Skip to main content

Drug Abuse (London)

Volume 229: debated on Tuesday 27 July 1993

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

1.30 pm

I am grateful to have the opportunity to talk about the drugs problem in London because there is no doubt that London is the drugs capital of the United Kingdom. The vast majority of the British drugs trade takes place in and is routed through London. There is also no doubt that the Government, who make such great claims to being a Government who are committed to law and order, have failed to meet the challenge that the drugs trade poses for our citizens in 1993. The Government cannot claim that they are serious about fighting crime until they adopt a serious and co-ordinated strategy for fighting the drugs trade. The Government have not adopted a more serious strategy towards the drugs trade, perhaps because Ministers, in the communities in which they live, do not see the effects of the drugs trade as we do in London's inner-city areas.

I stress that the detrimental effects of the evil trade in drugs are manifold. First, there are the lives ruined by drug abuse, whether those of the drug addicts themselves or those of the young men growing up in communities such as Stoke Newington, where one in two young black males are unemployed. Tragically, they see almost as role models slightly older males who deal in drugs, and who make easy and quick money. That evil role model is wreaking havoc on the younger males and totally distorts the aspirations of some of the young men in our communities. One effect of the drugs trade is the lives that are being ruined, whether those of the drug addicts or those of the teenagers being drawn into the drugs trade.

The second evil effect of drugs is the crime committed by drug addicts, whether it is violent crime or robbery. In addition, many prostitutes practise their trade to obtain money for drugs. A large proportion of the rising tide of violent crime and a large proportion of some of the more mindless crime in our capital city, about which we hear and read every day, are caused by people who are on drugs or who are seeking the money to obtain drugs.

Thirdly, a new but frightening effect of the drugs trade is the increasing use of guns and the increasing incidence of shooting by drug dealers in pursuance of their trade. Those shootings have not been getting the publicity that they deserve. We are going down a frightening road. We know that in New York, Washington and the other big cities of America, the combination of the drugs trade and firearms has meant fear and terror for millions of ordinary people.

The drugs trade has many effects on the problems faced by and the quality of life of those of us who live in London. The Government have failed entirely to meet the challenge. I will raise in the debate issues that are not directly of concern to the Home Office, but I hope that the Minister will pass them on to his colleagues at the Department of Health.

One of the worst things that has happened in relation to drugs recently has been the effect of the Government's policies on drug and alcohol projects. As a direct result of the changes in community care that were brought in by the Government, many drug projects which are working with addicts face closure. The situation is worsened by the fact that, originally, the Government promised that they would ling-fence the money that was available for drug and alcohol projects. The Government went back on that promise, with the result that, as many of us forecast, drug and alcohol projects have found that they are the sector of community care which is most likely to suffer and face closure.

The problems include the fact that far fewer drug addicts are finding their way to drug treatment centres because, under the community care system, there is much more bureaucracy than ever before. Instead of a drug addict checking himself into a project to get help, he must be assessed by a local authority. There must also be an agreement by the local authority to fund the project, and often the money is conditional for a few months. The result is that far fewer drug addicts are finding their way to drug projects where they could find help.

The charity Turning Point has been monitoring 18 drug and alcohol projects since community care came into action. They have found that the numbers of people going into projects have dropped by 42 per cent., or nearly half, as a direct consequence of the bureaucracy that is involved and the unwillingness of local authorities to make funding available under the community care arrangements. As I speak, projects in London that are doing valuable work with drug addicts are on the brink of closure because they cannot get funding in the way in which they were accustomed to before the community care arrangements.

The financial arrangements are another aspect of the community care arrangements that are hurting the treatment and support that we are able to give drug addicts. All the local authorities in the country have transitional funding available to make the change from the old arrangements to the community care arrangements. Unfortunately, local authorities in London—where the bulk of the drug addicts are—have lost out under the arrangements. For example, Islington needs at least £250,000 transitional funding but it received only £104,000. Lambeth needs £323,000 but it received only £170,000. Who is benefiting under the transitional arrangements? The answer is the Tory shire counties. It seems tragic that, in the name of political gerrymandering, the inner cities, with the tremendous pressure they are under because of the traffic in drugs and the problems of drug abuse, have lost out on the money that they need to fund those valuable projects.

I hope that the Minister will pass on to his colleagues in the Department of Health my belief that the Government must examine again the arrangements for community care. At a time when we face a rising side of drug addiction in London, drug projects—far from expanding and developing—are having to close. That is a tragedy for those unfortunates addicted to drugs and for the community.

Of course, not all drug addicts are treated in the sort of projects that I mentioned. There will always be drug addicts whose condition is such that they need to be put into in-patient detoxification units. I wish to draw the attention of Ministers to the poor record of North East Thames health authority in providing in-patient detoxification units. That health authority, which covers Hackney and other parts of north-east London, which have some of the most serious drugs problems in the country, has no in-patient detoxification unit and has to send drug addicts out of the area to other units.

We were promised a 20-bed, in-patient detoxification unit at Homerton hospital, but the health authority is reneging on that promise, for no reason that any of the doctors or health workers involved can understand. I cannot say strongly enough that it is disgraceful that a health authority covering an area with such serious problems as Hackney and the rest of east London is not making basic provision available to treat drug addicts. That in-patient drug detoxification unit was agreed to be essential, especially by people working in the drug dependency unit at Homerton hospital. They are alarmed that the health authority is backtracking on its promise to build the unit as part of developments at the hospital.

I want to take the opportunity to make a plea to Ministers, and through Ministers to the relevant people in North East Thames health authority, to reconsider and meet their responsibilities to the community and to people suffering from drug addiction in the Hackney area.

The drug problem in Hackney is not only a question of treating drug addicts and of the health aspects of addiction; it is also about law enforcement and the role of the police. Londoners find it extraordinary that, at a time when the drug problem in London has never been more acute, the Metropolitan police does not have a London-wide strategy for fighting drugs. Activity is going on in different parts of the Metropolitan police area and much of it is very worth while. Drug dealers are being picked up every day and no one doubts the commitment of ordinary policemen on the beat; but a London-wide strategy on fighting drugs is long overdue. Without it many of us must suspect that, at best, the effort does not have the co-ordination that it should have and, at worst, the police seem happy to contain the drugs trade in certain parts of London, to the detriment of those communities.

It is important for Ministers to understand that the people of Hackney do not want the drugs trade contained in certain areas or tolerated in certain communities. They want the drugs trade swept off the streets of London—every street in London, not just the streets in Hampstead and Belgravia but the streets in Stoke Newington, Dalston and Clapton. The residents of communities such as Hackney, Dalston, Clapton and Stoke Newington are people too. Why should they have to live and bring up their families in areas where one can see people trading drugs on the street?

The Metropolitan police has for years pursued a policy whereby it was happy to contain prostitution in certain areas rather than seek to eradicate it. There is a suspicion that the Metropolitan police has sought to contain the drugs trade in some areas rather than eliminate it altogether.

There are several things that we want the police to do in my part of London. People in my community of Hackney and Stoke Newington strongly feel that there should be more specific operations to deal with problem estates and streets. Every so often, we hear of a highly publicised raid or of the police picking up a larger number of dealers on the street, and then everything goes quiet. People in areas such as Hackney—and, I dare say, in similar areas of London—want a sustained operation to make our streets and estates drug free.

How would the Minister like to he a pensioner or a young woman with a small child living on an estate where he knew that specific flats were being used as retail drug outlets and drug dealers were walking around the estate day and night'? Many Londoners face that situation and the police say that they do not have the manpower, that they are keeping it under surveillance or that they are focusing on the suppliers rather than on the local drug dealers. People in London are not content with containment strategies or strategies that focus on suppliers rather than on drug dealers on the street; we want streets that are free of drug dealers.

Where I live in Stoke Newington, I should not have to see people standing on street corners dealing in drugs when I push my baby in his buggy from my home to the local shopping centre at Dalston junction on a warm sunny evening. That is not acceptable in any community. It is important to stress that all communities in London, whatever their income level or however they are regarded, have a right to be drug free—free of the menace of drugs and free of people openly trading in drugs on the streets. In Stoke Newington, we want to see greater involvement at local level. We have tried to trace drug suppliers, rather than leaving it all to the drug squad.

When we examine the drug problem in London, we are struck by the absence of reliable drugs prevalence data. The number of arrests—the figure is often bandied about —does not accurately show the scale of the problem. If Ministers are serious about fighting a war on drugs, the first weapon in any war is intelligence. We want the Home Office to put more effort and thought into what relevant drugs prevalence data could be collected so that we would have relevant statistics that give a real idea of the incidence of drugs and the changing patterns of drug use. Locally, when police officers arrest drug addicts, we want them to give addicts more information about the services that are available.

When we discuss the drugs trade in London, the questions that arise continually are: first, do Ministers understand the seriousness of the problem; secondly, are they prepared to do what is necessary; and, thirdly, do they understand the need for co-ordination between law enforcement, health authorities and the funding of drug and alcohol projects? A London-wide multi-agency strategy is necessary.

It is important to remember that behind the drug dealers on the street are the suppliers and behind them are the wholesalers—the money men who make the drugs trade work internationally. This is an important point for Treasury Ministers rather than Home Office Ministers: we cannot have an effective war against drugs if we do not make war on the people who are laundering the profits from the drugs trade.

I want the Government—as an individual Government and in their work on the Basle committee on bank regulation—to look at bank secrecy laws and the extent to which those laws, both here and overseas, help the money launderers. It is all very well to target drug dealers on the streets, but they are the end of the chain, and there is more to be done about bank secrecy laws and money laundering.

When the Bank of Credit and Commerce International closed, there was much talk about how it had laundered drugs money. I have no reason to doubt that, but no one should believe that BCCI was the only bank to launder drug money. The Government must take action.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt, but if the Minister is to have any chance to reply, the hon. Lady must close her speech soon as time is running out.

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

In closing, I shall refer to the recent case of the two female drug couriers who were pardoned in Thailand. I, and many of my constituents, would not go so far as to say that the Government were wrong to seek a pardon for those girls, but millions of people would be concerned if the girls were seen to benefit from their crime by selling their story because those young women are admitted dealers in heroin. The girls were young and gullible, but many thousands of drug couriers in British prisons are also young and gullible. It is a shame that some of the sympathy of the tabloid press for the two young women in Thailand is not spared for some of the thousands of drug couriers in British prisons who are also young and gullible.

The drugs trade is a terrible menace to the quality of life in London. It generates an enormous amount of crime —whether to obtain drugs or to further the drugs trade through the increased use of guns. I do not believe that the Government are co-ordinating sufficiently the work of the different agencies in fighting drugs. The people of Hackney and London want the Government to wage war on drugs. They want not mere rhetoric about law and order but recognition of the scale of the problem in London and a genuine multi-agency effort—a true war on drugs.

1.52 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on raising this important issue. The Government recognise and share her concerns about the devastating effects that drug misuse can have on people's lives. We are determined to do everything possible to thwart the dealers and traffickers whose one aim is to make a profit—gained at vast human cost.

Drug misuse is difficult to measure. We collect information about the notification of addicts to the Home Office, the seizure of drugs by customs and the police, and the number of people dealt with for drug offences. However, none of the elements is perfect as an indicator of the overall picture. Even when taken together, they give only a general impression of the problem. This year., to improve our assessment of drug misuse, we shall carry out an extensive household survey and analyse the findings of the latest British crime survey. However, even without that further information, we all know that drug misuse is a serious and growing criminal, social and health problem. It is complex and constantly changing.

The Government's strategy is to reduce the demand for drugs and the supply of drugs. Therefore, we support the most vigorous enforcement action against trafficking, the provision of treatment for misusers and preventive education, especially for young people. Our strategy consists of five elements: first, improving international co-operation in order to reduce supplies from abroad; secondly, increasing the effectiveness of police and customs enforcement; thirdly, maintaining effective deterrents and tight domestic controls; fourthly, developing prevention publicity and education; and, fifthly, improving treatment and rehabilitation. That strategy is so important that it is co-ordinated by a ministerial sub-committee chaired by the Lord President.

The Home Office is responsible for co-ordinating the measures which give effect to the Government's strategy. I have particular responsibility for drug misuse policy and work closely with colleagues responsible for health and education, and those from the Foreign Office and the Scottish and Welsh Offices.

Is the sub-committee studying the effect of community care on drug and alcohol projects?

The sub-committee will want to look at all subjects that impact on drug misuse in the community. It will want to hear representations that people make through their Members of Parliament, and therefore to Ministers, on what are the real problem areas. If the sub-committee determines that that is a problem area, we can look forward to action on it.

Although it is difficult to quantify the resources allocated to the Government's strategy, they have been calculated to be about £500 million a year. The success of our strategy depends on the commitment not just of Government; it also demands much of local authorities. That was why we set up the drugs prevention initiative in 1989, to respond quickly and effectively to local concerns and to stimulate, encourage and support ideas or work to prevent the spread of drugs misuse.

Twenty teams have been set up in high-risk areas. Six of those teams are in London—in Brent, Hackney, Lambeth, Lewisham, Newham and Southwark. Each team has £75,000 per annum available to provide grants to prevention projects in its area. There are currently more than 200 such projects in London. Since 1989, more than £11 million has been spent on the initiative. Almost £650,000 has been spent on prevention work in schools. The success of the initiative has been confirmed by evaluation and research and we intend to identify good practice and ensure that it is replicated.

I shall talk for a moment about the work and achievements of one of the teams which I have mentioned, and of which the hon. Lady will be particularly aware. Since being set up in 1991, the Hackney team has supported more than 60 projects in the borough and provided more than £150,000 in grants. The team works closely with the local council, health authority, police and community organisations. It has helped to collate one of the United Kingdom's largest collection of drug information and training materials in local libraries. A drugs education adviser was appointed with team support to help schools to develop programmes and policies for tackling drug misuse. The team supported Project Charlie, a rare example of a drugs prevention programme for younger children in three local junior schools. It supported tenant-led plans to reduce drugs misuse on the Baggerston estate and several other areas of the borough. It is currently working with the Dalston city partnership to develop a drugs and crime prevention strategy for the city challenge area.

That multi-agency approach is one which has been wholeheartedly embraced by the police officers involved in fighting the menace of drug misuse. They recognise the importance of working with the local community to tackle the problem at its roots—by reducing the demand for drugs. The importance of the role which the police play in educating people—especially the young—about the dangers of drugs cannot be overestimated. But they also know how important it is to bring to justice those who supply the drugs. That is why the work of the Hackney drugs prevention team is backed up by the hard-hitting measures taken by the police to combat drug dealing in Stoke Newington. Operation Tean, which has been running for nine months, is only one of many police initiatives in the area. More than 60 dealers have been identified by surveillance operations and a large number of them are now in custody.

In Operation Welwyn, the very successful operation to clean up the King's Cross area, surveillance and the work of undercover officers has resulted in almost 100 dealers and users being arrested. But that is only half the story. The local authorities in Camden and Islington have made a commitment to build on the successes of that police operation by making environmental improvements—better street lighting, better traffic flow and cleaner streets.

It is the responsibility of the Government to support and enhance the efforts on drug dealing by making international efforts, by providing clear and effective laws and by making the necessary resources available. We have a good story to tell. The Criminal Justice Bill, which is currently awaiting Royal Assent any hour now, toughens up even further the law on confiscating drug traffickers' assets. All over the world, law enforcement officers—those at the sharp end of the fight against drugs—will tell people that the ability to get at the profits of those who take part in this evil trade is one of the most effective weapons in their armoury. We shall ensure that the provisions in the new Act are brought into force speedily.

We have also taken action to ensure that our laws controlling the trade in precursor and essential chemicals —the substances necessary to turn the raw material into the finished product—are tough enough. We are the first country to implement the relevant European legislation, thanks largely to a splendid degree of co-operation on the part of the British chemicals industry.

The Government are determined to tackle the problems of drug misuse with all the powers at our disposal. We shall not cease to seek out those who control the evil trade of drug trafficking. We shall not be deflected from finding ways of inflicting the maximum punishment on them and their associates and we shall never accept the inevitability of drug misuse.