Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I thank the noble Viscount for that intervention. I think that he makes a very good point on national insurance numbers. We know that a huge amount of fraud results from the use of passports and other identification which could include national insurance numbers, resulting in more than 1 billion of waste.

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, was the only Member of the Committee to refer specifically to other issues of fraud. I understand his hesitation about the way in which those offences have historically been viewed. He is right that offences of fraudulently obtaining a passport or driving licence were

30 Jun 2003 : Column 624

previously, rather innocently, seen as the result of someone making a mistake or deliberately doing something for their own use. Consequently, those matters were previously not regarded as arrestable. Very unfortunately, times have changed significantly. We now know that passports and other forms of identification can be used for a very serious purpose as the major instrument of those who want to spread terror and anxiety among our community. We have to deal with those matters much more seriously.

Lord Renton: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. If someone does not make a deliberately untrue statement but innocently does so, should that really be arrestable?

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Within the meaning of the section if a person made an innocent misstatement, he or she would not be caught. We seek to catch those who seek to use the documents fraudulently. There are many examples of documents that have been obtained improperly. Others have obtained documents to demonstrate the ease with which they can be obtained. One remembers well the journalist who made a fraudulent application for a driving licence on behalf of Mr Blunkett. We know that such documents can be obtained. We need to ensure that people understand that they should not be obtained fraudulently and that we bring an end to that practice. Of course, I shall consider the drafting as the noble Lord suggests to see whether it needs to be perfected in any way. We believe that it suffices at the moment but I undertake to reconsider it.

I turn to the main import of all that has been said in relation to the amendments we are discussing. The theme that ran through the address of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, was very much that the measure constituted muddled thinking on the part of the Government. That point was taken up by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who said that it was short-sighted arresting someone or increasing the penalty for possession. I believe that the noble Baroness made that point on a number of occasions. However, as regards possession, the Government have not increased but reduced the punishment. The noble Baroness will know that previously the sentence was up to five years' imprisonment. We have now reduced it to a maximum sentence of two years. Were the Government's amendment not to be accepted, it would no longer be an arrestable offence. I believe that the noble Baroness said on three occasions that the Government were increasing the penalty. I say very clearly that we are not; we are reducing it.

I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, in raising the issue of class C drugs and of moving in the right direction, tried to suggest that we were withdrawing from that very positive stance. I hope that shortly I shall be able to persuade the noble and learned Lord that that is not what we seek to do.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester made a valid point as regards the major concern about rhetoric on toughness. I make it absolutely clear that

30 Jun 2003 : Column 625

the Government have no truck with rhetoric. We wish to change things on the ground. I speak for the Government today and I say that, I hope, with clarity. I believe that noble Lords are exercised about the way in which we deal with very difficult social issues on the ground. We wish to deal with them productively and carefully so that we maximise the opportunities to make sure that the rehabilitation of those who offend is, if not assured, at least provided with the best opportunity for advancement so that we do not have the current level of recidivism. I say to the right reverend Prelate that we do not seek to increase the number of arrestable offences. At the moment possession of cannabis is an arrestable offence.

It is right when looking at the level of offences to bear in mind that possession of class C drugs is at the moment capable of being an offence for which people are dealt with. The number of persons found guilty or cautioned for offences involving unlawful possession of class C drugs in England and Wales in 2000 was only 331, but I am sure that those were the more serious cases which had to be dealt with and were dealt with, whereas 70,306 people were dealt with for possession of cannabis. In terms of reducing the number of arrestable offences, I suggest, I hope, mildly and with the greatest respect, that the moves that we are taking will reduce that number and not increase it, although I entirely take on board what Members of the Committee said in relation to the way in which the measures will bite.

As regards possession, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, asked whether people in receipt of prescriptions would be at risk. The Committee will know that Regulation 10 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 governs that matter. A person may have in his possession controlled drugs under the terms of Schedule 2, 3 and Part 1 of Schedule 4 to the regulations. That allows a person to have those controlled drugs in their possession for administration for medical, dental or veterinary purposes in accordance with the directions of a practitioner. That is the position. We are not changing it. It will remain the same. It has not caused anxiety in the past and it is highly unlikely to cause real difficulty in the future. However, we have to deal with class C drugs generically. They all come within the same classification.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, was right to say that cannabis is not viewed as benign by everyone. The Government are not being inconsistent in their view. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, mentioned the psychotic effect that cannabis can have on those who suffer from mental illness. Cannabis has been identified as an accelerant in terms of the disintegration of the mental health of some vulnerable adults who have a propensity to that particular vulnerability. We say that cannabis can be a very serious drug. We are not suggesting that its use should be considered lawful. We seek to discourage the use to which it is currently put, particularly by young people. However, we take into account that circumstances need to be addressed in terms of how they are treated.

30 Jun 2003 : Column 626

We need to view the way in which we approach cannabis, and the arrestability of cannabis, within the context of the new structure we seek to put in place in relation to how offenders will be dealt with. As regards the framework—we think that this has coherence—it is important that the guidance that will be produced by ACPO will set a standard which will be applied by all police officers across the country. Of course I hear and understand what the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, said in relation to the need for clarity and consistency of the law. Like him I believe that it is important that that clarity exists if we are to retain our common law, as that which is not denied is inherently permitted within the way in which our law has always been structured. We do not propose to change that.

In the situation in which we now find ourselves there are two pull factors. First, the use of cannabis is deemed to be unlawful because of its aberrant effect on a large number of the population. Secondly, if we wish to reduce its use, we have to be much more sensible and flexible in the way in which we respond to those who may be capable of being persuaded to give up its use entirely. That is where one has to look at the structure which we shall put in place. We are sending out a very clear message to young people that cannabis misuse, or, indeed, any other drug misuse, constitutes criminal activity which will not be tolerated. Police enforcement will, therefore, be consistent with the more structured framework for early juvenile offending established under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 where a young offender can receive a reprimand, a final warning or charge depending on the seriousness of the offence. Following one reprimand any further offence will lead to a final warning or charge. Any further offence following a warning will normally result in a charge being brought. After a final warning, the young offender must be referred to the youth offending team, to arrange a rehabilitation programme to prevent re-offending.

Let us put that in the context of the way in which we hope that all those dealing with young offenders will approach their treatment and rehabilitation. The officer will have an opportunity to caution the young offender and to remove the cannabis. There will also be an opportunity to track the behaviour of that offender and, hopefully, to make a helpful intervention to stop repeat behaviour before it becomes deleterious to that young offender's health and leads to further activity.

I hear the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, when she says that only 1 per cent of the people who use cannabis go on to use more serious drugs. However, I must say to her that that 1 per cent is still very important. We know that those who go on to use them can be destroyed by that experience. I speak for not only myself, but our Government: we do not wish one such person to be lost. We wish to put in place a system that can do justice to the vulnerable and to those who need assistance and support.

The framework is consistent. One difficulty that we have found in dealing with the approach that many have had is that it has not been holistic and has not looked to see how the various parts of the Bill fit

30 Jun 2003 : Column 627

together. If one puts the Bill together, the Government's case in relation to the matter is consistent and clear. It is not muddled. However, it tries to be sensitive in its response to the general concerns throughout, because on both sides of the Committee there are those who hold the views of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, those who might hold views more akin to those of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and all those who fit between the two.

The way in which we have structured the Bill—using the guidelines, setting it out as we have—gives us the flexibility to respond in a way that might be capable of meeting the needs of those who will be subject to it. That is not only young people, but the community subjected to the bad behaviour that comes with the problem, and the families who are destroyed by the abuse that comes with it. We will have a system that we hope to be prouder of than we have been of the system in the past. There is a lot of work for us to do, but the Government think that we have got matters about right.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page