Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I find myself opening for the Opposition on a Home Office Bill for the fourth time in fewer than five weeks. The Government are behaving like a disastrous DIY
 
4 Apr 2005 : Column 538
 
addict, hurling paint at the wall in the hope that some of it might stick. Perhaps in the next few days we shall see.

The noble Baroness has already referred to the fact that there has been cross-party agreement on the principles behind the Bill and much of its content. In the constructive frame of mind adopted by my honourable and right honourable friends in another place, I shall, like the Minister, take some time in opening the debate to give as full a picture of our position as I may. But the noble Baroness will notice from the speakers' list that I have not burdened any of my colleagues with making a winding-up speech, because I thought that it was improper in these final hours of this Parliament to take up that time. If something urgent arises, perhaps I may intervene during the noble Baroness's response, but I suspect, given some of the explanations that she has already given, that that will not be necessary.

We welcome much of the Bill. We support it because it is a step in the right direction, albeit far too small a step. Drugs wreck lives—not only of users but often of their families, too. There are more than 4 million users of illegal substances in England and Wales and more than 1 million users of class A drugs. Cocaine use is up by 250 per cent over the past eight years and ecstasy use has doubled. Drug abuse among the young is increasing. British teenage boys top the European league of cannabis users. The BBC reported last week that we are now known as the cannabis capital of Europe, an accolade that we could well do without.

Cannabis is not a harmless drug. Super-potent varieties have emerged in the past 20 years. It can be a dangerous psychotropic drug that can do a great deal of harm. Scientific evidence continues to show a heightened risk of mental illness for those who use cannabis regularly. A recent report suggested that someone who starts using cannabis at 15 has more than four times the risk of developing schizophrenia as someone who starts at 18—not that I recommend starting at any age.

Marjorie Wallace, head of the mental health charity SANE, said last month:

I welcome the fact that, at last, the Government have announced that they are rethinking their downgrading of cannabis from class B to class C in 2004. The noble Baroness laid out the case for why the matter has been referred to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. We all await the result of that report.

As the Home Secretary recognised in a Written Answer when he was in another guise at the Home Office:

Drug smuggling continues apace. It is estimated that seizures account for only about 10 per cent of the drugs coming into the country. The price of heroin has more
 
4 Apr 2005 : Column 539
 
than halved since 1995. Crack can be bought in some areas for £10 and ecstasy for £1. Cocaine used to be so expensive that only so-called society users could afford it. That is certainly not the case now; it is within the reach of just about all.

We know that, all too often, the cost of drug dependency for all of society is crime. Drug-related offences have risen by a quarter in the past three years alone. The Government acknowledge that about 70 per cent of acquisitive crime is drug-related. About 75 per cent of hard-drug users commit crime to obtain drugs, and persistent drug users who are offenders commit almost 10 times as many crimes as people who do not use drugs. Against that backdrop we would have hoped for a Bill that struck deep at the heart of the problem. Here we have one that makes a gentle stab at some of the issues. It is welcome but we would have liked to see more.

I am grateful to the Minister for her care in clarifying a confusion that arose in another place. She referred to how the Bill will affect Northern Ireland and Scotland in particular. That was most helpful.

Clause 1 provides for the supply of drugs to children on school premises or in the vicinity of a school to be considered as an aggravating factor when sentence is determined. Nobody could argue with the Government's intent, but I am still not convinced that the route that they have adopted will be the most effective or appropriate.

There are a couple of other solutions, one of which the noble Baroness has dealt with in considerable detail today: why would not the Sentencing Guidelines Council be the most appropriate route? I listened very carefully to the noble Baroness's remarks. Before her explanation, I still felt that the Sentencing Guidelines Council was the appropriate group to do the job on the basis that it does it in respect of other offences and that it could adequately meet the needs here. But I hear what she says: the current issue is that they have a guideline on deliberately targeting vulnerable victims, and the Government are concerned that thereby one would not catch adult-to-adult trading within the vicinity of the school, where a child could be exposed to that activity—whether the child is connected with that adult or just an observer. That is why the Government seek to create a parliamentary benchmark in this respect. It may be a persuasive argument and so I will not take the matter further today. If we return to the matter in Committee, I might adopt that argument for a more softly-softly approach, just to tease it out. The Minister may have persuaded me on that point.

I am interested that in Clause 1 the Government have turned their back on an alternative route. They have fought shy of creating an offence of aggravated supply. Accordingly, the jury will determine whether or not the defendant is guilty of the offence under Section 4(3) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The judge will then determine whether either of the aggravating conditions is met. That is not necessarily a problem. But it is highly unusual to specify in statute the features of the offence that will aggravate the
 
4 Apr 2005 : Column 540
 
sentence but not to create a specific aggravated offence. Will the noble Baroness say why the Government have decided against that more normal route? As I say, I do not find an objection—this may work—but it is a different approach, which needs to be justified.

I accept what the noble Baroness said about vicinity. She said that there was a great deal of debate in another place. Since we had our all-party meeting with the noble Baroness, I have looked at other statutes. I accept that there are difficulties in defining "vicinity" and that there may be valid reasons for wanting to have later definitions that are more flexible. So, if we were to get to Committee stage, I would not pursue that point any further.

With regard to the trading of drugs to children, the Government have missed a golden opportunity to tackle the wider threat. Perhaps they should consult the Sentencing Guidelines Council on extending the aggravating factor to dealing to children in other areas where it is certain that dealers might expect to find them—of course, another place covered dealing, for example, on transport to school, including buses, and at youth clubs.

So far, the response of the Government has been to say, "Ah, but we have specified schools because there is a legal requirement to be there". I look beyond that. I look to see where children can be found and where they are a vulnerable target. I seek to protect them in those places.

Justice points out in its helpful briefing—in fact, it is so helpful that it is the only organisation that has had time to brief noble Lords: I think that most organisations believe that since this Bill must be dead, there is no point in telling noble Lords anything—that it is,

I pray its argument in aid, but it also adds the issue of children who are employed in the preparation of drugs for sale. So there is still something to be tackled beyond Clause 1.

Clause 2 establishes a presumption of intent to supply where the defendant is in possession of a particular amount of a controlled drug. We agree that it would be helpful to clarify the point at which the quantity of drugs in a person's possession becomes over and above that which should be reasonably held for personal use. The problem is that the clause does not achieve that. The Government have set themselves an almost impossible task and I appreciate their difficulty.

The clause gives the Secretary of State the power to define the amount for different drugs in different ways by means of regulations subject to statutory instrument. Is that really satisfactory? It is always easy to pick holes in arguments, but this one is a kind of
 
4 Apr 2005 : Column 541
 
lace, a web. For example, there will have to be a certain arbitrariness built into that procedure. Where should you draw the line? If the prescribed amount for ecstasy tablets for personal use is 25, 50 or 100, why should having 26, 51 or 101 make you an automatic supplier in the absence of other evidence to the contrary?

Another problem is the circumstance in which drugs are possessed. Suppose that the prescribed maximum for personal use is 25 tablets of ecstasy. According to the Bill, it may be okay to have 25 tablets at home—not according to me, again I have to say—but what if you have them with you at a night club? Would not that circumstance lead one to believe that it is unlikely that you had them with you for personal use? Surely that shows some of the straightforward defects in the drafting of Clause 2.

I also find the approach of the Government in Clause 2 intriguing for another reason. They have provided for only an evidential burden. That burden will be quite easy to discharge if a defendant simply goes into the witness box and says "I did not intend to supply"—end of story.

Of course, prior to the existence of Clause 2, the defendant would not be required to give evidence. So the impact of Clause 2 is—where the defendant is proved to have more than the maximum prescribed quantity of drugs in his possession—if the defendant wants to avoid a conviction for supply, he will be obliged to give evidence himself or to call other evidence. In fact, there will not be others—it will be him or nothing. I find that intriguing. In our usual discussions about forcing defendants to give evidence, it is an interesting development.

We welcome the provisions of Clauses 3 to 6 and 8 that give the police and the courts new powers to tackle drug dealers who swallow or conceal drugs on their bodies to avoid arrest. They are a practical move forward. But why have the Government set the age for testing for class A drugs for those over 18? Why not seize the opportunity to extend the testing to those under 18? What guidelines will be put in place to ensure that people are not requested to undergo more scans or X-rays than would be safe? What about pregnant women or others for whom an X-ray could be hazardous?

What kind of care programme do the Government intend to put in place for those who test positive? Under the current arrest referral scheme, the Government's research seems to show that 97 per cent of those interviewed failed to make it into effective treatment. The drug treatment and testing order seems to have only a 28 per cent completion rate.

Clause 20 expands the use of anti-social behaviour orders. It provides for a new order that can be made alongside an ASBO when drug misuse has been the cause of the behaviour that led to the ASBO being made. We believe that that proposal deserves attention—but also proper use and implementation. If we have a Committee stage, we would want to look at the Government's commitment to rolling this out to everyone who needs it. According to the Explanatory Notes, at the moment the Government are planning
 
4 Apr 2005 : Column 542
 
for only about 100 intervention orders a year, which is a very tiny amount when one takes into account all those who could benefit from it.

Clause 21 makes a reasonable clarification of the law in respect of magic mushrooms. I have learnt more than I ever thought I wanted to about them. Whatever form they are in, they are to be classified as class A drugs. That is sensible. We will wait to see whether that is implemented. Apparently there is a very strong import trade in them. I wonder what will happen to that particular trade.

The Bill is also a story of missed opportunities. It does not tackle the dealing of drugs to young people effectively enough. We would like to see further development on that. It does not give us more effective punishment of those who deal in drugs repeatedly, time and time again, as the Private Member's Bill promoted by my honourable friend Nigel Evans would do. It does not require residential rehabilitation of those who take drugs.

It does not take the opportunity to deal with the problem of khat. I listened with interest to what the Minister had to say. I respect the fact that the matter has now been referred to the advisory council. As long ago as November 1998 I asked the Government why they did not take action on khat, considering the reports of the Home Office itself at that stage on the widespread use of khat in London and the impact on social problems, particularly domestic violence.

The Government said that they would keep it under review. Perhaps they will understand that I am a little cynical that there will be another review. But the fact that it has gone to the advisory council will, I hope, give it the proper status that it deserves. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, will address the issue of khat.

Those missed opportunities are matters to which we should return on another occasion. In the mean time, the achievement that can never be undervalued is not one achieved by any of us—either the Opposition or the Government. It is the achievement of people up and down the country who work tirelessly to help those who have fallen foul of drugs. I would like to conclude my remarks with my thanks to them for their counselling, assessment, referral and advice, and for through-care teams in prisons, drug action teams, general practitioners and the extensive voluntary sector. It is their contribution to society that is both admirable and invaluable.

7.18 p.m.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page