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Volume 487: debated on Monday 9 February 2009

1. What steps her Department is taking to ensure young people are aware of the dangers associated with drug use. (254636)

The Government provide information about drugs to young people through universal drug education in schools, and through the Frank campaign. That campaign aims to prevent drug use among young people by changing their attitudes and perceptions towards drugs and drug users.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. I am aware that a review is taking place to consider the status of khat. It affects many families in my constituency, particularly in the Somali community. Their young people have come to me and asked to meet the Home Secretary, so that they can explain to the Government the problems that they, as young people, face when drugs such as khat become predominant in their community. Will she agree to such a meeting?

Yes. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell)—the Drugs Minister—has already met representatives of the Somali community, but my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) makes an important point about the strong views of young people. I am certainly willing to meet him and young representatives from his constituency and from that community.

The dangers associated with drug use are supposed to be reflected in the drug classification system. Is it the policy of the Home Secretary and the Government that that system should be based on evidence, or should it be based on something else?

Yes, it is our view that the system should be based on evidence, but it should also be based on the considered view of those responsible for policy making, and should take into consideration the impact that changes in classification are likely to have on the use of, and harms caused by, drugs, and the impact that that has on the criminal justice system. That is why it will remain the case that our advisers will advise us, and we will decide.

I wonder whether the Home Secretary has seen the comments in the weekend press by Professor David Nutt, the chairman of the Home Office Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs? He says that in his view, ecstasy is less dangerous than horse riding. I will not ask the Home Secretary whether she has tried the drug, or whether she has ridden a horse, but I want to know when she plans to meet Professor Nutt to tell him whether she agrees with his comments.

I spoke to Professor Nutt about his comments this morning. I told him that I was surprised and profoundly disappointed by the article. I am sure that most people would simply not accept the link that he makes up in his article between horse riding and illegal drug-taking. That makes light of a serious problem, trivialises the dangers of drugs, shows insensitivity to the families of victims of ecstasy, and sends the wrong message to young people about the dangers of drugs. I made it clear to Professor Nutt that I felt that his comments went beyond the scientific advice that I expect from him as chair of the ACMD. He apologised to me for his comments, and I have asked him to apologise to the families of the victims of ecstasy, too.

Last month, the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse published figures that reveal that nearly 25,000 young people aged under 18 are in treatment for drug and alcohol problems. Is that not an indictment of the fact that the Government did not do more earlier on drug prevention, and the fact that just 12 per cent. of the drugs budget was spent on prevention? There is no evaluation at all of many of the activities.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the progress made by those working in the drugs field over the past 10 or 11 years. Overall drug use and class A drug use among young people are now at their lowest levels ever, as measured by the British crime survey. Among school pupils, overall drug use has fallen. The rate of frequent drug use among pupils has also fallen. The people involved in that work should be congratulated, unlike the hon. Gentleman’s party, which proposes cuts to the Home Office budget; that would certainly impact on our ability to counter the harms caused by drugs. I hope that he will back up his words with words advising his Front-Bench team to put back that money.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have to be a little cautious when legislating on drugs misuse, because if we legislate in the wrong way, we may merely displace the problem to another area of drug misuse—for example, the problem may move from one substance to another? That is one of the difficulties.

My hon. Friend has a strong record of working on such issues. That is why I am sure that he agrees that the fact that there is falling drug use, throughout drug use, particularly among young people, is important. All of us will be concerned to make sure that we continue with that important progress.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s remarks on the comments made by Professor Nutt, but will she go a little further and suggest to him that the sport of horse riding provides discipline, whereas drug-taking not only wrecks—and indeed ends—lives, but fuels crime? The two are completely incomparable. Will she go a little further than she did in her statement just now and perhaps suggest to Professor Nutt that although he might be appropriately named, he is in the wrong job?

I made completely clear my view that there is absolutely no equivalence between the legal activity of horse riding and the illegal activity of drug taking, and that will always be the basis on which I make decisions about drugs policy.

I am sure the Home Secretary will agree that part of the messages sent out to young people about the dangers of drugs relates to enforcement. As she knows, as part of the changes to cannabis reclassification, a new enforcement regime was brought into effect, which includes cannabis warnings, yet her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), has conceded that one of the issues with cannabis warnings is that they are not recorded. There is a certain amount of intelligence locally about who has what, but it is rather hit and miss. Does the right hon. Lady agree with that view?

I hope the hon. Gentleman welcomes the fact that, with the advice of the Association of Chief Police Officers, we will now ensure that there is a clear process of escalation as a consequence of being caught in possession of cannabis. That is a result of the change to the classification that we have made and the work that we have done with the Association of Chief Police Officers. The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the issues arising from that is how we record any instances—the one and only instance—of cannabis warning, and we are working with the National Policing Improvement Agency in order to make sure that it is possible to do that in future.