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Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Can we have an assurance that the next Labour Government will hit the ground thinking on drugs policy? We will soon be marking the 30th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. During that time, the greatest failure in almost every European country has been an inability to reduce drug use, drug death and drug crime, which have increased by 2000 per cent. Can my right hon. Friend re-examine the Police Foundation report and consider the examples of Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, which have redefined drug use? As a result, they have reduced drug-related crime and have redirected money to other purposes. That has saved money, especially with regard to crimes that create victims. Are we going to be one of the last countries in the world to continue to use our criminal justice system to persecute and imprison seriously ill people for using a drug medicinally?

Mr. Straw: Of course, we shall continue to think very carefully about this issue. We make our own decisions on cannabis, as does the House, but we are led by scientific evidence. That does not come full square to my hon. Friend's view. He needs to bear in mind the fact that, although we all recognise his evangelical zeal for a particular solution, it does not follow that just because everybody thinks about an issue, they come to only one conclusion: the one that he happens to draw.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): Does the right hon. Gentleman still hold the view that successful prosecution of local criminals is based very much on the willingness of local witnesses to come forward to assist the police? That depends to a considerable extent on magistrates courts being near the community that they cover. Therefore, will the right hon. Gentleman have words with the Lord Chancellor to try to overcome the right hon. and noble Gentleman's desire to close magistrates courts throughout the country? The closure of seven near or around my area of Devon is quite unnecessary.

Mr. Straw: I am sure that my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor would be very interested in

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any evidence--and I mean evidence--of a shift in the numbers of people prosecuted as some courts are closed. I have not seen that evidence, but I am sure that my right hon. and noble Friend would be open to argument about it. We are concerned with a modernised criminal justice system, end to end, better to get the criminals who have committed offences into justice.

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport): An anti-crime strategy depends on effective partnerships at local as well as national level. I wonder what my right hon. Friend thinks about the decision of the Lib-Dem council in Stockport to remove funding for a post on the youth offending team, which shows very little commitment to tackling youth crime. Will my right hon. Friend be tough not only on crime but on the councils that fail to deliver their part of the crime bargain?

Mr. Straw: I was not aware of that; I shall certainly look into it with some care. I am of course aware that not a day goes past--indeed, not an hour goes past--in this place without the Liberal Democrats promising to spend even more than the Conservative party on one thing after another. It is a different story locally. I know the youth offending team in Stockport; I have high admiration for it. One of its greatest success stories--ensuring that a persistent young offender got custody and then moved out of criminality--is highlighted on page 31 of the Command Paper.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): Is the Home Secretary aware that, shortly, when Sevenoaks police station is closed, there will not be a single fully manned police station in my constituency, and that all these cross-cutting programmes and partnerships are no substitute for proper, locally based policing of our streets and villages? Does he also accept that one cause of the justice gap to which he referred is the police gap that he created?

Mr. Straw: I am aware that at any time individual chief officers will make judgments about how they use their resources. As people's patterns of life change, there will be some changes. That led to the closure of many more police stations while the Conservatives were in office. In North Yorkshire--I speak from recollection--75 police stations were closed during the five years immediately preceding this Administration.

As for Kent, David Phillips and Kent constabulary have one of the best records of any chief constable and of any police service in the country. I should have thought that, rather than whingeing about that, the hon. Gentleman would be praising the success of a very good police service.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley): Does my right hon. Friend agree that drugs are the root cause of many crimes? On a recent visit to Armley prison in Leeds, I was told that more than 80 per cent. of offenders there had some connection with drug abuse; yet, when they are released, they are too often and for too long left to their own devices, and return to the cycle of drug abuse. What measures can be taken to encourage former prisoners to adopt a more positive and productive, rather than destructive, life style?

Mr. Straw: I entirely accept my hon. Friend's observation. A significant proportion--at least half and

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probably two thirds--of the hard core of 100,000 persistent offenders are heroin or cocaine abusers. We are intercepting drug abusers at the point of arrest through arrest referral schemes. Compulsory testing at the point of charge will ensure that that information is available to the courts when deciding whether to grant bail: in general, a court dealing with a persistent drug abuser should not provide bail, as that will simply lead into a continuing cycle of drug abuse. We are also setting specified community punishments, such as drug treatment and testing orders. Persons going into custody will have clear through-care, with detox, education and treatment in custody and steps taken to ensure that they continue that treatment on release. That is one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I are establishing a national treatment agency for drug abuse and increasing its funds by 70 per cent.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): The Home Secretary asked for evidence of the effect on the criminal justice system of the closure of magistrates courts. Victims of crime in my constituency tell me--and, through me, the Home Secretary--that they do not want to travel two hours to have their case heard in a magistrates court. How can the people of Wales, especially those living in rural areas, have any faith in the latest bunch of promises when the Government propose to close two thirds of the magistrates courts in west Wales?

Mr. Straw: I know that my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor is always open to representations. However, as people's pattern of life changes, so, too, does public service provision. Police numbers in every police service in Wales have increased since 1997, and the crime reduction record of those police services has been exemplary. South Wales has had one of the best records in the country, with a reduction in crime of more than 20 per cent. since 1997.

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Foot and Mouth Disease

4.27 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): With permission, I wish to make a statement about the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

As my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Hayman reported on 21 February, the first case of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom for 20 years was confirmed on the evening of last Tuesday, 20 February, in pigs at an abattoir and in cattle on a neighbouring farm near Brentwood in Essex. The number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease rose to nine this morning; two further cases, bringing the total to 11, have been confirmed early this afternoon.

Today's cases are, first, in sheep at Hatherleigh near Okehampton in Devon at another farm in the same ownership as the one confirmed yesterday; at Bromham near Chippenham in Wiltshire, in sheep at an abattoir that received animals from the Devon source; in a farm between the two cases in Northumberland, which is likely to have been windborne spread; and at a farm near the Welsh border in Herefordshire, which had also received sheep from Devon. Infected area restrictions are being imposed. A decision was taken at lunchtime today to kill the remaining animals on the several premises in Devon under the same ownership, and on one neighbouring farm, as dangerous contacts.

Investigations are continuing into a number of other premises where there is reason to believe that there may be disease. The Government's overriding priority is the containment and eradication of this disease. On 21 February, the United Kingdom Government and the European Commission acted swiftly to prohibit temporarily the export of live animals, meat, fresh milk and other animal products from the UK. Given the acutely infectious nature of foot and mouth disease, that was a necessary step in helping to prevent the spread of the disease to other countries. We are able to export non-susceptible animals and their products, provided that they meet certain conditions and are accompanied by veterinary certificates. Appropriate certificates are now available for issue from MAFF animal health offices.

We immediately ceased issuing export health certificates for export to third countries for any animals or products which cannot also be exported to other European Union member states. Let me make it absolutely clear to the House that that applies whether or not the import conditions for a given country would allow us to export. We are urgently tracing all exports of foot and mouth disease susceptible animals from areas under suspicion to other member states since 1 February, but before the export ban came into effect. The European Commission has been kept informed at every stage, along with our EU partners. I shall be updating the Council of Agriculture Ministers tomorrow. In particular, we advised the German authorities of a consignment of sheep from the Devon outbreak, and those sheep were slaughtered by the German authorities yesterday.

Some of the cases have been on premises which are associated with substantial movements of animals. The confirmation of the cases in Northumberland on Friday 23 February showed that the disease was not confined to Essex, and had been in the country longer than had at first been apparent. In those new circumstances, the chief

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veterinary officer advised that stringent controls were needed. After discussion with the food and farming industries, and with the devolved Administrations, I announced later on Friday 23 February that there should be a seven day standstill of livestock movements throughout Great Britain. That exceptional measure was imposed at 5 pm on Friday, and is due to expire at midnight on Friday 2 March.

The Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency have confirmed that foot and mouth disease has no implications for human health or food. The disease causes serious loss of condition, and therefore commercial value, to the main farmed animal species of cattle, pigs and sheep. The presence of disease also blocks our export markets. The disease is highly infectious between animals and it can be transmitted by movements of people and vehicles. Unlike classical swine fever, which we had to deal with in East Anglia last year, it is carried through the air.

Firm control measures had to be taken. The Government are well aware of the disruption that the temporary controlled area in Great Britain has caused to farming, the food chain and the wider rural community. I pay tribute to the responsible approach that the industry and the public are taking. During the course of this week, the state veterinary service, under the chief veterinary officer, will continue its huge task of tracing and controlling the disease. It has been assured of all of the resources that it needs for that task. The Government are calling on the private veterinary profession and other countries' state veterinary services for assistance.

Baroness Hayman, the Minister of State, will be meeting industry and veterinary representatives tomorrow with the chief veterinary officer. Among other matters, they will discuss whether it is possible, consistent with a rigorous approach to the control of disease, to allow for some tightly controlled movement of livestock for slaughter. Consideration is also being given to the temporary closure of footpaths and rights of way. We are keeping in the closest touch with retailers and food producers to ensure that there should be no serious disruption to food supplies. I am grateful to consumers who have, as I requested, continued their normal pattern of buying.

The House will know that the policy of successive Governments has been that compensation is paid only for animals which are slaughtered for disease control purposes--in the case of foot and mouth disease, at full market value. Foot and mouth disease presents a relatively clear clinical picture. Incubation periods tend to be short. I therefore hope that the movement restrictions necessary for disease control will not have to be too protracted.

The Government are determined to eliminate this disease. My ministerial team, my Department's staff and I will give this work the highest priority. I welcome the firm support that we have received from the industry, people throughout the country, our European partners, and others further afield in our efforts to do so.

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