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House of Lords

Tuesday, 16 January 2007.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.

Drugs: Classification System

Lord Cobbold asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, in October 2006, when publishing their reply to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report on the relationship between scientific evidence and the classification of illegal drugs, Her Majesty's Government announced that the review of the drug classification system would not be proceeding at this time. We considered this matter very carefully. We continue to believe that the current system discharges its function fully and effectively, providing clear and meaningful distinctions.

Lord Cobbold: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. I am of course aware of the excellent report of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Drug Classification: Making a hash of it. I note in particular the report’s conclusion, on page 48, that,

Do the Government agree that the real problem is not about detailed composition of their classification system but that current national and international drugs policies are as a whole not fit for purpose? Is it not obvious that prohibition, as the late Milton Friedman once wrote,

We are told that the drugs trade is the second largest global business after oil, and it is all in the hands of criminals. Does the Minister consider this to be acceptable?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I disagree with the fundamental premise of the noble Lord—that, in some way or other, legalisation would solve all our problems with drugs. We do not believe that. It is not the Government’s policy and we have no intention of reviewing it.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the Minister said that there is no intention to review but does he accept that there are significant anomalies in the classification of individual drugs, as has been pointed out? There is also a concern about the rationale being used to make classification decisions. Is that not at odds with the objective of classifying drugs on the basis of harm?

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, a harm-based system is the core of the classification system, which works well. I am aware that there are some critics of the classification system, but we have to base our policy on something. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has served us well in advising not just our Government, but successive Governments, on the best course of action with regard to particular types of drugs and their derivatives.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, would it help to reduce the drug problem in this country if we and other states bought up the poppy crop in Afghanistan for legal use?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we take action to deal with problems at the source of the output of drugs such as heroin, but the noble Lord is right: we can and should always do more. That is certainly an objective this Government have followed regarding their drugs policy.

Lord Richard: My Lords, I do not think my noble friend can dismiss the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, quite so easily. Is there not an increasing case to be made for decriminalising at least some drugs and for treating drug users medically rather than through the criminal justice system? Does my noble friend agree that this deserves at least very serious consideration indeed from the Government if we want to do something about it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I do not dismiss the argument, but it is not the core of our policy and is not our approach. The Government—and previous Governments—have attempted over the past nearly 10 years to tackle the drugs issue by putting money into treatment and trying to educate our population about the harmful effects of drugs. The noble Lord is of course entitled to his view on legalising some drugs, but it is not a view that the Government share.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that even though the Government do not intend to alter classification at this time, they should keep an open mind because so many changes are taking place in the pharmaceutical industry and other industries that have an effect on this? The Government should always keep their mind open towards reclassification depending on circumstances and the case that is presented.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I do not dispute what my noble friend has said, and of course we do keep an open mind on classification. That is why crystal meth has been reclassified and will become a class A drug on, I think, 18 January 2007.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware that whatever the classification or declassification of drugs may be, the practical consequences of people taking drugs, particularly when driving cars, are really quite alarming at the moment? What can be done to prevent tragedies occurring where someone has caused even death due to driving under the influence of drugs?

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that we should focus our attention on the practical impact of substance misuse. It is for that reason that the Government have invested as heavily as they have in drug treatment and tackling misuse. Since 2001-02, £7.5 billion has been invested by the Government in tackling drug abuse. In the past year alone, the Government invested £1.5 billion, and a further £86 million was made available for treatment services. If we can start to deal with drugs issues in those ways, we have a greater chance of success. There are examples of success in reducing people’s interest in and consumption of drugs.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, the noble Lord did not really answer the question put to him by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. Can he please tell us what consideration Her Majesty’s Government have given to purchasing the harvest of opium from Afghanistan and using it for medicinal purposes in this country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my understanding from colleagues across government is that we are looking to ensure that crop substitution takes place. Work is being undertaken on that.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether it is the Government’s view that legalising any particular drug would be likely to increase or to decrease its consumption?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I hesitate to suggest that that is perhaps a simplistic way of looking at the issue. We need to focus most of our attention on education because that is where we can make a difference, and there is evidence to suggest that our education campaigns are beginning to have an impact, particularly on young people, among whom drug consumption is now beginning to reduce.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, would not an increase—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I am sorry, but we are well into the eighth minute, and we must move on.

UN: Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

2.44 pm

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, the convention on disability rights was formally adopted by the United Nations on 13 December. The Government wholeheartedly support

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the convention, which provides for full enjoyment by disabled people of their human rights. Government departments and devolved Administrations are now checking the UK’s legislation, policies and practices against the obligations in the convention with a view to us being among the first to sign and ratify the convention.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does he agree that the Minister for Disabled People, Anne McGuire, and her colleagues have played a vital role in these early days of the convention? But as only 45 countries out of 192 have their own specific legislation on disabled people, the very great likelihood is that many countries will not sign, certainly not all of them. Will the British Government seek to persuade reluctant countries to sign, especially Russia and China, neither of which has so far said that it will sign, and the United States, which has said that it definitely will not sign, which is deplorable and damaging?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend’s kind comments about my honourable friend Anne McGuire MP and I take the opportunity to pay tribute to him for his enduring commitment to disabled people. I agree that the rights of disabled people are an issue in every country. The convention has the potential to touch the lives in a positive way of in excess of 600 million disabled people and it is important that as many states as possible ratify it. The FCO will work with DfID and DWP to encourage other states to prepare for ratification and implementation of the convention and the FCO has already announced a worldwide lobbying campaign to this end. DfID’s aid relationship with partner Governments is already based on a shared commitment to human rights and it funds a wide range of NGO work in this direction. DfID will explore more targeted ways to support implementation of the convention across the world.

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, I am sure the Minister will agree that the way in which rights are ensured for disabled people varies greatly according to their disability. Does he also therefore agree about the importance of implementing the convention rights flexibly and in a manner which takes account of the diversity of disabled people’s needs—for example, for specialist as well as mainstream provision and support in education and employment where that is appropriate? Will the Government ensure that in the implementation and monitoring process they consult not only pan-disability groups but also impairment-specific organisations, such as the one I have the privilege of chairing, which are best placed to advise on the application of the convention for their constituents?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I acknowledge the expertise of the noble Lord in this area. We do not believe that there is anything in the convention that would prevent the flexible approach he seeks. There is no doubt that disability organisations of all descriptions will have an important role to play in monitoring the

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way the convention is working and in advising government. Disability organisations will, of course, be able to make submissions to the treaty monitoring body.

Lord Addington: My Lords, can the Minister give an assurance that any expertise we have in the field of implementing disability rights will be made available to all our partners in Europe and further afield? Do the Government have any strategy for making sure that our best practice is put out and the best practice of other places is brought in?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: Yes, my Lords, I can give that assurance. Indeed, it was the case during the creation of the convention. The UK has been at the forefront of the negotiations associated with creating the convention. Along the way it has consulted widely, not only with NGOs within the UK but on a European basis, and already has policies, practices and funding in place where it has supported these issues across the world.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, much of the implementation of the provisions of the charter is likely to rest with local authorities. How do the Government plan to provide funding for this?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, as I said in my opening remarks, at the moment the UK is looking at the legislation, policies and practices to see the extent to which it meets the obligations of the convention. We do not anticipate that huge changes will be necessary for us to be able to sign up to the convention. Obviously funding is already in place for what local authorities do.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, who will know from the memorable debate of the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, that the call for a UN convention originated in Rehabilitation International’s Charter for the Third Millennium, backed by the disability organisations of 124 countries worldwide.

Is he aware of the Prime Minister’s endorsement of the charter as,

And can we be assured that the RI charter’s recommendations as a whole—not least those relating to disabled people in the poorest countries—will now be addressed with due priority and renewed urgency?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I am aware of my right honourable friend’s endorsement of the Rehabilitation International Charter for the Third Millennium. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Morris for the leading role he played in this matter and for his long-standing campaigning on behalf of disabled people.

It is worth quoting one of the charter’s paragraphs, which says:

The charter called on member states to support the promulgation of a UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities as a key strategy to achieve these goals, and this has now happened.

Aviation: Carbon Emissions

2.51 pm

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we recognise that the UK aviation industry is taking steps to address environmental issues, including climate change. The Government welcomed the aviation industry’s sustainable aviation initiative, launched in June 2005. This is, of course, in addition to the Government’s commitment to press for aviation’s inclusion in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, where we are making progress.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. As far as I can tell, the Emissions Trading Scheme, by which the airline industry is setting great store, means that efficient producers of coal, electricity and steel elsewhere are building up large banks of carbon which they propose to sell to our airline industry, so that one form of pollution will be replaced by another. How does that help climate change?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme is still in its early days, and aviation has not been signed up to it yet, although the Commission produced legislative proposals at the end of last year encouraging this development. The Government’s strategy—and we expect our fellow Governments in Europe to follow the same strategy—is that the polluter pays and that those who pollute will bear the full costs of the pollution they create. Through those price signals, we indicate to industries ways in which they can set about reducing pollution, and aviation is following that path as well.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, on price signals, how can it help the airlines to combat global warming by imposing a tax on the tickets which were purchased by passengers prior to the tax being implemented? Either the airlines have to absorb the cost, leaving less room for manoeuvre in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or hard-working families who pre-purchased their holidays are forced to pay an additional tax. What has that to do with global warming?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, what it has to do with global warming is to send a signal to the general public that there are pollution costs involved in flying which the aviation industry will be expected

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to bear. The noble Lord expressed concerns about the tax. He will have to stretch my understanding of economics if he thinks that a £5 tax is likely to deter people, however impoverished, from going on holiday abroad.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the attack just made by the noble Lord opposite was ill advised, unwise and unproductive, and indicates that the Opposition have nothing worth while to say on this issue? Does he agree that a notable contribution has been made by the British Airline Pilots Association, of which I am the president, so far as these fundamentally important issues are concerned? Does he agree also that the British aviation industry’s positive response to the EU Emissions Trading Scheme has enormously benefited the travelling public and the cause that it represents?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, who has an interest in an important part of the aviation industry. He is right that the positive response of our aviation industry bodes well for the future, but we will not make progress on this issue until we have established the scheme Europe-wide and in the wider international arena.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, the European Emissions Trading Scheme, great though it is, will surely not affect the airline industry for years. As the noble Lord said, the passenger tax makes no difference in terms of incentivising airlines to invest in carbon-efficient technology. Is not a commitment by the Government to impose carbon taxation on the airline industry surely what is needed?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, if the Government were to impose that tax on the British industry alone, it would disfavour the British industry without having any effect on the worldwide position. That is why we are looking at a broader base than just Britain. Nevertheless, the signals which are being given about the role of aviation in reducing pollution are important. However, we ought not to exaggerate the issue: aviation in Britain is responsible for only 3.5 per cent of carbon emissions. Therefore, there are other targets to hit as well.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, the airline industry is obviously being targeted at the moment. Will the Minister indicate which private sector companies in the generality are regarded as the leaders in reducing their own carbon-emission footprint and setting a good example voluntarily?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the CBI, speaking on behalf of a wide range of private sector companies, has emphasised that it wants to see a constructive response to the Stern report and the importance of dealing with the carbon issue. It would be invidious to single out any particular firm, but it is right to emphasise that we are anticipating, and at this stage are getting, a constructive response from British industry.

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