EU Action Plan on Drugs 2000-2004

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Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend has disagreed with me about this matter on a couple of occasions. As I understand the situation in Afghanistan, until the Taliban Government implemented the poppy ban, they were, in effect, encouraging the cultivation of opium poppies—they were farming, and they were taxing it. As a result, some of the biggest bumper crops were produced, and 90 per cent. of the heroin supplied to this country came from Afghanistan during that period. However, my hon. Friend is right that, for reasons that we could argue about, the Taliban implemented a ban on poppy cultivation, whereas during that period poppy cultivation continued in areas that were controlled by the Northern Alliance.

We have now moved on from an Afghan Government who were prepared to cultivate, tax and encourage the poppy crop to a Government who have banned the cultivation of poppies and are doing their best to eradicate it. They have not been entirely successful, as I said in my opening remarks. However,

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we believe that they have managed to destroy between 25 and 30 per cent. of the poppy crop this year, and that is a big step in the right direction.

My hon. Friend is correct in saying that unless we work effectively with the Afghan Administration, we will not be able to tackle this problem. To be effective, we must be smart as well. If we were simply to impose solutions to the problem of poppy cultivation from outside, we would create as many problems as we would solve. We must work with the Afghan Government and try to provide alternatives. We must provide the necessary assistance, which will not be easy. There are no quick fixes or solutions; we must work at it over time. However, I hope that he will agree that the position is better now, because the current Afghan Administration are opposed to the cultivation of poppies, unlike the previous Government, who were prepared to encourage, foster, protect and tax it.

Mr. Hawkins: In earlier exchanges, hon. Members have spoken as though the position that has prevailed in Holland for the past few years will remain. Will the Minister confirm that there are strong indications that the newly elected, very different, Dutch Government, might reverse the policies of—

Simon Hughes: The Government has just fallen.

Mr. Hawkins: Indeed. However, there were strong indications from that Government and from the meetings that I had with senior officials, including the person who until recently was the equivalent of our Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, that many people in Holland feel that their previous policies have failed and that there is a need for revision. The Dutch Government, until yesterday, indicated strongly that those policies might soon be different. Are the British Government taking account of the contrary views in the Netherlands?

Mr. Ainsworth: It is true to say that there is no settled policy in Holland, and a debate is going on. Part of our problem in getting minimum and maximum penalties agreed was the Dutch Government's position on the coffee shop policy, and the delay has been due to the fact that that Government changed. There was the election campaign and the hiatus caused by that, and as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, we now seem to be entering another such period. We shall continue to negotiate common policies, but in the absence of effective Dutch policy over the next few weeks there will be some delay.

Simon Hughes: The Minister will have seen the annual report of the monitoring centre, which came out at the beginning of this month. That shows that cocaine use is rising faster among young Britons than anywhere else in the EU, that—as the Minister accepted earlier—we regularly emerge as one of the EU's most drug-affected nations, that cannabis remains the most popular drug here, that we top the Ecstasy league across the European Union, that we have more injectors and long-term users of opiates, cocaine and amphetamines than any other country except Portugal, Italy and Luxembourg, and that we

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have long been, in the words of Mr. Trace, the former deputy drug czar:

    ''The EU's most drug riddled nation.''

The general conclusion of the monitoring centre's report was:

    ''Levels of problem drug use seem stable although some countries report changes which suggest increases''.

One of those countries is the United Kingdom. In the light of that, does the Minister conclude that EU policy cannot be successful at the moment if all we are doing is to stabilise the situation, and that British policy has clearly been unsuccessful?

Mr. Ainsworth: The British policy has been changing and the moneys that have been applied to it have changed also. The hon. Gentleman omitted to mention the fact that the use of some drugs—for example, amphetamines and LSD—has reduced considerably in this country. There is some evidence of an increase in cocaine use, which is worrying and very dangerous, but it has been offset by a decrease in the use of amphetamines, LSD and other drugs. The hon. Gentleman suggests that that is a failure of long-term Government policy. There has not been a long-term Government policy. A drugs strategy was put in place in 1998. That is now being reviewed, and substantial increases in spending are attached to all its heads. We have totally inadequate treatment facilities in this country. We are trying to double them by 2008, and are on course to achieve that.

One could make political comments about the party that left us in that state, which now appears to be pledged to a tenfold increase in treatment places. It is good news that it has at least made a change of direction, although I do not know how it justifies its view that a tenfold increase is needed. There has not been a long-term, effectively resourced drug strategy in this country. There is now, and we ought to give it time to see whether it has the effect that we all desire.

Simon Hughes: I gather that yesterday, at the Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting in Luxembourg, penalties on drug trafficking were discussed. That subject also relates to the strategy. Can the Minister tell us whether anything was agreed? If there was no agreement, when is there likely to be?

Mr. Ainsworth: No. However, if possible, I shall do so at the conclusion of the debate.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That this Committee takes note of the European Union Document No. 10207/01, Commission Communication on the implementation of the European Union Action Plan on Drugs (2000–2004); welcomes the mid-term review of the Plan; and urges that it should be revised to ensure that priority is given to achievable, timebound targets that will contribute measurably to the European Union's contribution to the fight against drug abuse and trafficking.—[Mr. Bob Ainsworth.]

9.55 am

Mr. Hawkins: Drugs is clearly the most important issue that faces law and order in this country, as in others in the EU. No doubt many well-intentioned people produce the voluminous papers to which the Minister referred, but I query whether they are effective. I was glad to hear him say, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, that they feel that there

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are not sufficiently firm targets, and that the EU has not got its act together. When I read through the voluminous papers for the debate, I was horrified by the amount of gobbledegook and verbiage, but that comes as no great surprise, as that is what I find whenever I read EU documents. I want to ask the Minister whether he thinks that British taxpayers' money would be a great deal better spent if the money were concentrated on law enforcement agencies in other EU countries.

There are many references to the important work of Europol. In case anyone tries to misinterpret what I am saying, I should stress that I do not mean that we should not have international co-operation. We certainly should. International co-operation, especially between police forces and other law enforcement agencies, is probably more important for tackling large-scale drug trafficking than for any other issue.

I wonder whether much of the money and effort that goes through the EU on committees, working parties and the production of voluminous papers will be effective. From what the Minister said, Her Majesty's Government share some of my concerns. Given our position, I would be delighted if the Government could ensure less verbiage, less paper and proper action in future. My colleagues in the European Parliament—especially Tim Kirkhope, a distinguished holder of a former position as a Home Office Minister and now one of our spokesmen on justice and home affairs—and those from other UK parties do their best to bring some reality to the issue in their work there. I am sure that they will carry on doing so, especially those who have been Home Office Ministers, such as Tim Kirkhope, and can bring that knowledge of the internal workings of the system to their work.

I am concerned that we should concentrate on the important work that bodies such as this country's National Crime Squad, National Criminal Intelligence Service and police do with their European counterparts. On my visits to other countries, I have seen the enormously important work of police co-operation. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and I went to the International Centre for Police Co-operation in the Hague. It is an extremely important body and does good work. I hope that the Minister will give the Government's endorsement of its work on drugs and other matters.

There are mixed messages from different EU countries, as many hon. Members have suggested. It is unfortunate that many of the mixed messages that come from this country are the fault of Her Majesty's Government, some highly motivated arch-legalisers such as the hon. Member for Newport, West on the Government Back Benches, and many Liberal Democrats. They do enormous harm. It is my party's view that the Home Secretary has further muddied the waters.

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Prepared 17 October 2002