Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I understand why the noble Lord has opened this matter, so that we can respond, but I should like to reassure him that the way in which the amendment is phrased would not in fact assist an assessor. While the aim of the amendment may be to assist the drugs worker/client relationship, we believe that this would place the initial assessor in a difficult if not invidious position.

It is not an offence for the assessor not to inform the police. All the assessor needs to do is to say whether the person has attended. The requirement to attend the initial assessment and remain for the duration is imposed by the police. The duty on the assessor is merely to report whether the person complied with the requirements—basically, to tell the authorities whether they turned up and whether or not they stayed for the assessment. It will be for the prosecuting authorities, and ultimately the courts, to decide whether a person has failed to do so without good cause and is therefore guilty of an offence.

The noble Lord agrees that people must be assessed so that we know the nature of the condition that they have and what assistance they may or may not need. If the court is to do that, it is important that we have a way of confirming that the person did or did not take advantage of that opportunity. That is all that the provision seeks to do.

Lord Mancroft: I am most grateful for that response and, on that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 22 not moved.]

Lord Mancroft moved Amendment No. 23:

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 23, which is grouped with Amendments Nos. 24, 28 and 29, is merely intended to raise the issue of the size of the penalties in the Bill. In my amendments, I replace those penalties with other ones. I do not know whether they are right; I am not a great expert on the level of offences. But it seems to me that a year in prison or, I believe, a £4,000 fine at level 4 is slightly high for what is effectively missing an appointment, although it may be a very important appointment.

Under these charges, a great many people will be arrested for acquisitive crime, mainly to fund their drug habits—even the dealers. We are not talking about the "Mr Bigs" of this world; we are talking about small-time dealers, and basically most of them supply drugs to fund their own habits. The reason for
6 Apr 2005 : Column 814
that is that they do not have any money. How will they pay these fines? Unless they are lucky enough to be in one of the small, but admittedly increasing, number of prisons that have good drug programmes, the likelihood is that they will end up with a worse habit when they come out than when they went in.

Standing back from this issue, such people are stealing only because the drugs are so expensive, although they are far cheaper than they used to be. The reason they are so expensive is that they are illegal, which is government policy. Those who steal are arrested and end up being fined. They cannot pay the fine and so they go to prison—for which we have to pay and which probably makes them worse—and they come out and do it again.

The object of this legislation—one with which I think everyone in the Committee and beyond would agree—is to try to stop what we called the "revolving door syndrome". My concern is that if people are fined at too high a rate or if they are chucked into prison—obviously the object of the Bill is to stop them going to prison—then the revolving door syndrome is perpetuated.

Therefore, in raising this point, I am questioning whether the level of fine and potential sentencing to prison is proportionate to the offences involved in this piece of legislation. I beg to move.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I assure the noble Lord that on summary conviction up to 51 weeks' imprisonment and/or a fine will be the maximum penalty when the relevant sentencing provisions introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003 come into force. Until that time, the maximum term of imprisonment will be three months. Where a defendant has tested positive on arrest or charge for a specified class A drug, indicating a possible addiction to drugs which may lead him into a life of crime, as the noble Lord has already indicated, it would be inappropriate to introduce a lower penalty and would, we believe, send the wrong message to the group.

One must bear in mind the very broad variety of sentences introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The whole menu is available, and the fine and the term of 51 weeks' imprisonment is the outer limit. We think that the penalty under this provision is therefore the same as that for the failure to provide a sample when requested to do so on arrest or charge. We believe that it is at the appropriate level and is proportionate. I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Mancroft: Again, that was a very helpful explanation. I am delighted to hear that a whole menu of appropriate penalties is available. I hope that the appropriate authorities will be looking at the lower end of that menu, particularly when considering someone who, as the noble Baroness said, has been tested for a possible addiction. If you have a possible addiction and you have been tested for it, that means that you are ill. We have identified someone who is ill, so immediately we up the sentence.

I have a feeling that, when people look back on this in a generation's time, the way in which we treat drug addicts in the first part of the 21st century will be
6 Apr 2005 : Column 815
considered in exactly the same manner as historians consider the way in which those two ghastly brothers treated poor old King George III. If one stands back and looks at the situation, one can see that it is immensely barbaric, apart from being an incredible waste of time and money. Nevertheless, we shall pray for the whole menu, and on that basis I shall withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 24 not moved.]

Clause 12 agreed to.

Clause 13 [Arrangements for follow-up assessment]:

[Amendment No. 25 not moved.]

Clause 13 agreed to.

Clause 14 [Attendance at follow-up assessment]:

[Amendments Nos. 26 to 29 not moved.]

Clause 14 agreed to.

Clause 15 [Disclosure of information about assessments]:

[Amendment No. 30 not moved.]

Clause 15 agreed to.

Clauses 16 to 20 agreed to.

Clause 21 [Inclusion of mushrooms containing psilocin etc. as Class A drugs]:

On Question, Whether Clause 21 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Cobbold: The Bill has many problem areas, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, so ably pointed out. Clause 21 has the air of having been slipped in at the last minute, and its removal would have no influence on the rest of the Bill. The clause seeks to classify so-called magic mushrooms as class A drugs alongside heroin, crack and cocaine.

Magic mushrooms grow wild all over the fields of England and have been enjoyed recreationally for many years. It is true that they contain a quantity of the substance psilocin, which in its pure and concentrated form is already classified as a class A drug in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. But experience tells us that the mushrooms themselves have a low danger to health relative to most other commonly used drugs and according to the Government's Talktofrank website, they are,

As I said at Second Reading on Tuesday, the point at issue is to what extent 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, to impose criminal sanctions on anyone who disobeys the rules. Government have every right and indeed a duty to educate and to warn the public, particularly the young, of the risks to personal 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.
6 Apr 2005 : Column 816

Publicity and health warnings are one thing, but criminalising the enjoyment of a relatively harmless mushroom that grows wild in our fields is surely a step too far. Are farmers to become criminals because class A drugs grow on their land? That is absurd. The clause will drive the existing, modest trade underground and into the hands of criminals, and it will increase the burden on the already overstretched criminal justice system. I hope that the Government will agree to drop Clause 21 from the Bill.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page