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22 Jan 2009 : Column 1768

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, that is precisely why we have developed the agreement such as the one I mentioned we have with Kenya. HMS “Cumberland” apprehended pirates and we had the agreement with Kenya, which means that they are now to stand trial in that country. There are difficulties. We are aware of the danger of bringing pirates here who would want to claim political asylum, which is why we are looking at our domestic laws. Our arrangement with Kenya provides us with a satisfactory situation at the moment.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, we join the Minister in sending our condolences to the families of the servicemen who were tragically killed in Afghanistan. I understand that the Chinese are sending two warships to the Gulf of Aden to combat piracy. Will they be attached to the EU combined task force or the US one, or will they act independently?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that there are several aspects to the international effort on piracy and the Chinese have recently indicated their willingness to help in this situation. We are trying to make sure that we have an international contact group so that those countries that wish to make a positive contribution can do so.

We have had extremely good co-operation between the NATO force that was in the area until December and the EU mission that we now have, as well as the combined maritime force which has been ongoing for some time. We are extremely hopeful that the Chinese will wish to participate in the co-operating mechanisms to make sure that we maximise the effort and international co-operation.



11.30 am

Asked By Lord Dykes

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, we would welcome an Israeli contribution to the wider reconstruction effort, and indeed we agree that Israel should feel that there is a responsibility on itself to contribute. The most essential Israeli action that we continue to press for is the immediate free and unhindered passage of humanitarian aid, construction materials and the staff of UN agencies and international NGOs through the Gaza crossings.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that detailed, helpful and positive Answer. What Zeb Brzezinski described yesterday as a “massacre” has resulted in the lives of thousands of Palestinian families being ruined, some tragically for ever, including those who are now severely disabled as a result of their

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wounds. Does the Minister agree that Israel need feel no shame in making amends for what has happened as part of the peace process by making full financial restitution and compensation to the victims and providing aid both for the reconstruction of over 20,000 buildings, and, in particular, in respect of more than 400 children who have been killed? That will be part of the peace process.

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I certainly agree with the broad direction of the sentiment. There is a well understood practice at the end of a war that a country contributes towards reconstruction. The same point was raised only last night by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, in the House. However, I do not want to imply that there is a responsibility under international law to pay for that reconstruction. As part of the peace process, it clearly would have enormous value and would be a healing step.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, does my noble friend agree with the European Union, the United Nations and Israel that the reconstruction effort in Gaza should be led by the legitimate Palestinian Authority rather than by Hamas? What talks have our Government had with Egypt and others, in view of the upcoming reconstruction conference, about bringing the Palestinian factions together to enable the Palestinian Authority to perform this essential function for their people in Gaza?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, as the elected head of the Palestinian Authority, President Abbas does indeed represent Palestinians on this issue. However, he and his own colleagues have made it clear that it is important that reconstruction and all activities in the Palestinian territories should be led as soon as possible by a Government of national unity under the Palestinian Authority flag, representing the citizens of Gaza as well as those of the West Bank.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I am following on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Janner. Can we make sure that, in our contribution to UN thinking on this, the proposal of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an international committee to oversee reconstruction in Gaza—it is, of course, desperately needed, whoever contributes, Israel or anyone else—so that the driving force really is to achieve what we all want: a single Palestinian state, a united Palestine? Surely that is not only the aim, but perhaps also the opportunity as one tries to pick up the pieces after this horrific tragedy.

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord would agree that I can add to his words not just the aim and opportunity but the necessity for this. The cycle of reconstruction followed by renewed violence and destruction is one that all in this House feel must be broken this time.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, the most immediate need is humanitarian. Financial and reconstruction help comes next. We must say to Israel

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that it is time to be generous and to open the crossings between Israel and Gaza. Further, since we know that many civilians have undoubtedly been injured, Israel should offer them medical and hospital assistance. Can the Minister press on Israel the need for generosity and the extent to which such generosity is in Israel’s long-term enlightened interests?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, before addressing the broader point, I can assure the noble Lord that this week the crossings at Kerem Shalom, Nahal Oz, Rafah, Erez and Karni were opened. On 20 January, the date for which we have the latest statistics, significant numbers of truckloads of humanitarian goods were able to enter Gaza, both through Karem Shalom and via the Karni conveyor belt, in addition to ambulances passing through the Rafah crossing. That is encouraging. However, we are more dismayed to see that there does not yet to seem to be easy movement of either diplomatic or international NGO staff through the crossings to support the delivery of assistance.

On the noble Lord’s broader point, he knows that I share with him completely the view that this is a time for Israel to exercise statesmanship, to open up and move forward on this and to show within that statesmanship an element of contrition.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the time has now come for EUBAM to be reinstated at Rafah, so that people can move in both directions?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the Prime Minister made it clear in his meetings at Sharm el-Sheikh and Jerusalem at the weekend that we would very much support its use at the Rafah crossing and extend it to other crossings, if that was the way to build trust and get the movement of goods going.

European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Agreements concluded under Article XXI GATS) Order 2009

Postponement of Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2009

Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2009

Motion to Refer to Grand Committee

11.36 am

Moved By Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

Motion agreed.

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11.37 am

Moved By Baroness Meacher

Baroness Meacher: My Lords, in proposing the Motion for this morning’s debate, my aim is to provide support to the Government in making maximum use of the window of opportunity provided by the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs session to be held in Vienna in March. I am aware of the geopolitical backdrop to the consideration of the UN conventions, which provide the framework for the criminalisation regime that has been in place for 40 years across the world.

I want at the outset to recognise and congratulate our Foreign Office officials who, I understand, have been playing an important role in developing a helpful EU position paper on drug control. They have been working in the context of the Bush Administration’s position of full support for criminalisation in what is described as the “drugs war”.

Just before I came into the Chamber, I was handed the EU position paper. I have not had a chance to do more than glance at it during Questions, for which I apologise, but I can refer to two brief statements in it. The first is that, in future, scientific evidence and results should be the basis for formulating drug policies. I warmly welcome that statement in a EU document, because it is precisely my position and I feel that it has not been the position of the Bush Administration, who have dominated this debate for many years now. Secondly, the EU position paper states that the health principle has not received sufficient attention in the past. I hope that every Member of the House would support that point and many others in this important document.

The new US president provides new hope in this important policy area, along with so many others. Perhaps I can be allowed a few seconds to offer my humble but heartfelt congratulations to Barack Obama on his extraordinary victory. He posted on his website, on his first day in office, a string of commitments. One of those commitments, believe it or not, had to do with moving to a drug reduction and health focus in drugs policy. I find it remarkable that this man, on day one, refers to what we are talking about in this debate. I could go into detail but I think that I have said enough to make the point.

Just as President Obama wants to relegate the phrase “the war on terror” to the history books, I believe that he may replace the “drugs war” with a harm-reduction approach in the future. Sadly, the March commission meeting is too early to benefit substantially from this new and radical Administration in the United States. However, everyone at that commission should take account of that day-one commitment

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by the new president, and everything that it puts in its declaration should be influenced by that new approach.

To avoid any misunderstanding, I make it clear that I regard narcotic drugs as dangerous, particularly so for people with severe mental health problems. My concern is that the current punitive regime increases those dangers considerably. Our aim must be to reverse the relentless rise in the serious harm caused by these drugs. This debate is just one small step along a very long road, but if we do not take steps we will certainly never arrive at our destination.

The slogan for the UN’s 10-year strategy of 1998 was:

“A drug-free world—we can do it!”,

which is reminiscent of Barack Obama, no less. However, since the first UN convention outlawed narcotic drugs, their use has risen by 300 per cent. We have to recognise that the UN slogan is not realistic. Human beings have always used mind-changing substances and surely always will. As many informed experts in this field have said, the task is therefore to find the best regime for limiting so far as possible the harm caused by these substances.

In a very helpful meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Brett, this week, he reminded us of the political constraints limiting the Government’s ability to come out with clear statements and policies in this area. Our Government will want to tread carefully. Nothing can be achieved quickly. I respect all of that.

So what do we want from our Ministers? The first step would be to send a senior Minister to the Vienna commission meeting in March, but my understanding is that the plan is to send a junior Minister. There is no doubt that in an international meeting the seniority of the government Minister representing a country affects the seriousness with which that country is taken and the influence that it can have.

My understanding is that the EU is pressing for the unintended consequences of the criminalisation regime to be recognised in the declaration of the UN commission. I was looking for the words in the document, but they are obviously hidden somewhere; however, I understand that this is what the EU is committed to. Our first request to Ministers is that the UK draws particular attention to the enormity of the unintended consequences and hidden costs of the current regime in our ministerial speech to the commission. I would be grateful if the Minister today could give me some assurance on that. We also request that the Minister at the commission goes out of his or her way to press for the inclusion of a reference to unintended consequences in the declaration. It is great to have this sort of commitment in Europe, but now, with Barack Obama as President of the US, I cannot see any reason why this declaration cannot be a little more radical than it would otherwise have been.

The unintended consequences and hidden costs of the regime are well known, but it is worth summarising them briefly for the record. Violent criminal entrepreneurs now control a criminal market in narcotic drugs worth £300 billion a year. Think how much Governments would welcome that money right now to help us with the banking crisis. Property crime and prostitution are massively inflated by the needs of low-income dependent drug users to feed their habit. The Government estimate

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that this small population of dependent heroin and cocaine users is now responsible for 54 per cent of robberies and 70 to 80 per cent of burglaries—how much better we would sleep in our beds if those burglaries were reduced by anything like that number—as well as 85 per cent of shoplifting and 95 per cent of street prostitution. Of course this situation applies across the globe. Researchers have estimated that half the crime in the US can be put down to the sellers of drugs or people on drugs trying to steal money to feed their habit.

The current regime inspired by the UN conventions criminalises millions of otherwise law-abiding people and makes an unparalleled contribution to our prison overcrowding. The Government’s No. 10 Strategy Unit estimated that drug-motivated crime resulting from the current criminalising regime costs this country £19 billion a year, which is one-third of the total cost of UK crime.

The risks of these narcotic drugs are increased by the unregulated gangsters and drug dealers, who have no incentive to ensure that the drugs are clean and pure. Governments have no method of controlling the purity of these drugs, whose danger is therefore vastly greater than even that of the original drug.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda are making vast profits from the international drug trade. As Anatole Kaletsky points out, our efforts to promote economic development, education and political reconstruction in Helmand province are failing because the local people do not trust us. They see us as alien interlopers, taking away their one opportunity to make money, which is by growing drugs.

If the UN commission’s declaration in March openly discussed these unintended consequences and hidden costs of the current regime, it would take the world an important step forward. We have given the 1961 UN convention 40 years to prove that it can be effective in reducing the use of—or, ideally, eliminating—drugs, but the opposite has happened: the use of drugs has increased year by year for 40 years.

My second request is that the UK Minister’s speech at the Vienna meeting pushes the envelope on the limited feasibility available under the UN conventions. Countries are permitted to avoid using penal punishments. Some countries are already using civil penalties or flexing the UN rules to introduce regulation. I hope that our Minister will make clear UK support for evaluated pilots of alternative approaches to the control of drug use. This is crucial. Once we have evidence that alternatives to criminalisation can work, we can ask our politicians to come out of the cupboard and promote alternatives to criminalisation.

Already, we have some useful examples—it is not that no evidence is available. Portugal decriminalised possession of drugs for personal use and has taken a health-led approach. It has lower levels of use and misuse than the UK. Surely that is indicative. The Netherlands decriminalised possession of cannabis for personal use and de facto decriminalised possession of other drugs for personal use. It, too, has lower levels of drug misuse than the UK. Switzerland has had a successful, legally regulated and controlled supply of heroin for 1,400 addicts via clinics that also provide psychosocial support. This policy has the majority

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support of the population. Once you can prove that you can do it, the population will come behind you. The UK has heroin prescription trials. So far, participants have reduced criminal acts from 40 per month to six. Let us just think of the positive implications of that policy if we were to extend it across the country. Do the Government plan to do that?

We know that Julian Critchley, the former director of the Cabinet Office’s anti-drugs unit, came to believe that regulation would be less harmful than the current strategy. He went into that job with no policy on drugs, but once he understood the situation, he came out in favour of regulation rather than criminalisation. It is interesting that he said that his views were shared by the “overwhelming majority” of professionals, including police, health service workers and members of the Government. The problem is that Ministers, understandably, will not come out on this issue until we have the evidence to support them. That is the purpose of today’s debate.

I recognise that this is a tricky and difficult topic for Ministers, so the first step must be to pilot alternative approaches. If regulation would lead to reduction in the harm from narcotic drugs—and there is some evidence that it would, as I have said—Governments need to move forward urgently with pilots and research to build the evidence base to support a new UN convention. If we continue with the current regime, we can expect an illicit drugs market worth £1.6 trillion in 10 years’ time. Surely we must avert that catastrophic situation. With our Ministers’ commitment, the UN commission just might start the ball rolling. I beg to move.

11.50 am

Lord Mancroft: My Lords, the whole House is very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for introducing this debate. It is a very rare sort of debate in your Lordships' House. Indeed, I have a suspicion that if the noble Baroness had not introduced it, the Government in the form of its junior Minister might have slipped off to Vienna without consulting any of us. That is partly the problem that we have had. All these things have been organised and arranged behind closed doors, between Governments, for 30 or 40 years—and we can see where that has got us.

Where the United Nations thought it was going to get us was to what it was going to call a drug-free world. Looking back on that now, after 10 years, we can see that that was a slightly ambitious idea. It will be interesting to see what the UN claims in Vienna in March; there is a temptation for it to say that it looks as if drug use may have stabilised in some parts of the world. Maybe it has, actually—it was going to stabilise in the end, somewhere. But if it has stabilised, it has done so at far too high a level, one that is too expensive in many ways, both personally and economically, for society to stand, and which must be reduced further. I hope that the UN does not claim that as a success, as I do not think that it has much to do with that stability anyway.

I hope that the failure of the concentration on supply controls will be talked about and admitted, because that is really where the whole problem lies.

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The noble Baroness alluded to some of the costs; here in Britain, the crime cost of drugs alone is about £19 billion every year. But there are even wider costs, which will be reflected in every other country in the world, in different ways, but in some countries in an even worse way. Colombia is now what you might as well describe as a narco-state; it is a country entirely dependent on, run by and ruined by the narcotics industry. Meanwhile, what can one say about Afghanistan? The sad business is that in going in there and trying to sort it out, the allies have made the situation in respect of the drugs trade and therefore the economics of that country significantly worse. It really has been an absolute policy disaster, and one of which we should be deeply ashamed. Then there is Mexico, which would not have been on this list two or three years ago. It is quite clear now that one of the most important countries in the Americas, which bridges the two continents, north and south, is now rapidly descending into a narcotic state, with 8,000 people killed in the past two years there as a result of the American war on drugs.

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