9 Nov 2001 : Column 475

House of Commons

Friday 9 November 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Drugs Strategy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

9.33 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The House knows that the Home Secretary has called for an adult debate on drugs and recently announced in evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs his intention to ask the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review the arguments for reclassifying cannabis from B to C under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This is a timely moment for Parliament to have a direct opportunity to participate in that debate, and to listen to the views expressed on the issue and the wider subject of drugs policy.

Drugs misuse poses serious problems for society. It causes misery for the users and their families and can destroy communities. It stops many young people reaching their full potential in life and fuels much of our crime. It is estimated that up to half of all property crime is committed by users of heroin and cocaine. The cost to the criminal justice system is estimated to be about £1.2 billion a year. There are the costs, too, of related ill health, absenteeism and social problems, to say nothing of the cost to individuals, the wasted lives and the lost opportunities.

The causes of drugs misuse are complex and deeply rooted and there is no simple solution. Our strategy therefore recognises the need for action on a wide front. Experience in other countries supports that. National drug policies and strategies have developed according to local needs and priorities, but in general the trend is to a balanced approach, in which supply, demand and harm reduction strategies are all important components. The differences between countries are not as great as is sometimes suggested. For example, much is made of the strong harm reduction orientation of Dutch policies, but the Dutch have not legalised the use of any controlled drug. Like us, they prioritise their enforcement effort against the drugs that cause the greatest harm.

Our strategy has four main aims: first, to help young people resist drugs misuse so that they can achieve their full potential; secondly, to protect our communities from drug-related antisocial and criminal behaviour; thirdly,

9 Nov 2001 : Column 476

to provide treatment services to help people with their drugs problems; and, finally, to attempt to disrupt the supply of drugs.

We recognise the scale of the problem we face in tackling drugs misuse. We also know that there are no quick and easy answers. That is why our strategy is supported by major long-term investment that is focused on proactive measures to tackle drugs misuse directly. The main aim of the strategy is to stop people taking drugs in the first place. However, there will always be some people who continue to take drugs even if they are aware of the dangers. We therefore have a duty to ensure that they have as much information and help as possible to reduce the risks that come with that behaviour, such as providing information on and services for needle exchanges and making people aware of the dangers of injecting and using shared needles.

Much good work has been done at national, regional and local levels. We are reaching out to young people in a variety of ways. Some 93 per cent. of secondary schools and 75 per cent. of primary schools now have a drugs education policy in place, compared with 86 per cent. and 61 per cent. respectively in 1997. The positive futures initiative set up in March 2000 aims to divert vulnerable young people away from drugs and crime through involvement in sport. So far, 24 projects have been set up. The initial results are encouraging, showing reductions in criminal activity and truancy and improved community awareness.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Can my hon. Friend give an example of an anti-drugs education scheme on either legal or illegal drugs in any country in any century which reduced drugs use?

Mr. Ainsworth: It is difficult to single out an issue, but I have little doubt that unless we manage to get an effective message through to young people, drugs use will increase. A large part of our motivation is to improve the message and our ability to get it across, which is one reason why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary decided to reclassify cannabis.

The Connexions initiative, which was set up in March 2000, provides a service to all young people aged 13 to 19 to help them to achieve in education and to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. All drug action team areas are developing young people's substance misuse plans based on central guidance to ensure that all young people requiring drugs services receive them.

We are clear about the need to warn young people that all drugs, including cannabis, are dangerous, but that class A drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, are the most harmful. Experience shows that preaching to young people does not work. The message must be credible and informative if they are going to listen. A communications campaign will be launched in December to spell out the risks and dangers of taking drugs. It will highlight the national drugs helpline, which provides young people, their parents and carers with access to straightforward, clear and credible information. The campaign will also support existing work being done to help young people tackle problems of drug misuse.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The Minister rightly points out that all drugs are dangerous, particularly if

9 Nov 2001 : Column 477

taken to excess. That might include cannabis, too. However, does the hon. Gentleman believe that the message to young people that cannabis taken in excess might be dangerous would be more credible if it were conjoined with the message that taking alcohol and tobacco—they are also drugs—is equally, if not more, dangerous when they are taken in excess?

Mr. Ainsworth: I have little doubt that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need to get the message through to young people that taking any of those substances in excess is dangerous. It will put them at risk in the short term, because of the intoxication that results from taking cannabis or alcohol. It can also seriously damage their health over the longer term. Nothing that the hon. Gentleman says is outwith Government policy or, indeed, previous Government policy in that regard.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): My hon. Friend's response to the intelligent question asked by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) was acceptable. Alcohol is probably the single most dangerous drug for young people. However, although my hon. Friend is trying to spell out the Government's strategy for certain types of drugs, is not the fact that an alcohol strategy is not in place and will not be for some time a major failing in marrying together the attack on all drugs?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is right. We need a strategy for alcohol and we are working with the Department of Health to produce one. We hope to go to consultation on such a strategy in the spring of next year. We need it to underpin and provide focus to our work in explaining the dangers of alcohol.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Will my hon. Friend comment on my belief and that of many others that the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse should take all substance abuse, including alcohol and tobacco abuse, under its control? Is it not time that we brought everything together?

Mr. Ainsworth: We now at least have the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse. I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that it represents a potential major step forward. We are looking to it to increase the amount of expertise that we have on the issue of drugs. Many people who work in this sector have also advised us that, if we try to deal with drugs in isolation from alcohol, the potential for failure will be greater. Such issues need to be debated, and my hon. Friend has considerable expertise in the subject.

Research shows that for every £1 spent on treatment, £3 is saved in criminal justice expenditure as a result of reduced drugs use leading to reductions in crime. The challenge of breaking the link between drugs and crime is to identify drug users earlier in their drug-using career and to get them effective and appropriate help.

We have good evidence now that treatment can work and is cost effective in achieving a reduction in drugs use and related offending. It can also improve the health of drug users. We have developed a number of interventions in the criminal justice system to maximise engagement with drug misusing offenders. Our most recent

9 Nov 2001 : Column 478

intervention is the new drug testing powers introduced by the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. That allows for the drug testing of persons aged 18 and over for specified class A drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine, when they are charged with trigger offences such as property crime, robbery or class A drugs offences. It also provides for the probation supervision of offenders under drugs abstinence orders. The new powers are being piloted in three sites—Nottingham, Staffordshire and Hackney—until March 2003.

The annual increase of 8 per cent. in the number of people attending treatment services is encouraging. We established the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse in April this year to expand drug treatment services and to ensure the delivery of high-quality services across the country. At the point of arrest, arrest referral schemes seek to reduce drugs-related crime by encouraging problem users who are arrested to take up appropriate treatment. The schemes now cover 86 per cent. of all police custody suites across England and Wales.

Next Section

IndexHome Page