[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2005-06, HC1031, the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6491, and follow-up evidence to the Committee, Session 2006-07, HC65-i.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]
I am pleased to speak in this packed Chamber to open the debate on the Science and Technology Committee’s report, “Drug classification: making a hash of it?” Our report, on the classification of illegal drugs, was part of an overarching inquiry. Although it stood as a one-off piece, it was also part of a major piece of work that the Committee did on scientific advice and risk and evidence-based policy making in government.
We chose to examine drug classification for a variety of reasons, but mainly because the misuse of illegal drugs is a major public health, criminal and social problem. That was confirmed in the recent Reuter-Stevens report for the UK Drug Policy Commission, which concluded:
“The United Kingdom has the highest level of dependent drug use and among the highest levels of recreational drug use in Europe.”
That was a powerful statement to make and it is why everybody in the Chamber takes the issue seriously.
The classification system plays a key role in directing Government resources for tackling illegal drugs. About 75 per cent. of the total budget in the area is spent on enforcing drug laws, at the heart of which is the drug classification system. At the heart of our inquiry was a simple question: is the system fit for purpose? As such, we examined in detail the role played by the Government’s scientific advisory committee on the matter, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
Given the highly critical nature of our report, the responses from both the Government and the ACMD were extremely disappointing. The Government rejected more than half our conclusions and recommendations, and the response from the ACMD was unnecessarily aggressive. We felt that large elements of our report were totally misunderstood and misrepresented.
As a member of the Committee, I share my hon. Friend’s analysis of the Government and ACMD responses. It is worth noting that, in a follow-up session, the chairman of the ACMD accepted that the grumpiness of its response was over the top. The ACMD at least recognised that, but perhaps the Government did not recognise quite so well the shortcomings in their own response.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Indeed, when Professor Sir Michael Rawlins and Professor David Nutt came before our Committee, as did the Minister, we received some clarification. However, it is fair to say that even after that meeting, many of our key recommendations were not accepted. We found that frustrating, because the issue is hugely important. We hope that, having had time to reflect on the report, the Minister will be able to provide us with more hope. I for one know that he is as anxious as any hon. Member to tackle the multi-billion-pound evil of the illicit drug trade and arrest the huge social damage caused by drug misuse.
My task today as the Chairman of the Committee is to provide an overview of the key themes covered in the report, give a brief update on developments of relevance and highlight some of the outstanding issues to be addressed by the Government. I am delighted to see two of my Committee colleagues here, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and the hon. Member for Bolton, South- East (Dr. Iddon), who is something of an expert. We look forward to hearing his contribution later.
I shall begin by addressing what I see as a lack of evidence supporting the current classification system. It was introduced in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and our attitudes to policing and punishment for possession and supply are scaled according to a drug’s classification. It is therefore essential that the classification is fit for purpose, but we found a range of anomalies in decision making about drug classification, some of which I am sure the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East will wish to refer to.
By way of example I shall focus on two particular drugs: magic mushrooms and ecstasy. Fresh magic mushrooms have been placed in class A, the highest level, despite an almost total lack of evidence to support that. There is a lack of evidence that such classification reflects the harms associated with their misuse or even that they are being misused. The chairman of ACMD told us that the active substances in magic mushrooms were psilocin and psilocybin, and that they were highly dangerous. Nobody particularly disputes that, but he went on to say:
“I have no idea what was going through the minds of the group who put it in Class A in 1970 and 1971…It is there because it is there.”
It is surely unacceptable that drugs are in particular classes just because they have always been there. We are relying on classifications made more than 30 years ago, when there was less concern about the evidence base supporting policy. The 1971 Act does not specify why particular drugs were placed in different classes, and the then Home Secretary James Callaghan said that the Government had attempted in the Bill to put drugs
“in the order in which we think they should be classified of harmfulness and danger.”—[Official Report, 25 March 1970; Vol. 798, c. 1453.]
That was in 1970. In many cases, therefore, we rely on a classification system based on what the Government thought then.
We also considered the classification of ecstasy and heard evidence from Professor Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of the Medical Research Council, who said that ecstasy was
“at the bottom of the scale of harm”
“on the basis of present evidence…should not be a Class A drug”.
In a climate of evidence-based policy making, which is what the Government say underlines the policy process, one should therefore reasonably be able to assume that the classification of ecstasy would be reviewed and that, if appropriate it would be reclassified. However, even if there were a wealth of evidence undermining the classification, ecstasy would remain in class A, because the Government have no intention of reviewing or reclassifying it. The Government’s approach to ecstasy therefore appears to be entirely political rather than evidence-based. The Minister told us:
“What I am saying is the ACMD, of course, can conduct research and look at whatever they wish to with respect to drugs and make recommendations to the Government. What I am saying quite clearly is that we have no intention of reclassifying ecstasy.”
It seems pretty pointless to have an organisation that is there to do the very job of advising the Government if they say, “No matter what evidence you bring before us, we’re not even going to look at it.”
I would be interested to hear whether the Minister has changed his mind on the issue. If not, will he at least recognise that the decision to keep ecstasy in class A is political rather than evidence-based?
My hon. Friend is putting the case superbly; it really is a clear exposition of the dilemma. Judging from his work on the Committee, is he surprised that the ACMD has not yet got around to reviewing ecstasy? Does he think that the reason for that is that it knows it would undermine its credibility to do so, because the Government have given advance warning that they will not accept what the ACMD says? Does he agree that it is quite corrosive to the whole advisory system for the Government if committees do not believe that they can do work that they would otherwise do, because they will look stupid as the Government have pre-rejected their findings?
My hon. Friend tempts me to go in a direction that I do not want to pursue, other than to say that it is important that any advisory committee that is independent of the Government and that is offering independent advice should have a mind of its own. Perhaps I could leave it there.
If there is a lack of evidence to support the classification of particular drugs, does the classification system support other planks of Government drugs policy? It seems not. We found, for example, that there is no solid evidence to support the idea that there will be a deterrent effect if a drug is placed in a higher class. Our conclusion has since been echoed by the UK Drug Policy Commission, which says that the concept of a deterrent effect has
“little or no support from the available research”.
To be fair, the Government accepted that there is an absence of conclusive evidence on the deterrent effect and agreed to consider ways in which the evidence base for such an effect could be strengthened. I would like to ask the Minister, first, what steps have been taken to strengthen the evidence base, and secondly, if new evidence were to undermine the principle of the deterrent effect, would that have an impact on the current policy on classification?
Linked to the idea of the deterrent effect is the notion that classification can be used to send out messages. We have a number of concerns about that notion. The purpose of classification should be to categorise a drug according to the comparative harm, be that physical harm, dependence or social harm, that is associated with its misuse. That does not necessarily sit comfortably with the secondary aim of sending out messages. It must be one or the other.
In our report, we considered the example of methylamphetamine, or crystal meth. The Government kept it in class B because they were concerned that reclassification to class A might send out the message that crystal meth was a dangerous drug, thereby increasing interest in it and encouraging potential users. There was absolutely no evidence on which to base that conclusion. The ACMD told us that it was “a judgment call”. That example highlights the inconsistency of a classification system that at times relies on moving a drug to a higher class to deter potential users—the deterrent effect—as was the case with ecstasy.
It is worrying that a Government who claim to formulate evidence-based policies are content to use classification to send out signals to users without undertaking any research to establish the relationship between the class of the drug and the signal that is sent out. Given the inconsistencies in the classification system and the lack of evidence to support the principles on which it is founded, the Select Committee believes that it is not fit for purpose. We concluded in our report, and continue to maintain, that the current classification system is antiquated, arbitrary and ripe for revision.
Our findings are not surprising. We reiterated the findings of the Runciman report, which proposed that the classification system be reviewed, and the Home Affairs Committee’s 2002 report on drug policy, which recommended that LSD and ecstasy be reclassified. Our conclusions have recently been echoed by the newly formed UK Drug Policy Commission and the report of the RSA—Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce—commission on illegal drugs, “Drugs—facing facts”. The RSA calls the current classification system “arbitrary, confused and haphazard”
Despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary, the Government assert that the classification system discharges its function fully and effectively, and that it has stood the test of time. There is little evidence to support that assertion, and I ask the Minister whether he can provide such evidence this afternoon. Perhaps he could also explain something that has confused me: how can the Government have so much confidence in the current classification system when the chairman of the ACMD technical committee, Professor David Nutt, told the Select Committee that he does not think that
“all the drugs are correctly classified according to the current classification system”?
The very person who heads the technical committee of the Government’s ACMD says that the system is not fit for purpose. I look forward to the Minister’s response to Professor Nutt’s strong statement.
Having found the current classification system to be inadequate, we rightly turned our attention to possible improvements. We recommended that the Government establish a more scientifically based scale of harm. We believe that that would have much greater credibility than the current system, in which classification decisions seem quite arbitrary.
Our proposals have considerable support. In March, a paper by Professor Nutt, Professor Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of the Medical Research Council, William Saulsbury of the Police Foundation and Leslie King of the Forensic Science Service—hardly lightweights in the field—was published in The Lancet. The paper proposed a nine-category matrix of harm that took account of physical harm, dependence and social harms—the very things that are at the heart of the Government’s policy. Its main findings rejected the crude rank ordering of drugs and their segregation into groups under the ABC classification system. Significantly, it found that tobacco and alcohol were in the top 10 higher-harm groups.
Also in March, an RSA report recommended that the Government replace the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 with a misuse of substances Act that focuses on the harms that drugs cause. Like our report and the paper in The Lancet, the RSA report recommended that there should be an index of substance-related harms that is based on the best available evidence and modified in the light of new evidence. I am keen to hear from the Minister whether he is willing to explore how a more scientifically based scale of harm could be used.
One element of our proposal for classification to be based on the scale of harm is the question of whether the classification system should continue to have a direct link to the criminal justice system, as it has had since 1971. During our inquiry, we heard from the chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers drugs committee that the classification system was only
“a rough guide for the police and…was pretty crude”.
That was said by the deputy chief of the Met.
When we discussed the issue with police officers in the United States, we heard that the lack of a direct link between schedules and penalties gave the police the freedom to focus resources as they saw fit, rather than being tied in by the classification. We therefore recommended that the Government decouple the ranking of drugs on the basis of harm from the penalties for possession and trafficking. We believe that such decoupling would mean that harms could be assessed objectively without having practical implications for the criminal justice system. The ranking of drugs could be changed frequently within a scientifically based scale of harm in response to new evidence without directly impacting on the system of penalties.
If the scientific scale of harm were not linked to penalties, it would also be possible to include tobacco and alcohol in the scale and thereby give the public a better sense of the relative harms involved. We believe that the public would be interested to know, as was pointed out in the paper in The Lancet, that alcohol is rated as more harmful than ketamine, amphetamines and tobacco, and that tobacco is rated as more harmful than cannabis, LSD and ecstasy. That is quite a startling statement.
We did not use our report to recommend an alternative approach to determining penalties, as that was not in our remit, but we suggested that possibilities could include a greater emphasis on the link between the misuse of a drug and criminal activity, or a clearer distinction between possession and supply. The Select Committee was in no way trying to undermine the very real problems that the Home Office and the police have in dealing with drug-related crime. They need greater powers rather than fewer powers, but such powers must be very much directed at the problem.
The Government rejected our recommendation to decouple penalties and harm ranking. They said that a fundamental purpose of the classification system was to provide a framework within which penalties are set with reference to the harm caused by a drug. If the Government choose to pursue that line and insist that penalties are coupled with the harm rating of drugs, it is even more important that the classification system is reviewed to ensure that it is robust and evidence-based.
We are extremely disappointed that a review of the classification system is unlikely to take place. We were expecting our report to feed into the review of the system announced on 19 January 2006 by the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke). Frustratingly, in their response to our report, the Government announced that they no longer intended to undertake a review, despite having got as far as producing a draft consultation document. Frankly, it was illogical and patronising to be told that the Government want to concentrate on their drugs strategy and that a review of classification would mean that people spent their time arguing about that instead of concentrating on
“the things that are making a difference on the street.”
We hope that the Minister will say whether a future review is still possible and that it has not been completely rejected.
Before concluding my remarks, I should like briefly to comment on two other issues covered in the report: the role of the ACMD and the importance of research about drugs. In the report we considered the role of the ACMD and its relationship to Government. Despite the misunderstandings, I do not wish to go over old ground, so I will pick up three of the recommendations about the ACMD that were accepted by the Government.
First, the Home Office and the ACMD should establish a more systematic approach to reviewing the classification of individual drugs. We suggested that the Home Office and the ACMD draw up a list of criteria to be taken into account when determining whether the classification of a particular drug should be reviewed. The Government accepted that recommendation in principle, and Professor Nutt, chair of the technical committee, said that all drugs should be systematically reviewed on a regular basis, probably in a five-year cycle. Will the Minister say what work the Home Office has undertaken with the ACMD to establish a systematic review of current drug classifications?
The second issue is transparency. We recommended that the ACMD should take steps to increase the transparency of its processes by publishing its agendas and minutes and holding meetings in public. The ACMD accepted that recommendation and the Government said that they would encourage the council to increase transparency. We have looked at the ACMD’s website, and there is little to demonstrate any change in its practices. Does the Minister know what the council’s intentions are in that area?
Thirdly, I wish to follow up our recommendation that the Home Office should regularly commission independent reviews of the ACMD. The Government accepted that recommendation in principle and said that the Makeham review of Home Office public bodies would include the ACMD. We understand that Peter Makeham was due to report in April and that the target has been met. Will the Minister comment on the conclusions of that review in relation to the ACMD?
Finally, I will turn to the issue of research. We heard during our inquiry that UK expenditure on addiction research was an embarrassment and that there was a thousandfold differential between UK and US public expenditure on such research. The recent UK Drug Policy Commission report also emphasised the importance of research. It said that the
“current shortage of research means that policy makers have to operate partially blind in this field”.
We recommend that the Home Office and the ACMD should develop better relationships with the research councils, particularly the Medical Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council. The Government and ACMD both accepted that recommendation, and I am keen to hear from the Minister what action has been taken in that area.
Finally, this is an important area of public policy. It is therefore disturbing that the very basis on which drugs policy is built—the classification system—has serious failings. It is also disturbing that the Government are not prepared to either find the evidence to support their view or to look for changes. I hope, however, that the Minister will enlighten us this afternoon and that we will all go home happy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Bercow. The misuse and abuse of drugs is one of the most significant social problems of our time. The previous Government recognised that the situation was out of control and began to take some action, but it was the present Government who invested huge sums in a drugs strategy. In 1997, I campaigned for easier access to treatment for those most affected by the misuse of drugs and I am pleased by the progress on that the Government have made. I am also extremely pleased by recent announcements that the National Treatment Agency is considering the quality and choice of treatment as well as the quantity. Nevertheless, as the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), has reminded us, out of all European countries, Britain is still the one most badly affected by the harm caused by the misuse of drugs.
Since my election to Parliament in 1997, I have been disappointed that so little Government time has been devoted to debating the issue. When the drugs tsar wrote his annual reports, at least we were given the opportunity to debate them on the Floor of the House, but that now seems like a long time ago. I very much welcome this debate, which is quite narrowly focused on the ABC classification. As the chairman of the all-party group on drugs misuse, I am a little shackled today and my mind cannot meander in the directions that it would like to.
Our laws on the use of illicit drugs stem from the single convention on narcotic drugs of 1961, as amended by the 1972 protocol, and the convention on psychotropic substances of 1971, both of which were negotiated by the United Nations and, worldwide, have 185 signatories to date. They were implemented in this country by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which has remained largely intact for more than 36 years, although it has been amended several times. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was set up following that Act and the ABC classification of illicit drugs also arose from it.
It is the 21st century and, after 36 years, I ask the Minister whether the time has come to review the legislation, or at least the way in which we apply it in this country. It would be timely to do so because of the review that is pending of the Government’s 10-year drugs strategy that was launched in 1998. Britain has applied such legislation more strictly than many of our partners in Europe, especially in recent times. The Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden are three countries that have recently seemed more radical than the UK when dealing with the problem of drugs misuse.
Illicit or controlled drugs are classified as class A, B or C on the basis of the harm that they cause to the individual and to society—the ratio is about 50:50—according to the ACMD and others. Drugs that are new to misuse may be placed in one of those three classifications, as recently happened with ketamine. Drugs may be moved from one classification to another; for example, methamphetamine—crystal meth—has recently been reclassified as a class A drug, which is the most harmful category.
In 2004, cannabis was controversially moved from class B to C. I supported that reclassification and still do. Previously, more than 100,000 people—mainly young people—received criminal records for being caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis. They suffered the consequences of that because, for example, they had to declare it on a job or visa application form. Before cannabis was reclassified, there was a further problem that police forces acted inconsistently.
The ABC classification system also takes account of the route of administration of some drugs. Intravenous injection causes secondary harm. For example, it spreads blood-borne diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS.
The classification of a drug has several consequences. In particular, it determines the legal penalties for importation, supply and possession, and the degree of police effort targeted at restricting its use. According to Blakemore:
“The current classification system has evolved in an unsystematic way from somewhat arbitrary foundations with seemingly little scientific basis”.
In any debate such as this, it is important to put facts in context. Although an estimated 3.5 million people misuse controlled drugs, 12 million people smoke tobacco and 43 million use alcohol. Far more people die as a result of using alcohol and tobacco than through the misuse of controlled drugs. Some 90 per cent. of all drug-related deaths are attributed to alcohol and tobacco. More people die in this country from the use of licit drugs than illicit drugs.
A 2006 report from the UN International Narcotics Control Board shows that there has been a significant rise in the misuse of prescription—legal—drugs. According to that report, the abuse of prescription drugs throughout the world, including here in Britain, now outstrips that of controlled drugs, with the possible exception of cannabis in some countries. In this area of policy, we have to be careful that the application of the law, or the creation of new laws, does not merely displace a person from one type of behaviour to another, such as from misusing illicit drugs to misusing over-the-counter products or prescription drugs.
The ABC classification system has come in for a lot of criticism recently from not only our Committee, but, as we have heard from the Committee Chairman, the RSA commission on illegal drugs, communities and public policy, which published a report entitled “Drugs—facing facts” this year. Our Committee concluded that there are
“significant anomalies in the classification of individual drugs and a regrettable lack of consistency in the rationale used to make classification decisions.”
As we have heard, it flagged up the classifications of ecstasy and magic mushrooms. The Committee also concluded:
“the current classification system is not fit for purpose and should be replaced with a more scientifically based scale of harm, decoupled from penalties for possession and trafficking.”
I know that the Committee Chairman has cited that already, but it is good to repeat it.
The evidence that we collected suggested that the ABC classification had no deterrent effect, as we have heard. Indeed, it is highly probable that the great majority of drugs misusers are not aware of the classification system, although constant drugs misusers will of course be aware of the harm caused by individual drugs. I dare to suggest that many in the police are not fully conversant with the classification system either, unless they are involved directly in drugs teams. Our Committee recommended that abused substances, including alcohol and tobacco, should be arranged on a spectrum according to the harm that they cause on the basis of scientific evidence.
As the Committee Chairman just stated, our report on the ABC classification system was part of an overarching investigation. The Government claim that their policies are evidence-based and we do not want to lose sight of that in this debate. Fortunately, in a paper published in volume 369 of The Lancet on 24 March of this year, Professor Colin Blakemore and his colleagues, the names of whom have been read out already, provided
“a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse”
that was based on scientific evidence:
“heroin (most harmful), cocaine, barbiturates, street methadone, alcohol, ketamine, benzodiazepines, amphetamine, tobacco, buprenorphine, cannabis, solvents, 4-MTA, LSD, methyphenidate (Ritalin), anabolic steroids, GHB, ecstasy, amyl nitrites (‘poppers'), and khat (least harmful)”.
The scale includes five legal drugs that are misused and one—ketamine—that was classified only recently. They are included for reference purposes. I emphasise the position of alcohol, tobacco and ecstasy in that scale of harm, as did the Committee Chairman.
Blakemore et al established a nine-parameter matrix by dividing the three categories of harm—physical harm, dependency and social harm—into three sub-categories against which each drug was scored on a scale of zero to three by people working in this policy area. The important conclusion from that work was that the scale of harm differed significantly from that represented by the ABC classification system. Although the two substances with the highest harm ratings—heroin and cocaine—are class A drugs, there was a surprisingly poor correlation overall between a drug’s classification under the ABC system and its harm score according to Blakemore et al.
Blakemore et al concluded that if the Government were to retain a three-category classification system, drugs with harm scores equal to or greater than that of alcohol should be class A drugs, while cannabis and drugs with lesser harm scores than it should be in class C. Of course, that gives rise to the important question of whether our citizens are receiving justice through the application of the ABC classification system. I have to conclude that the answer is no, they are not.
Unfortunately, Blakemore et al have not provided us with harm scores for psilocin or its ester, psilocybin, which are both class A drugs that are constituents of so-called magic mushrooms. I have been unable to get a proper explanation from anybody of why those two chemicals are class A drugs. I have never known them sold on the streets or met people who have used them.
Although the use of magic mushrooms—prepared and, especially, fresh—has increased in recent years, I know of only one death caused by them. On 1 March last year, I questioned the chairman of the ACMD, Professor Michael Rawlins, about the classification of fresh magic mushrooms as a class A substance. When I referred to the classification of psilocin and psilocybin, he said:
“I have no idea what was going through the minds of the people who put them in Class A in 1970 and 1971”.
If we remember that drugs are classified as A, B or C according to the harm that they cause to the individual and to society, it is hard to understand why magic mushrooms, either prepared or fresh, are class A substances. Professor Rawlins admitted that there have been few publications on the properties of psilocin or psilocybin in recent years and that there was little research to support their classification as class A drugs. In his evidence to the Committee on 22 November, Professor Nutt told us that the evidence for placing those substances in class A was “not strong”.
I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill that became the Drugs Act 2005. The Bill was rushed through Parliament ahead of the 2005 general election and as far as I am aware, it was never scrutinised properly by the House of Lords. My understanding was that the Crown was trying to conduct two prosecutions for the sale of magic mushrooms that had been stored in freezers to keep them fresh on the ground that the shopkeeper was selling prepared magic mushrooms, which were already class A substances. Obviously, the Crown was concerned that the prosecutions would fail if that legislation was not rushed through Parliament before the 2005 general election. That is not exactly the way to make evidence-based policy.
I was disappointed, as I think were other Committee members, that the views of the ACMD were not sought formally before fresh magic mushrooms were considered as class A substances, although I accept that doing so was not a statutory requirement. Furthermore, there is always a danger that as the Government get tough on people misusing or abusing one substance, those people will merely start using something else instead. Making magic mushrooms class A substances has displaced people into using alternative substances that might be more dangerous, such as fly agaric.
I put it to the Minister that the classification of psilocin, psilocybin and prepared or fresh magic mushrooms as class A substances has not been carried out with an evidence-based approach. Will he ask the ACMD to classify those substances properly? I hope that he agrees that if the ABC classification of drugs is to be seen as credible by the general public and the penalties for using a drug are to be seen to be just, drugs should be classified according to the best available evidence of the day.
Now that the scale of harm to which I referred has been published in The Lancet, does the Minister expect advice on it to come to him formally from the ACMD in the not-too-distant future? In January 2006, the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), indicated that he thought that the ABC classification system should be reviewed. Professor David Nutt, chairman of the ACMD’s technical committee, expressed his dissatisfaction—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I had just mentioned, before the Division, that a former Home Secretary had implied that there might be a review of the ABC classification system, and that Professor David Nutt, the chairman of the ACMD’s technical committee, had several times before the Committee expressed dissatisfaction with the present tripartite system. Even my hon. Friend the Minister, when he took up his post, suggested that that review might go ahead. Somewhere along the line the Home Office has changed its mind, and it has not given clear reasons, as far as I am aware. Will the Minister, especially in the light of our report and the recent RSA report, which expressed a view on the classification system similar to the Committee’s, reconsider the Home Office position and make it clear to the House? I think that the answer will probably be no, on the ground that that might detract from pursuing all other aspects of the Government’s current 10-year drug strategy, but I hope that my hon. Friend will not give that answer.
Perhaps more controversial than the classification of magic mushrooms has been the classification—and, indeed, the recent reclassification—of cannabis; but what is cannabis? There appear to be upwards of 100 varieties of the cannabis sativa plant, with more than 20 in commercial production. The strength of the main psychoactive ingredient, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, varies according to the species of plant and the part of the plant that is harvested, from about 5 per cent. to about 20 per cent. In recent years the terms “skunk” and “superskunk” have been widely used by the media to describe the varieties of cannabis containing particularly high concentrations of THC. Politicians and others—including me, occasionally—have repeated the often quoted statement that cannabis on sale on the streets today is much stronger than the cannabis that was on sale in the ‘60s. However, I have been in correspondence recently with quite a few regular users of cannabis—I did not solicit the correspondence; it was sent to me voluntarily—and my correspondents include a member of the Cannabis Assembly. They tell me that when politicians and the media make those statements, the regular users of cannabis merely laugh at us. The fact is that virtually no research has been done on street cannabis to establish either what is on sale or the concentration of THC in it.
The flowering tops of unfertilised female cannabis plants, sensimilla, have always been a source of higher potency cannabis, so there is nothing new about high-strength cannabis. Why is that relevant? Those who want cannabis to be reclassified yet again from C to B argue that there is a link between that much stronger cannabis and the apparently increasing incidence of mental disease among cannabis users. Some years ago, the all-party group on drugs misuse conducted an inquiry into dual diagnosis, long before that became accepted by most professionals in the treatment arena. Obviously, a person who is mentally ill and is also a serious drug misuser needs holistic treatment, for both conditions. Previously patients had to be treated for one or other condition, but not both at the same time, which was highly unsatisfactory, and often failed. It is now generally recognised that about half of the relevant group of people become mentally ill from their abuse of drugs, licit or illicit—including alcohol—and that the rest turn to abusing drugs because they are mentally ill.
In my opinion the jury is still out on whether cannabis causes mental illness. One thing is clear: we need a lot more research to establish the facts clearly. However, I am told that about 4 million people in Britain today use cannabis of one form or another from week to week—some of them from day to day. Very few of those, by comparison, become mentally ill. For users who do become mentally ill, a causal link has not yet been established between the use of cannabis and the mental illness.
The plain fact is that since cannabis was reclassified as a class C drug, the use of all forms of cannabis has declined, especially among young people, contrary to the predictions made by those who opposed its reclassification during heated debates in the period between the announcement in 2002 and the reclassification in 2004. Is that not some proof that the classification given to a drug is unimportant? What is important is that the harm that all drugs cause should be publicised to everyone.
The position is as follows. While the Select Committee was collecting its evidence, which shows that the ABC classification system—a table of harms that drugs cause—is not fit for purpose, the chairman of the ACMD and the chairman of its technical committee were defending the status quo while knowingly, behind the scenes, receiving evidence of which the Government, too, must have been well aware, that a much better scale of harm was possible, based on scientific evidence. I put it to the Minister: does that not put the Government in an extremely difficult position?
I congratulate the Select Committee on its splendid report, which I am afraid will, along with the Wootton report, the Runciman report, the Police Foundation report and the RSA report, be totally ignored by the Government. It is a document of intelligence and is based on genuine research and evidence. However, such reports have been produced for 40 years now and none of them has influenced Government opinion in any way.
The final report having been produced, the Government produced their response. It is a remarkable document, in which they try to justify their response to the Committee. On reading it, the document inspired a powerful memory in me; I had read something like it before. I was thinking of the trial of Galileo, when he was arraigned by the Church. On one side were all the forces of prejudice, superstition and ignorance, set against a man of science who was making arguments based on rationality and evidence.
I do not want to embarrass the Minister or the others who gave evidence too much, but I will make one point. I thought that when the Committee discussed the Government’s basis for the classification system, it was commendably patient. It asked again and again on what basis the Government reached their decisions. On page 7 of the follow-up document containing oral and written evidence, we read that the Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), said
“you have not commissioned any research and nor have the ACMD.”
The Minister answered:
“No, but what we have said in response to where the Committee challenged us and said, ‘Where is your evidence base for that?’, as we have done with a number of other things, we said that we understand that point, we accept that point and we need to look at establishing a better evidence base for that”—
and so on.
Thirty-five years after this country passed the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which established the classifications, we are about to consider searching for evidence on which the system was based. We know that the system was based on the prejudice of the time. A good guide to the value of Government policy is that when there is a policy before the House on which every party agrees—that happened in 1971, and in 1998 there was only one voice in the Chamber opposing the policy—the policy will not work.
This is not an issue on which any of us can relax or feel that it is trivial. As recently as five hours ago, I was approached by a parent who lost a child as a result of drugs. Two people have died because of drugs in my constituency in the past eight months. I believe that in all three of those cases, the people would not have died if they had been living in Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland or Belgium. They were killed not only by the drugs, but by the drug laws. They were killed by the stupidity and cowardice of politicians.
All the debates on the issue—I have been attending them for 20 years in the House—are marked by the same thing. In that regard, I was struck by a comment from a member of the drugs misuse committee when a Minister came along last year and gave the usual story: that we must rely on the policy that we have been following for the past 48 years, which has depended mainly on the criminal justice system. That member of the committee, who had a great deal of experience of drugs as a former heroin addict, said that he had been attending sittings of the committee for many years. He gave a list of all the Tory and Labour Ministers responsible for drugs policy and said that every one of them had talked—the word he used rhymes with rowlocks and starts with b, and it was an absolutely accurate description of Government policy and what has been happening through the years.
We have had not policy that is based on sense; we have had policy that has been influenced by the media and the tabloid writers. Any party—I am sorry that a Liberal Democrat Member has not spoken so far here today; I hope that they will later—that suggested a different policy on drugs was denounced as a party that had gone to pot. The party would be wounded by that and the policy was never apparent again. We must look at the dreadful legacy.
I do not want to preface what I shall say later, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that our policy remains our policy. We are not ashamed of it. We promote it at every opportunity, because we think that it is the best way to crack—if hon. Members will excuse the expression—the problems caused by drugs. We agree with the hon. Gentleman that the policy is evidence-based and sensible. I hope that he will continue to support our policy.
Indeed—entirely. However, I think that there is a sense of desperation. I have spoken at committee meetings for many years and I treasure memories from about 12 years ago of speaking in a debate in the Chamber which both Front-Bench spokesmen had to leave at a certain point because they were in need of a fix—both were chain-smokers. After denouncing the terrible drugs that young people were using, they would probably go down to the bar and have a whisky in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and a couple of paracetamols in their pocket for later in the night. Neither of them saw the irony in the fact that they could not last three hours in a debate without having a fix of a drug to which they were addicted—a drug which is in many ways a great deal more dangerous than the drugs covered by the classification system. In the new classification that we have seen, nicotine comes very high when it is smoked; when taken in other ways, its classification is lower. Our system is entirely irrational.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) was extremely generous about the Drugs Act 2005 in saying that there was not much of an evidence base for classifying magic mushrooms as a class A drug. It is an act of insanity to give magic mushrooms the same classification as heroin. The only reason why the legislation went through, with the support of the two main parties—and their cowardice—was that a general election was fast approaching. No party—the Liberal Democrats were relatively silent on the issue—had the courage to say, “This is absolute nonsense. You’re sending completely the wrong signal by giving magic mushrooms that classification.” I have never heard of any deaths because of magic mushrooms. My hon. Friend said that there had been one such death. If there have been deaths because of magic mushrooms, they have certainly been very rare.
Some evidence given to the Select Committee was very compelling. The Transform Drug Policy Foundation argued very persuasively in its evidence that the present policy is based on false assumptions and the underlying historical prohibition—we are talking about an act of prohibition of drugs, which has never been effective; the problems are the same as those associated with the prohibition of alcohol—rather than evidence of the efficacy of the classification system at reducing drug harm.
Can the Minister tell us of any major reduction in drug harm? Let us think back to before 1971, when the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed. The number of cocaine and heroin addicts—it was mostly heroin in this country—was fewer than 1,000. After 35 years of the harshest drug laws and penalties in Europe, we now have not 1,000 addicts, but 280,000 addicts. Holland, after 25 years of regulated, policed decriminalisation has a fraction of the drug use that takes place in this country. Probably the most spectacular evidence of all comes from Portugal, where, in 2005, a courageous Government took on the prejudice of the time, without the support of the press or even many of their parliamentary colleagues, and depenalised drug use. As a result, Portugal has halved the number of drug deaths in that country. The evidence has been independently verified by people from another state.
Can the UK Government not get it through their head that what they have been doing, sitting in their comfortable armchair of traditional policy—so that they do not have to think about anything; they just make the same mistakes as their predecessors—is killing people? This is our responsibility, because it is not people outside who are causing these deaths. We are causing them through our failure to examine rationally policies that work.
The policies that work are those that involve health outcomes—for example, needle exchanges. The Conservatives, to their credit, introduced one pragmatic policy on needle exchanges, but why not have the shooting-up galleries as well? We know that they have been effective when they have been tried in Europe and elsewhere. They keep people away from street heroin, allowing them to use heroin of known purity and quality in controlled conditions, and help is available afterwards. In our country, addicts take heroin of unknown quality using dirty needles in foul surroundings—no wonder they have a short life expectancy. In contrast, countries such as the Netherlands have homes for geriatric addicts who have become addicted for life.
We as politicians have a terrible record in this area. I heard the optimistic comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough about the possibility of our getting an answer today that contains some evidence of the Government’s policy. I have no hope that that will take place. I remember labouring for years trying to persuade this House to ban bull bars. I managed to bore the nation stiff about that subject for many years. I introduced a Bill, as did many other hon. Members—I am going back to 1994 and 1996 here—and although we now have a ban on the manufacture and sale of bull bars, it came not from this House, but from Europe.
In a fortnight’s time, I shall be before the Council of Europe as rapporteur on a report that seeks a new convention on drugs. The report says that relying on the criminal justice system does not work, is hugely expensive, causes a great number of deaths and increases the amount of drug crime. We need to heed the health outcomes of needle exchanges and treatment. I should give the Government some credit because they have done something on treatment. Progress has been made in that regard but not in any other area, because the mindset remains the same.
Where are the politicians? In 40 years, not a single politician has stood up and agreed with all these reports—as I have said, this is the latest of many. We have been shown the rational argument and the way to reduce the number of deaths and drug crime. No rational argument is presented by the Government response, and that is a disgrace. The Ministers who continue in this job are not ones who deserve the respect of this House.
This House has not behaved in a reasonable way for many years. We have let down the families of the tens of thousands of people who have died as a result of drug use since 1971. When I have put that argument before the present Minister and many other Ministers in the past, it has never been heeded. There is a way of reducing the harm of drugs, but that way is not MPs, politicians and parties behaving in a way that ignores rationality, ignores the evidence and ignores the truth.
I speak with two hats on today: I have been a member of the Science and Technology Committee, including during this extremely enjoyable inquiry into evidence-based policy making and this particular case study, and I speak as the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman.
May I say that it is a pleasure once again to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow? Had you not been in the Chair, I suspect that although you are a scrupulously neutral Chairman, you might have participated in this debate speaking from the Conservative Benches. I am not sure, because sadly we shall never know, whether you would have agreed with everything that Front Benchers said in this area.
I ought to say a number of things at the outset. First, we have had an interesting and good but one-sided debate. It would appear that the Back Benchers who have been inspired to turn up are highly critical of the current system and of the Government and the Conservative Front Bench team’s support for it. It is important to note that not a single Labour or Conservative Back Bencher can come to support their policy, particularly given that there are easy headlines to be grabbed. The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) made it clear that much of the posturing in this area results from a desire to attract good headlines and a keenness to avoid bad ones. It is remarkable that people have such a lack of interest in coming to support their policy.
It is important to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for the way in which he chaired the inquiry, as well as for how he introduced this debate. He made a number of important points, thus saving me from having to make them both as a member of the Committee and, where they agreed with Liberal Democrat policy, as a Liberal Democrat spokesman.
I do not know whether it is appropriate to declare an interest in terms of past drug use. In a sense, this has become fashionable, but in another it has become unfashionable. I am prepared to confess that I am one of what is probably a minority of MPs who are willing to admit that they have never taken illicit drugs. I accept that, at least among parliamentarians of my age, and having gone to university, I am unusual in that regard. That at least means that I do not have a vested interest in trying to protect my past and the prospect of criminal sanction when I seek a much more effective way of tackling the drug problem. My approach does not criminalise users as much as the current system does, and it targets the dealers and the people who exploit the vulnerable in the illicit drug trade.
The current system simply is not working. Whenever I read the adverse press comments—they have been mentioned by the hon. Member for Newport, West—about Liberal Democrat drug policy being too liberal and not tough enough, I am always reassured by the fact that the current system is not working, and that every independent inquiry that has examined it recognises that it is not working. Lists of such inquiries were given by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, who set out the fact that every independent inquiry that has looked at this system accepts that it is not working because of its failure to recognise the problems of an approach that is so reliant on the criminal justice system and that does not recognise that drug users need medical help and not the services of the prison system. I find that situation reassuring.
I accept that our approach enables headlines in the right-wing tabloid press to attack an effective drugs policy as being weak, and allows the Labour and Conservative parties, during parliamentary by-elections, to produce cheap leaflet headlines about people being soft on drugs. Without being defensive, I can say that our party is tough on drugs, because we back effective policies. Such policies work in other countries in which they have been tried and there is a huge amount of evidence that they would work well in this country.
I want to make it clear how much importance I attach to the role of evidence in policy. This has two levels, and the wider report of the Science and Technology Committee on evidence-based policy making, which I commend to hon. Members, makes these points clearly. Self-evidently, it is best if policy that can be made on the basis of evidence is made in that way. Clearly, there are some policies for which there is no evidence or for which an evidence base is unhelpful, and we are not talking about those. There are some policies where evidence is a factor, but where economic and ideological considerations are involved. I understand that if a manifesto commitment is made to something that is not evidence-based, it is more difficult to berate the Government for not following the evidence. I accept that there is a hierarchy of policies that can be based on evidence.
The key point is that where the Government claim that a policy is evidence-based, it must be evidence-based, otherwise a deceit takes place that undermines faith in the Government’s scientific advisory system and in politics itself. When the Government have a policy that is not evidence-based, or that is evidence-free when it might or would benefit from the evidence, such as drugs enforcement policy, the Government have a duty to say that it is not an evidence-based policy and that it is ideological, economic or media-based. I would have far more respect for the Government’s position—although I have enormous respect for the Minister—if they said, “This isn’t evidence-based. We’re doing it because it’s political.” Then we could all stop wasting our time trying to persuade the Government of the evidence, and the ACMD could go home. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough referred to a number of instances in which the views of the ACMD and its members in the literature are at variance with the Government’s policy.
The one thing that I look forward to hearing the Minister say, other than that the Government have changed their policy on any of the issues introduced by my hon. Friend, is that he accepts that the policy of refusing even to consider reclassifying ecstasy, for example, from class A to class B is based not on any semblance of evidence or willingness to hear evidence, but on raw politics. I feel strongly about this matter, because I feel passionately about the issue of evidence, and the drug classification system is one in which evidence can apply.
When I was employed in public health medicine in a training role, there was an old joke about an epidemiologist in court on a charge. The judge said, “How do you plead—guilty or not guilty?” The epidemiologist said, “I don’t know. I can’t answer that question; I haven’t heard the evidence yet.” I accept that one can sometimes go too far in thinking that everything must be evidence-based, but in this area we must accept it. I hope that Hansard will note that there was laughter at that point—well, chuckles.
One can get carried away, but not on this issue, because so many lives are affected—those of the victims of the health effects of both legal and illegal drugs and of their families—and such a huge amount of resource is spent on a criminal justice approach that could be spent on treatment and education. It is a tragedy all the way around, and my colleagues and I feel strongly about it.
My hon. Friend raised a number of issues, and I shall pick up a couple. One of my questions for the Minister concerns research. During his evidence session in the Committee on 22 November 2006, in question No. 66, we pointed out that the Home Office was said to have commissioned secondary research. We wanted a list of the commissioning, particularly in response to the ACMD’s 2002 report on cannabis, its 2003 report on hidden harm and its 2004 report on ketamine, as we had been told that the ACMD had requested research on all those matters.
The Minister said that he would write and, as a man of his word, he did. His letter of 30 November noted that the ACMD had called for research. It said:
“We will consider these carefully when preparing the Government response”
to the ACMD report “Pathways to Problems”
“for publication in the new year.”
The letter also listed what the reports stated, but I still do not think that we have seen research specifically commissioned by the Home Office in response to recommendations from the ACMD, which has limited capacity for research, if any. It is sad for such a body to be reliant on a Department to do research when we do not hear whether that research is being properly commissioned.
During our inquiry, we made a number of strongly worded recommendations. I have re-read the report, and—this is not always the case—I would stand by almost all of them, although a couple were looser than they might have been. I was particularly disappointed personally to read the ACMD’s response to our report. To use the words of the Chairman himself, that response was defensive to the point of being paranoid about the criticisms made in our report.
For example, the ACMD regarded our report as a “disappointment” and said:
“The Committee’s discussion and conclusions go much further than its own terms of reference—and investigations—permit.”
I know that the ACMD is full of distinguished people, but for it to tell a parliamentary Committee what it should inquire into and what it can recommend is remarkable. I admire the chairman of the ACMD, who puts up with much more criticism than we ever gave him in his role as the chairman of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. I hope that he is as robust in his dealings with the Minister as the ACMD was in its bizarre response to our report.
The report made a number of criticisms of how the ACMD works. In particular, it criticised the role of the ACMD. For example, we argued that there was a concern about whether that role was understood. Given that the then Home Secretary seemed not to understand what it was, we repeatedly asserted that
“clinical, medical harm is the advisory council’s predominant consideration”
and concluded that it is perturbing that the chairman of the ACMD, who pointed out that social harms were given equal weight in its deliberations, and the then Home Secretary have publicly expressed contradictory views about the council’s remit.
The ACMD’s response was:
“It is unfortunate that the previous Home Secretary was inadequately briefed on the breadth of the remit of the ACMD.”
I do not know what evidence it had that the briefing was inadequate rather than that those were just the then Home Secretary’s views. In another part of the report, we expressed regret that Association of Chief Police Officers members on the ACMD appeared not to understand their role. The report pointed out:
“There is no point ACPO having a seat on the ACMD if its representatives do not bring their expertise to bear on the problems under discussion…It is highly disconcerting that the Chair of the ACPO Drugs Committee appears to be labouring under a misapprehension about his role on the ACMD more than four years into his term of office.”
In response to that reasonably fair criticism, and given that we had heard direct evidence from the ACMD, that organisation sought to point out that the ACPO members are not representatives, and that we were wrong to call them so. In fact, in using the word “representatives”, we were quoting directly from the then Home Office Minister, who said in evidence to us:
“Two representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) are full members of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and contribute their expertise and knowledge of policing issues to the council”.
The ACMD lashed out in its response against the Government’s misapprehensions, not ours.
It was extremely disappointing to see an apparently independent advisory council such as this being so defensive as not even to concentrate on the main points that we were making and to err in its own response by trying to be pedantic. When being pedantic, one must be right. Otherwise, it is unnecessary pedantry. At the risk of being accused, I shall move on.
The report raised a number of other issues in its recommendations, many of which were covered by the other hon. Members who have spoken. I agree with what was said about the report in The Lancet in March this year. It is a significant step for active senior members of the ACMD such as David Nutt and Colin Blakemore to publish in the medical literature a peer-reviewed paper so critical of the basis for the drug classification system. It is key. They said:
“Our findings raise questions about the validity of the current Misuse of Drugs Act classification, despite the fact that it is nominally based on an assessment of risk to users and society. The discrepancies between our findings and current classifications are especially striking in relation to psychedelic-type drugs.”
I do not think that it is right that the ACMD, at the time that we published our report, should never have considered whether the classification system to which it worked was appropriate, but at least some of its members took the initiative in doing research and publishing their findings in peer-reviewed journals. Surely that will give the Minister pause for thought and make him sit up and say, “Perhaps something is wrong with our existing policy, it needs looking at and the then Home Secretary’s decision all those months ago is worth revisiting.” It can only be disappointing for a Select Committee to hold an inquiry, to be boosted by an announcement of Government policy during that inquiry, to hear that a draft consultation paper is being prepared and to agree with the premise of that consultation paper, only for the Government to cancel their decision. That is extremely disappointing.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the Government’s difficulties is the public perception that the classification system is so linked to the criminal justice system that to decouple the two would cause irreparable harm to their fight against drugs? The Committee was suggesting—there is a genuine misunderstanding—not that the criminal justice system should not be looked at with regard to drugs, but that the classification system, in being decoupled, should have a clear evidence base for where drugs are placed in relation to each other in a classification of harm, leaving the Home Office, the Minister and his colleagues to look at policy on the criminal justice system. That is a real difficulty.
Indeed. It is important to say that the Select Committee’s report did not say that there should not be a criminal justice approach. That was not within its remit, and I do not want to give the impression that it was. It made it clear that the current system of linking the scale of harm to penalties is flawed, and that sending out messages with no evidence is also flawed, as my hon. Friend made clear in his excellent opening speech. Even without the Minister accepting that pursuing the criminal justice-based approach to the exclusion or detriment of any other approaches is wrong, it is easy for the Government to accept the report’s recommendations. It is a unanimous report from people who do not all share my view or that of my party colleagues that the focus of the Government’s approach is wrong. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.
The report raised concerns about the relationship between the ACMD and Departments. Again and inevitably, the ACMD was extremely defensive in its response and argued that there were perfectly good links with other Departments. It stated:
“The council has numerous and extensive interactions…with the Department of Health”.
“It is unclear…how, or why, the Committee considers the links between the ACMD and other Departments are deficient.”
There are good reasons for the Committee thinking that. The Department for Education and Skills seems keen to promote random drug testing in schools. When I heard that that was happening in a Kent school where someone had been given a role in that work by the Government and had resigned as head teacher in order to carry it out, I looked at the evidence base. I noted that the ACMD report “Pathways to Problems” states:
“We recommend that drug testing and sniffer dogs should not be used in schools. We consider that the complex ethical, technical and organisational issues, the potential impact on the school-pupil relationship and the costs would not be offset by the potential gains.”
I understand that that Kent school has now dropped the idea. It was extremely costly in the first place because the tests had to be paid for, and the outcomes were almost non-existent. Only one or two cases involving children who had used drugs materialised, if that. The evidence from America shows that putting sniffer dogs into schools is a bad idea.
Indeed. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I am aware of the evidence. On 31 May 2006, BBC Online said:
“Peter Walker has resigned as head teacher of the Kent school where the pilot was conducted, and is appointed as the UK Government ambassador for random drug testing.”
It went on to say that he had
“travelled to Washington to meet US drugs tsar John Walters.”
As I understand it, the Department for Education and Skills was going to announce funding for more schools to sign up to random testing. If the project had been properly researched or was a trial that was to be properly evaluated with a clear protocol, rather than a case of seeking to fund something because it sounded good, I would not criticise it. However, given that the ACMD did not recommend piloting a scheme, but was against that, it is not unreasonable for the Select Committee to question its links with the Department for Education and Skills, particularly if a clear recommendation seems to have been ignored in respect of one of the few policies relating to the ACMD’s work that the Department for Education and Skills has promoted.
I want to talk about politicians’ approach to the matter. It is important, and I hope that you will bear with me, Mr. Bercow. As has been said, the failure to grasp the importance of the need to tackle the problem properly and honestly is depressing. I want to set out Liberal Democrat policy, if only to reassure the hon. Member for Newport, West that we are very clear about it.
We want to re-establish the existing ACMD as a standing drugs commission with a remit to look at the effects and abuse of all drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, to reallocate resources to drugs treatment, education and rehabilitation facilities, to introduce measures to reduce drug dependency, including specialist heroin treatment clinics, and to allow GPs to prescribe emergency doses of heroin in certain circumstances.
There is good evidence from other countries to show that allowing the health care system to help users who are not deterred by the prospect of prosecution and imprisonment would do far more to fight crime, because of the impact of acquisitive crime by drug addicts. I look forward to the Minister giving me some comfort on that.
I apologise for intervening, because it is often better to listen to the whole debate and to respond at the end, but this may be helpful to the hon. Gentleman. Of the people who enter drug treatment, 80 per cent. do so through the NHS and health programmes, and 20 per cent. do so through the criminal justice system. I wanted to highlight that point, because there is often a misconception among the general public that the vast majority of people who enter treatment do so through the criminal justice system. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about treatment, and part of our success has been significantly to increase the number who enter treatment.
That is an interesting intervention, and I am afraid that I shall become epidemiological again. I am grateful to the Minister for engaging, but an increased number of people coming forward for treatment might reflect an increased number of users, so that might not be a sign of winning the war. I think he would accept that, and I am not criticising him. Raw numbers do not necessarily provide the answer. I am not sure whether he is saying that an increased proportion is coming through the health care sector rather than the enforcement sector, which might indicate that more resources are going into the health care side and that the enforcement approach is failing relatively speaking, or it could mean that people are less deterred by fear of being criminalised and are coming forward. It is not clear what the figures mean.
However, it is clear—this should at least be tried—that if hard-drug-users were told that they could be treated with replacement therapy before reduction therapy and without being sent to prison or being charged, and we went after the dealers rather than the users, there would be a huge incentive for people not to resort to prostitution and acquisitive crime, because they could get their fix from a doctor, even if they did not yet want to come off drugs. I accept that that needs resources, but the scale of acquisitive crime in terms of shoplifting is remarkable.
I am conscious of the fact that we are discussing drug classification rather than general enforcement issues, but I wanted briefly to set out some of the key issues. It would be good for enforcement if ecstasy were reclassified from class A to class B, separating it from the most dangerous drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine. At the very least, we would want to see the evidence, otherwise it would be wrong of us to criticise the Government for not listening to the evidence. If the ACMD considered it and argued that ecstasy should remain as class A on a basis that we supported, rather than a basis framed by the Government’s approach, we would reconsider the issue. Let us be clear about that. It is clear that if people have to go to class A drug dealers to get hold of ecstasy, which young people use on such a widespread scale, the dealers might want to sell them stuff that was even more addictive, and which produced even higher returns for them. That must be understood.
We strongly support the Government’s position on cannabis as a class C drug. In fact, as the Minister knows, we would go further. The Conservative party feel strongly about the issue, but I say to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) that we the Liberal Democrats recognise that it is a dangerous drug, and that I as a doctor realise that it is bad for people. I have never taken it, because I do not see why I should put my health at risk through those means.
The question is not about cannabis being harmful, however, because if we were rational about that issue, measures on cigarettes and alcohol would be enforced to a greater extent. I recognise the scientific expertise of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East, but the question is not about how strong cannabis is or about what evidence there is about its contribution to psychosis. The whole issue plays on the need to educate, not to enforce, given the number of people who are at risk.
I do not understand why politicians want to get into that posturing—that Dutch auction. I remember when, some time ago, the Conservative party, at the behest of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), wanted to take a very tough line, which was derailed by the fact that many of the shadow Cabinet then admitted that they had been cannabis users. That fact is not relevant, however; the policy was wrong. The fact that they had taken it shows that the policy was wrong, but they should have dropped the policy not because of that fact, but because it was wrong.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald was making what was to her a powerful point, saying that there was a slippery slope, and that if somebody started taking cannabis, they would end up in terrible degradation. The seven people who made the admission said “We took cannabis, and we ended up on the Tory Front Bench.” Did not that support her policy?
Yes, indeed. The hon. Gentleman brings me to the case of the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), a constituency neighbour of mine, whom I greatly admire. However, I see in the Oxford Mail the headline, “Boris: I took cocaine and cannabis”. The article says:
“Top Tory MP Boris Johnson has admitted to smoking cannabis and snorting cocaine, but few of his Oxfordshire colleagues shared his candour when approached last night.”
None of the Oxfordshire MPs, other than myself, was prepared to discuss their past, and if the Conservative party wants to take an enforcement-based approach, it should call for the hon. Gentleman’s prosecution. I must say that I would rush to his defence, but it seems that with his confession, he is bang to rights. Unless Conservative policy is for a statute of limitations, it would not seem sensible that people who have possessed and used class A drugs should be exempt 10 or 20 years on because they took them only at university. I do not understand the rationale behind that idea.
Why should a politician—let us not be too specific—want to condemn potentially tens or hundreds of thousands of young people to a criminal record, but then say that they are entitled to privacy themselves? A defendant cannot say, “It is a private matter. Before I became a bricklayer, I was at college, and I am entitled to keep private my life before I became a bricklayer” or, indeed, “I am entitled to keep private my life before I became unemployed.” Why should the suggestion that one is entitled to a private life before one becomes an MP be used as a defence by a party that wants to prosecute without any exceptions? I think I have made my point.
I applaud the Science and Technology Committee, the other members—not myself—of the Committee, the staff and the Chairman. No greater honour may be given to the Chairman, the Committee members and the staff than that which Lord Cobbold gave in the House of Lords in January, when he said:
“I am of course aware of the excellent report of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Drug Classification: Making a hash of it?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 563.]
The report’s title stated that current drug classification policy was not fit for purpose, and the Government face an enormous challenge to change its direction. I accept that it will not happen overnight, but I hope that, at the very least, the Government will identify which parts of their policies are evidence-based and which are politics-based, because they are entitled to do so. I hope also that they will agree not to attack other parties for having evidence-based policies, which scientists, scientific advisers and the published medical literature support, when they themselves do not have policies that stand up to the same scrutiny.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow.
I begin by thanking the Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), for his report and his colleagues for their work in producing it. I thank him also for the measured way in which he introduced the subject, which cannot be said of all speeches this afternoon. The title of the report, which was published last July, “Drug classification: making a hash of it?”, demonstrates not only that he has—to a certain extent—a sense of humour, but that he is critical of the Government’s approach to illegal drug classification.
If one turns to part 7 of the report, one sees on page 42 the way in which the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs approaches classification. There are three categories: “Physical harm”, “Dependence”, and “Social harms”. Within those are the types of harm, or factors, that influence the ACMD’s approach. In relation to physical harm, the ACMD talks about “Acute”, “Chronic” or “Parenteral”; in relation to dependence, it talks about the “Intensity of pleasure”, “Psychological dependence” and “Physical dependence”; and in relation to social harms, it talks about “Intoxication”, “Other social harms” and “Healthcare costs”.
Paragraph 94 of the report says:
“It is important to note that most of the current classifications of drugs were not decided on the basis of the risk assessment process described above. This is reflected in the conclusion drawn by the RAND report that ‘classification is not based upon a set of standards for harm caused by a drug; it varies depending on the drug in question’. DrugScope also told us: ‘there is no standard assessment tool or set of criteria of harm against which to match the different drugs’.”
That seems to be a perfectly fair and legitimate criticism, which is based on evidence.
The report goes on to make another fair and legitimate criticism. It notes that on 19 January 2006, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), said:
“The more that I have considered these matters, the more concerned I have become about the limitations of our current system…I will in the next few weeks publish a consultation paper with suggestions for a review of the drug classification system, on the basis of which I will make proposals in due course.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 983.]
As three or perhaps four hon. Members have said, the review has not been undertaken, or if it has, it has not been publicly referred to. If it has been undertaken, I do not believe that we have seen any of its results. Such a legitimate criticism can be made of the Government on this difficult issue.
Let me declare an interest of sorts: I still sit as a Crown court recorder—a part-time Crown court judge. You will not be surprised to hear, Mr. Bercow, that a huge proportion of the cases with which the Crown court deals concern illegal drugs. We know, because there has been plenty of discussion of this today, that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 approaches the question of drugs through the ABC classification. As a sentencer, I have to consider, among other things, the classification of the drug involved in the offence before me as a guide to sentencing.
As a sentencer, is the hon. and learned Gentleman at ease with the fact that although someone might be sentenced to prison for drug use, there is not a single prison in Britain that is free of illegal drug use?
The hon. Gentleman anticipates me and his intervention invites me to get ahead of myself. I congratulate him on the consistency of his approach to the issue. I do not always share his views, but it is important that the House of Commons contains people with different views. It is important that Government Back Benchers should feel free—indeed, ferociously free—to say the sorts of things that the hon. Gentleman has said on this issue, not just today, but on other occasions. I have seen him being severely put down by his Front-Bench colleagues over the 15 years in which I have been a Member of the House. It is a pity when people resort to ad hominem attacks, when arguments that might or might not be agreeable—
Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. and learned Gentleman, but once again I have become aware that there is a Division in the House—unfortunately, the Division bell is not ringing in here today, but there is a Division. Therefore, I suspend the sitting for 15 minutes. The debate will resume at 4.37 pm.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
By the time that I finish, hon. Members might think that it is not a bad idea to have a 15-minute break every now and then during my speeches so that they can recover.
I shall not return to my initial remarks about the intervention made by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn)—I think he got my point. I shall deal with my position as a sentencer in detail a bit later, but I make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that what I do as a Member of Parliament and what I do as a judge are entirely separate. As a judge, I do what Parliament and the law require of me; as a Member of Parliament, I hope that I make policy and law—whether as an Opposition or Government Member. As is proper, the two functions are entirely separate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give him a running commentary on every sentence that I have passed in respect of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
However, I invite the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members present to look—not now, perhaps, but later—at Ev 113, a page towards the end of the evidence section of the report. It contains a table that lists the drugs covered by the schedules to the 1971 Act and sets out the classifications of ecstasy, LSD, cocaine, heroin and the class B and class C drugs.
Notwithstanding the concern of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) about magic mushrooms, the most controversial drugs issue for the past year, or perhaps longer, has been cannabis. I shall not repeat the facts because that would be tedious and I am insufficiently well versed in the science. Various arguments have been made about what I would call modern cannabis, as opposed to the sort that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) did not take as an undergraduate some 20 years ago. The table that I mentioned contains a helpful list of illegal drugs and the way in which they are categorised, and despite the fact that the report is critical of the approach of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to classification, there must have been some form of intellectual process behind the grading of drugs under the ABC system. All I have to say on that subject is that the classes are a guide to sentencing. I shall not talk about a particular case, but when the courts are sentencing, they clearly need to know Parliament’s view of the seriousness of the harm—be it public, social or personal harm—caused by a drug as a matter of public policy.
When a judge sentences, he looks not only at the schedules, but to previous authorities from the Court of Appeal and, now, the Sentencing Guidelines Council to see what the higher courts consider to be the correct way in which to deal with an offender who has committed a drug offence. One considers the defendant’s previous history, the quantity of the drug that he has in his possession, the value of the drug—one often has to listen to expert, or less than expert, evidence about the street value of that drug—and the purpose for which he had the drugs.
It might be of some comfort to the hon. Member for Newport, West, although probably not much, to hear that if a defendant had a small amount of a class C drug in his possession purely for personal use, the court would, because Parliament advises it to do so, take a less punitive view than it would if the defendant was an industrial importer of a class A drug and the huge quantities of drugs with which he was caught were for resale. That is not a terribly difficult concept to grasp. It seems, at least from a criminal justice point of view—the debate is being answered by a Home Office Minister and I am a Home Office shadow Minister—perfectly legitimate to have a classification system for drugs so long as we continue to believe, and Parliament decides, that the possession of certain substances should be against the law.
Although I know that the hon. Member for Newport, West would like to have such a debate in Government time, today is not the day to discuss whether the drugs in classes A, B and C, or any other drug—alcohol, for example—should or should not be illegal. I urge hon. Members who have so carefully contributed to the debate and the report to bear in mind that that is at least one of the purposes of the classification system, albeit that I suspect that many of them have some disagreement about whether the drugs are in the right box of that system.
I do not want to be personally offensive to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, although I was tempted to be personally offensive to his colleague, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. However, I chide the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough as Chairman of the Committee. Although I do not think that he intended to be rude about the witnesses who appeared before him, and while I dare say that he was probably frustrated by the answers that he received, when one is preparing and publishing an important Select Committee report—I hope that he does not take this badly—it sometimes helps the discussion if one reduces the personal and increases the impersonal. That is my only criticism of his most valuable report.
When I say that that is my only criticism, I do not mean to suggest that I wholly agree or disagree with many of the recommendations. I agree with some, while some need further study and others probably will not be taken much further. None the less, the report is valuable and deserves the Government’s consideration. I could tell that the hon. Gentleman was a little cross with some of the responses that he received in the follow-up document and the evidence session with the Minister and the two witnesses from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
That aside, we are considering one of the most problematic issues with which any set of public policy makers or any Department—whether it is the Home Office, the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills or one of the ancillary agencies that take an interest in drug use, abuse and addiction—have to grapple. Irrespective of the ABC classifications, drugs are one of the causes of most problems in our criminal justice and health systems.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) set up a body called the Social Justice Policy Group, which reported earlier this year that there are 325,000 adult problem drug users in the United Kingdom. The report termed it “an explosion in addiction”. It has been found that Britain has a higher recorded use of opiate use—opiates are predominately class A—than anywhere else in the world. This country has the highest use rates for cocaine, another class A drug, in Europe and 6.8 per cent. of UK adults, more than 3 million people, have tried cocaine at least once—the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon proudly told us that he was not part of that 6.8 per cent. That information comes from an annual report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, “The state of the drugs problem in Europe”, which was published in November 2005.
Another factor that we must bear in mind is that the street price of heroin, a class A drug under the 1971 Act, has dropped by 45 per cent. over the past five years and the price of cocaine, another class A drug, has dropped by 22 per cent. Drug deaths have risen a hundredfold since 1968, when there were only nine drug deaths. One can see that in the past 40 years or so the effects of the misuse of drugs have become a huge social and public policy problem that has to be dealt with. According to the Home Office, the cost of dealing with drug abuse in Britain is between £10 billion and £17 billion a year.
How do I see the problem? As the shadow Minister for home affairs who deals with prisons, and as someone who has visited nearly 25 custodial institutions—adult prisons and young offender institutions—over the past 15 or 16 months, I have seen the evidence of drug abuse and addiction. I see people who are sent to prison who, it seems, do not care very much whether they are inside for the use of a class A, B or C drugs. They are inside, and this returns to the point about which the hon. Member for Newport, West asked—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
According to the 2004-05 British crime survey published by the Home Office in October 2005, there are more than 1 million class A drug users in Britain. Since 1996, the number of cocaine offences has quadrupled—again, that is information from the Home Office. A total of 142,338 drug offences were recorded by the police in 2004-05, an increase of more than one quarter since 2001-02, when there were 113,500.
The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East remarked on the connection, or disconnection, between mental health and cannabis use. According to a recent written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Health Secretary, there has been an 85 per cent. increase in hospital admissions on mental health grounds resulting from the use of cannabis since 1997, and a 63 per cent. increase in the past five years. That information came from the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton).
To some extent, classification is important because it helps the sentencer, but I dare say it also helps the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to work out what is to be done within the criminal justice setting. The greatest cause of crime is drugs, followed closely by alcohol. The number of people in prison for drugs offences has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. What is more, although the prison population has grown, the proportion of the prison population who are drug offenders is also growing.
I have no information to verify this, but I suspect, by virtue of the fact that those people are in prison, that they are either industrial importers or sellers of class C drugs, or users of class A drugs, and the courts have reached a stage where there is little more that can be done with those individuals to prevent them from reoffending on the outside. The courts do not send people to prison lightly or on a whim. They fully understand that many people who are arrested for drug use and possession would do far better in residential rehabilitation centres outside prison, but there are not enough of them. Unfortunately, the courts have to deal with people who, for good reason or ill, are serial abusers of drugs and the drug laws, and there are not sufficient places for them to be dealt with outside the criminal justice system.
That is regrettable. People who offend simply because of drug use would be far better dealt with not by sending them to prison but by sending them to places where they can be cured of their drug addiction. It is addicts who commit crimes; it is not criminals, by and large, who become drug addicts. As long as we understand that, and as long as we fail to do something about it, the overcrowding of our prisons will continue, if the figures continue on an upward trend as they have in the past.
There is, of course, a hidden drug problem in prisons. There are those who are in prison because they were found guilty of possession or dealing, or even burgling because of a drug habit, be it an A, B or C drug habit, and there are plenty of people in prison who manage to continue to use drugs. The hon. Member for Newport, West pointed out that there is no such a thing as a drug-free prison.
Of course, I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman about the indisputable importance of using residential drug rehabilitation centres for the treatment of people who are addicted to illegal drugs, but is there not a consequence to what he is saying? First, would he say that our laws or the drug classification system that we are debating today must change as a result of what he identified as the failure of the prison approach? Secondly, does he think that there is a case for prescribing hard drugs to addicts to stop them committing criminal acts if there were evidence that that would be effective and cost-effective, and if that seemed more appropriate than a residential treatment centre; or does he want only residential treatment centres?
The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s last question is that I simply do not know. I do not have enough evidence to be able to reach a sensible conclusion on the best thing to do with such people or on whether the remedy that he suggests would be the right one. All that I do know is that what is happening in prisons at present is not working. It is not working for the prison system because huge numbers of short-term prisoners go in and out of, for example, our big London prisons, and the health staff inside those prisons can do very little for them. The prisoners are not there long enough to go on a rehabilitation course and be brought off drugs. They are kept alive, literally, because the prison health system is able to provide them with a replacement—for example, methadone—for the short period that they are in prison. If people are in prison for only one, two, three or four months and are then released back on to the streets of London, it is hardly surprising that they resort to the class A drug habit that may have put them in prison in the first place.
I stress that that is not a criticism of the people who work in the Prison Service. They have an impossible job. We need to think more intelligently about what we do with people who are affected by drug abuse and whether it is more appropriate to provide places for such people to be looked after somewhere other than Pentonville, Holloway, Wormwood Scrubs, Brixton or Wandsworth. We would then receive better value for money. There would also be better outcomes and a real reduction in crime.
That is not something that the present Government or a future Conservative Government could do overnight, but we should try, in a collaborative spirit, to adopt such an approach because our constituents are paying £50,000 a year in taxes to house every individual offender in prison—the cost for every young offender is about £75,000 or £80,000 a year—and the rate of reoffending within two years of their leaving prison is just over 65 per cent.. The percentage figure for young offenders is actually a little higher, in the high 70s. We are wasting money and fooling ourselves if we think that we are increasing public protection. In fact, we are clogging up a prison system that needs to look after, reform and incarcerate dangerous, violent and deeply antisocial and damaging offenders who, despite their nasty habits and criminal conduct, do not receive the necessary programmes or education to make them better citizens. The proportion of prisoners who never come out of prison at all is very small—probably less than 2 per cent. or perhaps even less than 1 per cent. of the 81,000 people in adult prisons will never come out again. I am not suggesting that the Government should rush into sorting out the problems but, collaboratively, we need to take a different approach to how we deal with drug abusers inside prison and those who are inside because of their drug abuse.
I am acutely conscious that I have an awful lot to say about this subject and about the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, the Committee’s report and the wider policy issues that affect the classification of drugs. I should also have liked to discuss what we should do within the criminal justice system, with which my shadow Department and the Minister’s real Department have to deal. However, I am concerned about leaving time for the Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, to reply, particularly to what the Minister has to say. The Minister knows perfectly well what my views on the matter are—he probably knows better than many members of the Committee. If I bring my remarks to a close now, I hope to engage the sympathy of hon. Members. My speech has suffered from two 15-minute suspensions, and that has thrown the flow of the debate out of kilter. Let me take advantage of that by stopping. However, in doing so, I hope that others will not misunderstand what I personally and as a representative of my party intend and mean on this issue. I hope that there will be other occasions when we can discuss the subject more fully.
In conclusion, I repeat my thanks and congratulations to the Chairman of the Committee and his colleagues for their work. In addition, I hope that my somewhat critical remarks about the manner of some of the recommendations and comments in the report are taken in the spirit in which they were intended. Despite the differences of opinion among Government Back Benchers and others in this Chamber—I notice that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has not brought any of his party’s Back Benchers with him—I ask the Government to think carefully about how to make progress on this aspect of public policy. The issue should be dealt with in a way that benefits the public, the taxpayer and those who are wracked by drug abuse and addiction—not just individual drug users, but their families and the communities in which they live.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow. I also welcome other hon. Members who have contributed to the debate.
This is an extremely important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), the Chairman of the Committee, on the tone of his remarks. It augurs well for progress when a debate can be held in which passionate views are expressed and there are serious disagreements between people. Let it never be said, however, that there is any disagreement about the policy outcome that every hon. Member wants. There is real credibility among hon. Members who have turned up this afternoon, when there are many other things happening, to discuss one of the most important social policy issues that confronts our country and many of our communities.
The contribution of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and the Committee is rightly to challenge the Government and the ACMD to justify their policies. That means that there will sometimes be passionate disagreement, but the important point—I know that the hon. Gentleman will agree—is that it is not a clash of personality, but a clash of opinion, out of which comes better public policy and a better outcome. I know how passionately my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) feels about these issues. He has been one of the most passionate advocates of a particular way of addressing the problem and he knows that there are disagreements with him in his own party and within the Government. However, that in no way detracts from the integrity with which my hon. Friend put his points across. He has made an important contribution, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). It important to state that at the beginning—and it is not a patronising remark to the Committee.
It might be helpful to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough if I go through some of the differences that the report has already made to the way in which the Government conduct their business in this area and to some of our policy objectives, before I go on to other matters; as he will know, we disagree with one of the Committee’s major recommendations. I want to show that my remarks about the difference that Select Committee reports make to public policy is not an empty, vacuous, rhetorical statement made in Westminster Hall at 5.17 pm on a Thursday afternoon, but a real statement of the influence that he and his Committee have had.
I hope that hon. Members will not mind, but I think that it is important to proceed point by point, rather than making great, rhetorical flourishes that may sound good, but sometimes do not mean an awful lot. The Committee asked us to ensure greater transparency about the various factors that influence classification decisions. I hope that hon. Members realised that when we reclassified methamphetamine—crystal meth—as a class A drug on 18 January 2007, we set out in clear terms the reasons for the reclassification in Parliament and in the Home Office circular. We tried to take on board the point that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made about that.
The Committee called for the rationalisation of differential classification depending on the route of administration. For example, amphetamines are a class B drug, but they are class A when in a form prepared for injection to be applied to other drugs. We have asked the ACMD to provide advice on whether other drugs should be reclassified depending on the route of administration. That work is likely to be carried out in the ACMD’s systematic review, to which I will refer in a moment.
The Committee asked for greater openness and transparency for the ACMD. I say to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough that, irrespective of what is on the ACMD’s website, which he mentioned, it will publish the minutes of its meetings on the Home Office website. That will commence—I shall ask why it is not on the website already—with the most recent ACMD meeting held in May. I expect that to appear on the website in the very near future.
Another aspect of the Committee’s call for ACMD openness and transparency was the suggestion that it should hold open meetings. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that those will commence in the autumn. Parts of those meetings might be closed, but the general presumption will be that wherever possible the meetings will be open. Members of the public will be invited to observe proceedings, as indeed any Member of Parliament will be able to do, and have the opportunity to ask questions of the council. Alongside that, the ACMD is developing a publication strategy in order to inform the public in more detail about how it is trying to improve openness.
The Committee called for greater involvement from the Home Office scientific adviser. Already, the secretariat of the ACMD has moved under the management of Professor Wiles, the Home Office chief scientific adviser. He will oversee the expertise required on the council in any forthcoming recruitment round—another move that the Committee was anxious to see. Furthermore, under the chief scientific officer, the council will strengthen its links with research councils. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Professor Wiles holds regular meetings with the chief executives of all the relevant research councils, and as I said, we expect him to continue his meetings with the chief scientific advisers of other Departments.
The Committee recommended in particular that the ACMD conduct a systematic review of individual drugs. It is looking into doing that. Furthermore—this point was raised by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon—as part of that systematic review of individual drugs and their classifications, it will undertake a review of ecstasy. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East that it will look also at magic mushrooms, which he mentioned. The important point to make about the systematic review of individual drugs, as appropriate and determined by the ACMD, is that it will consider both classification and harm reduction.
I know that the Government have no plans to reclassify ecstasy. That is taken as read. However, the Minister said that the ACMD will reconsider the classification of ecstasy. If that is the case, does he rule out reclassifying it, if it recommends doing so?
We will have to wait and see, but the Government have no intention of reclassifying ecstasy. I was asked to confirm that the ACMD was going to look at ecstasy as part of its systematic review. I can confirm that it will. Furthermore, in respect of the Committee’s report, I point out that the systematic review of individual drugs within the classification system is an important step forward. I hope that that is helpful.
I know that it is a bit pedantic—that seems to be the favourite word at the moment—but I shall continue with the approach that I have taken so far. It is very important that I go through all the points that have been made; I know that a lot of people are listening with particular interest.
The report said that there was a need for better engagement between the ACMD and other Departments. Recently, the council has held meetings with officials from five Departments—the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Transport, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department of Health and the Home Office. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon spoke about how best to deal with drugs in schools. Such issues could be on the agenda of those more frequent interdepartmental meetings, particularly between the Home Office and the DFES. Hopefully those issues can be addressed. Recently, the ACMD held discussions with the DCMS on steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in the run-up to the Olympics. There is also an ongoing invitation to officials from the DFES and the DOH to attend ACMD meetings. I hope that that will start to address some of the fears and concerns of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and his Committee about the lack of liaison between Departments.
The hon. Gentleman wanted the ACMD to look more at social harm and to engage with stakeholders. I can confirm that it will do that. He asked also about how the ACMD operates. I can tell him that the Home Office non-departmental public body review has taken place and the results are currently with the Home Secretary for his consideration. That is an important point, but I cannot say any more than that.
Let me turn to what I think is the crux of the matter. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have a couple of minutes to respond and to express agreement with this: of all the recommendations in the Committee’s report, the point about our drugs policy needing to address not only the classification system, but harm reduction, has had the greatest impact. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West that we accept absolutely that we need more than just a criminal justice solution to the drugs problem. As the hon. and learned Member for Harborough knows from his court experience, that is obvious to everyone. A criminal justice solution alone is not appropriate.
The Committee said that it wanted greater emphasis on harm reduction, treatment and other alternatives. We agree with that absolutely. We are trying to increase the number of people receiving treatment and to ensure that that treatment is more effective. However, alongside that, we want a strong law enforcement and criminal justice approach. At the risk of repeating myself, in my view—I say this as Minister with responsibility for drugs as well as an individual—the debate is plagued by the “either/or” argument. Of course, we need a criminal justice approach.
When I went to the all-party group on drugs misuse, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East heard me say that we need a strong criminal justice and law enforcement approach to deal with those who deal drugs in our communities. All of our constituents would expect that; they do not want people dealing drugs with nothing done about it. On the other hand, however, they accept that those arrested, charged by the police or who come into contact with the criminal justice system do not suddenly stop being addicts. They know that as well as we do. The criminal justice system must deal with those individuals—both dealers and users—in the best way possible, which is why we set up the drugs intervention programme in order to strike a balance between relying on the criminal justice system and encouraging more people into treatment. Alongside a tough law-enforcement approach we have tried to improve, and increase the level of, treatment.
We have tried to back that up with money. Let us consider the pooled treatment budget, which comes mainly from the DOH, but also from the Home Office. In 2001-02, expenditure in this area was £142 million. This year it is £398 million—a 280 per cent increase. The budget for the drugs intervention programme, which did not exist until 2003, is now £149 million. We also have the £55 million budget for the young persons substance misuse plan.
Our task is to relate the classification system to the drugs intervention programme, about which I shall say more in a moment. We know that if we want a successful drugs policy, the classification system must be robust—we have tried to start to take account of the points made by the Select Committee—–but alongside that must be a plethora of other policies and a welter of other initiatives. We need not only a criminal justice system that is based on the classification system, but a treatment system whereby people go into treatment and are kept in treatment, and in which there are wraparound services to improve people’s chances of success with that treatment. This is about not only treatment, but all the other measures, such as employment, benefits, housing, confidence and self-esteem.
Yes, we can talk about how drugs should be classified in the system. We could have a huge debate on virtually every drug and whether it should be in class A, B or C, but we are plagued by that debate. Of course, the criminal justice system, linked to the classification system, has a role to play, but alongside that all the other aspects of policy are necessary and important. That is why we have a wide-ranging drugs strategy, of which the classification system is one part. We have tried to develop the other strands to it and we will certainly continue to do so.
I welcome the Select Committee report. I hope that what I have said shows that what the Committee said in its report has led to changes in the Government’s policy and practice and caused us to think about the operation of the classification system, even without the fundamental review that I know the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough was hoping for and expecting.
I think that the Minister is coming to the end of his remarks. Before he does, I want him to return to something that I think my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) would agree was critical to the report: the question of whether policy is evidence-based. The Minister has just restated his policy. It is not the case that he has no plans. However, the Government do not intend to reclassify ecstasy. Is that an evidence-based policy, a policy that is ideologically or economically based—I gave him that option and he could not be criticised for it if he was clear about it—or a policy with some other base? The report wanted the Government to be clear about the basis of their policy when there is evidence around.
The hon. Gentleman keeps returning to the issue of ecstasy. I have said that the ACMD will consider ecstasy. We set out how the ACMD comes to its view about whether a drug should be in class A, B or C on page 16 of our response to the report and laid out the various factors that the ACMD takes into account. We always listen carefully. In fact, from memory, I think that we have never disagreed with any recommendation that the ACMD has made to us. We shall have to wait and see what happens when the ACMD makes a recommendation. The hon. Gentleman seems to be presuming that it will recommend changing the classification, but we shall wait and see what happens. I look forward to him welcoming the ACMD report, should it make such a recommendation.
I want to give the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough a couple of minutes to respond to the debate, but I have a few other remarks to make first. The Government maintain that the classification system has stood the test of time and that it continues to discharge its function fully and effectively. Its single purpose is to provide a legal framework in which criminal penalties are set by reference to the harmfulness of a drug to the individual and to society, and to the type of illegal activity undertaken. The criminal justice system expects a stable and enduring system and the Government must provide that. The classification of any drug must be a reliable fact of law, which was a point made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough. Our tripartite classification system allows clear and meaningful distinctions to be made between drugs. Its familiarity and brand recognition should not be dismissed.
In deciding not to pursue a review of the classification system, the Government took two key factors into consideration. First, there is no optimum system of control, or even a system of structuring drug harm classifications, that is obviously better than the present one. That was the conclusion of the Police Foundation report and it remains as true today as it was in 2000, when that report was published.
Secondly, it is the job of the Government to identify and set the priorities that will have the most impact on achieving our shared aim of reducing the harm caused by drugs. There is no evidence to show that a change in the way in which we classify drugs would contribute to that aim. Indeed, the evidence supports the position that we set out in our response: the drugs strategy as a whole is having real impact on the harm caused by drug misuse to individuals, their families and communities.
Such harm is beginning to reduce. Overall drug misuse has fallen by 16 per cent. since 1998, while the misuse of class A drugs has stabilised. Drug misuse among young people has fallen by more than a fifth in the past 10 years. Since the onset of the drug interventions programme, recorded acquisitive crime, to which drug-related crime makes a significant contribution, has fallen by 20 per cent.
More and more people are entering and staying in treatment. Nearly four fifths of the 181,000 people who have undergone drug treatment programmes in the past financial year completed their programmes. As a Minister with responsibility for drugs, I want to know what constitutes the successful completion of a drug treatment programme. Indeed, I would ask that important question of all of us because it is a crucial issue. It is possible to make the situation look very good, but we need to understand what is meant by the successful completion of a drug treatment programme.
Although the classification system has a necessary part to play in our drugs strategy, it is not the most important part. That is not just the Government’s view because it has become increasingly clear to me that that view is shared by many, although not all, professionals and service users involved in drug treatment. At the many stakeholder events in which I have participated throughout the country, I do not remember having once been asked about the classification system as a whole, although I have been asked about the classification of an individual drug. Our judgment is that the delivery of the drugs strategy as a whole must be our priority. Prioritising our resources in that way to achieve the greatest impact will be the key to our continued success.
As we have seen this afternoon, there will always be lively debate and disagreement about whether certain drugs are in the right category of the ABC system. The Government agree that, as far as possible, individual classifications should be evidence-based. We rely on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which is an expert and respected independent body, to provide us with advice that is based on its assessment of the evidence of the harm caused by a drug to the individual and to society. That advice constitutes the most significant input into any classification decision, and it is noteworthy that in the 10 years of the present Government, we have accepted all the ACMD’s recommendations on classification.
We recognised from the Select Committee report that we needed to build our evidence base. In particular, the Committee called on the Government to gather evidence on the deterrent effect to which we refer. I can tell the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough that we have done some scoping work on that and we are considering how we can take it forward.
I shall rush through some of the other points that were made. The Government recognise the harm caused to individuals by alcohol and tobacco, and we have policies outside the classification system that deal with alcohol and tobacco. The hon. Gentleman and other members of the Committee in the Chamber will have seen the new alcohol strategy that the Government published last week called “Safe. Sensible. Social. The next steps in the National Alcohol Strategy”.
I can say for the benefit of everyone that we will consult shortly on a new drugs strategy. We expect the consultation document to be published in the next few weeks and that will lead to a revised drugs strategy to commence in April 2008. We know that all hon. Members in the Chamber will participate in the development of the new drugs strategy. I will welcome the hon. and learned Member for Harborough to that process. I agree with his comment that when we can collaborate, we should do so. In developing the strategy, we shall not forget the contribution that the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough makes and the ongoing work that we need to do to take account of its recommendations.
May I say to my hon. Friends the Members for Newport, West and for Bolton, South-East that although I do not agree with some of the points that they made, I do not dismiss them? Just because someone says something with which we do not agree, it does not mean that we should not let them challenge our views. If we allow them to challenge our views, we move further along the road of having the public policy that we all want: one that reduces the harm in our communities caused by the use of illegal and legal drugs.
I do not wish to detain hon. Members for too long. I thank the Minister enormously for the way in which he responded to this debate, for the open and honest way in which he addressed the areas on which we do not agree, and for reading the report and reporting that the Government intend to make many changes. I do not think that any hon. Member who had listened to this debate and the Minister’s response would criticise him for his enthusiasm and commitment to this issue. He was right that we are all committed to reducing harm. We are talking about not simply harm to the individual, but harm to the whole of society.
Despite the slight criticism that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) made of me, which I do not take personally, the measured way in which he examined the formulation of the Conservative party’s policy on this incredibly difficult area gives me a lot of heart. Whenever we use this matter as a political football, we further entrench views, rather than seek sensible solutions.
On the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and in response to the hon. and learned Gentleman, I should say that one of our great frustrations was the fact that we felt that there was a lack of transparency. There was a sense that we were being told, “We hold this information and you have to prise it from us.” There did not seem to be the view that we were partners in this, which was not acceptable. However, the Minister’s response was positive.
As a former educationalist, the thing that hurt me most—I shall go no further than this and I am sure that the Minister knows this one, too—was the lack of connection between the ACMD and the Department for Education and Skills. However, our schools will make the big impact on educating young people about the misuse of drugs and other substances. That goes to the heart of what we were trying to do in our report. We want to ensure that the public at large, especially our young people, are educated about a scale of harm that includes tobacco and alcohol and puts other things in context. Our approach contrasts with one of people thinking that because those things are legal, they can get as drunk and cause as much damage as they like on a Saturday night, and smoke as much as they like without it mattering.
In rushing through my remarks, I failed to make an extremely important point. The hon. Gentleman’s comment pricked my conscience because, like him, I was an educationalist. We have done some research, which is called the blueprint programme, on what constitutes effective drug education in schools. We hope to publish the first report in the next few months and a further report in summer 2008. I am sure that he will agree that the key issue is not only the drug education that is taking place in schools, but what constitutes effective drug education in schools. We hope that the blueprint programme will help us on that.
I thank the Minister for that intervention, which highlights the issue of research. One of the report’s central themes is the question of where the research is. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is right to ask continually where the evidence is to support the conclusions that are given in every one of our reports. Social science is just as important as chemistry—the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) constantly reminds our Committee about that subject. It is important to get evidence to support one’s policy, whether that is social policy or something else. One needs to say what works and ensure that that is put in the public domain, and, more importantly, to say what does not work. Our report came to the conclusion that all political parties constantly hide the things that do not work. We see it as a failure when we try something and it does not work, instead of saying that we have tried it and are going to move on to something else.
The aspect of the Minister’s response that disappointed me—I am sure that he would not expect me to say anything other than this—was his dismissal of the proposals of Blakemore et al, which the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned. They include a new scale of harm and, in particular, a decoupling from the criminal justice system. We will return to that because we have set out our policies.
We welcome the systematic review. It is important to review each of the drugs in the categories because, for example, although ecstasy is a glorified amphetamine, it is in class A, while other amphetamines are in class B. There is no justification for that, not because it is the drug of the moment for clubbers, but because there is no evidence base to support it. The Minister might say that even if we have the review and proposals are put forward, the Government will not accept them, but if that happens, both ACMD and Government policy will be damaged. There needs to be a commitment to an independent body who advise the Government and whose advice is capable of changing policy. If such a body is not capable of doing so, the system does not work.
This has been an excellent debate. I thank you for your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, which, as always, was superb, despite the interruptions. I thank hon. Members for their contributions and look forward to continuing this debate in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Six o’clock.