9.Since 2008, the UK has seen the emergence of new psychoactive substances (NPS) that are intended to mimic the effects of traditional drugs that are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. These NPS have become more prevalent and diverse, and have raised public health and anti-social behaviour concerns. In order to address this issue, in 2013 the Government commissioned the New Psychoactive Substances Review Expert Panel to review the existing legislative approach. In September 2014, the Panel reported that the current UK legislative approach was unlikely to get ahead of developments in the NPS market. It stated that: “after years of stable and declining drug use, the emergence of NPS has been a ‘game changer’”. The Panel recommended that the Government legislate to prohibit the distribution of non‐controlled NPS, focusing on the supply, rather than those using them. An Expert Review Group established by the Scottish Government and an inquiry by the Health and Social Care Committee of the National Assembly for Wales reached similar conclusions.
10.The Conservative party manifesto for the 2015 General Election included a commitment to “create a blanket ban on all new psychoactive substances, protecting young people from exposure to so‐called legal highs”. On 26 May, the Home Secretary wrote to Professor Les Iversen, Chair of the ACMD, saying that a bill would be published “as soon as possible”, and that “there are a number of aspects of our proposed approach that would greatly benefit from the Council’s input”. The Psychoactive Substances Bill was introduced in the House of Lords on 28 May.
11.Some witnesses were concerned about the speed with which the Bill had been introduced. Release and Transform told us that the lack of pre-drafting consultation with the ACMD, civil society or industry had created problems. Medical organisations pointed out that the Bill does not seem to exempt bona fide research, which “illustrates the importance of drawing early on a broad range of expert advice to inform the development of legislation, to ensure that the legislation is proportionate and that any unintended consequences are identified and addressed”. The ACMD, replying to the Home Secretary, also expressed concerns “that the Bill, as drafted, may not achieve its aims and may produce serious unintended consequences”. It also raised a number of specific concerns about the content of the Bill, some of which we address later in this Report.
12.The ACMD Chair told us that he first saw the Bill when it was published, since when comments have been solicited from each of its 25 members. Whilst the ACMD was working constructively with the Home Office, this was being done through answering questions as they arose and offering advice, rather than any more systematic approach. He would have preferred to have been “involved in the drafting of the Bill”. He believed that the current text of the Bill was “not the best possible”, and hoped that it would be improved.
13.Rt Hon Mike Penning MP, Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice and Victims, Home Office, rejected the claim that there had not been sufficient consultation, saying “[t]hree members [of the ACMD] were on the advisory panel making the decision on policy”. He explained that he had recently met the Chair of the ACMD, and had “accepted the vast majority” of the concerns that had been raised. He acknowledged there was a lot of work to do to make sure the Bill did what was intended, but said that the Home Office would listen and amend the Bill, and that it was enabling legislation that would evolve, rather than being “a fixed entity”.
14.Legislation on NPS was implemented in the Republic of Ireland in 2010. In its response to the Expert Panel’s 2014 report, the Government announced its intention to develop proposals for a blanket ban similar to that introduced in Ireland. The Minister told us that the Irish legislation was “working very well”. However, we have received conflicting views on its effectiveness. Rudi Fortson QC stated that “there has been a lamentable paucity of reliable information concerning the operation of that Act and its effectiveness or otherwise”. The Local Government Association said that anecdotal evidence in Ireland indicated that, since the ban, there had been a fall in the number of hospital admissions and the people attending drug treatment services in respect of problematic NPS. However, Mentor, Release and Transform contended that NPS use had increased since the ban.
15.Professor Iversen told us that the Irish example was “really what we are basing our legislation on”, but, as there has not been any formal report on the impact of the Irish legislation, the only available evidence was anecdotal. This showed that most of the ‘head shops’ (outlets selling NPS) in Ireland had closed down.
16.The Minister told us that “the whole of Europe is looking at how we are doing this”, and that he was working closely with the Irish Justice and Police Minister, “so that we can have a better legislation than they have”. He too referred to the closure of ‘head shops’ in Ireland, and also noted that there had been “a remarkable lack of prosecutions”. He did regret that there was not more evidence on the impact of the Irish legislation, but said he was not willing to postpone legislating whilst more people “have their lives destroyed” through NPS use.
17.In the absence of broad consultation prior to the publication of the Bill, or a detailed analysis of the impact of the Irish legislation, several organisations have called for a thorough evaluation of the Bill. This is to ensure that, once enacted, the legislation and any associated guidance are being appropriately implemented, and in particular that the issue of medical research has been satisfactorily addressed.
18.In a letter to the ACMD, the Home Secretary confirmed there would be a review of the operation of the Act post-implementation. The Bill was amended in the House of Lords, and now places a duty on the Home Secretary to conduct a review and publish a report within 30 months of the commencement. The Home Office has said it is keen to work with the ACMD to discuss the scale and scope of the review, and how to make best use of existing data and evidence.
19.The Royal College of Psychiatrists told us that an evaluation should examine the impact on the use of controlled drugs and banned substances, on scientific research, and on law enforcement. Dr Owen Bowden-Jones of the Central North West London NHS Foundation Trust told us that evaluation was absolutely critical as this legislation was “uncharted territory”. He explained that a range of metrics was required so that changes could be understood from different perspectives. In particular, he referred to assessing harms from NPS “across the full extent of the health front-line” which are not currently being recorded on a national basis.
20.Britain has the largest usage of psychoactive substances of any country in Europe. The public is shocked when it hears of a case of a young person who has died as a result of using these substances on a night out. The scenario is every parent’s worst nightmare. The Government is right to legislate on this issue. However, the speed at which the Government has brought forward this legislation, without any consultation on the specific detail of the Bill, has resulted in some weaknesses in the legislation being identified. We would have preferred the concerns to have been addressed in a less piecemeal manner. Communication with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) has been unsatisfactory, which has required months of letters back and forth to try and resolve the issues that have arisen.
21.On 15 September, the Minister indicated to us that second reading of the Bill would be in November. Since then the Government has moved ahead with the Parliamentary stages of the Bill, such that this Report was not available to Members at the second reading debate which took place on 19 October. Furthermore, it is intended that the Committee stages will be completed before the end of October. It is regrettable that the Government has proceeded with such speed, without the benefit of our Report. In general, limiting the time available for effective scrutiny by committees of the House reduces the opportunity for concerns to have been addressed, and most importantly, for improvements to be made to legislation. We welcome the Minister’s statement during the second reading debate, when he said “I look forward to the report, not least because of the excellent work that I know has been carried out not only by the Chairman and other Members but by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes)”.
22.This Bill is based on legislation introduced in Ireland in 2010. It would have been preferable to legislate in the UK with the benefit of an assessment of the effectiveness of legislation introduced in Ireland. This Committee has not seen any evidence that any such assessment is available or would have been available in the timescale within which the Government wished to operate.
23.To be effective, it is essential that the Government draws more extensively on the experience and expertise of key stakeholders. That is what they are there for. Even at this late stage, the Government must consult with stakeholders. We recommend that the Government begins to work closely with them to draw up the guidance which will accompany the legislation. We also recommend that stakeholders are involved fully in establishing the scale and scope of the statutory review into the operation of the legislation, once it is enacted.
7 [Bill 63 (2015–16) –EN], P4
8 [Bill 63 (2015–16) –EN], P6
9 [Bill 63 (2015–16) –EN], P6
11 Release and Transform ()
12 Academy of Medical Sciences, British Pharmacological Society, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Royal Society, Royal Society of Biology and the Wellcome Trust ()
16 Qs 44 and 39
19 Qs 125 and 136
21 Rudi Fortson QC ()
22 Local Government Association ()
23 Mentor () and Release and Transform ()
24 Qs 55 and 58
26 Qs 122 and 137
29 Academy of Medical Sciences, British Pharmacological Society, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Royal Society, Royal Society of Biology and the Wellcome Trust ()
31 Royal College of Psychiatrists ()
32 Q165. See also Central North West London NHS Foundation Trust ()
Prepared 22 October 2015