Bill—it transformed the communities in the way we would all like to see. The Bill is not designed to pick on people who have been using these products perfectly legally and, they feel, safely; it is designed to get the really bad guys—the dealers and those sorts of people. The seven-year prison sentence is in the Bill as a last resort. 

In terms of applied science and technology, the Home Office will identify and bring forward the capability throughout the UK on the forensic requirement. We are going to do that. I accept that we will have to give more detail, perhaps on Report, and we are happy to do so. 

I am sorry we disagree so early in the Bill, but I have real concerns about amendment 51, which runs counter to the blanket ban. If we are going to go for a blanket ban, we are going to go for a blanket ban. If we start fiddling around the edges, that blanket ban becomes difficult, so I do not support the amendment. I fully accept the fact that the shadow Minister and other members of the Committee have not had enough time to read the ACMD’s latest correspondence. Perhaps that can be addressed on Report. The ACMD understandably moves with debate, as it moves in different areas. As I said earlier, using “synthetics” in the Bill is wrong. A blanket ban is a blanket ban. We have to get ahead the game, and that is what we have been trying to do. 

I fully understand why the amendments have been tabled, and that the one from the hon. Member for Midlothian is probing, but sadly at this stage I cannot support amendments 51, 43 and 44 for the reasons I have given. If more discussion and investigation is needed, the Report stage may be a better time for that. A lot of the concerns are that we will not be able to prosecute, but we will. It happens in other parts of the world and in Ireland. There were concerns about harm, but if a blanket ban happens, we are ahead of harm, rather than waiting for harm to happen and for people to die. On that basis, I hope that colleagues will not press their amendments to a Division. 

Lyn Brown:  I hear entirely what the Minister is saying, and I have some sympathy, but may I push him on a couple of things? The first is the issue of the definition. I did not hear him explain why we cannot use the words “new” or “synthetic”. That would give us a better focus on the things we want to ban. Secondly, I did not hear why we were not able to put the organic substances that we know to be harmful, such as salvia and kratom, within the scope of the 1971 Act. That just seems logical. We know that those substances are harmful and we know what they are. People will not be able to graft new bits on to plants to create new organic substances—certainly not at the rate at which they have managed to create new synthetic substances. 

The Minister talked about costs. I used the words “immediately become cost-neutral” in my notes, but I say gently to him that while I accept that there may be savings to the local community and the local police from banning head shops, cutting the supply and getting

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rid of the demand from our streets, I genuinely do not believe that those savings will be immediate. I gently suggest that one reason why there have not been more prosecutions by local authorities is that they have not had the wherewithal—the finance— to know that what they are taking to court will actually stand up. There is a cost issue that we need to look at. 

10.45 am 

Again on cost, if we are going to bring more prosecutions—and I suspect that England, being a bigger country, might want and need to see a few more than the five in Ireland—we do not want them to be thrown out of court because we do not have the scientific evidence to enable the CPS to take people to court and stop the supply of that drug. If I conclude at this point will I be allowed to speak again, Mr Howarth? 

The Chair:  If the hon. Lady has further points to make, it might be advisable to make them at this point. 

Lyn Brown:  My problem is that it was such a big thing that I did with three clauses that I am worried that I have missed something and I am not getting it out. I am not sure we have got to the bottom of the evidence around psychoactive substances, whether it is provable, and whether the definition that the Government are currently going with would enable provability within the court. 

The Chair:  I wonder whether it would be helpful to the hon. Lady, and sensible at this point, if the Minister responded to the points that she has made. If she thinks of other issues that she wants to raise, she could do so by way of an intervention. 

Lyn Brown:  I am grateful, Mr Howarth. 

Mike Penning:  I do not want to go round in circles, as I have made the points that I would almost certainly make again. At this point I would like to make some progress. “New or novel” substances have, according to my legal team, no legal meaning within the law, which is why we are not going with that. 

Lyn Brown:  Okay. 

Mike Penning:  Ireland is a much smaller country and, if we proportionally move the percentage in population up from 5%, we would see substantially more prosecutions. I am really pleased that I went to Ireland as I was amazed at the amount of work done by local government on prevention. One reason why the measure will not come into force until April is to allow what happened in Ireland to happen here. Prosecutions did take place and were not thrown out of court; the evidence base was almost identical to what we have. We are slightly tougher, but only marginally, and perhaps learning from some of the mistakes. They have said they will probably follow us and our legislation going forward, which is exactly what New Zealand and Western Australia are doing as well. 

We have to be careful not to pre-empt something that might happen but which has not happened in countries where measures have been taken. I am conscious that the measure needs to be tight and a blanket ban is

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needed. I am happy and confident that we will have the scientific evidence and the experts out there to make sure that we can do this. Let us hope that, before the legislation comes in, and as they did in Ireland, we get into the schools, we get into local government and talk to communities, and that we get programmes out there that we will all support to make sure, categorically, that everybody is aware not only that the substances are no longer legal, but that they have definitely never been safe and, by the way, there are severe penalties for importing, manufacturing or selling these products. 

Lyn Brown:  I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for clarification on the words “new or novel”. That is the first time I have heard that they might not have a legal standing as a definition. May I push him, therefore, on the definition and ask if he is confident that the definition in the Bill will be robust enough for us to deal with provability within a court? Secondly, may I ask him to address the issue of cost? 

Mike Penning:  The answer to the first question is yes; I am more than confident about that. As the explanatory notes say, the CPS is responsible for the costs in prosecution terms. We do not think that will be an enormous burden. I am responsible for 43 police authorities, and the costs of policing this type of problem in our communities is huge. Public health is obviously for local authorities. I used to be shadow Minister for public health, and the cost burden is very interesting. We have seen in Ireland that the number of people who turn up to A&E has dropped dramatically. The number of people needing rehabilitation and treatment has also dropped. Those are all cost negatives. 

Andrew Gwynne:  The Minister makes an important point on the costs, which are borne not only by the Home Office and the budgets he is responsible for but across Departments and within local government. He will know that although Public Health England is responsible for some public health functions at a national level, a lot of the budgets have been top-sliced and devolved to local government. What discussions has his Department had with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department of Health to ensure the kinds of education programme he talked about are up and running from day one? That will be a crucial element. 

Mike Penning:  The shadow Health Minister makes an important point. I chair a newly formed inter-ministerial group that includes Ministers from the Departments he alluded to and others, such as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as well as Ministers from the devolved Administrations. We are treating this issue not just in England and Wales but in Scotland and Northern Ireland too. He is absolutely right that Public Health England has responsibility for part of this. Most of public health has been devolved, with £830 million going to local government. Obviously, local government has priorities. However, with 30% of its budget being spent on tackling drug and alcohol misuse, it is pretty obvious what those priorities should be. As chair of the inter-ministerial group, I will be pushing on that. 

Owen Thompson:  I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. 

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn. 

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.  

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Clause 3 

Exempted substances 

Lyn Brown:  I beg to move amendment 45, in clause 3, page 2, line 14, at end insert— 

‘(3A) The Home Secretary must consider making regulations under subsection (2) if she receives a recommendation from the Advisory Council of Misuse of Drugs to bring forward such a regulation in respect of a psychoactive substance.”

This would enable the ACMD to proactively request that the Home Secretary consider regulations.

On Second Reading, I asked whether the Minister had considered providing credible measures for relatively harmless substances to be excluded from the controls introduced by the Bill. That, after all, is something the expert panel envisaged as a potential part of the Bill when it made its recommendation, following the Irish model. Amendment 45 would be one way of providing such measures, as it would allow the ACMD to proactively request that the Home Secretary consider adding a substance to the exempted list. 

There is broad support for the Bill across the political spectrum. However, we know one concern is that it may restrict trade in harmless substances. I put it to the Committee that if people knew it was possible to make representations to the ACMD about substances they wish to exempt and for convincing and evidence-based arguments to make their way up to the Home Secretary, the Bill might have even broader support than it currently does. 

As we know, the Home Affairs Committee received much written and oral evidence about the issue of poppers. Colleagues in the SNP have tabled an amendment about them and I will have more to say about poppers in that debate. 

Mike Penning:  I think there is a very important debate to be had on poppers. That will be the Chair’s decision when we get to poppers—however, at the present time I did not realise we were talking about poppers. 

The Chair:  To be fair, the hon. Lady has already accepted that that is a subject for further debate. 

Mike Penning:  I was trying to help. 

Lyn Brown:  I like help, so do not stop trying to help. 

I admit that I am sympathetic to the SNP’s amendment. If the ACMD, through Professor Iversen’s evidence, is suggesting that poppers pose a low risk of harm, it would be within the scope of the Bill to place poppers on the exemption list—but I am not an expert. 

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op):  I am a little puzzled. Perhaps the shadow Minister or members of the SNP might be able to shed light on this. Why, exactly, is the Scottish National party putting forward amendments about poppers that would, presumably, have an effect in England but not in Scotland itself? 

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The Chair:  I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is trying to be helpful with his amendment, but as has already been indicated, there will be a separate debate on that. 

John Woodcock:  Okay. I will raise that question again when it comes up. 

Lyn Brown:  When we get to poppers, experts will need to assess the evidence and decide whether the case for exemption has merit. If I may link this to our discussion on the second clause of the Bill, we know that there will be significant costs in testing the psychoactivity of substances, as there will be for enforcement measures contained within the Bill. By introducing a charge on applying for exemption, the Government potentially could raise the revenue and ensure that what is left of the industry pays for its own regulation. Does the Minister think that there might be scope for that? 

While we are discussing exempted substances, I want to raise a concern that is pertinent to schedule 1. Paragraph 1 of schedule 1 exempts those drugs that are controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 from the scope of the Bill. That is appropriate, because we do not want suppliers of drugs that we know to be very harmful being subject to the lesser tariffs contained within this Bill, rather than those in the 1971 Act. As the Home Secretary herself has stated, the 1971 Act must remain at the apex of our legal controls, and this Bill ought to be considered as complementary. 

I want to press the Minister to ensure that part of this legislation will not slow down the process by which NPS we know to be harmful are brought under control through the Misuse of Drugs Act. It seems that there is a danger that the impetus for action will be lost, given that this Bill will provide some measures of control of new psychoactive substances. I do not want to see a time gap between a dangerous drug hitting the market and finding its way on to the controlled substance list as a result of this legislation—particularly given the lower tariffs contained within this Bill for supply. My worry would be greatly eased if the Minister resolved to ensure that this issue is included in the Home Office’s statutory review of the Bill. 

In conclusion, the capacity to exempt substances from the controls introduced by this Bill is clearly central to the Bill’s receiving widespread support. The focus of the Home Affairs Committee report on the issue of poppers has already made that clear. I hope that the Minister will give serious consideration to our amendment or to other ways around the problem. I look forward to being able to offer a reassuring response to my concerns about the relationship between this Bill and the 1971 Act. 

11 am 

Owen Thompson:  I will be brief. In broad terms, the inclusion of the ACMD in the amendment would perhaps allow an opportunity for greater consideration to be given, not only to the chemical compound, but to the effect that a substance might have on an individual. I would certainly be broadly supportive of that and see merit in its inclusion, or at least we could see what could be brought forward through developing this as we progress to Report. 

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Mike Penning:  I understand fully the shadow Minister’s concerns, but I hope I can alleviate them. 

The Home Office greatly values the work of the ACMD. In my meetings, the chairman has been very helpful. The work has been going on for decades. Although we accept that clause 3 only provides for the ACMD to provide advice when asked, the relationship has always been two-way. The ACMD is not shy, and nor are we. Where the ACMD has had concerns in the past, it has come to us and we have dealt with them, and vice versa. Hon. Members have raised in the House issues to do with constituents, and we have gone to the ACMD. It has an ongoing programme of looking at what is out there and whether we need to move something into a different category. I can assure the Committee that that will not change in any way—far from it. 

Recently, drugs that were classified as psychoactive have moved into a completely different regime. 

John Woodcock:  Does the Minister accept that there is a very significant shift in the burden of responsibility? He says the relationship works well at the moment, but the ACMD may now be judging whether something is a food, for example. 

Mike Penning:  I was about to come on to how we have looked at other parts of the world and how such changes occur. 

Andrew Gwynne:  I want to press the Minister a little on the issue of consultation and make sure that we get the Bill’s wording absolutely watertight. I fully accept his point of view that the way in which these things work is a two-way process, and that Home Office Ministers are open to receiving advice that perhaps they did not ask for from various regulatory bodies. However, the amendment that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham has tabled would make it absolutely watertight in the Bill that it is a two-way process. My reading of subsection (3) is that the Secretary of State must consult the ACMD and other such persons as she considers appropriate before making regulations. However, there is nothing to say that the ACMD or others could come to the Home Secretary first and request that regulations are made. Our amendment would make that watertight. 

Mike Penning:  The shadow Minister would have a point if not for section 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which allows the council—or ACMD—to issue advice to Ministers when it considers it expedient to do so. That provision is in the Act. A protocol between the Home Secretary and the ACMD allows the council to consider drug issues without any advice from us at all. That is in the Act. 

Lyn Brown:  The issue that we are trying to push is on exemptions. 

Mike Penning:  We will come to that. 

Lyn Brown:  Okay, but we have tried to helpfully suggest that there might be a way of making this a cost-neutral thing with the industry, proving that a substance should go on to the exemption list because it is harmless. The Bill and the public’s acceptance of it will be strengthened if harmless substances are put on an exemptions list, as we have done with incense. 

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Mike Penning:  That was looked at extensively by the expert panel before the legislation was introduced, and it was rejected. The panel looked particularly at New Zealand, which had already introduced a licence, basically, which is what we are alluding to—to people applying for a licence—for low-harm substances. That has not worked. 

Lyn Brown:  No, it did not work. 

Mike Penning:  No one has applied for a licence and there is basically a blanket ban. The experts, who are much more expert than I am, looked at it extensively. They examined it and rejected it and were happy with the way we are moving forward. With that in mind, I am more than happy—as I suggested earlier to the hon. Member for Midlothian—to look again at that between now and Report to make sure that I am 100% comfortable with the proposals, because I understand the hon. Lady’s passion for this issue. 

Lyn Brown:  I am grateful. 

Mike Penning:  However, at this stage I am comfortable, unless something comes forward between now and Report. 

John Woodcock:  What if a way of trying to circumvent the ban is similar to what has been practised by some people involved, which is to say, “This is plant food” or “a washing product”? What happens under that scenario? 

Mike Penning:  The Bill is quite specific, in that the seller of a product needs to make sure that the product is being sold legitimately—[ Interruption. ] Sorry? 

John Woodcock:  I am sorry to chunter from a sedentary position, but those sellers are not the people we are trying to stop. They are nefarious people who will try to get round the rules. 

Mike Penning:  Some of them are. Some of them are genuinely and legitimately people doing business, for example, selling a certain gas that is inappropriately used by other people, such as laughing gas. The Bill is specific in that area to make sure that we protect people. We cannot protect everybody who completely ignores what a label says, but if someone is selling certain products, they will get up to seven years in prison. That is why the harshness is there at that end of the scale, although I fully understand and do not want to penalise people at the other end, who perhaps take the products—in my opinion wrongly, and I am sure that everyone would agree—thinking they are safe. We do not want to criminalise that. I hope that the hon. Lady will not press her amendment. We can look at this carefully again, if necessary, on Report. 

Lyn Brown:  I am really delighted that the Minister has agreed to take this matter away and think again on exemptions and the two-way street with the ACMD. It is really helpful and I am very grateful. 

The Chair:  I take it from that that it is your pleasure that the amendment be withdrawn. 

Column number: 29 

Lyn Brown:  Therefore, Mr Howarth, I happily beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. 

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.  

Clause 3 ord ered to stand part of the Bill.  

Schedule 1 

Exempted substances 

Mike Penning:  I beg to move amendment 3, in Schedule 1, page 38, line 7, leave out from “products” to end of line 12 and insert— 

‘“Medicinal product” has the same meaning as in the Human Medicines Regulations 2012 (S.I. 2012/1916) (see regulation 2 of those Regulations).’

This amendment replaces the definition of “medicinal product” in paragraph 2 of Schedule 1. The revised definition adopts that in regulation 2 of the Human Medicines Regulations 2012, which includes, but is wider than, medicinal products for which a marketing authorisation or an Article 126a authorisation is in force.

The Chair:  With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment 4. 

Mike Penning:  Hopefully, we will agree on this group of amendments and schedule. The amendments do not alter the Government’s objective, which has always been to exclude from the scope of the Bill approved medicinal products. I think we would all agree with that. With a belt and braces attitude, the Government listened to comments made during the Bill’s passage in the other place and recognised that our starting definition was incomplete; that is an example of the Government listening. The Home Office has worked extensively with the Department of Health and with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency over the summer to revise the exemption. 

Amendment 3 will have the effect of exempting all medicinal products as defined in regulation 2 of the Human Medicines Regulations 2012. We are confident, as is the Department of Health, that this well-established definition will exempt medicines from the scope of the Bill. 

That is a short comment, but it is a good example of working cross-departmentally and with the other place to address something that we accept was incomplete, which is what Committee stages are for. 

Column number: 30 

Lyn Brown:  I rise to speak to Government amendments 3 and 4, which would replace the passages on investigational, homeopathic and traditional herbal medicine in the list of exempted substances with a single wide definition of a medicinal product. Will the Government provide further detail on the exempted substances list and the forensic strategy that underpins the Bill? Some representations, including from the ACMD, have described the exemptions list as potentially unworkable, particularly if there is no inclusion list in the definition of psychoactive substances, as recommended by the ACMD. It is possible that adding an inclusion list into the definition of psychoactive substances makes the management of the exclusion list much more manageable. I would be grateful for the Minister’s view. 

Mike Penning:  I am really sorry if I am looking slightly puzzled, but I did not think that we were considering these matters at the moment. I will get some notes passed to me, a service which the hon. Lady does not receive. I am puzzled. 

The Chair:  Order. We need to have a debate about the specific amendments to schedule 1. There is scope for a stand part debate on the schedule, at which point the hon. Lady might find her comments more— 

Mike Penning:  On a point of order, Mr Howarth. Would it be possible for the Committee to adjourn for a few minutes so I can powder my nose? 

The Chair:  At the Minister’s request, I suspend the Committee for five minutes. 

11.12 am 

Sitting suspended.  

11.15 am 

On resuming 

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Jackie Doyle-Price.)  

11.16 am 

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.  

Prepared 28th October 2015