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Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I thank the Home Secretary for his usual courtesy in giving me an early sight of the statement.

The House will recognise that this was an extraordinary statement, made on an extraordinary day. There are two coherent alternative strategies on cannabis, but in his statement today, the Home Secretary has not adopted either of them.

A serious argument can be made for complete legalisation of cannabis, with sale being taken out of the hands of the drug dealers and the substance being treated like tobacco or alcohol—licensed and taxed. Alternatively, as we prefer, policy can be constructed—as it is in Sweden, for example—to make serious efforts to lead young people away from cannabis use. The Home Secretary has not adopted either of those courses. He is giving control over cannabis to the drug dealers, with the police turning away.

This is not just the day on which the Home Secretary has made a statement about a muddled and dangerous policy. Today is also the day when the Home Secretary's chief adviser on drugs, Mr. Keith Hellawell, has resigned in protest at that muddled and dangerous policy, telling the "Today" programme:

Commenting later on the Home Secretary's Brixton experiment, Mr. Hellawell went on to say that it has led to an "open season" for those peddling drugs.

There are some hard questions that the Home Secretary needs to answer. He needs to explain to the House whether he intends the police to arrest people who are openly selling cannabis—as they are on the streets of Brixton today—or whether he is asking the police to look away. He needs to explain to the House why, if he is effectively decriminalising cannabis use, he still wants young people to buy their cannabis from criminals. He also needs to explain how it can be right to tell one set of people that it is half okay to smoke cannabis, but to tell another set of people they may be put in prison for 10 years if they sell it. In short, the Home Secretary needs to explain how, with a policy that consists of deeply confusing mixed messages, he can conceivably expect to reduce drug dependency and criminality in this country.

The saddest thing about this policy is that it owes it origins not to the advice of the Government's chief adviser on drugs, not to a well considered examination of the results of the Brixton experiment, and certainly not to the views of people whose children's lives are being destroyed by drugs, but to a political stratagem. The Home Secretary adopted this policy—[Interruption.]—oh yes, and he told people so—because he believed that he could wrong-foot all his opponents, buying off the libertarians with increasing liberalisation, and the anti-drugs lobby with a show of toughness.

However, as his own adviser said today,

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The Home Secretary's clever stratagem has disintegrated in 24 hours. It has presented the Government with a massive liability. Much more importantly, it will present many of our most vulnerable communities with the prospect of social disaster.

I admire the Home Secretary on many counts. One of his most admirable features has been his willingness on repeated occasions over the past few months to withdraw from ill conceived policies and legislative proposals. It is not too late for him to display that same admirable quality in the coming days. He has time to think again before this disastrous Order in Council is implemented. In the interests of the Government, and in the interests of the young people of this country, he should do so.

Mr. Blunkett: I am very sad that the right hon. Gentleman has taken the view that he has this afternoon. It is right to believe that the issue is not a political football, but he is right to point out that there is a stratagem—as he would have it—from the political right that advocates complete legalisation and a free market. I have read that in the leaders of The Daily Telegraph and elsewhere.

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong to make cheap remarks about policy being withdrawn. Yes, I lost the vote on religious incitement in the Lords and, yes, we have sought to find sensible compromise if we can achieve the same goal by a different route. However, the House should make no mistake that the right hon. Gentleman would be wrong if he thought that he could get away with pretending that a sensible move to protect the lives of young people, and to provide credibility for the educational message to them, can be summed up as a cheap political stratagem. It is not.

The policy has been adopted after receiving the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, scientific evidence, the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee—which has members from all parties and has heard scientific, medical and other evidence over the past six months—as well as advice on what works from those working with young people involved with drugs. Families were mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, and I can confirm that we also listened to families. It was the families who convinced me that the measure would be right. They told me of how they had told their children that all drugs were the same and had the same impact and effect. When their young people had tried cannabis and found that that was not the case, they did not believe their parents when they told them of the dangers of crack and heroin. Families have told me that we need credibility in the message that we give young people. We need to be able to educate them in the dangers that exist. We need to tell them that hard drugs kill but that cannabis, like other class C drugs, is dangerous but not widely dangerous to one's future and mortality.

Let me answer the questions directly. Are we keeping cannabis as an illegal drug? Yes. Are we decriminalising it? No. Do we believe it is harmful? Yes. Are we educating young people to that effect? Yes, we are. Do we think that we can lead young people away from moving on to hard drugs by being honest with them? Yes, we do and so do those who work with young people. Should we malign the police for taking a similar stance

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in the Met or through the Association of Chief Police Officers? The right hon. Gentleman uses that organisation against me time and again. When he wants me to give them total independence, I am to believe its word, not mine. Let us have some consistency.

That consistency was not exhibited by the former drugs tsar, Mr. Keith Hellawell, who ceased to be the tsar when I took over as Home Secretary. He has been given part-time roles advising on international drugs matters over the past nine months. [Hon. Members: "Shame on you."] No, not shame on me. I shall not stoop to argue Mr. Hellawell's case this afternoon except to say this, so that it is on the record. When I told Keith Hellawell last October—not August as he said at lunchtime—that we would refer the matter to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, he agreed that it would be a good idea. We have a minute to that effect. He has changed his mind three times, as he is entitled to do.

I have changed my mind once. Until two years ago, I was against reclassification, but I have been convinced by the evidence, by the need to target hard-drug dealers, and by the way in which we can clamp down on those who are threatening the lives of young people. It is for those reasons that I have chosen to back the police in their request that if people are dealing in drugs, including cannabis, if they are causing or potentially causing disorder by the flagrant use of those drugs, or if they are threatening the lives of young people, they will be arrested. Those dealing will get not 10 years but 14 years, as I said in my statement.

This is a strategy that is aimed at securing harm minimisation, proper treatment and education. Above all, we want to get across the message that we know what we are doing. If young people understand that, they will get the message. Drugs are dangerous, and class A drugs kill. That is the message this afternoon.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): Although there may be one or two differences between my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and me, may I say at the outset that it is obvious that he and his advisers have taken the Select Committee's report seriously? I am grateful for that.

In addition, I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to reclassify cannabis. It is plain common sense, and he should take no notice of the uncharacteristic nonsense from the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). I am sure that my right hon. Friend will not misunderstand me if I say that we must not get too hooked on cannabis. He is right to say that heroin and crack cocaine are overwhelmingly the drugs that cause the most problems. We must concentrate on them, and I was disappointed that the Opposition spokesman had nothing to say about them.

How does my right hon. Friend envisage that the increase in managed prescribing to which he is committed will be achieved? He said that safe injecting houses would not be helpful at this moment, but does that mean that he might be prepared to consider them in the future?

Finally, will he say why it has not been possible to agree that the National Treatment Agency should audit drug treatment services in prisons, as well as outside them?

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