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Volume 405: debated on Thursday 22 May 2003

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If they will make a statement on their policy towards dealing with the problems associated with benzodiazepine addiction. [114222]

The Government are working to prevent benzodiazepine dependence and to ensure that treatment is available for those who have developed such dependence. Action has been focused on preventing addiction or dependence occurring in the first place by warning GPs and other prescribers of the potential side effects and dangers of involuntary addiction. Treatment is available in both primary and secondary mental health care settings and in specialist drug misuse services.

Do the Government accept that the nature of the mental and physical side effects of benzodiazepine addiction is such that there are tens of thousands of people—possibly hundreds of thousands—who are suffering in despair, isolation and silence as a result of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) called a national scandal as long ago as 1994? Is there not a case for greater co-ordination between Departments? The size of the problem must be established, then the problems must be dealt with: the correct scheduling of benzodiazepines, the treatment of addicts and the difficulty that some addicts have in claiming the social security benefits to which they are entitled.

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which we take seriously. In 1980 there were some 24 million prescriptions for benzodiazepines. Prescriptions decreased quite dramatically as more evidence emerged about the dangers of addiction. In 2001 there were 13 million prescriptions—almost half the 1980 figure.

Among the performance indicators for primary care trusts is one on the need to reduce benzodiazepine prescriptions even further and to ensure that they are not inappropriately prescribed. We also have guidelines from the Committee on Safety of Medicines which say that benzodiazepines should be used only for short-term relief of severe anxiety symptoms, not for mild anxiety, and only for insomnia if it is severe and disabling. We are trying to narrow the circumstances in which they are prescribed. National Institute for Clinical Excellence guidelines on anxiety management are being prepared and are likely to be published this time next year; they will ensure better treatment for the people involved. We have also put an extra £300 million into mental heath services to ensure adequate provision of treatment.