9 Sep 2010 : Column 149WH

9 Sep 2010 : Column 149WH

Westminster Hall

Thursday 9 September 2010

[Mr Philip Davies in the Chair]

Controls on Legal Highs

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr Vara.)

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, in your first debate in Westminster Hall. I congratulate you on your appointment to the Panel of Chairs. I wish you all success in that position and in chairing many more debates in the weeks and months ahead.

In securing the debate today, I wish to address the issue of so-called legal highs, which are new psychoactive synthetic substances. The coalition Government will not lose sight of the harms caused by all drug use. Within our objective of making society a safer place for young people, we need to be responsive to such new threats and new harms. Over the past 18 months or so, there has been a proliferation of so-called legal highs, which are often drugs with a similar molecular structure to a controlled drug, but they have been deliberately altered by unscrupulous manufacturers to subvert our laws by producing an entirely new compound which, although the pharmacological effects may be similar to or greater than the controlled drug, are not already controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Those selling these potentially harmful drugs advertise them as legal and safe, often under purposely enticing brand names such as Fast Lane, Silver Bullet and many others, including Ivory Wave, to which I will refer later. They often label them as "not for human consumption" or "research chemicals", or describe them as pond cleaner, plant food or bath salts, with the aim of circumventing medicines legislation-a purely insidious ruse. Another alarming feature is the way in which legal highs are advertised and sold over the internet, creating a more connected global marketplace, thus increasing the ways in which it is possible to buy drugs, which can be accessed by people of all ages.

A further layer of complexity is highlighted by the research from test purchases referred to in the latest report on naphyrone by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Although people who sell legal highs often brand them as legal, test purchases demonstrate that they may contain any number of illegal substances, especially cathinones, legal stimulants or other active and inactive constituents. Simply because a drug is marketed as legal does not mean that it is safe or, indeed, that it is legal.

There is no starker reminder of the problem than the UK's experience with mephedrone, which was rapidly established in the UK and was eventually brought under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act with cross-party agreement in the final days of the last Parliament.
9 Sep 2010 : Column 150WH
The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) is here this afternoon, and I know that he was involved in work to secure that position.

I want to discuss first the harms of such drugs, because that is at the root of our concerns and responsibilities. It is becoming increasingly clear that those substances are far from harmless and can have similar health risks to drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines. The ACMD-our independent expert advisers-has provided full assessments of harms on a range of substances that could be described as the first generation of legal highs: gamma-butyrolactone or GBL; synthetic cannabinoids; benzylpiperazine or BZP; and related piperazines and cathinones, including mephedrone and naphyrone. It is clear that some of those substances are so novel that there is little research into the short, medium and long-term risks that they pose.

What we can conclude from the ACMD's reports to date is that those drugs-in some cases, more properly described as chemicals-are far from safe. By way of example, the harms associated with mephedrone identified by the ACMD include anxiety and paranoid states, and the risk of over-stimulating the heart and nervous system to cause fits and delusions as well as the risk of dependency. The recently published 2010 annual report by the national programme on substance abuse deaths advises that mephedrone has been detected in a total of 38 deaths in the UK, and was the sole direct cause of death in at least two of them. In a further two cases, mephedrone was implicated but there were also underlying health issues. Mephedrone has been implicated in two cases of death by hanging and was a contributory factor to another two deaths by natural causes. A remaining 29 cases await the completion of inquiries by the coroner or the procurator fiscal. It should be emphasised that the risks associated with the substances are increased if they are used with alcohol or other drugs.

For the reasons I have set out, action to address the health risks arising from the use of legal highs, including new ones coming on to the market, is a priority for the coalition Government. We need to reduce the supply of, and the demand for, new substances. Our response must be wide-ranging, encompassing prevention, education, treatment and enforcement, and at its core is our legislative response. As with all drugs, enforcement action must be taken at home-at local and at national levels-at our borders and abroad, to create a hostile environment for those selling legal highs on the internet and in so-called "head shops".

In many ways, policing legal highs presents particular challenges for law enforcement, but I am encouraged that with joint working across law enforcement we are beginning to gain a better understanding and application of the full range of tools and powers available. We are working closely with the Association of Chief Police Officers and other agencies to develop a comprehensive and robust approach to tackle the mis-selling of illicit substances such as legal highs, by taking local, targeted action. ACPO guidance has been updated and is available to all police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

My Department has also called on local trading standards teams, through local authority chief executives, to work in partnership with the police to deal with the sale of legal highs, taking full account of the latest evidence that something branded as legal is not necessarily
9 Sep 2010 : Column 151WH
so, and to make appropriate referrals to the police and otherwise apply their responsibility for enforcing offences under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. Trading standards and the police, in a number of locations, are working closely with a range of partners, including drug treatment agencies, schools and youth services, to gather intelligence and to tackle sales from head shops and the internet.

In Norfolk, for example, all retailers believed to be selling legal highs have been visited by local trading standards officers. In Suffolk, following effective action by the police and trading standards, all known retailers have now agreed not to stock or to supply legal highs. We should also remember that it is illegal to sell, supply or advertise legal highs for human consumption under medicines legislation. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency will take appropriate measures to control and enforce medicines law.

The UK Border Agency has undertaken effective enforcement action against criminal gangs that traffic such drugs across our borders, by seizing and destroying shipments of illegal drugs and of legal highs that have been subject to an import ban under the open general import licence. The Serious Organised Crime Agency has actively developed approaches to identify importers, distributors and sellers of legal highs. That includes activity in conjunction with law enforcement partners and in parallel with work conducted by Europol and by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction to gather intelligence on suppliers of legal high substances on the internet. Productive discussions have taken place with the competent authorities within source countries, mindful of their internal laws and regulations.

Along with referrals for enforcement action where appropriate, SOCA has also taken action to disrupt such activity by using preventive tools, such as the removal of websites, either in tandem with more traditional activity or independently. As part of a wider initiative to disrupt criminal activity, SOCA has closed 113 websites that offered mephedrone or naphyrone for sale after the respective bans.

Those trafficking banned substances face a substantial term of imprisonment-up to a maximum of 14 years-and, where they have profited from any illegal trade, the courts have the power to seize their property and other assets under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. We are also strengthening our forensic capability to identify new illicit drugs and emerging legal highs by creating a virtual reference library of characterised chemical standards. Working with forensics providers, the library will allow new evidential methods to be used to enable the police and UKBA to enforce the law. We are introducing technology at the borders to support UKBA in identifying any new drugs imported into the UK. That work will feed directly into our early warning capabilities.

Enforcement action of that kind is effective. We continue to monitor the impact of the recent bans on mephedrone and naphyrone, but indications are that they have curtailed availability, with law enforcement agencies able to take swift action to seize drugs and, to some degree, with retailers self-regulating themselves. Since the bans were introduced, UKBA has made a number of detections. It has stopped more than 128 kg
9 Sep 2010 : Column 152WH
of chemicals that it suspects to be mephedrone from entering the UK, and has seized more than 125 kg of naphyrone. Early indications from the police and forensics providers suggest that there has been a sizeable number of seizures of mephedrone since the ban in April this year. I hope to see the anecdotal information translated into national statistics in due course.

Prevention of drug use is an absolutely important element of the coalition Government's approach to drugs. Young people need to be empowered to make the right decisions, and we all have a role to play in helping them to do that by changing attitudes towards any drug use. Young people need to be aware of the dangers of substances, including emerging legal highs. Parents must take a certain amount of responsibility for this. We know that young people listen to and trust their parents on such issues, and that parents can be hugely influential.

We also need to ensure that we get the balance right between communicating information accurately to the media and young people to deter use, and avoiding inadvertently raising interest in experimenting with new substances as they emerge. Interest in mephedrone and searches to buy it online increased with media coverage. In June, I wrote to the organisers of music festivals to make them aware of that, and asked them to review the measures that they put in place to ensure that their festivals are as safe an environment as possible.

Since 2005, the FRANK service has been offering a universally accessible service for anyone wanting help, information or advice on drug issues. The service, which is available by phone, on the web or by e-mail, can put people in touch with local services in their area and send out free information materials. FRANK also provides partners such as schools, youth services, charities and local services with an effective means of engaging with young people through the distribution of leaflets and classroom packs to deliver drugs education.

Later this month, we will launch a campaign to raise students' awareness of the dangers of so-called legal highs and the risks associated with the use of such substances. We have established a partnership with the National Union of Students to deliver the campaign, which will launch during the freshers period to coincide with the new university year and the run-up to Christmas. Our work will seek to educate students on health risks associated with the use of legal highs and inform them of the possible illegalities of using such substances. As part of that campaign activity, I will write to university vice-chancellors to make them aware of the issue.

The FRANK service will be a key vehicle for communicating those messages. It provides up-to-date information on legal highs to young people, parents and carers via its website, helpline and text service. FRANK's key messages on legal highs emphasise, first, that just because a drug is legal to possess, it does not mean that it is safe, and, secondly, that it is likely that drugs sold as a legal high may contain one or more substances that it is illegal to possess.

Previously, head teachers and authorised school staff had the statutory power to search without consent only those who were suspected of carrying a knife or other weapon. On 7 July, the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), announced that, as of 1 September-very recently, at the start of the term-that authority would be extended to include
9 Sep 2010 : Column 153WH
legal highs and several other articles. Our drug laws need to change more quickly to protect the public, and to combat the unscrupulous manufacturers and suppliers who seek to make huge profits at the cost of the health of the public, especially young people. As set out in the coalition agreement, the coalition Government have made it a priority to introduce a system of temporary bans as such substances emerge, .

The underlying purpose of the temporary banning power is to enable us to legislate quickly, while at the same time providing the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs with the time and space that it needs to formulate its full advice. The power is subject to parliamentary scrutiny, and while it targets supply, it does not criminalise young people unnecessarily, particularly when the true nature of the substance may still be in question.

I want to make it clear that the temporary banning power is a key and necessary tool in our legislative response to this changing landscape, but our preferred approach to drug control will remain the one which the advisory council and the Government have adopted for the past 40 years: a full assessment by the council before any controls are invoked by Parliament. I also wish to endorse and, as advice leads us, continue to adopt the use of generic definitions in our drug legislation to capture not only the substance encountered in the UK but its related compounds.

The Government intend to amend the UK-wide Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 in this first Session of Parliament. The power will have the following features: orders placing a drug under temporary control will be subject to a 12-month time period or earlier revocation if, for example, the drug becomes subject to permanent control in that time; it will be applied to trafficking offences including possession with intent to supply, offer to supply, supply, importation, exportation and production; it will apply class B current maximum penalties and/or an unlimited fine on indictment and six months and/or a £5,000 fine on summary conviction; and it will subject an order for temporary classification to the negative resolution procedure, and retain the affirmative resolution procedure with Privy Council Order in Council for permanent control.

I wish to highlight three features. First, the possession offence ordinarily prescribed for illegal drugs under the 1971 Act will not apply. A possession offence would send the strongest message, but our focus is on targeting importers and suppliers to curb availability, not to criminalise users, especially young people, while the full nature of the substance is mostly uncertain. However, we will ensure that law enforcement officers have the power to seize and retain a drug under temporary classification.

Secondly, as with drugs brought under permanent control, the role of scientific advice is both integral and necessary to ensure that any temporary ban is invoked on a necessary and proportionate basis. The advice that the advisory council has provided is key to the effectiveness to date of the UK's legislative response, and it has enabled the UK to lead the world in responding to such challenges. It is proposed that the council discharge this role under a temporary banning power in line with its statutory position to provide expert independent advice, including on a drug's likely psychoactive properties, as well as an indication of likely harmfulness, and
9 Sep 2010 : Column 154WH
legitimate use, for which we would have to consider the impact of control, as we do for drugs subject to permanent control.

We are working closely with the advisory council to develop a protocol under which we would work under a temporary banning power. The council and the Government also need to oversee the development of a more systematic approach to providing early warning of new substances. Thirdly, it is my intention to apply the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to drugs that are subject to a temporary control order, so we will seize property and other assets from those who are caught peddling such drugs out of pure greed, recklessly or deliberately disregarding the harm that they cause. Pursuant to our wider communications response, a clear and consistent narrative around the temporary class will support the proposed new power, to ensure that it is not less effective than the current system of control, and that users do not continue to use a drug subject to temporary classification with impunity.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Can the Minister clarify one aspect of the temporary ban? If the advisory council subsequently finds that the drug is not in fact dangerous in any shape or form, what will happen to anyone who might have been prosecuted for supply?

James Brokenshire: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In circumstances in which legislation subsequently changes, the criminal sanction still stands. That is why we have focused on the supply and public harm issues, rather than creating a possession offence.

If the ACMD were subsequently to determine that a drug under the temporary classification was not to move into a permanent classification, and someone had been convicted after an offence had been identified and a prosecution secured, that offence would still stand. That underlines the need for the protocol with the ACMD, which I have mentioned, allowing us to seek advice from it on the use of the temporary ban in the first place. That may be done on a more fast-track basis, but certain tenets need to be applied to that process, because the intention in using the temporary ban is not, as I have said, to circumvent the existing system but to use it. Issues to do with mephedrone and other legal highs have highlighted the potential need to act quickly, from a public harm perspective, and that is the focus of our intent.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister not agree that it would be strange if subsequent medical advice changed our understanding of a drug, and we had to say to a group of people who had deliberately circumvented the law-and not on the basis that they thought that there was a moral right to obtain this harmless drug-"Actually, it's fine, you can get compensation for whatever penalties we imposed on you"?

James Brokenshire: The relevant point here concerning legal highs is that the ACMD flagged up to the Government its concern about mephedrone, pointing out that there was a problem it needed to do further work on to reach a final conclusion. It was so concerned that it was almost advising the Government to take preventive
9 Sep 2010 : Column 155WH
steps. Through this mechanism we want to be able to act, from a public harm and a warning perspective, to ensure that those issues are dealt with swiftly and quickly. In other words, we want to try to reduce the risk of harm occurring. That is the emphasis and intention behind the temporary banning power, and it is consistent with the approach taken in other legislation: that if the law is subsequently changed, pre-existing offences that may have been incurred still subsist.

I should like to mention Ivory Wave, which is causing a number of hon. Members significant concern and has been mentioned in the press and the media. I want to deal with certain reports associating the use of the so-called legal high-branded product Ivory Wave with a number of localised accident and emergency presentations in the last few weeks. Health alerts have been issued by the chief medical officers for England and Wales and Scotland, and the FRANK service was updated to highlight the risks that we are currently aware of that are associated with Ivory Wave. We are actively monitoring the situation. My Department has received early information from the Scottish Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency that the latest Ivory Wave products associated with the admissions in Lothian may contain a non-controlled amphetamine-type stimulant, Desoxypipradrol, or 2-DPMP. Confirmation from forensic providers and details of other sampling is awaited.

In Edinburgh, Lothian and Borders police, in partnership with the City of Edinburgh public health authorities, have visited a number of head shops, which has led to the removal of Ivory Wave products from sale. Hampshire police have also conducted a joint operation with trading standards, raiding two head shops on the Isle of Wight, resulting in the seizure of large quantities of legal highs and the arrest of two individuals for suspected supply of controlled drugs. In the light of that information, earlier this week I spoke to the chair of ACMD, Professor Les Iversen, and asked the council to keep a close interest in developments here and provide advice as necessary. I have instructed my officials to share with the ACMD information that we have and provide regular updates.

There were previous indications that the so-called legal high Ivory Wave had contained certain controlled drugs. Different supplies of Ivory Wave using that brand name contain different drugs, some of which may already be controlled drugs, hence our seeking further information on the forensics and the nature of the drugs seized under that branding.

We are dealing with this emerging and dynamic problem of legal highs, including BZP, synthetic cannabinoids, mephedrone and the latest so-called legal high. Although effective legislation is integral to our response to protect the public-particularly the health of our young people-from the harms of the drugs, there is no easy fix. We are working closely with the ACMD out of a shared concern about these new psychoactive substances. As well as advice on individual drugs, our response will also be informed by the advisory council's thematic work on legal highs. That response must be wide-ranging, encompassing all the strands that will reduce both demand and supply. But let me say clearly to anyone tempted to try a legal high that just because something is advertised as legal does not mean it is safe-and it may not even be legal.

9 Sep 2010 : Column 156WH
2.56 pm

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome this debate and many of the steps that the new Government are taking, which follow the previous Administration's effective and determined approach to tackling this difficult problem. I am glad to have the chance to speak in this debate, because there is a problem with the way we discuss so-called legal highs. Perhaps we need to find a better way of branding such drugs, which cause a great deal of harm to individuals and communities.

A number of issues that the Minister mentioned were also big issues in Barrow. I want briefly to mention a number of matters. First, he made an interesting point about the responsibility of traders to act in a way that minimises the harm to which young people can be subjected. I am glad that he gave an example of traders acting responsibly. However, I have to say that in Barrow, my personal experience prior to the election was not the same: local shops refused to cease stocking mephedrone before the temporary ban was put in place. Such an example calls into question whether the new powers that the Minister is suggesting, which are welcome, will go far enough in the important interim period that he rightly identified-in which a drug becomes controversial and notorious and the process to put a temporary ban in placed is started, and during which sales can increase.

The point made about the legality of so-called legal high drugs before they are in the public domain is apposite. We knew from personal experience-I should say that that this is not my personal experience-in Barrow of a substance called Shake 'n' Vac: a repackaging of mephedrone, which received a lot of attention during the mephedrone debate. That substance was sold in quantities of 1 gram for £15, purportedly as carpet cleaner, with the words, "Not for human consumption" written on it. It was laughable to suggest that the traders in question might believe that it was carpet cleaner, and it was clear that they did not. Is there not a way of immediately enforcing current law if it is sufficient to stop such products being mis-sold? If that is not possible under the current law, should it not be tightened? Could there not be a power to place an immediate suspension on suspicious substances, even before a temporary ban? If that power were used wrongly, traders could seek financial recompense, but in cases that seem as clear-cut as those experienced in my area, the chances of success would be slight.

Tom Brake: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but does he foresee difficulties if someone sells Shake 'n' Vac-the real thing that goes into vacuum cleaners-and advertises it at £15 a gram? They would be selling a product at a super-inflated price.

John Woodcock: I take the theoretical point, but I am not sure whether, in the real world, one would come remotely close to such circumstances. Frankly, if my proposal catches some rogue traders who are prepared to dupe people, we could probably live with that. The level of damage that is being perpetrated and the risks to which young people are being exposed mean that we must make decisions that fall within the bounds of common sense, and I believe that they would be readily accepted. I am interested to hear more about what the Government can do.

9 Sep 2010 : Column 157WH

My final point concerns agreement on how important it is to clamp down on this malicious and immoral practice. Can the Minister guarantee that, given the severe budget constraints on the police and the whole of Government, this work will not suffer in the months and years ahead?

3.2 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I welcome you to the debate, Mr Davies. This is the first debate in which you have been in the Chair, and the first in which I have participated under your chairmanship. I thank the Minister for initiating the debate. The problem of legal highs activates communities, and that was certainly my experience when a shop in my constituency, suitably called Your High, opened round the corner from a primary school and down the road from a secondary school. I am pleased that it has since shut, but it generated a lot of concern in the community, so it is right that we are debating the matter here.

I was interested and pleased to hear the Minister refer to Ivory Wave, which is the current so-called legal high, and I agree with the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) that we should find another phrase. Perhaps "soon-to-be illegal highs" might be appropriate. I was interested to hear the Minister refer to mephedrone but not meow meow. I understand from my street adviser, Grant Sibley, that only politicians and journalists refer to meow meow, and that mephedrone is the appropriate word.

This debate is focused on legal highs, but hon. Members will be aware that a wider drugs consultation is under way that looks at that issue, for which the closing date is 30 September. I hope that it will be possible for us, not now, but over the coming months and years, to have a more open and frank discussion about tackling drugs. All hon. Members here today know that the subject is difficult for politicians to address, because sometimes the most effective solutions as suggested by the evidence may not be politically acceptable, but we must address the problem in an evidence-based way. When people such as the former president of the Royal College of Physicians says that a blanket ban is not necessarily the most effective way of tackling the drugs issue, we must consider that and assess the implications, if any, for Government policy. We must find a way of creating space in which it is safe for politicians to debate these matters and to rely on what evidence-based solutions might recommend.

I was intrigued, interested and pleased that the Government are considering the approach to drugs adopted by the Portuguese and Spanish Governments. I see the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) smiling, and I am sure that he will refer to Liberal Democrats being soft on drugs-that is a standard Labour phrase-but the fact is that Spain and Portugal have adopted a different approach towards personal possession. It is interesting that the all-party consensus in those countries about what might have been expected to be the consequences of such an approach did not transpire when that policy was implemented. I am not advocating that policy, but I am advocating that we should be allowed to debate it, analyse it and come to our own conclusions without being buffeted around by some of the media.

9 Sep 2010 : Column 158WH

I shall focus more narrowly on legal highs. I agree that we need a new name, and perhaps the Minister will provide us with a definition of a legal high, if we are to continue to use that phrase. He rightly identified the need to educate people on the dangers associated with so-called legal highs, and it is clear, regrettably, that whatever is being done at the moment is not sufficient. As and when a legal high is found to be a toxic substance and becomes illegal, the producers simply move on to another product, a hybrid product, or simply rename the product. Unfortunately, people then go out and buy it. It is strange, but I suspect that some of the people who buy such products examine the list of ingredients for E numbers in products bought from supermarkets. They may avoid such products, but be happy to buy something with zero knowledge of what may be in it. It may contain herbal or chemical ingredients that may be toxic and are probably illegal, yet they buy it. Whatever we are doing educationally, it is not having the impact that it should. I agree that parents have a role to play, but in some families the matter is not discussed, so there is also a role for schools, which should perhaps include other drugs such as alcohol and be more proactive in addressing that concern.

I shall focus specifically on legal highs. The briefing that was prepared for this debate refers to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, but there is also the Medicines Act 1968. The Medicines Act can be used when something is said to have a physiological effect or a potentially harmful effect on the body, and we might be able to use it as well as, or instead of, the Misuse of Drugs Act to deal with some of these products. If so, will the Minister tell us whether there would be any advantages to doing that and what they might be?

I have some further specific questions. The Minister has responded on the issue of the temporary ban, and I understand his point. If we have a temporary ban-my colleagues and I support such a move-there is a very small possibility that a substance that is subject to such a ban will subsequently be found to be totally harmless. A person might be prosecuted and possibly found guilty and sent to prison, but we might subsequently find that the reason for doing that no longer exists. As the Minister said, it is essential that the ACMD's protocol is clear and sufficiently robust. None of us would want a temporary ban to be imposed, only for the substance subsequently to turn out to be a perfectly harmless herbal product. We need to be confident that the protocol stands up.

John Woodcock: These people know what the law is when it is put in place, but they choose to break it. By the hon. Gentleman's logic, if the advisory council came back at some point and said that cocaine was not actually that harmful after all, everyone who had been convicted of cocaine possession or distribution would be told, "It's okay. You can come out." Is that what he is suggesting?

Tom Brake: Fortunately, I am 101% certain that no one will come back and say that cocaine is harmless-if anything is certain in a drugs debate, it is that. All that I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept is that someone might think, perhaps quite rightly, that there is evidence that a herbal product is harmful, with the result that a temporary ban is imposed, but the product might
9 Sep 2010 : Column 159WH
subsequently prove not to be harmful. That is all that I am flagging up as an issue. All that I am saying is that we must make sure that the protocol is tough and ensures that such things do not happen.

Once the temporary ban has been imposed, what time scale would the Minister expect the advisory council to use in implementing the protocol? Would there be a maximum time frame in which a response would be required? Furthermore, will the advisory council have to take into account a balance-of-probabilities consideration at any point when determining whether something is harmful? Any clarity that the Minister could give us on that would be gratefully received.

The final issue that I want to mention is the impact of khat. The Home Office online report highlighted the concerns about khat. I do not know whether it referred to medical problems, but, interestingly, the most commonly cited social problems related more to

on the product, than to any other consideration. Apparently, the link between the use of this particular herbal stimulant and offending was minimal. I would like to hear whether the Minister has more up-to-date information on the issue and whether the Department is considering it. I have certainly been lobbied by a local councillor who has concerns about the use of khat in their area. Will the Minister tell us, although perhaps not now, what progress is being made on the issue?

To conclude, we need to respond to legal, or soon-to-be illegal, highs, and I was happy to support the previous Government when they introduced the mephedrone ban. We need to be geared up to respond to these issues quickly, but I hope that we can also debate them more widely. In that way, we can make sure that whatever we do is the most effective way to tackle the crime and health consequences associated with drug use.

3.15 pm

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I apologise for arriving late at this important debate. It is a pleasure to have my first opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

First, I want to acknowledge-this has probably been acknowledged before in one form or another-what a difference an election makes. In a short time, the Government have shown a firm lead on the issue of legal highs. Not so long ago-back in March-Professor Nutt, the former chairman of the ACMD, said of legal highs that

That defeatist attitude has been kicked into touch by a very sensible approach to mephedrone.

John Woodcock: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Burrowes: In a moment. I concede that the previous Government eventually took action in relation to mephedrone on 17 April, but that was too little, too late.

9 Sep 2010 : Column 160WH

John Woodcock: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made some concession after I signalled that I wanted to intervene. If he wants to make partisan points, he needs to do slightly better. I hope that he agrees that this is a really difficult problem. We should welcome the fact that the previous Government acted very quickly in dealing with the difficult advice that it got from the advisory council, just as we welcome the fact that the new Government are taking further action.

Mr Burrowes: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. If he gives me the opportunity, I will reflect on the fact that it is not straightforward properly to legislate and carry out enforcement in this area. Nevertheless, we must recognise that by the time mephedrone was finally banned on 17 April, it was estimated to be the UK's fourth most popular club drug and was used quite broadly, rather than by just a stereotypical demographic. It was sold by a new type of dealer. London was the world's mephedrone capital and host to 53% of worldwide outlets. Mephedrone was implicated in 18 deaths in England and seven in Scotland. Given those figures, I repeat that the ban came too late.

None the less, I welcome the steps taken by the previous Government to ban mephedrone, and I welcome those taken by the coalition Government properly to put in place ways to help us to act quickly to tackle legal high drugs. The issue is that we should be able to move quickly to deal not just with mephedrone, but with the new drugs on the market. These drugs are readily accessible at the press of a mouse button, and they are coming on to the streets of the capital and the country. We need to look at how we can deal with the issue properly, and the Government have proposed ways to do that.

I want briefly to raise another issue. We must look overseas at the models that other countries are using to deal with the issue, which is obviously not just a domestic, but an international one. The context is the fact that when this country got to the point of banning mephedrone on 17 April, other countries, including European countries, did it more promptly. One need not go further than Ireland to see what is being done. I want to raise Ireland as an example, so that the Minister can take the opportunity to respond and consider whether its approach would be a way forward for this country.

On 11 May, Ireland's Minister for Health and Children announced an immediate criminal ban, publishing a full list of legal high substances that were subject to a Government order and that were to be banned, as well as a criminal ban on a list of head shop products, and the prosecution of head shops themselves. Is there an opportunity to consider that example or any other examples in this country? As well as trying to deal with the substances and the ready access to them, and being able to respond quickly, Ireland dealt with another source of concern-the head shops that were springing up as an industry. That was dealt with on 11 May by the measure I have referred to, which led to the Government approving a crackdown on the operation of head shops.

The Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010 will further curb the threats posed by head shops and psychoactive substances. Under the new provisions, the sale or supply of substances that may not be specifically proscribed under Ireland's Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, but which have psychoactive effects, would be a criminal
9 Sep 2010 : Column 161WH
offence. That is a much wider use of legislation to deal with new psychoactive substances coming on to the market, and will make it possible in Ireland to avoid the prolonged processes that we may well still be subject to. It would allow flexibility of approach in dealing with, and the mounting of prosecutions in relation to, the new psychoactive substances that are coming on to the market and causing such damage, particularly to young people.

I do not suggest that the Minister will be able to give a full response to that example, but it is worthy of consideration, not least because it comes from near neighbours with issues similar to ours. We may be able to learn from their example.

3.22 pm

Mr Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab): I welcome you to your role as Chairman, Mr Davies, particularly as this is your first debate in that role. I can imagine that the Minister's heart sank when he saw you coming into the Chamber, given your robust and independent manner. When you sat in the Chair he probably relaxed slightly.

I was not going to respond to the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), but I shall briefly say that I hope he will reflect on the opening comments of his short speech, because he is usually a thoughtful contributor to debates. To start by saying what a difference an election makes and then completely to misunderstand the history of the issue did not do him any credit on this occasion, unusually. That is not least because Professor Nutt's disagreement was with the previous Government, not the current Government-I do not know his views on the current Government's drugs policy-but the Minister was gracious enough in his opening remarks at least to allude to the continuity that is important in these matters. I was grateful for the support that his party in opposition offered on the important matter of drugs and legal highs. We had our disagreements but I think there was much more support than difference. I hope that we shall be able to offer the Minister that degree of support. Perhaps if the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate had been here for the opening remarks he would not have said what he said.

The debate is timely and has allowed the Minister to build on his announcement of last month about legal highs. He has set out the programme by which the Government want to tackle the issue, and, as I have said, we want to be as supportive as we can be. I share the nervousness of my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) about continually using the term "legal high", but I suppose they are legal until they are not legal. I hope that someone can come up with a new term, but that is not the real point, which is how to tackle the emerging problem quickly enough to avoid the harm that in some cases is already being done, particularly to young people. The Minister knows that we share the Government's concern about legal highs. We also share their broad approach, including in relation to consultation. If it is built on the pillars of preventing drug taking, disrupting supply, strengthening enforcement and promoting drug treatment there is a lot that we can agree with.

There is common cause in tackling legal highs not just because it is the right thing to do but because the previous Government began that journey, in relation
9 Sep 2010 : Column 162WH
to spice, GBL and mephedrone. I am grateful for the update from the Minister on how he sees that ban working out. I was encouraged by his remarks and look forward to hearing more. He knows, although there was an election in between, that we supported the Government with respect to naphyrone when they brought forward a ban in July. I am pleased that the generic approach is continuing, because that is the right one. It prevents manufacturers from tweaking compounds to try to stay ahead of any ban, and, in the words of the chair of the ACMD, it permits a systematic approach. That is important and I am reassured by the Minister's assurance that it will continue.

I want to talk about the temporary ban, which has been the subject of comment in the debate. It is true that the introduction of a temporary ban would be a new development, but it is not an entirely new idea in discussions in this country, and it is part of the law in other countries. It may have the potential to make a real difference, not least in combating the frustration that is particularly acute among the families and friends of people who are victims of the relevant substances. I shall examine the temporary ban provisions, and we want to be as supportive as we can.

The Minister mentioned the importance of the press and other media, which is a double-edged sword, in my experience. The media can get involved when a substance such as Ivory Wave emerges, and give it publicity. They can campaign, as has happened in the past with some substances that we went on to ban, and can play an important part. The downside is that the media reaction is often to call for a very quick, if not instantaneous, response, without really understanding the need for evidence, and sometimes without even having the facts about what has happened to victims. If that provokes a knee-jerk reaction-that may be a danger with the temporary ban, if we are not careful-that will not be a good basis for drugs policy. We must be aware of that, but I know that the Minister does not operate in a media vacuum, and he will know from the trawl that his staff do through the newspapers and other media every day how those campaigns can take off.

As the Minister has said-I am grateful for the reassurance that there will be a degree of continuity in the way the issues are considered-it is important that the advisory council should be given time to examine the scientific and medical evidence for the harm that a drug might do, and then report to the Home Secretary, who would have time for due consideration. The problem with that approach, as we discovered, is that it takes too long and we get to the issues too late, as the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate suggested, although not in a particularly helpful way. We knew about the need to act swiftly, and tried to do so. The new Government followed, in the case of naphyrone, and used a similar agreement to obtain the change in the law that we recognised was important. The matter will go further because, as I understand matters, the temporary ban will be a 12-month ban on imports, pending final advice from the advisory council. I want to ask in passing why the method that I think the Minister used, and which we certainly used for mephedrone, is not sufficient. That is, using the open general licensing system so that the existing legislation can be used. I think that I know the answer to that, but I should be grateful if the Minister could tell me.

9 Sep 2010 : Column 163WH

The Government and various commentators have pointed to other countries that have temporary bans in place. Perhaps the Minister will help the debate by writing to hon. Members and listing those countries that have temporary bans and detailing the substances that are subject to those bans. New Zealand is the country most often mentioned but as far as I am concerned-this point was picked up by Professor Iversen in his comments to the Select Committee-New Zealand currently has no substances in the holding pen, or in class D or class X, or whatever one wants to call it. If his officials are looking again at practices in New Zealand, the Minister might also wish to look at the term "harm reduction," which occurs more in New Zealand's drug policy than in ours, particularly with reference to treatment. Perhaps it is possible to learn from that.

I would like to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness about what would happen if a substance were banned temporarily but then the ACMD-unusually, as this is unlikely-recommended that it did not need to be banned because it was not harmful. Would the Government be subject to a legal challenge from businesses that had not been able to import those substances? The issue might come back later. Those substances are not illegal-that is the whole point. Returning to the analogy with cocaine, we cannot say, "Well, those substances were illegal." As I understand it, those substances would not be illegal because the legislation would not have been passed.

As hon. Members know, GBL was extremely dangerous, which is why it was banned. However, it contains a chemical that is used in hundreds and thousands of household and industrial products. If a substance such as that was the subject of a temporary ban, but then found not to be harmful, I shiver at the thought of what businesses might do. The Government must be aware of that-I am sure that they are-and they must have a defence in place when they present the evidence. What if the ACMD came to a different conclusion and the Government were left with a bill?

As I understand it, a breach of a temporary ban could mean jail sentence of up to 14 years and/or an unlimited fine for suppliers and manufacturers of a substance. If I remember rightly, that equates to the sentence for the supply of a class B drug. A legal high could find itself in that category, but there is no offence of possession. If the same substance was a class B drug and it was found in someone's possession, there would be severe penalties. However, we are told that if someone possesses a substance that might end up as a class B drug, they would not be subject to those penalties even if there were a ban on possession. As I understand it, New Zealand has not gone down that route but there is an amnesty. After a six-month period, if someone is caught with a drug that has been temporarily banned, they are subject to the full force of the law under which possession is an offence. We must be careful with that issue.

To some extent, I agree with the Minister when he says that we do not want to criminalise young people. That was not our intention, and it is not the intention of the present Government. However, in going down that route, any Government will be in danger of sending out
9 Sep 2010 : Column 164WH
a mixed message and in relying entirely on the health reasons for why certain substances should not be taken, rather than having the back-up of the law and the penalties that come with that. There is an element of that in the way that many drugs policies are enacted on our street; agencies do not automatically go out of their way to criminalise young people as there are warnings and other things that they can use.

The Minister's comments from 19 August have been seized on, even today, by some in the media and some bloggers-including some in the legal profession who should, quite frankly, know better-to say that that was the first step towards the legalisation of drugs for personal use. The Minister shakes his head, but I mention that so that in his concluding speech he can reassure me that that is not the case. The next step taken by the bloggers was to claim that they knew who was behind the policy, because the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister-and, we learn today, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington-appear from their comments to have some sympathy with that view.

The hon. Gentleman accused me of wanting to say that the Liberal Democrats are soft on crime. I am not going to say that-this is probably the first occasion on which I will not say that. However, I would like a reassurance from the Minister that the coalition Government are not going soft on drugs. I do not think that they are, but I will give him the opportunity to reassure people. The subject is open to misinterpretation. When the Minister's officials are found to have taken a particular interest in Portugal, which the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington picked up on, that raises the question of whether we are heading along a route towards the legalisation of drugs.

Tom Brake: Let me inform the hon. Gentleman that members of the Home Affairs Committee went to Portugal and Spain and therefore have first-hand evidence of what has been done there. I seek reassurance that when sound, factual evidence is produced to show what is effective in tackling drug crime and addressing health issues, the hon. Gentleman will sign up to that.

Mr Campbell: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks because he is sending me along a route he knows I cannot go down. There is a great deal of evidence that if we both studied this issue, he would reach one conclusion and I would reach another. The Government are looking around for all sorts of ideas from elsewhere-they are not the first Government to do that; all Governments do it. We are getting our schools policy from Sweden, although I gather that we are not getting our drugs policy from Portugal. It is no bad thing to learn lessons from abroad, but we need a drugs policy for this country that reflects the evidence and takes into account the views of the public. The hon. Gentleman's view about public opinion on this matter is different from what I believe to be the case, yet we look at the same evidence. I cannot give him the commitment he asks for, but I support his call for a mature debate on drugs policy. That is what the consultation will do. However, if he thinks we have had an immature debate on drugs policy today, I disagree with him.

Tom Brake: Will the hon. Gentleman go on the record and confirm that if a policy is backed by clear, evidence-based research that shows the most effective
9 Sep 2010 : Column 165WH
way of tackling drugs to be something that the public do not support, he will back the public rather than scientific fact?

Mr Campbell: Politicians always think that they back the public because they hope the public will back them. The hon. Gentleman misses my point-perhaps I am not explaining it sufficiently to him. We can take the evidence, but we must also take into account what the public think about such matters. There is an argument to say that scientific evidence alone can be collected on the harm that a drug would do to someone's health, and that the judgment can be made entirely from that. However, that is not the basis on which the advisory council is set up. Other factors must be taken into account, not least the attitude of the public, which I hope is informed by the evidence, as the hon. Gentleman suggests it will be. I hope we will get to that position. He and I disagree on this matter, as he believes the public to be in one place and I think they are somewhere else. The Government must be absolutely clear-the Minister has the opportunity to do this in his winding-up speech-and ensure that what is being suggested about legal highs is not open to misinterpretation, and that we are still following a tough approach that the Labour party will be pleased to support.

In reality, anyone can make an economic case for the legalisation of drugs. That is dead easy. Look at how much it costs to enforce drug legislation. Anyone can make that case even if they are amateurs at economics. However, if anyone believes for one minute that freer access to drugs will not lead to more drug abuse, they are mistaken. If anyone thinks for one minute, looking at the crime implications, that if drugs were legalised, drug traffickers would give up crime, they are mistaken, because the people who traffic drugs are criminals and will traffic whatever they can to make some cash out of it, whether it is people, substances or anything else, so we need to be very careful before we go down that route.

I want to say something about the practical aspects of the policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness picked up on some of those points. The Minister mentioned trading standards. I know that if he has a similar portfolio to the one I had, he could give a different priority to trading standards every day of the week. Monday it could be alcohol sales; Tuesday it could be knife sales; and Wednesday it could be legal highs. That is not to diminish the importance of legal highs, but it says something about trading standards, which too often are the Cinderella services in councils. They are not the ones that are financed enough to do all these things, and if councils are facing the sort of cuts in their budgets that we have heard about, the Government must be absolutely clear that they are not offering anything, in combating legal highs, that will be delivered on the ground, because the people are not there.

The Minister talked, at least in the press releases that went out on this issue, about the shipments and importation of drugs, including legal highs, and he mentioned the importance of officers who work abroad, SOCA and others. I have seen them in the field, doing the work that they do, and I pay tribute to their work, because they are among the bravest people I have ever met. They often operate in very difficult circumstances. The hon. Gentleman reaffirmed the importance of starting our
9 Sep 2010 : Column 166WH
drugs policy not at our borders, but somewhere else in the world. That is very important, particularly at times when money is tight.

However, it is the internet that is very important when it comes to the buying and selling of legal highs. It is not a criticism of this Minister, because he knows more about tackling crime on the internet than most people, to say that Governments, by and large, are behind the curve on that. It is really difficult stuff. It is very difficult to work out how we tackle crime on the internet in the way that we can tackle crime in the real world, but it is very important that we do that.

Even if we can identify the suppliers, it is extremely difficult sometimes to find out what the substance is. The Minister talked about the problems with Ivory Wave. The situation was the same with mephedrone and other things. Forensic investigation is required; and more often than not, the cost of forensic investigation comes out of police budgets. Again, therefore, we must ensure that the Home Office is fighting its corner to make sure that the forensics budget is there for the police and, of course, that there are sufficient police officers to make it effective on the ground where it matters.

Communications is very important, but communications budgets in Departments are precisely the ones that the Government are examining to see what savings can be made. If that budget is under pressure in the Home Office, I say to the Minister-although he already knows-that FRANK is very good but it is not enough. There must be a communications budget that goes beyond the FRANK website. Again, this is about fighting the corner to ensure that when there is a campaign, for students or anyone else, it is financed and financeable; otherwise we offer something that we cannot deliver.

When the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), introduced the ban on naphyrone, she was unable to say how much that ban would cost. To some extent, she got away with that at the time, because we were keen to ensure that the ban was in place, but it is a fair question: how much will the ban cost?

This Minister said-I support him in this-that the proceeds of crime, the assets of drug traffickers, should be targeted in tackling the problem. I agree, but we know how difficult it is to get at assets, particularly from drug traffickers, because they can hire the best lawyers as well as stashing those assets away in the names of friends and family. Targeting the proceeds of crime and seizing assets should be happening anyway. That is precisely what the assets legislation is in place for.

The Minister also knows-I imagine that he still has responsibility for proceeds of crime-that there is much debate about who gets the proceeds of crime. The Home Office used to get the first 50% and the rest was shared between the police and other agencies. If money is to be diverted into tackling drugs, which I think is a great reason for doing it, then unless more money is guaranteed, someone will get less. People have to be absolutely clear that they can deliver on that.

I have spoken for longer than I thought I would, but we have had a useful exchange of views-I hope so, anyway. My final point is this. I have had long discussions
9 Sep 2010 : Column 167WH
with my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who was not only a well-respected drugs Minister but a very distinguished teacher. We talked at length about drug education, and I agree with the Minister: I think that drug education is very important. Many schools do have drug education and much of it is very good, but the question that we need to ask is whether it is effective. Is it actually, given the money that goes in-I am not advocating cutting it-effective? Is the money that goes in effective? I ask that because of the very bright and intelligent young people who have their lives ahead of them, who have huge potential, who have had drug education at school, who have gone to music festivals and stood in nightclub queues and been given information and who have got the message about the risk to their health, but who still take these substances. They put their health at risk and, in some cases, there are tragic consequences. They use legal highs alone. They mix them with other legal highs and other drugs. Sometimes they mix them with alcohol. As a Member of Parliament and as a parent, I am concerned. Why, when young people know the risks, do they still do that? If we can find the answer to that question, we will not spend quite as much time in this place talking about bans and legislation.

3.46 pm

James Brokenshire: We have had a good, wide-ranging debate about legal highs. Various hon. Members highlighted the fact that even using that terminology brings about a misconception. To take the last point from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell), about why people take drugs, including legal highs, when they know the risks, I think that that is part of the problem-they do not know the risks. The fact that something is branded as a legal high implies that it is safe. Therein lies part of the challenge in relation to these newly emerging psychoactive substances-I agree that that does not trip off the tongue, either-that highlights the important need to ensure that the legislation is there as a mechanism for telegraphing clear messages about enforcement of the law and about safety.

I noted the hon. Gentleman's comments about mixed messages. I say to him very gently that his Government sent out very mixed messages about cannabis, so perhaps he is not in the strongest of positions from which to be pointing fingers about communicating messages.

Mr Alan Campbell: I just want to make a very personal point. The records show that in fact the very first time that the messages started getting mixed, it was not this Member of Parliament who supported that process.

James Brokenshire: I note the point that the hon. Gentleman has made, but clearly it was his Government who sent out some very mixed messages, even if he was not personally responsible for the decisions that underpinned them.

I want to cover as many as possible of the points raised during the debate, which has been helpful and constructive on the issues and challenges surrounding legal highs. It also touched on the drugs strategy from a broader perspective. I do not regard this as an opportunity for that broader debate, but it is important to recognise
9 Sep 2010 : Column 168WH
that the coalition Government are consulting on their new drugs strategy. We intend to publish the new drug strategy by the end of this year. Our strategic vision is set around the framework for the future delivery of drugs policy with four key themes, to which the hon. Gentleman has already alluded: preventing drug use; strengthening enforcement, criminal justice and the legal framework; rebalancing treatment to support drug-free outcomes, which is an important point to emphasise; and supporting recovery to break the cycle of drug addiction.

The Government are opposed to the legalisation of drugs and to decriminalisation for personal use. It would run entirely counter to our health and education messages. In many respects, the equation of safety with legality, as we have been debating on the issue of legal highs, makes that a very direct construct. On the possession of legal highs, I say to the shadow Minister that the temporary ban is, as it suggests, intended to be only temporary-a maximum of 12 months. If advice supports the classification of a drug within that 12-month period, we would act within that period. It may therefore happen in less than 12 months, which would then create the possession offence. Our approach with the temporary ban is to act quickly to stop supply and prevent harm, which is why we have tailored it as we have. It does not send out mixed messages, due to legality-in its broadest sense-being equated with safety. We have seen that and seen how the classification of drugs can have an impact on whether someone perceives a drug to be safe. That goes back to my original point on the equation of safety and knowledge, which has been highlighted.

We do not support the legalisation of drugs. Many drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine are clearly addictive and harmful to health, and our educational message, to young people in particular, is that illegal drugs are harmful and no one should take them. To legalise their supply for personal consumption would send the wrong message to the majority of young people, who do not take drugs on a regular basis, if at all, and, alongside that, it would increase the risk of drug use and abuse.

On the specific point about the Portuguese model, we are against that proposal. The Government are determined to prevent drug use and strengthen enforcement against supply, which is why we are asking experts for their views on a range of issues, so that users are strongly encouraged to address their dependency. That wider debate and consultation is taking place, but we are not looking at the Portuguese model, and do not think that it is the right way forward.

Tom Brake: The Minister says that he is not looking at the Portuguese model, but there were references in the press last week to the Government looking at the Portuguese and Spanish models. Were those press reports wrong?

James Brokenshire: I cannot comment on the countenance of reporting in TheObserver, but I can send out a very clear message from this debate-the Government do not believe that decriminalisation is the right approach. Our priorities are clear. We want to reduce drug use, crack down on drug-related crime and disorder, and help addicts come off drugs for good. That is the emphasis of Government policy.

9 Sep 2010 : Column 169WH

I would like to come on to the specific points that have been raised, and, in particular, the important point raised by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on the Medicines Act. The Act applies to medicinal products, so we need to establish certain key components-in other words, that a substance has psychoactive properties and is potentially meant for human consumption. That is where those who have sought to subvert the law through using certain phraseology in their advertisements have sought to obviate medicines control legislation.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we remain in close contact with the Department of Health, as well as trading standards, to see how we can use the Medicines Act more effectively and to explore those options. I agree with him that it is absurd that products can be marketed as bath salts and other things, and are "not for human consumption", when implicitly they may be intended to be so used, or there is recklessness. We are carefully exploring this area to see what enforcement options exist.

The points about the protocol and triggers are important. The purpose of the working protocol is to set out our engagement with the ACMD, and, through it, any legal controls on dealing with legal highs would be enacted. I am in close consultation with the ACMD to develop that working protocol, because it is important to give reassurance that the temporary banning power is appropriate. As I said to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), the Government remain committed to the general response to the drugs being based on the existing framework under the Misuse of Drugs Act and on how the ACMD normally operates. Clarity over the protocol and the triggers, and setting it out in the working protocol with the ACMD are important to give reassurance on how we would use the temporary banning power.

Tom Brake: The Minister may be about to come on to this, but when does he expect the temporary ban to kick in after a product such as Ivory Wave suddenly hits the market? Obviously he cannot give us an exact response. What time scale are we talking about?

James Brokenshire: It is difficult to second-guess the issue or look into a crystal ball. We are in close consultation with the ACMD on the development of the working protocol, which I would not wish to pre-empt. In all the discussions I have had with the ACMD, it is clear that if a newly emerging psychoactive substance is identified, the intention is that advice would be sought on the associated harms. We would seek its advice on whether a temporary ban would be appropriate, so it is about working around that and the identification. Hon. Members also made points about the early warning system, and working with the ACMD on that and picking up things early enough to deal with appropriately.

Mr Alan Campbell: I am genuinely confused, but I am sure that the Minister can put my mind at rest. If a substance is subject to a temporary ban, why is it illegal to import or supply it, with fairly draconian penalties, but not illegal to possess it?

James Brokenshire: I thought I had already explained the position. I am sorry if I have not made it clear. The emphasis behind the policy is about ensuring that we
9 Sep 2010 : Column 170WH
stop the supply, importation and sale of the drugs and about ensuring that we can act quickly to deal with some of the challenges that I know the shadow Minister faced in Government over mephedrone. Perhaps I share his frustration at being told by the ACMD that there was a problematic psychoactive substance and feeling that one is unable to respond. There are certainly issues; he highlighted importation issues and the general licence that could be invoked, but that does not tackle domestic supply. To ensure that drugs do not get on to the streets and into the hands of young people, it is important to deal with the problem at the border and in this country. That is why we believe that the temporary ban approach is the right way forward when a newly emerging psychoactive substance that has been indentified as harmful comes through.

I would like to address the issue of whether a newly emerging substance has other uses. It is fair to make that point, and the Government will seek parallel advice from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on a drug's legitimate use and will develop any required impact assessment, which will inform the decision on whether to impose a temporary ban on that drug. In the event that a legitimate commercial use is identified in discussions with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Home Office will take reasonable steps in the light of the ACMD's advice on the risk to public health when a substance is misused, to ensure its continued availability for legitimate use under the temporary ban and, subject to further consideration, under circumstances in which that ban is made permanent. There are examples showing how that approach could be taken. It is important to recognise that point, and advice will be sought from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the ACMD in relation to the application of those powers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) raised the issue of what other countries are doing, and gave the specific example of Ireland. I am aware of the changes that are taking place there and of the fact that the Irish are considering a broader definition of drugs. We can look, too, at the example of the United States and the analogue legislation that is in operation there. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is considering the broad policy issues and the various different examples. Although I cannot comment on whether it is looking at the Irish situation, it is doing broader work on legal highs. We await its report on appropriate approaches, which may take into account factors such as a broader definition. I do not want to prejudge or pre-empt the work of the ACMD, but we appreciate the work that it is doing, and look forward to its response. Certainly, we are considering a proportionate response based on the tenets of harm before imposing criminal penalties.

The hon. Member for Tynemouth asked whether other EU countries had taken different approaches on temporary bans. The experience is that those countries have tended to take a very narrow perspective on the utilisation of temporary banning powers. Spice was one of the cases in point. In this country, we have sought to take a more generic approach to a class of drugs, so that we avoid the issue of tweaking and slight chemical manipulation. The temporary bans and the immediate action that were taken in some other EU countries were much more narrowly focused, so we are not comparing
9 Sep 2010 : Column 171WH
like with like in that regard. The approach that we hope to take is very much looking at that broader categorisation rather that at one specific drug alone, without necessarily considering the anologies that may exist alongside all of that. That is very much part and parcel of the work that we would adopt.

I have a couple of things to mention in relation to the New Zealand case. I am advised that its class D is currently empty, but that could be a reflection of the fact that New Zealand has not had to respond to legal highs in the way in which the United Kingdom has. It is difficult to make cross-over judgments. Moreover, the class D model envisages a regulated supply as well, which is not the approach that the UK seeks to adopt.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington highlighted the issue of khat. The Government acknowledge the concern in communities affected by khat use, particularly in relation to the social problems, which include unemployment, family breakdown and financial hardship. We are committed to addressing any form of substance misuse and will keep the issue under close scrutiny. Home Office research into the social harms of khat use,
9 Sep 2010 : Column 172WH
as well as the treatment needs of users, was commissioned last year by the previous Government, and it looked at a number of communities and areas in England and Wales. We are quality-assuring the work and will produce an independent review of the findings, as is standard practice with all Home Office research reports. We will publish those reports later this year and consider them carefully.

This has been a positive and productive discussion on a sensitive issue that has impacted on far too many communities. Reflecting on conversations with parents of children who have been adversely affected by drugs and with those who have lost very close loved ones, I can say that they underline the importance that we must place on addressing the harms linked to these so-called highs. It is incumbent on us to continue to send out the message that simply because something is marketed as legal does not necessarily mean that it is legal, and above all it certainly does not mean that it is safe.

Question put and agreed to.

4.5 pm

Sitting adjourned.

    Index Home Page