Home Affairs - Minutes of EvidenceHC 819

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Home Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 26 November 2013

Members present:

Keith Vaz (Chair)

Ian Austin

Nicola Blackwood

Mr James Clappison

Michael Ellis

Paul Flynn

Lorraine Fullbrook

Dr Julian Huppert

Yasmin Qureshi

Mark Reckless

Mr David Winnick

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: Norman Baker, MP, Minister of State for Crime Prevention, gave evidence.

Q170 Chair: May I welcome the Minister with an apology: I am extremely sorry that you have been kept waiting? There were two votes, each lasting 15 minutes, and I am afraid that delayed our proceedings, but we are delighted to see you here. Thank you very much for coming.

Norman Baker: If it is any consolation, my interest in punctuality has waned marginally since I have transferred from the Department for Transport.

Chair: You are now a Home Office Minister, you have been there for 50 days and have the passed 40 days burning bush test. Are you enjoying your new job?

Norman Baker: Yes, overall. It is very challenging. The Home Office is much more reactive than my previous post. I would liken it to the Generation Game, where you sit at the end and you see all these events coming past you; it is trying to remember them and what you need to do on each particular occasion. It is less friendly as a department, if I may say so, because of the sheer size largely, rather than any other reason. It is less homely that the Department for Transport, but it is obviously a key department for Government and I am very pleased to be there.

Q171 Chair: You said on 9 October, admittedly to the Daily Mail, "Theresa and I come from different places, but we work together, we work together".

Norman Baker: Yes.

Chair: There was some suggestion that because of your past history and involvement in civil rights issues that you would not be shown certain documents and papers in the Home Office. Can you reassure the Committee that you are able to access whatever information, whatever papers you need as a Home Office Minister?

Norman Baker: I think the Home Secretary answered that question when she came to give evidence before you. I am able to access any papers as any other Minister would, barring those that by statute are restricted to the Home Secretary-for example, information on intercept warrants and so on, which no other Minister sees.

Q172 Chair: Before we turn on to your portfolio, I want to ask you a question that is relevant to our session next week, when we have the editor of the Guardian come before us. Do you think the Guardian was right to publish the information it did when it received that information from Mr Snowden?

Norman Baker: The information the Guardian has published appears to me to be in the public interest, in the sense that there is a legitimate debate to be had about the nature of the role of our security services and the nature of the relationship between the state and the individual. I think those are legitimate matters for a newspaper to pursue. I have seen no evidence that what they published was damaging to national security. I know that has been alleged. I am having conversations in my wider role as a Lib Dem in the Department about such matters.

That is separate, I should say, from the activities of Mr Miranda, who was carrying what appears to be highly-sensitive material around the world, which is completely irresponsible, in my view.

Q173 Chair: So you disagree with the heads of our services, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, when they told our sister committee that enemies of Britain would be rubbing their hands in glee because of what had been published by the Guardian?

Norman Baker: What I have read in the Guardian appears to be a responsible approach to be taken about events that are in the public interest. I suggest, as I did on Any Questions? a couple of weeks ago, that it is legitimate to have a public debate about where we are. We have new technology that has changed the landscape. We are no longer talking about simply intercepting letters or telephone calls. The situation has changed by the technology available, and I think it is legitimate then to have a debate about that.

Q174 Chair: You do not think that the editor should be prosecuted?

Norman Baker: That is a matter for the police to decide, whether there is evidence to prosecute, but I have personally seen no evidence that would justify that conclusion. I do think it is important, however, that we strike a correct balance between liberty and security. I think there is a danger that if someone says, "Give me more of your liberty and I will give you more security" that is a dangerous equation. I also think that some aspects of this clearly are irresponsible, including what Mr Miranda appears to have done.

Q175 Chair: Thank you. Let us move on to your portfolio. Last week we heard evidence from a number of people involved in the legal importation of khat and we also met, Members of this Committee and I, with a delegation from Kenyan Members of Parliament. Do you believe that this substance should be banned by the Government?

Norman Baker: This was a matter, as you know, Chair, that was dealt with before my arrival at the Home Office. It was subject to consideration by the Advisory Committee, as you would expect, and then by the Home Secretary personally. The evidence from the Advisory Committee you will probably have access to and will be aware of. The Home Secretary-as I say, this was decided before I was in the Department-took the view, I think, that she did not wish the UK to be a hub for khat.

Chair: What is your view, because-

Norman Baker: I have not had to reach a view because the decision was taken before I arrived in the Home Office. I am concentrating on future policy rather than-

Q176 Chair: So you support the decision to ban khat?

Norman Baker: I have not taken a view, because it is not a matter that I am handling. It was decided before I reached the Home Office-

Q177 Chair: But are you not the Minister responsible for drugs?

Norman Baker: I am the Minister responsible for drugs, but I am not-

Q178 Chair: Is khat not a substance that comes under the Misuse of Drugs Act?

Norman Baker: Khat is a matter that-

Chair: Not yet anyway. It is an issue that would come within your portfolio.

Norman Baker: Yes, but this is a matter of just pragmatism. When you arrive at a department, if a decision has been taken that relates to-

Q179 Chair: Even if you disagree with it?

Norman Baker: Look, the decision has been taken by the Home Secretary. It has been validated across Government and as a matter of fact, when the SI comes forward, it will be handled by the Security Minister.

Q180 Chair: That is very unusual, isn’t it, an issue to do with drugs being handled by the Security Minister rather than you?

Norman Baker: There is an aspect-

Chair: Did you excuse yourself from doing the set-up-

Norman Baker: There is an aspect of international organised crime, in the view of the Home Secretary, that makes it logical for the Security Minister to deal with that particular issue. I think you perhaps are reading too much into this. Look, to give you a parallel, I am also now dealing with animal licensing, animal experimentation. Lord Taylor, who was a Minister, was handling that-

Q181 Chair: Yes, we will come on to animals in a minute. Just for the point of view of this Committee, because the Committee has agreed a report today that will be published later in this week, would it be helpful for the Government to look at this report and consider the evidence that has been given to us?

Norman Baker: I think the Government should always look at reports from your Committee, Chair, because they are valuable to look at and we should always be evidence-based, and if evidence comes forward on any issue, whatever it happens to be, of course we should look at it.

May I just make the point I was making, because it was relevant to this, which is that animal licensing has been handled by Lord Taylor. When the change in portfolios occurred, then that was transferred to me, but I agreed with Lord Taylor that it was sensible that he saw through a particular project for a period of weeks until I took over. Sometimes it makes sense for someone to complete something rather than someone to take over at the fag-end of something.

Chair: Of course. Excellent. We would not want you to deal with fag-ends, Mr Baker. We have a quick question from Mr Ellis, who has to go, and then Dr Huppert and Mr Austin.

Q182 Michael Ellis: Mr Chairman, thank you. Minister, as far as the Guardian is concerned, would you not agree that they are not qualified, as a newspaper, to make judgments about what is in the national interest as far as national security is concerned and therefore it was rash and inappropriate of them to do what they did, as they are not equipped with all of the facts, as are the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, and who have responsibility for their people, to know whether something is dangerous to national security or not?

Norman Baker: This is not within my portfolio and I have not been privy to the full details of what has occurred, but I do understand that there were discussions about what it was safe and not safe to publish between the Guardian and those who were in a position to answer that question. But the Guardian must answer for themselves. If they have committed an offence under the Official Secrets Act or any other piece of legislation, then doubtless legal action can follow. But I do think in a democracy it is legitimate for issues of security to be discussed in a careful way. The issue comes down to whether or not the Guardian has done so in a careful way. I have seen no evidence that it has not done, but clearly others take a different view.

Q183 Michael Ellis: As far as khat is concerned, would you agree with me that it is irrefutable that it has a damaging and negative effect on people who take it? [An hon. Member: "Like the Chairman."] It is irrefutable that they would accept that it has a narcotic-type effect, so the reality of the matter is that it is a substance that has an effect and therefore it would be appropriate to judge it accordingly.

Chair: Just before you answer, and this relates to the fact that last week I did declare I have had khat and so has Dr Huppert, I think.

Male Speaker: One can often tell.

Chair: Minister, a quick answer.

Norman Baker: The khat is out of the bag perhaps. The Advisory Committee’s advice purely on the health issues was in fact that it should not be restricted in that way, so that is the direct answer to your question. The Home Secretary has taken the view that because of the wider aspects of policy that need to be taken into account, the potential for the UK to be a hub and so on that that justified banning it. That is sequence of events that has occurred.

Q184 Dr Huppert: I will resist the temptation to talk about the Guardian issue, but could I just look at the more general issue about our reports previously on drugs systems around the world? We conducted a very detailed report published last year that made a whole series of recommendations about drugs policy, most of which the Home Secretary did not agree with, but one that was taken forward was the idea that your predecessor-and now you, I hope-would look at examples from around the world of different systems. I hope you are continuing that, and what is your assessment so far, and in particular when it comes to new psychoactive substances? Have you had a chance to have a look at the New Zealand model?

Norman Baker: Let me say first of all it is not entirely fair to the Home Secretary, because there are a large number of recommendations and I think the majority of them were taken forward, just for the record, by the Home Secretary. The international comparators is one of those that she took forward and I think it has been a useful exercise. I have not yet been able to analyse it in detail, though my officials are producing reports of each of the visits. Indeed, the visits are not complete, because I have two visits myself to the Czech Republic and Switzerland next week. I also want to undertake a number of video conference exchanges to follow up some of the work done by my predecessor, and indeed, I have been talking to him about the evidence that he accrued and his experiences. That work is important and it will inform future policy. We should never think that we always have all the answers. If others have answers that should inform our policy, we should take those on board.

The New Zealand example, in terms of new psychoactive substances, is, I should say, an issue that worries me considerably. It is an issue where there are a number of substances coming on the market, let me put it that way, which are untried, and we do not know what the health consequences might be for individuals. It appears to be the case that, as far as I think coroners’ certificates are concerned, 52 people died last year, and in some way that has been a contributory factor to their death.

I should also say for the record that, as part of the action I am taking on this-and I want to send the message that the trade in legal highs is not acceptable-that I have initiated with colleagues a concerted programme of enforcement action this week. That will lead to a number of actions from law enforcement agencies. I cannot go into too much detail but I can say that there have been arrests.

Q185 Chair: On legal highs?

Norman Baker: On legal highs. On new psychoactive substances.

Q186 Chair: Before you read all that out, if they are legal how can you take enforcement action against them?

Norman Baker: They may not be legal because "legal highs" is the term that is used. It is often misleading because often the so-called legal highs contain substances that are in fact illegal. In 2011, 19% of substances that were tested actually contained controlled drugs. There are also other offences that can be committed, for example, by failing to label matters correctly or, indeed, by selling substances to minors in certain cases.

Chair: Very helpful. If you hang on one second and pause for a moment, I think Dr Huppert wants to take this point forward.

Q187 Dr Huppert: I think it is very clear, I mean we recommended in our report that the existing trading standards powers, for example, should be used on many of these substances. I presume that would be part of what you are looking at. Is that-

Norman Baker: Yes. We are asking the police, the Trading Standards’ officers and others this week to help us with enforcement action. There have been arrests in Cumbria this week already, and there have been materials seized, for example, in Kent yesterday.

Q188 Dr Huppert: It is very helpful to see action and another of our recommendations being taken up. You are quite right to highlight the fact that the term "legal highs" is probably not a very helpful term, emphasising the legality. Many of these substances are of course harmful, though substances can be harmful whether or not they are legal or illegal to the extent that that means anything. Do you think, however, that because of the badging of them as legal highs people see them as approved or safe? There is a risk that we are pushing people from substances that are currently controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, which may be less harmful than the things that people are being pushed on to by the fact that some are illegal and some are legal.

Norman Baker: Yes, undoubtedly there is a problem with the terminology. That is why I prefer not to use the term "legal highs" other than for shorthand. That is perhaps more attractive than "new psychoactive substances" to use as a term. Clearly some people will believe that those substances are safe because they are thought to be legal, with the assumption perhaps that the state would have banned them had they been unsafe. Of course we have in fact banned over 200 of these substances, and we have a methodology in this country that enables us to deal with these more quickly than other countries do, through our early warning system and through temporary control notices. But the reality is that these are being created in laboratories-places like China and India-and they then appear. Sometimes the first we know about it is when there is a problem with one of these substances.

So there is a major change here to the landscape in terms of the drugs that are available. The landscape is changing and we have to change with it. That is why I am looking at options as to what we might do about new psychoactive substances in particular. You mentioned the New Zealand example. Of course, my predecessor took evidence from New Zealand as part of his work on that. That is one option, the so-called full regulation option. There is also an option of quasi-regulation, which is a consumer protection-type approach. There is the option of a blanket ban on anything that is deemed to be intoxicating or will have a psychoactive effect. There is also an option of analogue legislation by controlling a substance if it is sufficiently similar to a banned drug. That is the approach that has been taken in the US, for example.

Chair: Yes. Thank you.

Q189 Dr Huppert: Very briefly, I hope you would rule out the idea of banning anything that is psychoactive because some of us like caffeine and various other substances.

Chair: Very helpful. Let us move on.

Q190 Ian Austin: Which Minister was dealing with khat before you were the Drugs Minister?

Norman Baker: It came up, and I think my predecessor looked at it but I think the Home Secretary took personal ownership of the issue.

Chair: You mean Jeremy Browne?

Norman Baker: Jeremy Browne, yes.

Q191 Ian Austin: So what you are saying is that Jeremy Browne was responsible for it. He is no longer the Drugs Minister. You become the Drugs Minister and you are having nothing to do with it. That is the truth, isn’t it?

Norman Baker: No.

Ian Austin: Because you do not want to have anything to do with it it is handled by James Brokenshire.

Norman Baker: No, I am not saying that. What I am saying is that of course Jeremy had an initial look at it, but the Home Secretary took a personal interest in this because of what she regarded as the complicated nature of the issue. Because it was not simply about whether or not the substance itself-

Q192 Ian Austin: Was there ever any discussion of you dealing with the SI?

Norman Baker: Can I finish the point I was making, which is that because the Home Secretary took personal ownership because it was a complicated issue it related not simply to the damage or otherwise of the product but also the complicated nature of serious organised crime. It therefore crossed portfolios in a way that was unusual for consideration of these matters. She took personal ownership and, therefore, it made logical sense when I discussed it with her when I first took up office. I was presented in a sense that there was a decision already taken, which was this had been announced in fact, I think in July, that a ban was to be taken forward and therefore the simple matter was as to which Minister took it forward. The Security Minister had been involved in discussions because of the serious organised crime aspect of that and, therefore, it is entirely logical he should deal with the SI.

Q193 Ian Austin: I am sceptical about all this because I think it is incorrect. I am just surprised that we have a Drugs Minister who will not tell us what he thinks of this drug, and that is why I am asking whether you were asked at any point to do the SI and you did not want to do it. That is what I would like to know.

Norman Baker: I had a discussion with the Home Secretary about the best way to take this forward, and we both agreed that it was sensible for the Security Minister to take it forward, given how far down the road it was, that he had been involved in discussions and I had not.

Q194 Ian Austin: Can I ask whether your period at the Home Office, so far, has disabused you of the view that it is possible in this country for the police, the security services, the Civil Service and the Government of the day to organise a huge conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by claiming that someone who committed suicide was actually murdered?

Norman Baker: I think I would refer you to the events of 2003 and the fact that Parliament was misled, in my view, or allegedly misled by the Prime Minister of the day based on a series of false documents alleging weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist. I hardly think that the events of 2003 suggest that the forces of Government can necessarily always be trusted on these matters.

Q195 Ian Austin: The reason that I am asking this is that I would think it would be extraordinary to appoint someone as a Minister in the Home Office who did believe that that sort of thing could happen in Britain. So, what I am asking you is whether you still believe that that happened?

Norman Baker: My approach to politics throughout my life, in the Home Office and the Department for Transport, as a Back Bencher, as a council leader, has been to follow the evidence. That is what I tend to do with drugs policy as with the rest of my portfolio. Following the evidence is the only safe course of action. In 2003-2004, for example, I made it plain that I did not believe that weapons of mass destruction existed-

Q196 Ian Austin: I am not asking you about weapons of mass destruction.

Norman Baker: You are because-

Ian Austin: No, I am not. I am asking you whether you still believe that David Kelly was murdered and that the Government of the day, the police, the security services and the Civil Service mounted some huge conspiracy to hide that from the public’s view. That is what I am asking you.

Norman Baker: I have never in fact alleged that in the way you describe it. What I have made plain is that I am prepared to follow the evidence. I raise questions. If you want to go back to the events of 2003, rather than the events of 2013, I would ask you whether or not you are happy with the situation where the Prime Minister of the day, and presumably the Cabinet, misled Parliament into a war on behalf of this country based on a false prospectus, based on documents that were sexed up?

Chair: Unfortunately, Minister, although it is helpful-

Q197 Ian Austin: It is worth pointing out that the way it works in here is that we ask the questions and you answer them. I was not an MP at the time and my views on that are utterly irrelevant but I think it is not irrelevant to ask you whether, given in the Home Office you are responsible for some of these things-now, look, if you do not want to answer that is fine. That is a matter for you but it is not unreasonable for me to ask the question.

Norman Baker: No, it is not unreasonable for me to draw attention to the fact that Parliament was grotesquely misled in 2003. I have written a book on the matter. I wrote it in 2007 and the conclusions I reached at the time are said in there. As far as my appointment was concerned, it was validated by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.

Q198 Mark Reckless: Do you still support the conclusions you reached at that time?

Norman Baker: I have not read my book and I have not looked at the matter again, largely, since 2007.

Q199 Chair: You have not read your book?

Norman Baker: No. Why would I?

Q200 Chair: I thought you said you wrote this book.

Norman Baker: I have not read it subsequently. I spent a year-

Q201 Chair: You have not refreshed your memory with the book, that is what you mean?

Norman Baker: I do not know whether you want to spend the entire time on the events of 2003, but-

Chair: No. Minister, can I just point out to you, it is obviously your first appearance before the Committee, and I think it is relevant when we have a new Minister to ask questions of this kind. I think I am pretty fair as a chair. If I feel it is going in the wrong direction I will stop it, but I think it is legitimate for Mr Austin and for Mr Reckless, if they have any further questions on this to put them, and then we will move on. Mr Reckless?

Q202 Mark Reckless: I have just been given a copy of your book. I have yet to read it. I am not saying it is either a bad or a good thing. I just wonder if you still hold now the conclusions you reached then or if you had any reason to reconsider what you thought at that time.

Norman Baker: I concluded my book in 2007, having spent a long time following the evidence and I set down my conclusions in 2007. What I find extraordinary, if I may say so, is that we can have a highly public death that, uniquely, is not followed by a coroner’s inquest. I think that is extraordinary and I find it-

Q203 Chair: I have not read the book. Was that your conclusion?

Norman Baker: That was the central conclusion along with-

Chair: I think the Minister’s answer is he does stick by that.

Q204 Mark Reckless: Yes, with respect, I am not criticising your book or in any sense saying that you were inappropriate to write anything in that. I was just asking that question. Would you encourage me to read that book? Do you think it is still something you-

Norman Baker: I would always encourage people to read what I have written.

Mark Reckless: I will do so.

Norman Baker: It is most educating.

Chair: Order. I know Christmas is coming, can I promote my book? Is this the final question, Ian? We really do need to move on.

Q205 Ian Austin: It is the final question. Your central conclusion in the book is that David Kelly was murdered. You described it in the book as a "wet job" whatever that means. That is what you said. That would mean, as I have said, that the police, the Civil Service, the Government of the day, and the security services were all engaged in some huge conspiracy. I am asking you whether you still believe that that sort of thing is possible to happen-

Norman Baker: I have said to you-

Ian Austin: It is a simple, "Yes" or "No" answer.

Norman Baker: No. I have said to you that the construction you have put on that is not the construction I put in my book.

Q206 Ian Austin: Okay. Do you still believe that David Kelly was murdered? That is what you said in the book. Do you still believe that?

Norman Baker: I concluded that when I wrote my book in 2007. I have not looked at the matter since.

Q207 Ian Austin: Do you still believe it, yes, or no?

Norman Baker: I cannot answer it any other way. I concluded that was the case in 2007. I have not looked at it since. I spent a year of my life devoted to that. I think it is a great pity that others did not also query the fact that there was no proper coroner’s inquest. However, they did not. I am now doing other things in my life, including trying to deliver a good service as a Minister in the Home Office.

Chair: Excellent. I think we have now reached a conclusion. We will all go and buy this book for Christmas.

Mr Winnick: Not me.

Chair: Mr Flynn, could we go back to drugs?

Q208 Paul Flynn: Can I ask a question I asked one of your predecessors, the late Mo Mowlam?

Chair: On drugs?

Paul Flynn: Yes. To become Drugs Minister, do you have to undergo a lobotomy to remove from your brain all your previous views on drugs?

Norman Baker: Had I had a lobotomy I could not answer that question.

Chair: Many have when they have appeared before the Committee.

Q209 Paul Flynn: I am always very grateful to you for signing my EDMs and I signing yours, but your views were that the police were wasting their time chasing after people who were using drugs like cannabis and they should concentrate on chasing crimes of addiction and serious crime. I can give you a quote if you would like. Is that still your view?

Norman Baker: The Home Office drugs strategy has three objectives, which I-

Paul Flynn: Can I ask you-

Norman Baker: I am being asked a question.

Paul Flynn: -are you reading from a script at the moment?

Norman Baker: No, I am-

Q210 Paul Flynn: Is it your view or not? There are many things I want to raise with you. The Angelus Foundation, which is a group campaigning about legal highs, they saw the answer as raising awareness, the answer was education. Can you think of any educational project against drugs that actually reduced drug harm and drug use?

Norman Baker: Educational project?

Paul Flynn: Yes.

Norman Baker: Yes. The Home Office has a website, the FRANK website, which has been very useful.

Paul Flynn: Yes, I know it well.

Norman Baker: It has been very useful in education, a lot of hits. There was a campaign designed particularly towards 13 to 19-year-olds, which has been effective. So I think, yes, education is absolutely key in giving people information to enable them to make choices.

Q211 Paul Flynn: Do you remember celebrating in the world anti-drug education in America, when drugs were endemic in the large cities? They sent out groups of former hippies with long hair, all very beautiful people with guitars, who went to the bible belt and said, "Don’t do drugs because they are wicked and they are dangerous, and you end up as we did, in degradation, in sexual orgies. It is a terrible thing". We were rather surprised that drug use followed the anti-drug campaign as surely as night follows day. Aren’t you in danger, as it happened with the ecstasy campaign in this country, as it happened with the criminalisation of methadone, of increasing the interest in drugs and the attraction of drugs by the anti-drugs education campaign?

Norman Baker: That does not seem to be borne out by the figures because, according to Home Office figures, drug use is as low as it was in 1996.

Q212 Paul Flynn: Yes. That is because everyone is working on these things and on iPads and so on and people become addicted to other things.

If I can ask you another question on this. You say the justification for the action on khat, which is different to the lack of action on khat taken by the last 20 Home Secretaries, is to somehow harmonise ourselves with Europe. Inspired by this, is the Government going to harmonise our policies with the laws on Europe in Holland, Portugal, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia?

Norman Baker: The reality is that the position in Europe-as I discovered from the study that my predecessor began-is very varied indeed. For example, in Denmark they have a three year trial to legalise the sale of cannabis. In Sweden, which is not very far away after all, they have a zero tolerance approach where imprisonment is a sanction available for minor offences. So it is impossible to harmonise because every country is different.

Q213 Paul Flynn: Okay. Well, do you still believe in legalising cannabis which you once did?

Norman Baker: I think it needs to be considered along with anything else, but that is not my prime objective and I am not advocating it at this particular moment. What I am saying is that there is an international comparison study going on, which is designed to look at all aspects of drug policy across various countries and we should be prepared to follow the evidence-to use that phrase again-and see where it takes us.

Can I come back to the three strands of Home Office policy? That is to reduce the demand for drugs, to restrict the supply of drugs and to support individuals recovering from dependence. I fully support those three objectives. The question is how we get to those three objectives. How we maximise the return.

Q214 Paul Flynn: Recalling your answer to the first question you gave, we could remind you that you are among friends now and anything you say here will not go any further. It is clear from your body language, and everything else, that you do not agree with this policy on criminalising khat, why not say so? It is a nonsense. It is a lot more with trying to boost the Tory vote in the next election by appearing to be tough on drugs, when they know there is no votes in being an intelligent on drugs.

Norman Baker: I do not want to get into that particular argument about different parties and drugs policies.

Paul Flynn: Oh come on.

Norman Baker: What I would say is that I am determined-as I always have been in my political life-to follow the evidence. Sometimes that is easy. Sometimes it takes you to difficult places.

Q215 Paul Flynn: The evidence on khat is it bad to-

Norman Baker: The evidence on khat I have not looked at in a great deal for the reasons that I have just given to you.

Q216 Paul Flynn: Are you the Drugs Minister or not? You blamed it on your predecessor. It is clear. I think anyone watching your demeanour, your body language, knows that you do not believe a word of it, do you?

Norman Baker: Look, I do not know whether you think the best use of my time as Drugs Minister is to revisit decisions already taken, whenever those have been considered by the Home Secretary and decision has been reached by Government, or whether it is best looking at new problems such as new psychoactive substances. I think my time is better spent on the future rather than the past.

Q217 Paul Flynn: I have great hope in your future career and as a pioneering Drug Minister, so if you cannot do that, what will you do?

Norman Baker: What I will do is complete the international study, which I think is very useful, which your Committee recommended, and which is throwing up some interesting positions taken by different countries. I am particularly keen that we look at the options for new psychoactive substances because it is not sufficient. What we have at the moment, frankly, is not going to do the trick and I am keen to learn from other countries in that regard as well.

Q218 Chair: Thank you. We also recommended very strongly that there ought to be a royal commission, given the evidence that we have received. Do you think that that would be helpful, given the statements that have been made by the Presidents of Colombia and Brazil, Kofi Annan and others who have given evidence to this Committee, that the best way to look at drugs policy is to have a really good royal commission to look at this whole policy?

Norman Baker: I think a royal commission is a superficially attractive idea but I think it potentially takes a very long time; it could be quite expensive and I think it is something that people can sometimes say, "Let’s have a royal commission because it sounds like a good idea". We are in fact looking at aspects of policy already through this national comparator study. We have an existing strategy that is delivering a reduction in drug use as it is, and I am looking at new psychoactive substances. I would like to see how far we get with that rather than starting up a brand new process.

Chair: Indeed.

Q219 Mr Winnick: Is it not a fact of parliamentary life, Minister, that either a Minister agrees to go with a collective decision of a Government-some of the questions today, the guarding of drugs or what have you-or resigns. It is not a job for the Minister to give his own personal view, whether it is a Labour, Liberal or Coalition Government or Labour Government. What I am saying to you is it is a decision that you must make, but if you disagree with Government policy you obviously resign. You accept that is always the position, not just for you but for any Minister in any Government?

Norman Baker: I accept there is collective responsibility, if that is what you mean, Mr Winnick. What I would also say is a moment ago I was being asked not to read out material, but to answer the question, give my own views on matters, and now you are asking me to give a Government view or resign so I am slightly confused.

Chair: I think Mr Winnick was just mentioning the constitutional issue about having personal views as against the view of the Government, rather than asking you to resign. We would rather you did not.

Q220 Mr Winnick: I was not asking you to resign. I was asking-and I am glad the Chair has clarified-do you accept that that is the position for any Minister, not just yourself, obviously, junior or senior, that you put forward the collective line or if you strongly disagree one has to resign? We agree on that?

Norman Baker: Of course that is the case. For example, I would have resigned in 2003 had I been asked to vote for the Iraq war.

Chair: Please do not resign now because we have not finished yet. Mark Reckless, and then we have just a couple more then we will close.

Q221 Mark Reckless: Yes, Minister, I want to ask whether the position of the European Union was a consideration in the Home Secretary’s deliberations with regards to khat?

Norman Baker: I think she was certainly cognisant of other European countries. I am not quite sure if the European Union, per se, as a concept was a relevant factor but certainly there is an international trade and she was taking into account, as I understand it, the potential for diversion into the UK if other countries have taken steps to ban khat.

Q222 Mark Reckless: We being the only country not to have banned khat when all other European Union countries have?

Norman Baker: I am not sure about all others. I indicated before that this was largely sorted before I arrived in office, but my understanding is a large number of other countries have banned it in Europe.

Q223 Mark Reckless: In practice, do you think it is a good thing for us to be in line with Europe on this?

Norman Baker: I think it is perfectly sensible for the Home Secretary to want to take into account other issues other than simply the toxicity of the substance.

Q224 Mark Reckless: Will you take into account the policy in Portugal as the Committee recommended previously?

Norman Baker: I will take into account the policy in Portugal, as I will the policy in Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, Canada, USA, Czech Republic, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Brazil.

Mark Reckless: Yes. I am glad to hear you will be keeping busy.

Q225 Chair: Is that your travel plans?

We were very concerned in our report-I am sure you do not spend all your time reading our last report-about prescription drugs. We had been to America and we had seen the growth of prescription drugs. You have set out very clearly, and I am very grateful for what you said, about what you are doing about psychoactive substances. We would like to know the results of the enforcement action you are proposing to take. If you could write to us about that?

Norman Baker: Yes, happily.

Q226 Chair: As far as prescription drugs is concerned, both outside prison, inside prison and generally, is there any new initiative to deal with that?

Norman Baker: There are two issues with prescription drugs. There is the issue as to whether or not addiction is created as a consequence of legalised prescription of those drugs. That is a matter that the Department for Health is looking at now. Then there is a secondary issue, which is whether or not prescription drugs are being misused or redirected into the legal market for improper use. That is a matter that our advisory committee on misuse of drugs will be looking into.

Q227 Dr Huppert: Minister, we spent a lot of time on one specific aspect of your portfolio and I think on a lot of things that are not part of your portfolio. Can I just ask you about something else that is very much in your portfolio? Yesterday was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls. I think that falls under the long list of things that you cover. What are you doing in that respect? This is something we will be looking at as a committee later.

Norman Baker: This is a very important issue, and I have to say that the more I look into it, the more concerned I am. I think attitudes that I had hoped to become more liberated, in terms of the relationship between men and women and how men regard women, have not in fact improve as much as I would like. The evidence in the papers today suggests there is a particular problem with boys in certain gang cultures, in particular, which I think is very worrying indeed.

I think what we are doing is the right thing and it is where the Home Secretary and I, which you picked up last week, were visiting a refuge in Wiltshire. We are at one on these issues to make sure that we do what we can to protect women. We launched the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme yesterday across the whole country, having had four successful pilots, which will enable women of course to gain access to information about potentially violent partners. I think that is absolutely right that that is available.

Secondly, the domestic violence protection orders that, when an incident occurs in a house, for the police to require the perpetrator to leave that house at that point, thereby leaving the victim some space and some safety to consider the position. Whereas before of course it was often the case that the woman-it was normally a woman, not always but nearly always a woman-was in fact often the one who left the house because she was frightened. So I think we are taking good steps on that.

The evidence, such as it is, is that the situation is, sad to say, far worse than I had certainly thought and that is why I am very pleased that the Prime Minister, for example, took a strong view of online child abuse images. We are taking steps as a Government to try to deal with that through contact with internet service providers in other friendly countries.

Q228 Chair: Yes. The Committee has launched an inquiry into female genital mutilation, which we will commence shortly. Obviously at the end of that inquiry we will ask you to come back as the Minister responsible, but initially are you concerned that there have been no prosecutions since this offence was brought in and can you offer an explanation as to why this is the case? We find it astonishing that nobody has been prosecuted but there are so many victims.

Norman Baker: There are potentially tens of thousands of victims in this country who have been subject to that appalling and abhorrent practice. It is deep and depressing for me that since I think 1985, when the Act first came in, that there has been no successful prosecutions. I can only speculate that sometimes people are reluctant to give evidence against members of their own family because it is often an interfamily thing. I have indicated to the law enforcement agencies that I would like to see more effort going into this area. I am hopeful there will be some successful prosecutions in the not too distant future. It may well be-

Q229 Chair: Is it because the communities are not coming forward with evidence that could be helpful to the police? Is it because they are too frightened to do so? Is it because these are young girls who perhaps do not want to report and cannot report an offence against their own parents?

Norman Baker: I think it is perhaps all of those to a degree, and perhaps the latter one in particular is the reason. In my view we have to look at whether or not evidence can be accrued in different ways that may not require the victim to have to testify. That is a sort of speculative thought in my head, but I am very keen to get to the stage where we do get some prosecutions on what is an appalling practice, which is out of date-it never was in date-and as inappropriate as foot binding was in Imperial China.

Q230 Chair: Let us go back finally to drugs. When Kenneth Clarke gave evidence to this Committee he said that we were in danger of losing the war on drugs. You are the new Drugs Minister. You have people like the Chief Constable of Durham suggesting to some extent decriminalisation, "Let’s take away the revenue streams from the villains". How blue skies is going to be your thinking? Are you going to be able as Drugs Minister to be able to put forward radical proposals to try to deal with what is a situation that seems to be overwhelming this country and our police service? In countries like Colombia, which the Committee has visited, we were very moved to see the tragedy that has been befalling people there. As for the import of so much cocaine into this country, what are we going to do about this? What is the radical approach?

Norman Baker: Let us not overstate the problem. Drug use is at its lowest since 1996 when records began. It is 11% down from that date. We are also seeing low purity levels and high wholesale prices for both cocaine and heroin, which suggests that the strategy may be working to a degree. The question is can we do any more to achieve the three objectives that the Home Office set, which I entirely support. That is what the international comparator study is about, and I think if there are suggestions from other countries that clearly are working then we ought to be prepared to take them on.

Chair: Minister, thank you very much for coming today. We are most grateful.

Prepared 19th December 2013