EU Action Plan on Drugs 2000-2004

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Simon Hughes: I am entirely comfortable with that. Does the Minister accept that, although that is a good thing, it would not be a good thing if there were a mandatory penalty, either across the EU or in this country, for a particular offence, because it should always be for the courts in any member state to decide the appropriate penalty, within the bounds of the minimum and maximum penalties that the Minister was talking about?

Mr. Ainsworth: The courts always have discretion within legal systems, but there is a great gain to be made—particularly with regard to small-scale trafficking, supply and use—in agreeing what the minimums and maximums ought to be. I think that the hon. Gentleman accepts that, and that is what we have been working very hard to achieve since the Prime Minister's initiative two or three years ago. I hope that we are now getting close to an agreement, although I do not know whether we will achieve that.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to say more about our policy review, and to seek cross-party support for it. Much of the emphasis of the review is already in the public domain—indeed, it seems to be on the website of the hon. Member for Newport, West. It is in the public domain because of the responses that we made to the Select Committee on Home Affairs. Focus will be placed on harm minimisation and on dealing with problematic drug users, and there will be an ongoing commitment to increase treatment capacity, but there will also be continued tough measures against the trafficking and supply of illegal drugs, focusing mainly on the class A drugs—heroin and crack cocaine—

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which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey agrees with.

I cannot say any more. I am not going to put our position into the public domain ahead of an announcement on the review. I am more than happy to consider the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that there should be some cross-party discussion. However, people have to make up their minds and then make announcements. Therefore, I am unsure whether anything can be gained from such a discussion. I am not against it in principle, as we should seek maximum agreement on this subject, but I do not know whether it can be done in this circumstance, because many of our ideas and intentions are already in the public domain. However, I will reconsider the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, and if there is some mileage in it I will come back to him.

The hon. Gentleman said that although he intends to support the motion, he is slightly worried about it because it does not emphasise harm minimisation. Although it does not do that, it is not intended to detract in any way from that. It does not emphasise that because we have got a little further at the European level on harm minimisation on the demand reduction side. I refer him to paragraph 2.1.1 of the action plan, which states that the five key epidemiological indicators have now been agreed:

    ''1. extent and pattern of drug use in the general population

    2. prevalence of problem drug use

    3. demand for treatment by drug users

    4. drug-related deaths and mortality of drug users

    5. drug-related infectious diseases (HIV, hepatitis B&C)''

    Therefore, we have made more progress on that side, but we need to make progress on the other side, although harm minimisation is extremely important, and it is a road down which we should go.

    The hon. Gentleman talked about Lambeth and cannabis reclassification issues, as did several other hon. Members. I broadly agree with what he said. There was a lot of hype around Lambeth, and I have to say that the Conservatives were heavily involved in that, as were sections of the press. Is it not incredible that, after all their opportunist interventions on the reclassification of cannabis, not a single word was said about their own policy on that during the heralded speech of the right hon. Member for West Dorset at his party's recent conference? It would be interesting to know what their policy is. They created mischief by questioning whether there had been mixed messages on cannabis, but they cannot say whether they would reverse the policy. I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman if can tell us now, but he probably has a different opinion from his boss.

Paul Flynn: Does my hon. Friend share my fear that the splendid speech made by the right hon. Member for West Dorset at the Conservative party conference may have proved that, like the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, he is far too intelligent to be on the Tory Front Bench?

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not think that any Conservative Member will stand up and defend the right hon. Gentleman all that strongly this morning.

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The hon. Member for Surrey Heath has certainly not intervened to tell us what his party's policy is on the reclassification of cannabis.

Mr. Hawkins rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is now going to tell us his party's policy on reclassification.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister can have his fun, but I made it clear in my earlier remarks that I did not understand his initial remark that there was nothing new in the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset. I fully support what my right hon. Friend said. He and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) made clear our position on the Lambeth experiment at the time, and that has not changed. In relation to all drugs issues, any policies that we introduce when we return to Government will be evidence based, unlike the prejudice and nonsense of the hon. Member for Newport, West.

Mr. Ainsworth: I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's intervention, and I noticed that there was no answer to the question about his party's policy on cannabis reclassification. It was carefully disguised, and the hon. Gentleman should be congratulated on that, but he clearly did not answer the question.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful for the Minister's endorsement of what he and his colleagues have clearly been briefed is the position on Lambeth, because I have been given the same information. It would be helpful if the main Opposition talked to the people who know the facts and reported back honestly on what they were told. It helps none of us if there is a distortion of the evidence that the Government and my party have been given. Members of the Conservative party would find the same evidence as us if they were to speak to the borough commander in Lambeth or his predecessor.

Mr. Ainsworth: Like the hon. Gentleman, I have spoken to commanders Paddick and Moore, and I have received exactly the same feedback as he has. I also received that feedback from senior members of the Metropolitan police. It is unfortunate that Lambeth was put under the spotlight, but positive things have come out of that too. An increased effort has been made for joined-up co-operation at a local level, and the Home Office, the police standards unit, the Metropolitan police and the Association of Police Authorities have all given their assistance. Great rewards have been reaped from the clampdown on the peddling of hard drugs in the Brixton area.

The interventions of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath have been different in tone from other comments made from the Opposition Front Bench. He talks about gobbledygook and the need for law enforcement, as if that were the only thing that was needed, whereas the right hon. Member for West Dorset in his recent speech emphasised the need for treatment. I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that his views on Europe are well known. The issues and the documents are complicated, and it is difficult to do justice to them, but I do not know how we put in place a framework that gives us transferable information on every aspect of the drug problem

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without ending up with such complex documents. We need to have some input into the process and to pin the problem down. We must distil our information about the problem into priorities that can be pursued and targets that make us accountable, no matter how uncomfortable we may feel in trying to meet them. Those aims were never close to being met by the empty chair policies that were in place when the Conservatives were in power. If we want those clear objectives and priorities to be put in place, we must get involved and ensure that the right policies are adopted. We are trying to ensure that the action plan delivers some benefit additional to that which can be delivered nationally.

Simon Hughes: I entirely share the Minister's view on that, but he neglected my central point. I asked him whether he would consider including in the EU action plan a provision to the effect that the EU should approach the UN with a view to permitting member states to pursue alternative strategies if they so wish, which would allow a diversity of approach. I understand that he will have to speak to his colleagues about that, but will he give the Committee an assurance that he will consider it? It seems wise to benefit from different experiences in the EU, but to let different countries do different things if they want to.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not at all sure that we can stop them. Countries have seats on the UN in their own right and will make whatever points they wish. We have not yet decided what our input into the UN debate will be. I do not know whether I agree with the

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hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, but I shall think about what he has said.

When we consider such a document, we know that there will be a more general debate on drugs, not just a debate on the documentation before the Committee—rightly so, because the issue concerns us all. I reiterate, however, that the drugs strategy should be given time to work. Many policies have been put in place and substantial resources have been made available. I shall not exaggerate their effectiveness or say that we have found the solutions that will deliver immediate substantial change, but those policies must be given a chance to have an impact. One idea that has not been mentioned is asset recovery, and we have been singularly ineffective in this country in taking the profit out of crime, yet profit is the motive behind organised crime, which is supported by drug trafficking to a great extent. Effective legislation, used systematically by the courts, could have a substantial impact, reducing trafficking in this country. Hopefully, such legislation will bear some fruit.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee takes note of 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.

Committee rose at two minutes past Eleven o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Atkinson, Mr. Peter (Chairman)
Cairns, David
Farrelly, Paul
Francis, Dr.
Hopkins, Mr.
Johnson, Mr. Boris
Palmer, Dr.
Picking, Anne
Tami, Mark
Williams, Hywel

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):
Ainsworth, Mr. Bob (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Caplin, Mr. Ivor (Hove)
Flynn, Paul (Newport, West)
Hawkins, Mr. Nick (Surrey Heath)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

 
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Prepared 17 October 2002