Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Mancroft: My Lords, I will refrain from asking what we are doing debating the Second Reading of a Bill at this stage in the life of a Parliament. To debate a Bill that is going nowhere is a waste of parliamentary time, and if this Bill has a future it will be without any scrutiny; and if ever there were a Bill that needed scrutiny, this is it.

I have long held the view that any policy issue on which the two main political parties are in broad agreement—there are not many—needs to be viewed with the utmost suspicion. What to do about drugs is one of those policies. Governments of both hues have followed the same basic policy in respect of what we now call the drug problem for over 30 years and in particular since the enactment of the Misuse of Drugs Act in the early 1970s.

Indeed, the Government's first policy document, produced by the shortly to be banished drug tsar, was a continuation of the policy introduced by my right honourable friend Michael Howard, when he was Home Secretary under John Major. That drug strategy document contained a number of targets by which we in Parliament, and the British people at large, could measure the Government's performance.

In the revised drug strategy, published by Mr David Blunkett, shortly before his high moral stance catapulted him out of the Home Office, sensibly omitted those targets. It was sensible because virtually
4 Apr 2005 : Column 552
none of them had been reached, or showed the slightest chance of being met, apart from a few marginal matters. The reason for that is very simple—I am not making a party-political point. It is because the central plank of this Government's drug policy—like that of all those governments before—is completely rotten. It has not worked, it cannot work, and it will not work.

The policy of prohibiting drugs by use of the criminal law, the foundation of which is the Misuse of Drugs Act—is entirely understandable and indeed laudable in the context of the 1970s. But 30 years later we can see that it is a colossally expensive and unbelievably destructive failure. The sole purpose of the Misuse of Drugs Act was to reduce and eventually eliminate drug use by means of prohibition and the criminal law, but it has not exactly been an overwhelming success, has it?

Year on year, since then, we have seen drug use and the harm associated with it, rise, inexorably, to a level that nobody in their worst nightmares could have imagined in the 1970s. More than that, with the exception of the occasional small hiccup in the graph—which might or might not be the stabilisation in opiate use mentioned by the Minister—overall there has been no drop in the use at all; in fact the increase shows no real sign of decelerating.

Home Office commissioned research from the University of York a couple of years ago put the cost to the UK taxpayer of drug misuse at £12 billion to £18 billion per year and 80 per cent of that amount is the cost of crime and the criminal justice system: from which we derive no benefit whatever. This Bill, in the dying days of the Parliament, does nothing except hold out the prospect of a further increase in that cost, without any real hope of a benefit. It is a further, deeply unpleasant compromise of the criminal justice system, in the hope of demonstrating a greater commitment to being tough on drugs.

It seeks subliminally to persuade us that the police and customs services, the courts and the prisons, have not really being trying for the past 30 years, and that one more tiny adjustment, one more civil liberty chucked on the scrap-heap, will suddenly make all the difference. The day that this little Bill is enacted, all those junkies will simply throw up their hands and cease their filthy habits and the sun will shine on a drug free world. That will not happen. In practice, the criminal justice interventions that are proposed in this Bill have been shown to have a very limited effect. The Government's arguments in relation to the deterrent effects in reducing availability are not supported by evidence.

Some of your Lordships may recall that I have an interest in this subject. I have been chairman of the Addiction Recovery Foundation for 15 years, chairman of the Drug and Alcohol Foundation for almost 10 years and chairman of Mentor UK, which is the leading drug prevention organisation in this country, for nearly six years. I have also had the honour of being for almost 13 years vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drugs Misuse. It is amazing that they still keep me on. However, in my
4 Apr 2005 : Column 553
experience there has been little consultation with the individuals and organisations that I have worked with and know and which work closest with drug addicts and relevant offenders across the country. There is virtually no support for the Bill except from those organisations that have a direct interest in promoting the existing policy.

I will say a little about the human rights aspect of the Bill and in particular draw your Lordships' attention, as have other noble Lords, to the Select Committee's Seventh Report, and ask your Lordships to reflect carefully on whether the Bill's dubious benefits justify reversing the burden of proof, risking the fairness of trials and ignoring the respect that we are meant to have for private life. I have my doubts. Of course, others may disagree, but, either way, these are the issues that should be carefully debated in the Committee stage, which I suppose this Bill cannot have.

I must, too, draw your Lordships' attention to the Select Committee's comments about the "inadequacy" of the Bill's Explanatory Notes. The report states:

That is a pretty damning comment from a Select Committee.

Putting aside the overall objectives of the Bill, there are within it a number of specific measures which, apart from the fact that they are unlikely to have any major positive effect on Britain's worsening drug problem, will cause a great deal of harm to individual drug addicts, who are among the most vulnerable and socially excluded people in society—they are ill people in need of healthcare receiving the sort of treatment that would not be acceptable if meted out to healthy members of society. If we were to have a Committee stage, I would also want to look closely at those aspects of the Bill.

Lastly, I would draw the House's attention to the Government's proposal to place what are commonly known as magic mushrooms in class A alongside heroin and cocaine, under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Magic mushrooms have been around since time immemorial, and have varied in popularity since the 1960s. They have a mildly hallucinogenic effect on users—not, as the Minister said, anything equivalent to LSD. That may or may not be desirable, depending on your point of view, and my view is that it is not desirable. What matters, however, is that they are neither physically nor psychologically addictive, cause negligible side effects and, unlike what the Minister said, cause virtually no harm. There is no evidence of harm and there is no evidence of their causing any public order problems. In those circumstances, to make the possession of wild mushrooms; that grow throughout the United Kingdom, do little discernible harm, and are currently legitimately retailed through hundreds of shops and across Europe a criminal offence equivalent to heroin is really the most disproportionate suggestion in a badly thought-out, badly drafted Bill. My noble friend on the Front Bench called it sensible but I cannot agree.
4 Apr 2005 : Column 554

I could say a great deal more about many aspects of the detail of this Bill, but I agree entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, said in relation to cannabis. The debate on that has got completely out of proportion partly because of the Government's mishandling of the reclassification process, which was correct but was so mishandled that it has caused the problem and has given ammunition to a deeply irresponsible press. That is where we are, but we need not go into that night. I have probably said enough.

I would not dream of dividing the House on Second Reading, but I look forward to the early demise of this Bill, and I trust that the Government will not waste your Lordships' time with this kind of proposal again. Politicians in this country are too keen on telling us all how tough they are on drugs. When I go around the country and talk to school teachers, people who work in the field of drug misuse and, most of all, parents, I find that they are not interested in people who are tough on drugs. They merely want an effective government. I look forward to that too because we do not have that at the moment.

7.59 p.m.

Lord Cobbold: My Lords, I wish to concern myself with just three aspects of the Bill. The first is Clause 1, which deals with the aggravated supply of controlled drugs and inserts a new Clause 4A into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The proposed aggravating factors are, as we have already heard, that the supposed offence was committed on or in the vicinity of school premises or that the offender used a courier who was under the age of 18 or a third party to transport cash.

Although those may seem logical, it is already the case that sentencing judges can and do take aggravating circumstances into account during sentencing, and guidelines already exist to assist this process, as the Minister said. I therefore wonder why, in these circumstances, the proposed legislation is really necessary.

The second and more serious aspect relates to Clause 2 and the proof of intention to supply a controlled drug. This clause amends Section 5 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 creating a presumption of intent to supply where the sole criterion is that the defendant is found to be in possession of a quantity of a controlled drug which exceeds a specific quantity that is to be arbitrarily fixed by Home Office regulation. This has the serious effect of reversing the burden of proof, so that the onus is now on the defendant to establish that he or she is not a dealer. It seems to me that this clearly undermines the fundamental principle of human rights that anyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.

The result of implementing this legislation would be an increase in wrongful convictions of individuals guilty of nothing more than possession for personal use of an amount of a controlled drug that exceeds the arbitrary limit set by the Home Office.

The third aspect of the Bill that I wish to address is also the most controversial. It is Clause 21 which proposes to classify so-called "magic mushrooms" as
4 Apr 2005 : Column 555
class A drugs. As I have stated in your Lordships' House on a previous occasion, I am one of those who believe that current prohibition policies are contrary to common sense. I echo the feelings of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, in this area. I believe that drug usage should be decriminalised and subjected to regulation, quality control and taxation, as is the case with alcohol and tobacco.

The point at issue is to what extent do any government have the right in a free society to interfere in the personal choices of individual citizens and, with the excuse of protecting their health for their own good, to impose criminal sanctions on anyone who disobeys the rules?

In their recent White Paper entitled Smoking Kills, the Government state that they are,

The classification of magic mushrooms as class A drugs would fly in the face of that commitment.

A government have every right and indeed a duty to educate and warn the public of the risks and potential dangers to health of all drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. Indeed, the campaign against smoking in recent years is a good example of what can be achieved by publicising potential harm to health. But thereafter a government's concern and use of the criminal justice system should be the prevention of harm to others. Drug or alcohol addiction in itself is a sickness requiring treatment. It should be criminal only when an addict resorts to harming others to sustain his supply.

Magic mushrooms grow wild all over England. Will the owners of farmland, gardens and public parks become criminals for possessing class A drugs? The prospect is absurd. What about other substances that are damaging to health? Sugar and chocolates in excess are harmful. Beef burgers and chips can lead to chronic obesity. Should these substances also be made illegal?

The classification of magic mushrooms as a class A drug will merely force the trade under ground and into the hands of professional criminals and will further increase the burden on the already overstretched criminal justice system. I hope very much that this clause can be dropped from the Bill.

8.3 p.m.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page