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The evidence that has come to the all-party disablement group, from many directions, over an extended period, leaves me in no doubt that cannabis can be beneficial. The Bill is restricted in scope. It does not open the floodgates to the consequences foreseen by the hon. Lady. That is a matter for future legislation or perhaps a royal commission. This is a matter of urgency, and one that cannot wait for another four or five years for the tests to be concluded, evaluated and acted on.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): Though brief, this has been a very good debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) spoke with great conviction. I cannot respond to him as he would like, but I say with all sincerity that I recognise the seriousness, commitment and passion that he brings to the issue. Nobody could fail to be moved by his accounts of people suffering from very debilitating illnesses.
The Government believe that it would be premature to amend the misuse of drugs legislation to allow the prescribing of cannabis before the quality, safety and efficacy of a medicinal form of the drug has been scientifically established--that was the point made by the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh)--and a marketing authorisation has been issued by the Medicines Control Agency. All prospective new medicines have to go through that procedure.
The Government have the support of the British Medical Association and the Royal Society in the view that raw cannabis should not be available for medicinal purposes, but we welcome, and have encouraged, research into the possible medicinal uses of cannabis. If current trials are successful and lead to a medical cannabis preparation that is approved by the Medicines Control Agency, we have made it clear that we would be willing to amend the regulations to allow it to be prescribed.
We have to take into account the fact that cannabis is a harmful drug. A 1997 World Health Organisation report confirmed that it has both acute and chronic health effects. Work was published this week by Professor Heather Ashton of the university of Newcastle on the effect that it can have in exacerbating schizophrenia. We have to be mindful of the context in which we are operating.
The Home Office has licensed a number of laboratory and medical research projects over the past few years, including two current projects involving or leading to clinical trials. Dr. Geoffrey Guy of GW Pharmaceuticals is conducting a large-scale research project aimed at developing non-smoked medicines derived from cannabis. The research involves patients with multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer pain and other serious conditions. Clinical trial studies are now being conducted. There are four main phases, involving pre-clinical and clinical research. Phase one is the cultivation of suitable plants; phase two is designing a method of administration; phase three is the start of the clinical trials; and phase four is the licensing application for a medicinal product.
That research has now been under way for two years, and the first two stages have been accomplished. The Home Office drugs inspectorate and the Medicines Control Agency have overseen them. I hope that that helps to reassure the House that the work is being done--a fact that it is important for me to point out. GW Pharmaceuticals hopes to have completed the phase three trials by mid-2002 and to be in a position to submit a dossier to the MCA in application for marketing authorisation in autumn 2002.
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Harris, Dr Evan
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Tellers for the Ayes:
Ann Clwyd and
Mr. Dafydd Wigley.
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
McIntosh, Miss Anne
Maclean, Rt Hon David
Tellers for the Noes:
Mr. Andrew Dismore and
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas.
It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.
The purpose of the Bill is to remedy a disadvantage suffered by Jewish men and women who are prevented from remarrying by the refusal of their partners to grant or accept a religious divorce. The Bill will allow the civil courts to defer granting a civil divorce until a religious divorce is given, thus providing a remedy to women known as the agunah--the chained women--who are, effectively, blackmailed by their husbands into agreeing to settlements to which they might not otherwise agree, to enable them to obtain a divorce. That has resulted in severe hardship. For example, women have been subjected to domestic violence, or their children have been abused.
I shall not speak at length as I know that time is short and that the Bill has overwhelming support from all quarters of the House. I urge hon. Members--particularly one or two on the other side of the House who may have blocked a similar Bill in the past--at least to allow some good to come from today's proceedings by permitting the Bill a Second Reading.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on vigorously pursuing the matter. The Government consider that the Jewish community has made a convincing case for the need for a remedy for Jewish women seeking a religious divorce. We therefore support the Bill, which we hope will aid Jewish women who are disadvantaged in such a way. It gives me great pleasure to say that on behalf of the Government.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): The Bill raises controversial and profound questions that obviously require full and proper consideration by the House. I hope that nobody, least of all the Minister, is suggesting that we make law--particularly in such a sensitive and difficult area--without the most proper and full consideration by both Houses of Parliament at every stage. I trust that there is no disagreement among us over that.
The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) seems to be desirous of getting the Bill through the House without proper discussion. For reasons that I understand, but deplore, he did not give the House a proper account of the measure and referred us to his speech of 31 January, which I have read and considered. I have a copy with me and it could provide the basis for a full and proper debate.
The hon. Gentleman has also raised the issue of whether such people, having taken their belief on, should reach out to the civil law outside their faith to remedy a matter arising as a result of that faith. As these laws are biblical, is it legitimate to argue that they can be changed? I do not know enough about rabbinical law or the rabbinical process to judge whether they can. That is another part of the debate that we obviously need to have to consider the Bill properly.