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Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): In the light of what the Minister has said about the piloting of drugs treatment and testing orders, will he at least be prepared to consider the views of the many commentators who, since the Home Secretary's sudden announcement to the Home Affairs Committee about the reclassification of cannabis, have suggested that it would be much wiser for reclassification to wait until the results of the pilots and of the policing changes in Brixton in south London have been assessed?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am a little confused by the hon. Gentleman. The three pilots are concerned with two class A drugs—cocaine and heroin—where there is a proven link between the use of those drugs and acquisitive crime. I am not certain how that connects with a decision to ask the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—ACMD—to advise on the reclassification of cannabis. I accept that that decision has a far closer correlation with the trial on policing that is taking place in Brixton, but that is due to conclude at the end of the year. A full evaluation will be available in February. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary did not announce to the Home Affairs Committee the reclassification of cannabis; he announced that he would ask ACMD to consider its reclassification. All that, and the debate that we are holding, are going forward in tandem. There will not be a definitive decision on the reclassification of cannabis—if that happens—before Easter next year.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The House welcomes this debate, because it is sensible to hold it while the Home Affairs Committee is carrying out its work.

I do not want to press the Minister to move other than gradually, but are the Government prepared to recognise that policy to date has been a total failure? We have had some of the harshest policies for drugs misuse in Europe, but drugs use has increased more and is at a higher level than almost anywhere else in Europe. Although it is true to say that no other countries have legalised drugs, they are increasingly decriminalising them. If we spend far more on prevention than we do on the criminal regime

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and do far more to help addicts than to punish them, we might have a far more comprehensive approach than the Home Secretary's rather limited response so far.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not prepared to accept that. The hon. Gentleman has given us a caricature of the Government's policy. There is a lot of good work, and the targets in the drugs strategy debate have enabled people to focus on the need to work together to achieve their aims. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that there will be dramatic changes in a relatively short time or that there is a magic bullet to solve the problem, he is deluding himself, but I do not believe that he does think that. There is, potentially, a need to refine and re-balance the policy, but to say that our whole policy is oriented towards criminal justice and crime prevention, and does not focus on health, harm reduction and education, is to give the House a caricature of it.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I am very interested in what the Minister is saying. Does he accept that the evidence from the pilot schemes that he mentioned and the experience of organisations such as Transform seems to show that we should focus more on what drives people into addiction, and less on mere prohibition? To achieve harm reduction, would we not be best advised to find out what it is in people that causes them to become addicts in the first place?

Mr. Ainsworth: The two are not mutually exclusive. There is no need to legalise or decriminalise to try to focus on education and harm reduction. If we are having an adult debate, instead of evangelising or propagandising for a particular point of view, we should note that most countries are moving towards a balanced approach. That includes countries that have been severe in their drugs policies and focused on law and order, as well as those who are regularly held up as being soft on drugs. They are drifting towards a more central position, in which they are taking every kind of action to solve the problem. That is true in Holland, as it is in this country.

Dr. Iddon: May I respond to my hon. Friend's point about the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs? Page vi of the Government's response to the Runciman report notes:

I find it astonishing, therefore, that the Home Office needs to refer the matter back to the ACMD, which has made the same recommendation as Runciman.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend ought not to find that astonishing. Some people would be upset if they thought that the Home Secretary had effectively bounced people into that decision by simply announcing that he was reclassifying cannabis, full stop. He announced to the Home Affairs Committee that he was going to ask the ACMD to consider reclassification. Yes, he did so in the expectation that the council would agree, but it is right that such important decisions are not made on the spur of the moment—everybody must have the opportunity to have their say.

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Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): The Government deserve a great deal of praise for taking a brave step forward in their drugs policy. However, hon. Members have been asking the Minister to acknowledge that, on an evidence base—and new Labour, at its best, is evidence-based—the policies carried out to date are not working. The Home Secretary has acknowledged that, and we are moving towards policies that might work a bit better, as they do in almost every other country in which they have been tried.

Mr. Ainsworth: If we are to say that our policies are not working, we must measure them against policies that would work much better. I think that my hon. Friend veers in the direction of legalisation. I do not know how far he goes in that direction, but if he catches the Speaker's eye, we will hear his views in detail. The Home Secretary has called for a debate, and if my hon. Friend believes that legalisation will lead to lower levels of drugs use in this country, he should use the opportunity of this debate to spell out the logic behind that view.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): The Minister said that, when addressing the Home Affairs Committee, the Home Secretary did not say that he was seeking to recategorise cannabis. However, according to all the evidence and the commentary, including the Minister's comments in this debate, that is the expected policy. What is the Government's policy today? Is it to change the category of cannabis or not?

Mr. Ainsworth: As I have said clearly, and as the Home Secretary said, the policy is to ask the ACMD to consider the reclassification of cannabis from B to C. There should not be any confusion about that. I understand that the media are a difficult animal, and that messages get twisted, but everyone in the House ought to know exactly what the Home Secretary said.

Michael Fabricant: Can the Minister envisage a situation in which cannabis is not reclassified, and remains in class B?

Mr. Ainsworth: There is a theoretical possibility that the council's advice will be that we should not reclassify cannabis. However, given the statements that have been made and the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) about the council's recommendation, I doubt very much that it will give that advice.

Mr. Hawkins: What a shambles.

Mr. Ainsworth: If the Home Secretary had simply said, "That's it; I have decided to reclassify cannabis," the hon. Gentleman would have been the first to complain. However, my right hon. Friend asked the ACMD to look at the matter and it will make a decision after that consideration, to which Opposition Members, along with everybody else, are entitled to contribute.

All prisons in England and Wales now provide counselling, assessment, referral, advice and through-care services, which create a care plan to meet the needs of the great majority of prisoners during their time in prison. More than 37,000 assessments were undertaken in 2000–01. Detoxification programmes are available in all

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local and remand prisons in England and Wales, and more than 32,000 prisoners entered detox in 2000–01. There has been a significant fall, from 24.4 per cent. in 1996–97 to 12.4 per cent. in 2000–01, in the number of positive drug tests in prisons under mandatory drugs-testing procedures.

Drugs misuse is a threat not only to individuals but to whole communities, because of the antisocial behaviour, crime and fear of crime that it can generate. We are therefore concerned not only to educate and treat individuals, but to empower and strengthen local communities in their efforts to tackle those problems. Our efforts are aimed particularly at those communities where deprivation is most acute and drugs use most firmly entrenched. In tackling drugs misuse in those areas, we seek to integrate action into neighbourhood renewal programmes.

The creation of the drugs prevention advisory service means that local drug action teams, who are at the forefront of local action to reduce drugs problems, can now access a range of expert services developed and provided in response to their specific needs. Through the confiscated assets fund we are supporting a number of projects aimed at providing a bridge between the end of treatment and access to the labour market.

In the March Budget we also provided additional financial support for the Employment Service, to enable it to identify and help claimants with a drugs problem, and to help ex-users to re-enter the labour market once they have successfully completed a course of treatment. I should also highlight an innovative prison-led project that will pilot five post-release hostels for short-term prisoners with a history of drug-driven offending. The hostels will provide intensive support through the crucial period of the first few months after release.

Action to disrupt the supply of illegal drugs remains a high priority. The Proceeds of Crime Bill will enable us to seize more cash from the criminals, threatening directly the profits that motivate the trade. We are bringing together law enforcement and other agencies in a concerted attack on the drugs trade, and we have put in place a comprehensive joint agency strategy to tackle heroin and cocaine supply from the source in countries abroad to the United Kingdom's streets.

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