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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1121—continued

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The right hon. Gentleman has had his time.

4.44 pm

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton): I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in today's debate. When the Select Committee on Home Affairs decided to undertake an inquiry, we knew that we were treading on dangerous ground. At the end of those eight months, we understood even more the difficulty and complexity of the drugs issue.

As the Chairman of the Select Committee said, we heard from many different organisations and individuals, and heard many different arguments. I believe that our report was balanced, but of course such a report upsets people on both sides of the argument. Members have said today that they would like cannabis in particular to be decriminalised. The Select Committee

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looked at whether decriminalisation would send a message to young people who do not take the drug because it is illegal, and encourage them to take it. As has been said, there are possible long-term health problems associated with taking a drug such as cannabis so, if that message is sent, more people may suffer from medical conditions in future. I suspect, for example, that we would not legalise tobacco today.

I am pleased that the Government have accepted most of the Select Committee's recommendations, and welcome their commitment to increase funding for treatment, both inside and outside the criminal justice system. It is important that treatment should be available when people are in prison or when courts impose drug treatment and testing orders, but there should not be a perverse incentive for addicts to enter the criminal justice system to receive treatment. We should make sure that treatment is available for people when they want it. Many young people are addicted to heroin, and we see their parents at our surgeries. Not until those young people are willing to undergo treatment can their problems be addressed satisfactorily. They should receive such treatment there and then—they should not have to wait for months.

Drug addiction is one of the evils of modern society. We all know that every community in our constituencies is affected by it, although it obviously has a greater impact in areas of deprivation. However, addiction is also a problem in market towns and villages—we can see it everywhere—and it brings distress to those communities. It degrades users and makes parents desperate. As I said, those parents come to our surgeries, and it is difficult to know how to advise them. We can give the clear advice that the Minister gave earlier and refer them to a drug addiction team to get help for their children, but they are torn between the desire to protect them and getting them to face reality. They see their once-perfect children, who were growing up as caring individuals, become deceitful and fall into criminal activity to feed their habit including, very often, stealing from their own family. Parents are faced with a choice between keeping their children in the family home and trying to protect them—but suffering that thieving—and trying to reject them, getting them to face up to their problems and seek treatment.There is no easy answer for those parents but, as I have said, it is important that treatment is available when required and that there is support for families trying to cope with that situation.

We must aim at prevention in the first instance and our overall message must be that all drugs are harmful. However, we must be realistic, which is why I support the Committee's recommendations on downgrading cannabis and ecstasy. I know that the ecstasy issue is a difficult one, as deaths are caused by them. The overall message must be that there is a danger in taking ecstasy. That must be the fundamental message that we send out, but we must also recognise that ecstasy is not comparable to heroin, crack and cocaine—it is in a different league. We must send out a realistic message to young people, but we will not do so if we do not grade the risks properly.

The overall message must be that all drugs are harmful. Even in relation to cannabis, we have heard hon. Members speaking about the dangers of driving or contracting cancer and possibly suffering brain damage. We have also heard it said that the Government have

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sent the wrong message over the past year or so. Sometimes, however, it is the media that send the wrong message; it will not necessarily be the Government who do so.

Above all, the worst thing about drugs is addiction to heroin and cocaine. I welcome the Government's initiative to introduce innovative advertising and more measures to tackle crack cocaine, which is one of the neglected drugs in terms of treatment. I welcome the acceptance that we should tailor treatment services to the individual, including harm minimisation, needle exchange, methadone treatment and abstinence treatment where appropriate. I also welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister said about prison-to-home services, which are vital. I know of constituents who have died on getting home from prison and returning to the dose that they were taking previously.

We must tackle drug production and dealing. There is a difference between those who supply their friends with drugs of whatever sort and the big boys who probably never take them, but cripple our communities by dealing in all sorts of drugs. We must also tackle deprivation and the lack of hope among young people. That is where the Government's policy of tackling crime and the causes of crime is important. If young people are given hope, they will be less likely to fall into the habit in the first place.

I welcome the Government's acceptance of most of the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee. We have a long way to go and the problem will never be easy to address, but we have to tackle it in different ways.

4.52 pm

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I am delighted to take part in this debate.

Helping to produce the report, and serving on the Select Committee on Home Affairs discussing and debating it, has been by far the most interesting thing that I have done in the year and a half I have been in Parliament. Everyone on the Committee genuinely tried to empty their heads of preconceptions and to look at the evidence and think about it. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who introduced the debate. He chairs the Committee admirably and tries very hard to ensure that we reach unanimity, even if we cannot always do so.

I strongly believe that the report is the right one at the right time. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South spoke about the utter failure of drugs policy in this country over a long period. In the 1970s, there were 2,000 heroin addicts; today, there are 250,000. Cannabis use has consistently increased and 50 per cent. of young people now admit to having tried it. Last year, 3,500 of our fellow countrymen died through drug abuse—a 20 per cent. increase on a decade ago. Another health problem that is not often looked at is the fact that 300,000 people in this country have contracted hepatitis C through drug use, and one third of them are likely to die prematurely.

Before dealing with the recommendations, let me say that I feel extremely strongly about this subject and desperately want to see a reduction in drug abuse and

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better paths to enable people to get out of it. If one takes a slightly progressive—or, as I like to think of it, thoughtful—view, one can sometimes be accused of being soft. I reject that utterly. Friends and people close to me have had their lives ruined by drug abuse and I want us to tackle the problem properly. That is what the report is all about.

When we boil this report down and look at it closely, we see that its central point is that we must focus on the 250,000 problematic drug users. If we can get them into treatment, there will be a huge prize for this country. First, it would cut crime. The report estimates that 30 per cent. of property crime is committed by drug abusers, although the police in Oxford and many other towns and cities say that that is a massive underestimate. The report talks about each addict needing to steal £16,000 worth of products a year to fund their habit. I think that that, too, is a massive underestimate. If they are stealing from shops, they will often sell the products at a knock-down price. The value of the products that they need to steal is probably nearer to £40,000. Secondly, getting those people into treatment would save us a great deal of money. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said that it was pointless to send heroin users to prison, and I wholly agree with him. It is a waste of money. We must get them into treatment.

As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), I am pleased that some of what we have said has already been accepted on both sides of the House. The Government are placing a renewed emphasis on treatment, and some of the wilder targets of the drugs tsar have been cancelled. The tsar has not yet had the full Russian treatment—he has not been taken out and shot—but I sometimes think that Members on the Treasury Bench might like to lock him up, in true Russian fashion. On our side, policy has been changed—rightly—to give real emphasis to treatment. The proposals on mandatory treatment and trying to find ways of getting young people into treatment put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and the Front-Bench team have been hugely positive.

I would like to talk about two of the report's most contentious recommendations. The first involves the prescribing of heroin—diamorphine—and the second relates to the use of safe injecting rooms. Both those recommendations have the same end in mind, which is to get people into treatment and to make that happen quickly. We have to realise that every day that an addict spends out on the streets funding their habit is a time of crime, of ill health and, possibly, of death. Many people estimate the percentage of property crime committed by drug abusers to be nearer 50 per cent. than 30 per cent., which would mean that every other time someone's house was burgled or their car broken into, it would be drug-related. This provision will be of interest to all our constituents, if we can get it right.

I understand from the conversations that I have had with drug addicts and drugs workers that there is no single method of treatment that always works. We need to have a variety of methods. I plead with the Minister to acknowledge that the voluntary sector is terribly important in providing these services. In the old days, when all that was available was a few detox beds and a psychiatrist or a few junkie doctors, it was actually the

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voluntary sector organisations—such as Kaleidoscope in south London—that started to provide methadone scripts. Instead of handing out great big doses, they were handing out daily doses. They were socialising the people concerned, and talking to them to make sure that they were in contact with treatment provision. We must do that now.

The person to whom I spoke at Kaleidoscope made the point that there is nothing magic about illegal drugs. We have to try to make treatment attractive. She said that, when we talk to someone who has tried to give up smoking or has been on a diet, they will always say that the way they did it was the best way. It is the same with drug addicts. Someone who has had a residential placement will say how powerful it was, and how they rebuilt their life through the steps process. A similar thing happens when we talk to people on methadone replacement. We need to Xlet a thousand flowers bloom", if I can put it like that. We must make treatment attractive. Think of all the money that the Government spend on getting people to give up smoking. We have to try to draw people into treatment.

Why prescribe heroin? It has worked overseas; the evidence that the Committee heard on that was compelling. The average age of heroin addicts in this country is, tragically, still going down. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey mentioned that in other countries, such as Holland, it is going up. Furthermore, methadone is not suitable for everyone. Some very chaotic drug users need to be stabilised, and perhaps heroin is the answer for them. The proposal might also help to cut the number of drug-related deaths. The fact that 3,500 people died last year from drug overdoses shames us. Most importantly, whatever treatment is chosen—including heroin prescribing for the hardest cases—at least the people concerned are getting into treatment and making contact with the agencies and the people who can help them. This is a difficult decision for the Government, but I hope that they will make it and persevere with it, because I believe that it is the right one.

When I first heard about the concept of safe injecting rooms, I hated it. I thought the concept of the state providing a room for someone to inject something into their veins awful, but I listened to the arguments and, in particular, to Members such as the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice), who is in her place, and the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean), who has just spoken.

People who live in inner-city areas whose children have to step over drug paraphernalia in the streets and on housing estates deserve a break from heroin use in their communities. That takes me back to the point that safe injecting rooms at least get heroin users to a place where they can be contacted by the treatment agencies so that the work of trying to get them off drugs can start.

The point about contact is hugely important. Everyone says that drugs are not just a crime problem. They are not just a health problem or just a problem of poverty either. They are a social problem in the true meaning of the phrase. If Members talk to anyone who has or has had a heroin addiction problem, they will find that there is always something else wrong with such people's lives. That is where the voluntary sector in particular can help to pick them up and turn them round.

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I hope that the Government will be brave. We are seeing some progress, although they are, I am afraid, sometimes fond of using tough language on subjects such as crime and asylum. This is not a time for tough language; they must just get it right. The Home Secretary called for an adult debate and I welcome that, but I did not welcome his response to the report, as he immediately ruled out one or two recommendations. We had spent hours thinking, debating, arguing and considering the evidence, but he seemed to dismiss those recommendations in a matter of minutes. Rather than rejecting them so hastily, it would have been better to spend time reflecting on them.

I shall make a number of suggestions based on my constituency experience of talking to people who have to deal with the problems of drugs. The first is on the system of DATs, or rather DAATs, as Oxfordshire has a drug and alcohol action team, which is headed by Bill Holman. He made the point to me that the Oxford coroner does not record drug-related deaths properly, so I would be grateful if the Minister looked into that; otherwise, we shall have no baseline for the target and no way to measure it.

The next point is on the structure of DATs. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) made a good speech in Westminster Hall about that, which I read as, sadly, I could not be present. There is a bit of confusion here. DATs are non-statutory bodies and in many cases most of the employees work for different agencies. In Oxfordshire, some are employed by the youth service, some by social services and some by the primary care trust. Although I am always against creating vast new bureaucracies, DATs need more clarity in how they are set up.

We should consider DAT funding streams: something comes from the Department for Education and Skills, something from the youth offending team and something from the Department of Health. On the whole, we should give those bodies the money and let them get on with the job. Social services rather than the DAT tends to commission residential care places. If we are to give DATs more power and more influence, we need to let them get on with it and commission a full service of education, prevention and treatment.

My next constituency point is on education. I would recommend to all Members that they sit at the back of a secondary school class when a drugs education programme is being conducted. I did so when a group of former addicts called Energy and Vision, which is part of the voluntary sector, was involved. It does education programmes across Oxfordshire, which are incredibly powerful. They are information based and non-judgmental, and they provide proper information for the students, who were gripped by what they were told. That, however, was not namby-pamby or soft.

The ex-addicts described how their experimentation with drugs had led them down a dreadful path to losing their homes and friends, breaking up from their families, prison and the collapse of their lives. They had credibility and their programme had power, as they were not the men in suits referred to by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South.

We must be frank about education. Of course we want it to reduce drug use, but reducing drug abuse is key and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin

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and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) made that point with great power. We know the figures—50 per cent. of young people try certain drugs—and it is most important that they understand the real risks of their experimentation and the risks of getting into drug abuse.

I want to make a point on policing. I met the police in Oxford, who are responsible for an active drug treatment and testing order programme and trying to get addicts into treatment. They included assistant chief constable Steve Love and Jim Trottman, who is in charge of policing in Oxford city. A point was made to me then that I consider important: I hope that the Minister will take it on board. Apparently, the police and the probation service do not always follow the same track. The police want to target the most prolific offenders and ensure that they are the subject of DTTOs, while the probation service is rewarded on the basis of the number who go through the system.

We must also consider the speed of the process. We all know about delays in the court system. The trouble with DTTOs is the need to wait until an offender who has carried out burglaries or car crimes, but is also involved with drugs, goes to court. Could treatment, or at least being referred for treatment, be a condition of police bail? If the arrested person rejected that condition, there would be an even faster track to court.

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