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Mr. Blunkett: There is a general feeling that, if we were starting from scratch, we would take much more draconian measures against tobacco use than are possible in society today. Some of us fought very hard to ensure that tobacco advertising was banned and that young people were dissuaded from using tobacco in public places and elsewhere. I sympathise with the points that my hon. Friend makes because they cross fine lines. For example, the evidence on gateway access using tobacco, alcohol and, yes, cannabis to class A drugs is very mixed, but it is clear that all three play a part in taking young people on to the killer drugs. All I can offer my hon. Friend is this: the strategy that we have adopted so far has not worked. It is estimated that 46 per cent. of those under 30 have used cannabis at some time, so seeking to criminalise them or to pick them up for mere possession or use—

Mr. Letwin: I thought that the right hon. Gentleman said that it is still criminal.

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, it is criminal, but picking up, arresting and charging young people for possession would not be sensible. The right hon. Gentleman giggles. My view as a parent is that, if youngsters of 18 or 19 are found in possession of cannabis, a warning signal has to be sent to them, but arresting and charging them would not be in the interests of themselves or society. That is why we are taking these steps.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): The Home Secretary must be right to want to worry less about soft drugs and more about hard drugs; it therefore seems illogical to equate the penalties for selling both. If people are to suffer the same penalty, whichever they sell, they will be more inclined to sell the more profitable one. His statement fails to recognise, however, that for many years, well before 1997, this country's drugs policy has been a complete failure. Fifty per cent. of property crime is drug related, nearly three quarters of our jail population are in for drug-related offences, and millions of pounds and masses of police and customs time are spent on the problem, yet drugs are readily available close to every school, even in a rural constituency such as mine, and even in the most secure buildings in the country—the jails run by the Home Office—where drugs are apparently easily obtained.

Far more fundamental consideration needs to be given to this problem. As part of that, will the Home Secretary consider making it general practice to treat hard drug addicts not as criminals but as addicts, as we would treat alcoholics or others with a health problem? Provided that they entered some sort of rehabilitation programme, drugs should be available to them on prescription. That would reduce crime and enable us to concentrate resources on education and rehabilitation.

Mr. Blunkett: On a small point of clarification, the sentence for trafficking in class A drugs is life. On a lighter note, I hope that it remains so, whatever the Lord Chief Justice thinks about the Home Secretary and Parliament.

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The hon. Gentleman is right about treating addicts as opposed to punishing them—that must be the direction in which we move, and drug testing and treatment orders and arrest referral are designed to do that. The establishment of the National Treatment Agency in April last year and the development of sensible drug policies in prison were necessary to start the process of reversing years of neglect. I do not wish to make a silly party political point this afternoon—[Interruption.] I will not do so. A concerted effort inside and outside prison is necessary. The modest progress that has been made so far in reducing the availability of drugs inside prisons needs to be accelerated. On that issue, I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): Is the Home Secretary not aware that, whatever he says today, and whatever the experts are saying, a stark and uncomfortable message is going out to families across the country that cannabis is okay, no matter how strong it is and no matter how it is taken? In my view, the experiment in my constituency was not a success. There are more drug dealers than ever and there are more people using cannabis. That is the message. Is the Home Secretary certain that, in 10 or 20 years' time, we will not look back on this day as the one when we got it wrong?

Mr. Blunkett: I want to say to the hon. Lady, whose views I respect and whose campaign has been vigorous, that there are no certainties in dealing with drugs policy. There are no certainties in finding a way forward. If there were, we would have found them, and I would be much less modest than I am this afternoon about putting forward the policy.

All I can tell the hon. Lady is that, first, the facts that she has enunciated—I do not mean the assertions that have been made by certain members of the community—are in doubt. The 10 per cent. increase in the capture of class A drugs dealers is a fact. The 10 per cent. drop in the last six months in robbery on the streets in Brixton is a fact.

Kate Hoey: It is nothing to do with cannabis.

Mr. Blunkett: The re-use of police time is certainly making a difference. Robbery in Lambeth is now at almost a two-year low. Those may be uncomfortable facts as they do not back up the rhetoric, but they are facts that I have taken into account in making the statement this afternoon.

Lady Hermon (North Down): Will the Home Secretary enlighten us all about his consultations with Ms Jo Daykin, who is—and remains, I am pleased to say—Northern Ireland's drug and alcohol strategy co-ordinator? I ask about the consultation because of the concern that she expressed on the record today:

She pointed out that the changes announced by the Secretary of State today

of cannabis—

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Will the Home Secretary confirm that he has taken into account Jo Daykin's representations? Can he confirm that the substantial additional investment that the Secretary of State for Health announced will be extended to Northern Ireland?

Mr. Blunkett: I can confirm the latter point.

On the hon. Lady's earlier points, I understand the issues that have been raised. Representations were made, which is one reason why I decided to increase the penalty for traffickers and dealers—a particular problem in Northern Ireland—to 14 years. I did that specifically in response to a request and to ensure that the implementation of the new recategorisation will take place next summer and will take account of the particular problems of Northern Ireland.

I want to make a substantive point. The only people who will be giving the wrong message are not me, Ministers or those putting forward the policy, but people out there who are now telling young people that cannabis is legal or has been decriminalised. That is why I was genuinely disappointed that the shadow Home Secretary fell into just that trap.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on his willingness to listen and to think about a very serious problem and shift policy in a very pragmatic manner. It was not, and it is not, right to criminalise very young people who possess trivial amounts of cannabis, often on a first-time basis. However, like me, I am sure he understands that in the few months since he made the provisional announcement there has been considerable confusion about the policy. It concerns me that it will take until next July for the recategorisation from B to C to occur. Will he tell us why that is so? Will he also assure the House that the change in policy on prescribing heroin to the more chaotic heroin users, who cause the most criminal problems, will take immediate effect and that we will not have to wait that long for the heroin policy to change?

Mr. Blunkett: Where we do not have to change the law, we will act swiftly but by consensus. As I said earlier, we should move as quickly as we can towards prescribing and towards tackling problem users. The allocation of resources will help with that. The delay will allow us to have a debate in the House on recategorisation, to change the trafficking and dealing penalties and to be able to put in place the necessary changes in the models that the Metropolitan police and then, under the Association of Chief Police Officers guidance, police across the country will operate.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I wanted to welcome any liberalising measure from the Home Office, following a series of illiberal measures, but I fear that the Home Secretary's proposals may land us with the worst of all possible worlds. Surely steps effectively to depenalise the use or possession of cannabis at the same time as retaining or reinforcing the penalties for its supply will do nothing to reduce demand for cannabis while continuing to drive soft drug users into the arms of hard

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drug providers. What does he propose to do to break the link between the supply of cannabis and that of heroin and cocaine?

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