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Session 2000-01
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Scottish Grand Committee Debates

Oil and Gas Industry

Scottish Grand Committee

Wednesday 28 March 2001

(Westminster)

[Mr. John Maxton in the Chair]

Drug Abuse

10.30 am

The Chairman: The first business is a statement on Government action to combat drug abuse. There is no time limit, but I am aware that many hon. Members want to speak in the main debate. Therefore, I ask that questions be brief; I cannot demand that answers be brief, but the Minister will have heard what I said.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Ian McCartney): I will take up about 15 minutes of the Committee's time on what is, for me, a difficult subject to discuss in public.

My father was joint Chairman of the Scottish Grand Committee between 1985 and 1987 and, for his sins, a Government Whip on the Committee during the 1970s. I have been taking his advice during the past few days on how I should handle the Committee; the phrase ``kid gloves'' came up on more than one occasion. It was always his ambition that I should speak at the Scottish Grand Committee. I represent an English constituency, but I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss such an important issue with Scottish colleagues.

There should not be party-political differences on drug abuse, which has no regard for where people are on the political spectrum. Irrespective of political persuasion, drugs can hit any person, youngster, family or community. Unfortunately, as drugs have got a grip in the past two decades, the problem has hit every young person, family, community and politician. It is a major problem for society in general, and, for the sake of every child, parent and family, we are determined to do more to fight the drugs war.

No constituency or community can consider itself safe from the dangers posed by drugs. Misuse causes misery to users and families; it weakens, damages and can even destroy communities. Drugs misuse stops many young people reaching their full potential in life; even for those who do not die, it destroys their potential, genes and capacity to achieve what they want. It has the ultimate capacity to kill, but it also wounds and damages. Drug addicts live an existence somewhere between life and death in the worst possible circumstances, and their families experience that too.

Drug abuse fuels crime. Up to half of all property crime is drug-related, and research conducted in 1998 estimated that drug misuse cost United Kingdom society up to £4 billion per year through ill health, absenteeism, crime and associated social problems. The costs to individuals—wasted lives and lost opportunities—are beyond a price worth paying. We put the Government's anti-drug strategy in place as soon as we took office; we made tackling drug misuse a priority, not only for one Department, but across Whitehall. All Departments had the same priority; to tackle and challenge drugs, whatever their role. We all had to come to the table to reach an agreement

The anti-drug strategy was not the No. 1 priority for the Home Office, but No. 5 for the Department of Health and No. 2 for the Department for Education and Employment; it was not the No. 1 priority for the Cabinet Office and the Scotland Office, but No. 2 or 3 in the Northern Ireland Office. It was our No. 1 priority.

There was a need for a strategy that we could all buy into to meet the challenges of drug abuse with ferocity and commitment. In 1998, we published a 10-year strategy called ``Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain''. We appointed the first UK anti-drugs co-ordinator, Keith Hellawell, to pull the strategy together and drive it forward. It is a 10-year strategy because we recognise the complexity of the problems and the need for a balanced and joined-up approach to combating drug abuse.

The strategy has four key aims: to help our young people to resist drug misuse so that they can achieve their full potential in society; to protect our communities from drug-related, anti-social and criminal behaviour; to enable people with drug problems to overcome them and have a healthy, crime-free life style; and to stifle the availability of illegal drugs on our streets.

The front line is not Shettleston in Glasgow, but Colombia, Afghanistan and Bolivia. It is wherever the poppies are grown and the drugs barons exist, although the drugs end up in our communities. The ability to stifle the availability of illegal drugs is critical to the other three pillars of the policy.

The establishment of the Scottish Parliament saw many policy areas covered by the strategy—including prevention, education, treatment, rehabilitation and enforcement—pass to Edinburgh. That allows Scotland to respond to the needs that it identifies and to develop responses based on experience there. I am pleased that, like other devolved Administrations, the Scottish Executive remain fully signed up and committed to the overall strategy.

The anti-drugs co-ordinator and officials from the Cabinet Office work closely with colleagues in the Scottish Executive. Keith Hellawell met the First Minister and Iain Gray on 19 February. They discussed various issues, including boosting the efforts and co-ordination of police activity across the border to make the lives of drug dealers and, more importantly, drug barons harder. I would have been at that meeting, but, unfortunately, I was a victim of flu. I look forward to re-arranging a meeting with the First Minister, Iain Gray and other colleagues, because it is important to co-ordinate matters at UK level. On this issue, we must live in each other's pockets; the Scottish Executive and I must work together. A drug baron does not pay regard to Afghanistan; why should he do so for Gretna Green? If we are to take those people on and be in their faces, we need to work together.

The co-ordinator is a member of the Scottish drug enforcement forum, bringing a UK and international dimension to the activities of the Scottish Executive. We can and must learn from one another's experiences. We are keen to share with our colleagues in the Scottish Executive our experience in improving treatment services and support for prisoners in England and Wales. Equally, those colleagues are building networks to share experience of good practice in schools, treatment and supporting communities. We need to learn from that because, in some instances, some people may be ahead of others. We are all involved in the same strategy, but there may be a local commitment, understanding and knowledge of the local background and history. England and Wales are slightly ahead of Scotland on some issues; Scotland is ahead of England and Wales on others. At any point in the 10-year plan, we must all work together, so that we do not waste or diminish our efforts to fight drugs.

A number of initiatives in Scotland have certainly impressed me, and we will build on them this week. One example is the success of Scotland Against Drugs in engaging business in the fight against drugs. We need to be better at doing that throughout the UK. Scotland is a leading player. Engaging business is important not only in the UK; it is something for the rest of Europe to consider and build on. We are discussing with businesses how they can get involved in ridding communities and workplaces of drugs. They need to have a strategy that deals with workplaces, work forces, information and education, and an ethos to help people who have gone through a treatment programme, given up drugs and now want to enter the labour market. They must also recognise that there will be people in their workplaces who abuse drugs either daily or occasionally. There needs to be a strategy to deal with that.

In fighting drugs, it is vital that we target those who make money from other people's misery, which is why we must all work together on a UK law enforcement strategy. That is why we are taking greater steps to recover the assets of those who profit from drug dealing. Our confiscated assets fund has been used to produce some good innovative work, to which I shall return later. We must do more to ensure that crime does not pay at community, regional, national or international level. No society can allow some people to be above the law, or to profit and survive with impunity on the backs of others who are suffering through drug abuse.

The Home Secretary published the draft Proceeds of Crime Bill on 5 March this year. It will provide a hugely valuable addition to our weapons for fighting drug dealing. We want to deprive criminals of their ill-gotten gains, not only through the criminal justice system, but by introducing a civil recovery scheme. Over the past four years as a Minister—without being boastful, I have done many things—I have brought together all relevant aspects of Government and framed a proposal that the Home Secretary might take forward.

Our proposal changes the rules about how we as a society can effectively challenge those who use drugs to develop businesses in the community, to damage and control the community, to infiltrate legitimate businesses through ill-gotten gains, to prevent legitimate businesses from operating or to substantially damage our capacity to regenerate our communities. These people use drug money to drive the local economy. Legislation must put us on the side of our communities and against—or openly in the face of—those who want to destroy or manipulate them.

We must remember that while these drug products kill people, the market has to be retained. For every young person killed, two, three, four or five more have to be recruited. There is always a risk of killing the people to whom they are selling drugs. Every child, young person and member of the community is vulnerable to the activities of drug barons. We must focus everything on taking them out and, through taking out the structure of their business, destroying their capacity to maintain their activities and to destroy our young people, wherever they are. It is a war that we must win. There can be no ifs or buts, and no squeamishness about it. To make our efforts more effective, we are going to give financial investigators greater powers.

The proposed Criminal Assets Recovery Agency will investigate and remove offenders' wealth accumulated through criminal activity. It will make drug dealing far less attractive for the criminals who often keep their hands clean of the drugs from which they profit. The director of CARA will have the power to tax an individual, company or partnership where income, profit or gain is suspected—that is the important term—to have been derived from crime. The burden of proof shifts from the community and society to those involved in crime.

New powers for financial investigators will help to trace and recover cash and goods derived from criminal activities. We will be able to restrain property at the start of a criminal investigation to avoid it being hidden away. By the time a judge imposes a sentence on someone found guilty of criminal activity, the criminal's resources have often gone outside the country and beyond the capacity of society to take back resources and use them for positive purposes. That is why it is important to take away assets when an investigation starts, rather than wait until the end. We are changing the nature of the game. No longer will criminals control the system; we will control it on behalf of the community.

We are working closely with colleagues in Scotland to take this matter forward. We must ensure that there is effective UK coverage of the scheme and that there remains no financial hiding place in any part of the United Kingdom or offshore. The Scottish Executive and the Government must get this sensitive matter right and ensure that there are no loopholes for the criminals to exploit. I am confident that once the schemes are in place, they will have a great impact on those who profit from the miseries of others.

The Government recognise the scale of the problems we face in tackling drug misuse; there are no simple, easy answers. Our aims are supported by major long- term investment to tackle the root causes of the drugs problem: for example, by drugs education in schools and targeted drug prevention measures to help those vulnerable young people who are most at risk; treatment for drug misusers both outside and within the criminal justice system to break the link between drugs and crime—research from the National Treatment Outcome Research Study shows that for every £1 spent on treatment, £3 is saved in criminal justice expenditure—and by concerted and targeted enforcement measures against drug traffickers and their assets.

The Scottish Executive have at least matched the proportion of spend on anti-drug measures based on the Barnett formula. Hon. Members will be aware that it is for the Scottish Parliament to determine its spending in accordance with the needs of Scotland and Scotland's priorities. That the Executive have invested heavily in anti-drugs initiatives is evidence of their recognition of drugs as a high priority and shows their commitment to the overall strategy and to the people of Scotland.

Against that substantial investment we have set tough targets: to halve the number of young people using class A drugs such as cocaine, heroin and LSD; to halve the level of repeat offending among drug misusers; to double the number of problem drug misusers in treatment; and to halve the availability of class A drugs. People say that that is foolhardy; I take a different view. We will never get on top of the problem unless we have ambition. The Government should not fear setting targets in areas where people may say, ``Hands off, it's too difficult.'' For every day that we get nearer our targets, an individual and a community will have survived and we will be a day nearer putting behind bars those who have criminal businesses that undermine our society and our aims for it.

Our 10-year strategy is underpinned by annual and three-year targets. These are monitored and reported on annually by the co-ordinator, whose report last year said that we were making good progress. However, no one would suggest that the war is over; we have won a few skirmishes and battles but, by God, we still have to win the war.The Scottish Executive have set their own more detailed targets and standards within the United Kingdom framework, which we support. With progress being monitored in detail, there is the capacity to change tack to ensure that stringent targets are met.

I want to share one of the achievements of the law enforcement agencies in the past year. They have been able to prevent £1.2 billion-worth of class A drugs reaching the streets of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and Liverpool, the villages of Aberdeenshire, Devon and Cornwall and anywhere else where there is a drugs problem. Just think what a devastating effect those drugs could have had on young people; yet that is only the tip of the iceberg. However, it shows that the 10-year plan is working. Five years ago, we could not have said how much was stopped; we could have said that nothing was being stopped. The process is working. For the first time, there is a change around; we are able to disrupt or destroy the route of drugs coming into the United Kingdom, but much more needs to be done.

The Scottish Drugs Enforcement Agency has seized more than £17 million-worth of drugs, with 116 strategic arrests in the past year. The same can be said of international activities, about which hon. Members may want to ask questions.

I shall conclude by saying something about making communities safer and about the march on Sunday. We know that drugs are a threat to individuals and to communities; they lead to anti-social behaviour, crime and the fear of crime. Community leaders sometimes go about their business on behalf of their fellow citizens in fear of threats by drug dealers, drug-dealing gangs and drug barons. All too often, communities are ripped apart by drug dealers and get trapped in a downward spiral of decline and abandonment, as the Scottish Parliament's Social Inclusion Committee highlighted recently. The additional investment announced in the Budget can help communities to start to fight back. Ownership is important; communities must be given the financial and human resources to fight back against those individuals, gangs and businesses.

The Government believe that drug misuse can be tackled and we have been tackling it. The evidence shows that we can make a real and measurable difference. We believe in setting targets to do that, and our positive investment in tackling the root causes of drugs will help to drive down the terrible costs and prevent harm to individuals, families and society. To achieve that, we must work together at international, national, regional and local levels. It is in our local communities and our streets that we see the damage that drugs cause to families and communities. I personally know about that.

Communities can fight back and win, but they need our help. We cannot stand by and leave it to them. That is why I have changed my diary; I, and many others, will be in Glasgow this weekend to show our determination to beat the drug dealers by attending the Daily Record march against drugs.

For my family, the march will be part of a long and thoughtful process, because it will bring back painful memories. It is very difficult to cope with loss, as all who have lost family members know. To lose a child is most difficult of all, because there are two losses to cope with; the loss of the child's life that was and the loss of the life that was to come. It is very difficult to deal with such loss, and even more difficult if one is in the public eye. I do not seek additional support because of that; it is simply a matter of fact. I happen to be in public life and the difficulty is magnified a thousand times. I am able to cope better because of the support that I have received in the House and outside. Every letter that I receive is a reminder of the importance of trying to achieve something positive from a negative event in family life.

The march is important. I discussed with my family whether, by going on the march, we could add something to it; not simply because I would be there, but because I would be there with my family, saying that other people matter, that children have been killed in the drugs war and that those children did not have a chance of survival. We are all diminished by their loss. We are marching to show solidarity, and not only with other families of victims. I hope that thousands of people whose lives have not been touched by drugs will turn out for the march. Not only those who have lost someone or have been damaged because of drugs should march; the entire community should turn out.

The aim is not simply to march and then feel good about it. It is not just another campaign or another headline; if it were, it would not be worth the paper used to write about it. I hope that those who turn out for the march will work together. Perhaps the community in Scotland will be able to focus on the need to take action. We should not see those who are drug abusers as evil but as people with serious problems. They are our children. Every person in the statistics is someone's child, grandchild, niece or nephew. They are all human; they are all victims of a terrible war.

I ask people to give an hour and a half of their time on Sunday to come on the march. If people are unable to do that, I ask them to take some time to think about how they might contribute. We should feel good about the thousands of children who might be saved by the march or by our 10-year strategy. For every action that we take, someone will not die or be damaged, and some family will not have to live in trauma for the rest of their lives because of the loss of a child.

This is about human beings and communities. It is not only about emotion, but why not be emotional about our children? Why not be emotional about people who try to damage and destroy them? However, we must have heads as well as hearts. Perhaps the heart will come out on the march, but then we must focus on the head. The march should send a signal to all those in Scotland who want to damage and scar our communities and destroy our children for the sake of drug profit. The rules have changed. We say, ``No more.'' If we get that out of the march, we can then truly hope that, over the next 10 years, the strategy will work positively. Next year, many families will be spared the agony of the death of a child. That is the bottom line. It is about saving lives and communities. I thank hon. Members for listening to my statement.

 
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Prepared 28 March 2001