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22 May 2002 : Column 122WH

Drugs Misuse (South Wales)

1 pm

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): I am delighted to be able to kick off in this debate, not least because it has fortuitously ended up on a day when the subject of drugs and drugs misuse is so topical. I have been trying to secure the debate every week for the past six months because on my first day of canvassing in the general election campaign that ended last June, the first door on which I knocked was that of a family in Treorchy. When I asked the man whether he would be voting Labour, he said that he definitely would be. I asked whether he was interested in any particular issues and he told me that his son had died of a heroin overdose some six weeks earlier. I was introduced early on in my campaign in the Rhondda to problems that many people tell me are new in valleys communities. They have arisen in the last five to 10 years in relation to heroin.

It is difficult to obtain accurate figures for drug-related deaths, but there have been about 14 in my constituency in the last year—that is, more than one per month. In small communities, where everybody knows and belongs to everybody, that is a potent symbol of the state of the community and of the lives of, particularly, young men.

I also wanted to have the debate because I spent last Friday night out with the police in the Rhondda. They were very disappointed because it rained all night, so it was very quiet—rain being the policeman's greatest friend—and they said that I should not go away with the impression that there should be fewer police officers in the Rhondda. What was striking was that the police officers told me that of the six cells in Ton Pentre police station, five are normally full and all those five people are likely to need the visit of a doctor in order to prescribe methodone, because they will have a drug dependency problem. That clearly suggests that the vast majority of acquisitive crime and of violent crime—the kinds of crime that might lead to somebody being in the cells—is related directly in valleys communities to drugs and drugs misuse, especially that of heroin. Crack cocaine does not seem to have arrived in large measure in my community; heroin has.

Over the past eight years, there have been more than 1,100 drug-related deaths in Wales, but it has only been in the last two or three years that the drug that has led to most of those deaths has been heroin rather than paracetamols or anti-depressants. There is a changing face to drug misuse in valleys communities and, I would suggest, in the whole of Wales.

In all the surveys that have been done and all the statistics that have been put together, Wales falls behind the rest of the United Kingdom. I say that not to minimise the issues that we face in Wales, but to put them in context. Wales was the only region in the UK where, when the Home Office surveyed 16 to 29-year-olds last autumn to see how many of them had used controlled substances during the last year, the percentage was less than 1 per cent. We are therefore considering a problem that is small but extremely significant—not only because it leads to deaths and to crime, but because it leads, certainly on the evidence of my surgery, to the vast majority of antisocial behaviour issues that come to my door month in, month out.

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I should say, in parenthesis, that alcohol is still by far the worst besetting sin of all the drugs that affect our communities. I say that with some feeling, as the child of an alcoholic mother who died of alcoholism. Every Friday and Saturday night the police deal with the effects of alcohol, whether it is fights outside or inside pubs and clubs or the battles that go on back at home between husband and wife. That is to say nothing of the problems that alcohol causes with health and social well-being.

Some issues are specific to the valleys of south Wales. When the last of the mines closed and it felt to many people as though the heart had been taken out of former mining constituencies and the Conservative Government had turned their back on mining and the tradition of south Wales valleys, a generation of young people grew up who felt, in hundreds of different ways, that there was no hope for the community in which they lived. They felt that there was no hope of employment, a decent social life or a strong community. They felt that there was no hope of the community becoming a good place for young people to be and to spend their lives and that it would just decline and become older. There was no hope that the rest of the world would look at the Rhondda with pride.

However, many of those aspects of life in the Rhondda are beginning to turn around now. I constantly shock people by asking them what they think the unemployment level is in the Rhondda. It is currently 4.2 per cent. That the figure should be so low is to many people profoundly shocking. Of course, that masks all sorts of problems with people who are unable to present for work for a series of health reasons, many of which are related to stress. However, our valleys communities are beginning to turn round economically. We are beginning to see major regeneration, thanks to a series of projects devised by the Government and by the Assembly.

However, there are still families with second-generation and third-generation unemployment or drug dependency. For those families, a family is not just mum, dad and two kids. Everybody knows that in the valleys of south Wales a family is an extended concept—a matter of belonging. In many such extended families, where the people belong to one another, there is a sense that there is no hope. If there is a single thing that I would hope a Labour Government could turn around, it is that sense.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): My hon. Friend knows that my family comes from the Rhondda valley. In that extended family that he was describing, consisting of people who are not necessarily blood relations but are felt to belong, I know people involved in drugs. There is enormous concern and anxiety among their friends and family about what will happen, because they know of two or three cases of boys of that generation who have died. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is time for us to treat heroin users as a health problem rather than a crime problem and to start prescribing the drug, thereby destroying the drug dealers' market incentive to create addicts?

Mr. Bryant : I thank my hon. Friend. I know of his connections—he is a Rhondda boy—and of his family

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in Maerdy. A few weeks ago, we had a specific and frightening problem involving a young lad who had died from a heroin overdose. The dealer who had supplied him during the past year turned up to the funeral. Understandably, the community was in semi-riot and the police had to come out with tear gas.

The reclassification of drugs as proposed in the Select Committee report today will make no difference to what happens in the Rhondda. That proposal rather misses the point. I agree with my hon. Friend that a drug addict is always somebody's brother, sister, father or child and that those people need to be treated as human beings, because that is the only way to rescue them. There is, however, also a major set of criminal problems, including acquisitive crime and the fact that people deliberately set about dealing in communities that are not their own, which affords them a degree of protection. We must deal with those issues in a tough way.

We have a specific problem in the Rhondda, because housing is extremely cheap. It is not difficult for a private landlord to buy a house for £10,000, £11,000 or £12,000, although it will be in extremely poor condition. He will need to do nothing to make it a decent place in which to live, because no checks will be made, and he will receive between £4,000 and £4,500 in housing benefit as soon as he puts someone in it. We should seriously consider telling local authorities that they cannot pay housing benefit until they have checked that homes are habitable. Social services reckoned that 33 children in the Rhondda were at risk, and 19 of them were in one small area, Clydach Vale. That is because it is cheap to buy houses there, and landlords have deliberately set about buying properties so that they have a reliable, steady stream of income from the state, rather than from individuals. The result is that heroin ghettos are created in particular areas.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): I understand the sincerity of the hon. Gentleman's position, but I want briefly to return to the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones). Heroin was prescribed for about 40 years, until about 1965. Would it not be worth while to revisit that experience to see whether lessons can be learned from it? On reclassification, there are fears in the south Wales valleys that ecstasy may act as a gateway to cocaine, because they have the same classification, even though they have different health consequences.

Mr. Bryant : I disagree as regards ecstasy, because classification is not the issue. Alcohol is classified in such a way that it is a freely available legal drug of choice, but that has not removed the criminality element or resolved the behavioural issues. I am unconvinced that it would be possible to determine what is a safe dose of ecstasy, and many people have had major health problems because of the drug. We do not know its long-term effects.

To move on, prevention is by far the best cure in this regard. Since becoming involved in the issue in the Rhondda, I have supported the Drugs Awareness Resistance Education programme, which is run in primary schools in the upper Rhondda fawr. I would dearly love to see the programme rolled out across the whole of the Rhondda and, indeed, throughout the

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country. Unless we give very young children the facts and the personal skills and ability to use them to take a strong personal decision that is right for them, we shall have failed them. I do not want to make many party political points, but Rhondda Cynon Taff, which is run by Plaid Cymru, still refuses to provide support to DARE, and that is a mistake.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Could my hon. Friend give an example of any anti-drugs education programme in this country or any other, in this century or any other, that has led to a reduction in drug use?

Mr. Bryant : I have not been around in many other centuries, so that might be a bit difficult. The single biggest problem for many kids in the Rhondda when they get to the ages of 10, 11 or 12 is that they have a manifest lack of self-confidence. Drugs education should not be primarily about showing people terrible images of what drugs might do to them, but about building children's self-confidence so that they can take good health decisions on a range of issues, including what they eat. The project in the Rhondda is working, and there are two measures. One is whether it has cut numbers; the other is whether it has prevented an increase, which is, of course, impossible to determine.

Another problem that we face in the Rhondda is the minimal provision of rehabilitation services. We have no residential rehabilitation unit or beds in either the Rhondda or Bro Taf health authority, which is a significant problem. Residential detoxification and rehabilitation is not right for everybody, but is certainly right for some, and we must make sure that it is available. Some 36 beds are available in Carmarthenshire, but there are none in Bro Taf.

The queue for the community drugs and alcohol team, which is based in Church village and covers the whole of Rhondda Cynon Taff, consists of 95 people who wait for 12 months before they see a nurse on the team. If we employed one extra nurse we would be able to cut that waiting list to three months, and if we employed two such nurses one of them could be based in the Rhondda. Every disincentive that we put in the way of somebody with a drug-dependency problem's getting themselves sorted out must be counterproductive, so we need to build better services.

At the moment, there are some excellent services in Merthyr, including probably the best home detoxification service in the country, which is the kind of service on which we need to build. Such services should not be patchy in the valley communities. I worry that when we change the structure of the health service in Wales next year we may lose sight of these issues, and we need to ensure that that does not happen.

There are major issues surrounding the police. Because it is so easy for somebody to come and live in the Rhondda, which is a relatively cheap area, people bring the problem from Bristol to the Rhondda with impunity. The police have argued—I find this very persuasive—that they are short on numbers. I know that the overall level of crime in the Rhondda is low, which is why we do not have as large a police force as in the past. Many police officers are doing excellent work in different departments, many of which are based in Cardiff and Bridgend, but it is difficult to carry out proactive policing around the issue unless one has enough police officers to do the job.

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Perhaps the single most difficult thing for the Government to do is to get people with drug-dependency problems into work. Anybody can write the script explaining why that is difficult. Many employers would not want to take on such people and one must face the issue of those people's motivation. It is extremely expensive to take somebody from drug dependency through to work. Unless one can do that, however, one is effectively condemning a section of society to the scrap heap. I welcome the Employment Service's pathfinder project, "progress to work", which has been going for only five weeks. One project area is based around Rhondda Cynon Taff, and I hope that we shall see a significant effect on which we can build before rolling out the project across the country.

Some people would say—one of my constituents rang up and said this to me on the radio this morning—that money spent on these issues is just money wasted on druggies. It is actually money well spent because it tackles social disorder, crime, the destruction of families and the corrosion of tightly knit communities. It is vital that we make the investment to put these issues right.

Finally, many different projects are going on, which is entirely commendable. Sometimes, however, they do not gel together. Different agencies are not good at working together because of the silo mentality that such bodies always have, and their professional pride. Sometimes it is difficult to make the different funding streams from the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Assembly work together, and that is a test for devolution. Will the Minister consider whether there might be value in creating a specific post or team to address the particular issues of the valleys communities in south Wales? Such a team would co-ordinate the work of the Assembly, Westminster and the different agencies in the field to allow us to achieve better value for money for every extra pound that we invest.

1.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig) : We have been given the opportunity this afternoon to highlight the problems of drug misuse in Welsh valley communities. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) on his persistence and on at last securing the debate. We all take the issue of substance misuse extremely seriously; as a member of the informal ministerial committee on drugs, I can tell hon. Members that the Government do so too.

Police intelligence suggests that south Wales, especially the valleys, is being flooded with heroin. In Wales in 2000, 44 deaths were attributed to either heroin or morphine. The impact of drug misuse on our communities is an important factor to bear in mind.

I saw evidence of that impact for myself when, a few months ago, I spent a day as a fly on the wall with someone who works for Drugaid in Merthyr, meeting that person's clients and speaking to people whose lives had been blighted because they had become involved with drugs, particularly heroin. I was impressed by one chap who had become involved with drugs about eight years ago. He is now off heroin and evangelical against drugs. He lives three doors away from the local drugs dealer, so he is under temptation 24 hours a day.

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I admire the fact that he has got himself together. He managed to do so with the support of Drugaid, an organisation based in Merthyr, which has become his lifeline. I cannot speak highly enough of organisations such as Drugaid, which have become beacons of hope to many in our valley communities whose lives are blighted by the use of drink and drugs. Drugaid's director, Stephanie Hoffman, tells me that it has about 200 referrals a year. In 2000–01, 24 per cent. of those were heroin users. That shows the extent of the problem.

The crime reduction director for Wales, David A'Herne, has said that there are signs that organised crime from outside south Wales is flooding the area with drugs and regarding it as a market opportunity.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones : I thank the Minister for giving way in this short debate. He praises Drugaid. Did its staff speak to him about what it believes that the Government should be doing? It believes that the Government's policy of simply getting tough on various drugs is insufficient, and that they should be considering other policies.

Mr. Touhig : Certainly. Indeed, I witnessed some of what Drugaid was doing to put in place policies relating to a broader range of initiatives to combat drug misuse, as I shall discuss in a moment.

As I said, David A'Herne, the crime reduction director for Wales, warned us that south Wales was being flooded by organised crime and people from outside pushing heroin. When he recently met Members of Parliament who represent Wales, he said that the next blight after heroin would be crack cocaine—a violence drug. The police are aware of that emerging issue and are considering the best approaches to tackling it.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Like me, the Minister has spent his life in the south Wales valleys. If someone had suggested to him 20 years ago that the big problem in the valleys would be heroin, one would have questioned their sanity. I do not know whether there are links between drug use and the breakdown of communities, but at one time in the valleys, the one thing that we had going for us was communities, which have broken up quickly in recent years.

Several agencies are involved. Last financial year, the police received additional resources. Has the Minister done any work to find out whether that additional money has helped the police in performing their role?

Mr. Touhig : My hon. Friend makes an important point. We need resources for the police service, which means extra bobbies on the beat, and to ensure that initiatives are introduced. I know that in Gwent and south Wales there have been several initiatives in which the police, with a number of agencies and voluntary groups, have organised blitzes to tackle drug-related crime and the blight that it causes communities. He will know Pantside, which is not far from where he lives. I recently chaired a meeting there to which 300 people turned up as a result of their concern about drug misuse in the area.

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Drug misuse is also a factor in rising crime, because people are committing crime to fund their habit. We need to tackle the supply of drugs. Colleagues will know that drug pushers are parasites on our communities. They distort the face of our valley communities and prey on our young people. I welcome legislation that will allow us to seize the assets of convicted drug dealers, but that is just one weapon in the armoury needed to combat drug misuse. If we do not face up to the problem, we will not recognise our grandchildren's generation.

My hon. Friend mentioned how our valley communities have changed in recent years and how there is less of a community feel. That community will be further undermined if we do not ensure that we put every effort into combating drug misuse.

Paul Flynn : Does my hon. Friend support the proposal in the Select Committee report for experimental shooting galleries, which have been operating in Australia, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, and which have reduced crime and saved lives?

Mr. Touhig : The Select Committee report has made an important contribution to our widespread debate on drugs. In due course, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will respond to it and give the Government's view. As I have said, the Home Secretary has responsibility for setting policing priorities. I welcome the publication of the report, because it is produced in response to the Home Secretary's challenge to all of us last October to have a sensible, adult debate on how to tackle drug misuse in the UK. However, I cannot give the same welcome to the Committee's proposals for reclassifying ecstasy, but that is a matter for wider debate, and we shall have such a debate in due course.

In south Wales, the police have the latest technology. They are working with police forces in Gwent and Dyfed-Powys and with national agencies on initiatives to combat the misuse of drugs in our valleys. We need to tackle the demand for drugs. In my view, demand can be reduced by a multi-agency approach. I do not particularly care for the phrase "joined-up", but it means a linking of various agencies and Departments, so that we involve the Government, the Assembly, local authorities, the education service, the health service and the voluntary sector—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda mentioned prevention, which I think is important. Education plays an important role. I spent part of my time with Drugaid in a classroom with young students who were going through a series of seven lessons. The tutors were people from Drugaid. I was interested to see how the class's discussion developed. When I talked to the young people afterwards, I learned that they thought that the knowledge that they gained from attending the classes had armed them, and that they now felt well equipped to argue against peer pressure to abuse drugs. I was encouraged by that, as I think that education is an important element.

One of the four key aims in the strategy put together by my colleagues in the Assembly is to help children, young people and adults to resist substance misuse. We have to start doing that much earlier. My local rotary

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club organises an annual event in which 1,000 youngsters go to the miners' institute in Blackwood, where four or five performances of a play relating to drug misuse are staged. The play warns them of the difficulties that they will encounter if they misuse drugs.

My hon. Friend also mentioned DARE. I am sorry that his local council, Rhondda Cynon Taff, is not helping out financially. I hope that if DARE applies to the council again, it will give more favourable consideration to the matter. He also mentions the need for resources. I can tell him that more resources have been put into the police service throughout south Wales.

We have to bear in mind that many factors are causing the misuse of drugs in our communities, which suffer from deprivation, poverty and great difficulties. As my hon. Friend said, it is important to pull the multiple agencies together. David A'Herne, the crime reduction director for Wales, is making an important contribution to that. We will tackle the problem only if we all get on board and say that we have to do something about the blight of drug misuse in our society.

Several arguments will rage as a result of today's report. We must all engage in the debate whatever our views on drug use. If we do not do that, we will face a society that most of us will not recognise in the years ahead. We can tackle the problem only by pulling together.

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