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Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Would the Secretary of State think it appropriate to ask directors of education authorities, including West Sussex, where we have a case that I will not mention in detail, and chief constables to communicate to the Department any helpful suggestions, and reactions to her statement and the current position?
Will she check with the CRB about delays in processing requests for information, given that one of her colleagues in the Department of Health said that they did not know how long it takes to clear doctors, and it would be useful to ensure that teachers' applications are cleared fairly fast? Will she ensure that teacher supply agencies are not left out of the loop because they often find themselves unable to provide necessary information?
Ruth Kelly: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I assure hon. Members that I have written to all local education authorities and that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has written to all chief constables as well as several other relevant organisations. We shall consult on the detailed implementation of the proposals. The CRB has given assurances about its capacity to deal with the issues, and I covered in my statement and in questions our consideration of supply agencies.
Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab):
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the key issues
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is communication? How will today's statement affect current communication between the police, head teachers and social workers? How will the Government's "Every Child Matters" agenda impact on the issue?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to good communication and to a genuine understanding of the different responsibilities of central Government and local government and individual employers. I have therefore written today to all head teachers, local education authorities and further education colleges to set out their responsibilities. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has used a similar approach to the police.
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): Can the Secretary of State confirm the date on which the mandatory CRB checks will begin? Can she confirm that they will be enhanced checks? Why has she announced only now that training is necessary for those who make the vetting decisions? Surely training should have been in place for a long time.
Ruth Kelly: Training was a recommendation in the Bichard review. We have already made proposals on itif the hon. Gentleman looks at the Department's website, he will see that they are set out in some detail. Sir Michael Bichard was impressed by our approach to that. We will table regulations to make the CRB process mandatory and introduce it as soon as that is reasonably practicable for head teachers.
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has given an outstandingly informative statement. Because information is so important to the reassurance of parents, would she consider disclosing a little more? She said earlier that, of the 4,045 individuals on List 99, a subset of 210 were subject not to a full ban but to certain restrictions. Without going into the details of individual cases, would it be useful and helpful if she could say, now or in the near future, exactly which offences would justify certain restrictions and what those restrictions would be?
Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the 210 cases that received a partial bar. Many of those will not have involved a sexual offence at all. If, for example, a teacher commits fraud, it may be considered that that person should not work in a capacity in which they had financial dealings in relation to a school or other educational institution. In such cases, it is perfectly reasonable to impose a partial ban.
However, in 2000, we introduced the concept of "unsuitable to work with children". Historic cases were considered on a piecemeal basis. For example, if an offence had been committed against a young boy, the offender could have been given a partial bar against working in boys' or mixed schools. Today, that would not be considered an appropriate response. That is why I have asked the independent panel of experts to review all past cases involving partial bars, to see whether new evidence has emerged about those individuals who had a partial bar based on a sexual offence, and to see whether we need to reconsider those cases.
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Ruth Kelly: It will be accountable via the Secretary of State for Education and Skills in the first instance, and after legislation has been put through the House, it will be incorporated into a statutory body that will be accountable through Ministers to the House.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Clarke): With permission, I would like to make a statement on the regulation of cannabis. The House will know that last March I asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to examine new evidence on the harmfulness of cannabis and to evaluate whether it altered their assessment of the drug's classification. In so doing, I was particularly concerned by studies, published since the council's 2002 report, which seemed to indicate strong links between cannabis and serious mental illness. I am very grateful to the council for the work that it has done in responding to my request and I am today placing a copy of its report and conclusions in the Library of the House.
I shall highlight two conclusions from the council's report. The first is that cannabis is harmful and its use can lead to a wide range of physical and psychological harms and hazards; that the mental health effects of cannabis are real and significant; that cannabis is potentially harmful, with short-term risks to physical health; that a substantial research programme into the relationship between cannabis and mental health should be instituted; that the Government ought to seek to reduce the use of cannabis; and that the cultivation, supply and possession of cannabis should remain illegal.
The second conclusion is that the level of classification is only one among the issues to be addressed and that, in the council's view, priority needs to be given to proper enforcement of the law, to education and to campaigning against the use of cannabis. The council recommends a substantial Government education campaign, strengthened medical services for those dependent on cannabis and greater protection for those with pre-existing mental conditions that place them at particular risk from cannabis use. The council also proposes further research to improve our understanding of the mental health implications of cannabis use.
I have discussed those recommendations with my colleagues, the Secretaries of State for Education and Skills and for Health, and we have agreed to accept and implement them energetically. In so doing, we accept that the use of cannabis significantly increases the chances of developing chronic bronchitis and poses a potential lung cancer risk. We accept the growing body of research that suggests that cannabis may exacerbate or even trigger a range of serious mental health problems, including schizophrenia. In the words of the ACMD report,
In summary, cannabis is anything but harmless. That is why possession of cannabis remains punishable by up to two years in prison. It is why the Government strongly oppose proposals to legalise the drug, and will continue to do so. This month, we have introduced new powers under the Drugs Act 2005 to strengthen the hand of the police in dealing with those caught supplying the drug.
However, as the advisory council's report indicates, the illegal status of the drug is not enough. We need a massive programme of public education to convey the danger of cannabis use. Our aim is to provide effective education in schools about the risks posed by cannabis,
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to send the right messages about the harms the drug does and, very importantly, to equip young people with the knowledge and courage to make the right decisions. We will use the "Frank" media campaign and other channels to raise understanding about the dangerous and illegal impact of cannabis consumption. The campaign, delivered in partnership with the police, will publicise the penalties for cannabis dealing, production and use.
Growing and selling cannabis is neither harmless nor, as some argue, idealistic. It is a multi-million pound business, often organised by sophisticated and violent criminals. I remind the House that those who deal in large quantities of cannabis face maximum penalties of up to 14 years for this offence. That is why I have discussed with the Association of Chief Police Officers the need to focus police effort and to take strong action to reduce the supply of cannabis. The police and I agree that, in recent years, the production and dealing of cannabis have not always been targeted sufficiently vigorously, and we have agreed that this needs to change. ACPO will now draw up a consolidated campaign of action to attack the production and trafficking of cannabis, which provide obscene profits out of the misery of users. ACPO will aim to put cannabis farms out of business and dealers behind bars. At the same time, it will revise and strengthen its guidelines for dealing with cannabis-related crime.
As hon. Members will be aware, the Home Office recently published a consultation exercise to look at the threshold levels of cannabis in a person's possession at which that person would be deemed to be a supplier. I would like to inform the House that my final decision will involve a considerably lower level than the 500g suggested in the current consultation.
I believe that those education, health and police measures give clear and comprehensive messages about the dangers of cannabis and a warning that those who produce or are dealers in cannabis will be brought to justice. They are focused on reducing the use of cannabis, and I believe that reduction of use should be the goal of all our drugs policies, whether the drug is legal or illegal. Also, it is the case that clarity is the best weapon we have in the fight to reduce the use of cannabis. That is the basis on which I approach the issue of classification.
The more that I have considered these matters, the more concerned I have become about the limitations of our current system. Decisions on classification often address different or conflicting purposes, and too often send strong but confusing signals to users and others about the harms and consequences of using a particular drug. Furthermore, there is often disagreement over the meaning of different classifications. For example, many people wrongly interpreted the reclassification of cannabis to mean that cannabis was not harmful and that its use was acceptable and even legal. For these reasons, I will in the next few weeks publish a consultation paper with suggestions for a review of the drug classification system, on the basis of which I will make proposals in due course.
In regard to the particular issues in front of us now, as previously announced I have accepted the advice to keep methyl amphetamine as a class B drug, although this is
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subject to a review reporting later this year. Similarly, I have accepted the council's advice not to classify khat as a controlled drug. I can today announce that I have also asked the advisory council to report on the classification of so called date rape drugs, including GHB and Rohypnol.
On cannabis, I have considered very carefully the advice that I have received from many sources. I am influenced by data on levels of use of the drug and evidence that cannabis use had fallen among 16 to 24-year-olds from 28 per cent. in 1998 to 24 per cent. last year. The preliminary assessment is that, contrary to my personal expectation, reclassification has not led to an increase in use. Moreover, I accept the view of the advisory council that further research on the mental health implications is needed before any decision to reclassify is made.
While I shall keep this matter under close review in the light of the factors that I have mentioned, I have decided to accept the advisory council's recommendation, which is supported by the police and by most drug and mental health charities, to keep the current classification of cannabis. Everyone needs to understand that cannabis is harmful and illegal. Our education and health campaigns will clearly transmit that message. Police operations will target the producers and dealers so that the consumption of cannabis will be significantly reduced. I hope that the Government will have the support of the whole House in seeking that outcome.
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