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Dangerous Drugs

Volume 508: debated on Wednesday 7 April 2010

I beg to move,

That the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 30 March, be approved.

If the order is approved, it will bring mephedrone and other cathinone derivatives—a group of so-called legal highs—under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, as class B drugs, from 16 April 2010.

As required by the Act, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been consulted, and the control of the drugs fully reflects the council’s recommendations. I place on record our thanks to the advisory council for its thorough advice and continuing commitment and work in a very important area. The council’s assessment is integral to our ability to respond effectively and in an informed way to the threat posed to our society by emerging harmful drugs.

I welcome what the Minister has said so far, and I hope to catch Mr. Deputy Speaker’s eye and contribute to the debate. With the resignation last week of another member of the advisory council, it is right that we re-assert the position that although the council is there to advise, at the end of the day it should be Ministers who make the decision and are prepared to come to the House to defend their decision.

As ever, my right hon. Friend speaks wise words. Of course Ministers ultimately decide and advisers advise, but there is a strong relationship between the Home Secretary and the council and its new chair, and we value the advice that is given.

The Minister describes the current relationship as strong, but recently there have been two resignations, so how many resignations would he anticipate there would be if the relationship were weak?

One just has to look at the order, the agreement between the council and the Home Secretary, and what I hope is the widespread opinion in the House and throughout the country to see that when the relationship works well, it works very well indeed. I will not go down the path on which the hon. Gentleman tries to lead me, but if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will listen carefully to his comments because, as ever, he has a great deal to say.

There is shared concern about the harm that such drugs can do and the pace at which they have become available. Cathinones are stimulants with effects similar to amphetamine. The advisory council has provided its assessments of the risks that those drugs pose after undertaking a full review of their status by examining their use, pharmacology, and physical and societal harm. The harmful effects of the drugs include over-stimulation of the cardiovascular system, which creates a risk of heart and circulatory problems, and over-stimulation of the nervous system, with the consequent risks of fits, agitated and paranoid states, and hallucinations. Mephedrone has been linked with a number of deaths in the UK and one confirmed death of a young girl in Sweden.

The advisory council advises that the harm posed by such drugs is of a level that justifies their control as a class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has rightly waited for advice from his independent expert advisers and, as I said, the Government continue to value scientific advice and remain committed to evidence-based policy making in this area, as elsewhere.

It is perfectly true that neither the Minister nor the Home Secretary are trying to avoid their responsibility by accepting the advice that has been given. However, they must acknowledge that they are acting on that advice and accepting the evidence to which the Minister referred. In that context, and in the light of all that we have heard, how on earth could anyone reasonably argue that mephedrone is not something that causes the death of young people and generates all the symptoms that he described? Does he agree that those of us who have campaigned against this drug did so for the very best reasons and that there is no rational or reasonable case for continuing to allow it to remain on the market?

Of course that is the reason why we are bringing forward the order. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and others who have campaigned on this issue. The important advance is that we now have the clear advice from the advisory council, and that is the evidence on which the order is based.

The advisory council’s advice is very much in keeping with our approach to the control of synthetic substances such as synthetic cannabinoids, which were controlled by Parliament in December 2009. We are introducing generic definitions of the drugs. By enshrining a generic definition of cathinone drugs in law, rather than specifying each one individually, we will capture a wide range of cathinone derivatives. As far as we are aware, that is a world first for this group of drugs. A number of such derivatives have already been seen in the United Kingdom including methylone, methadrone and butylone. Our controls also try to deal with future trends and to stop unscrupulous, illicit manufacturers who work for organised criminals and tweak substances to circumvent our laws.

The enforcement response will initially focus on people who peddle and traffic these harmful drugs, rather than the young people who might be found in possession of them. We do not intend to criminalise young people, but we expect the police to respond proportionately.

Britain cannot deal with the problem on its own. Is it not important that we work with our EU partners? Should we not give greater emphasis to the work done by the drugs agency in Lisbon? I am not absolutely certain what that agency does, but surely it offers a way in which the 27 EU countries can work together. If they do not work together, drugs will find a way into the UK.

We do work with our colleagues in Europe and, indeed, further afield. What my right hon. Friend says is important, but it is also important that we decide on the way forward for the United Kingdom. My point is that by making the order as we have, and in particular by dealing with a generic family of drugs, we are setting the bar very high and leading the field.

The Minister says the Government’s intention is not to criminalise young people. What is the age cut-off for the criminal offence?

I shall come to that in a moment, but let me first finish my point. When talking about criminalisation and the importance of the order, I want it to be clear that after 16 April mephedrone will be an illegal drug; those in possession of it will be breaking the law; if caught, they will face being prosecuted and acquiring a criminal record. Those trafficking these drugs will face a substantial term of imprisonment—for a maximum of 14 years—and, when they have profited from what will be an illegal trade, we will seek to seize their property and other assets under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. We are working closely with the Association of Chief Police Officers and other agencies to develop a comprehensive approach to tackle the sale of these drugs. The Serious Organised Crime Agency and the United Kingdom Border Agency will take effective enforcement action against the criminal gangs that traffic the drugs across our borders.

As well as bringing the order before Parliament the day after we received advice that the drugs are harmful and dangerous, the Government took a series of other immediate actions. First, to limit the supply of mephedrone, specified other cathinone derivatives and all products containing those drugs, we banned their importation and instructed UKBA officials to seize and destroy shipments of mephedrone at the border, unless the shipment was licensed by the Home Office. UKBA has already seized a number of suspected mephedrone importations as a direct result.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary wrote to local authorities urging them to consider what action they could take under consumer protection legislation when mephedrone is inaccurately advertised as being for use as plant food or bath salts. Police forces and other agencies are contacting head shops and other premises thought to be supplying the drugs to warn them of the ban and to make clear their enforcement powers if suppliers fail to comply with the ban, once it comes into force.

Legislative control is, of course, only part of the solution. Education is of paramount importance so, thirdly, in respect of our health messages, our drugs information service Frank provides information on cathinones, including mephedrone, with clear information about the risks those substances pose. Frank has already updated leaflets providing advice on mephedrone for young people and parents, which will be available from various sources, including the National Union of Students. Our Crazy Chemist information campaign run in late 2009 included warnings about mephedrone and targeted young people on websites and when they search to purchase legal highs. My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners has written to all head teachers, providing guidance on dealing with mephedrone in schools. Mephedrone and legal highs will also be included in the new drugs guidance for schools.

Fourthly, the Department of Health has issued a formal alert through the public health warning system to ensure that all front-line hospital staff, medical staff and drug treatment staff have the most up-to-date information about the harm posed by mephedrone.

The concern about mephedrone and other cathinone derivatives has been well publicised in recent weeks and users of those drugs should therefore be aware of the changes we are making.

If the order is approved, the Government will publicise the changes in the law through a Home Office circular, and through the Talk to Frank and websites. Reference to the law change and to health risks relating to the drugs will be included in future Government materials for young people.

I am not seeking to interrupt the Minister, but I was not sure whether he was going to answer my question. He said it was not his intention to criminalise young people. That implies that under the order there is an age cut-off with regard to the criminalisation of users and people who possess the drug. Will he clarify whether there is an age cut-off, or what he meant by saying that young people would not be criminalised?

Will the Minister also say what his outcome measure is for deciding whether the policy is a success? What level of use are we talking about? If the level of use becomes lower, will he say that that is good? If it goes up after the order is introduced, will he say that perhaps it was the wrong policy?

I will perhaps return to the hon. Gentleman’s second point in my closing remarks, if I may. On the point about the enforcement approach taken with young people, one of the important things that we do, in using the law in this way, is send out a very clear message to young people that mephedrone is illegal and does them harm, and is something with which they should not get involved. Those found in possession of an amount for personal use need to be dealt with in a proportionate and appropriate manner. It is, of course, at the local level that the police will make judgments on operational matters, but there is a statutory process for young people under 18, which is set out in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. That offers formal escalation, with referral at any stage to a youth offending team for a substance misuse assessment and appropriate intervention, through treatment or other support. We are not reinventing the wheel; we know how to deal with the issue with regard to other substances. Of course we have learned lessons from that and will apply them in this case.

As the Minister will be aware, when cannabis was reclassified as a class B drug, a separate regime was put in place: a fixed penalty ticket can be issued for possession of that drug, even though it is a class B drug. It is the only one in the class B category that has that provision attached to it. Is he suggesting that that will also apply to mephedrone?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, because that is not what I am suggesting at all; that is not our intention. The difference with cannabis is that most experienced police officers can recognise cannabis, as compared with other drugs. They may therefore be able to make a judgment about what an appropriate response is. It might be that a penalty notice is an appropriate response. That is why we explained what we expected to happen when cannabis was reclassified. The difficulty with mephedrone is that it is very difficult to distinguish it from a range of other drugs, so it would not be appropriate in this case to take the route that we went down with cannabis. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to put that on record.

We will continue to make it clear, particularly to young people, that so-called legal highs cause serious, and sometimes considerable, harm to those who use them, as well as great distress to people’s families and friends, and to communities. Our aim is to ensure that everyone, and young people in particular, are well aware of the risks associated with using such drugs. That is why we are absolutely determined to crack down on so-called legal highs. We need to be vigilant and responsive. In particular, we need to tackle those who have no motive but greed, and who have no regard to the harm that they cause. We must ensure that our children know the harms of drugs, and know that even if someone describes them as legal highs, they are not safe. We ask Parliament to approve the order, which we believe will protect the public, and particularly young people, from those dangerous drugs. I commend the order to the House.

We support the order. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has given clear advice that mephedrone is a harmful, psychoactive substance and should be classified as a class B drug within the scope of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It is right that the order should seek to capture the cathinone group, of which mephedrone is one analogue, so that those who manufacture and seek to market those synthetic substances do not simply modify the drug slightly to create a new substance that would fall outside the scope of the controls. Methylone and various other drugs would have been the next problematic substances, as the Minister has said, and it is right that those drugs, as well as mephedrone and the other cathinone analogues, are addressed by virtue of the order.

However, the issue is the time that it has taken to get to this point and the process that has been followed. It is frankly absurd that the ACMD should have written to the Home Secretary before Christmas, warning of its concerns as to the prevalence and potential harms of these compounds. It would seem that the Home Office knew of this problem months before. Why did not the Government act sooner? Why does it sadly seem to have taken the reporting of the deaths of several young people to finally prompt the Government into action? It should have been possible to develop policy in a measured way, rather than reaching the sudden realisation that there was an issue because of media coverage.

It has been apparent for some time that there has been an emerging problem with this group of so-called legal highs. It is desperately sad that as many as 25 deaths have been linked to mephedrone in some way, and our thoughts go to the families who have lost loved ones. The question that needs to be considered is whether any of these tragic cases could have been avoided if the Government had acted sooner and a more robust mechanism had been in place for addressing newly emerging psychoactive substances, and if that had been in place, what its effect might be. We should certainly not forget that the Government were also slow to act in responding to GBL. It took the Home Office 18 months to implement the recommendation of the ACMD that the drug should be classified. We need to learn the lessons from these experiences.

What has been disturbing about mephedrone has been the way in which it has been sold. Rather than being offered by a drug dealer down a dark alley, it has been spuriously marketed on the internet as plant food or fertiliser. As the ACMD has made abundantly clear, this is a drug akin to an amphetamine, and more likely to poison than promote the growth of our petunias. This has been a con, a deception, a spurious device to subvert the medicines control legislation, to suggest that this substance was not for human consumption and therefore not being sold as a drug. It is a despicable deceit, simply aimed at entrapping the unwary. It has also exposed the inadequacies of the system for responding to new and emerging drugs in the internet age.

Even though we may pass the order, we need a speedier mechanism for addressing public safety issues linked to new drugs intended for human consumption, however they may be falsely marketed. We have called for the introduction of a new temporary classification for a period of up to 12 months for newly emerging problematic substances. During this period, controls on sale, importation and supply could be imposed where public health concerns have been identified. This would also allow a period of expert input and analysis, to be provided in a considered and careful manner, as to whether a formal classification should be applied to the drug. It would also allow for specific public health alerts to be issued in a managed and focused way, without stoking up demand for the new substance, as I fear that the coverage in recent weeks has done in relation to mephedrone.

I am aware of the policy or the promotion of the idea that the hon. Gentleman suggests. The proposal that I am setting out is subtly different in some ways from the proposal that he refers to, although that is certainly helpful in terms of promoting a debate as to how we can respond to the newly emerging psychoactive substances.

“Frank” was desperately slow to react to mephedrone, and while steps, to which the Minister has referred, have now been taken to promote the appropriate advisories, there should be a speedier way to ensure that advice is available in a more effective manner once a new and problematic substance has been identified.

More generally, there is also a need for an early-warning mechanism. In its report on mephedrone, the ACMD called for the development of data sets from drug amnesty bins to provide an early warning of emerging trends, which is a sensible suggestion. As part of the follow-through on the order, will the Minister confirm what steps he is taking to advance this proposal? Does he agree that there is a need for a new temporary classification, as we have suggested?

On the specifics of the order, will the Minister confirm what processes will be adopted to enforce the legislation? He referred to discussions with the Association of Chief Police Officers, but what guidance on the introduction of the order is intended to be issued to police forces? What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that local authority trading standards departments take appropriate action under trade descriptions legislation against those firms and companies marketing mephedrone in an entirely bogus and fraudulent way? He referred to a letter from the Home Secretary, but what follow-through does the Minister envisage? How are efforts being co-ordinated with local police and the Serious Organised Crime Agency to ensure that all appropriate measures are taken to get this drug off the streets once the order becomes effective? He has talked about a strategy, but it would be helpful to understand further what that means in terms of immediate action. What discussions has he had with Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government about joined-up enforcement with local authorities?

As I have said, the use of the internet has been a factor in the sale and distribution of such drugs. What discussions has the Minister had with internet service providers and other web hosting companies about taking down websites that offer to sell these harmful substances? What liability would the internet hosting companies have once they had been put on notice of someone using their online services to market these dangerous drugs? Will such companies have any responsibility to co-operate with law enforcement and other agencies?

We are aware that some head shops and other dealers have been stockpiling mephedrone in advance of the introduction of the order, and the Minister said that he has written, or that various agencies are writing to, those organisations. Can he confirm that appropriate action will be taken to seize those products at the earliest opportunity to prevent them flowing into illegal drug distribution networks once the order, if the House passes it, becomes law?

Mephedrone is a synthetic compound designed and created in a laboratory. There have been disturbing reports of chemists in China designing those drugs for use in this country, and of more such drugs being engineered. Can the Minister confirm the veracity of those reports? If they are true, will he ensure that the Foreign Office makes appropriate diplomatic recommendations to those countries that host such facilities? Can he confirm also what measures are being taken to increase the ability of our border agencies to interdict drugs before they enter this country? The Government seem to have downplayed drug seizures, and that is one reason why we believe that we need a proper border police force—to provide greater security and to help reduce the flow of drugs through our porous borders.

Certain parties and persons outside the House have raised questions about the legality of the order, and some have suggested that we need a three-month consultation period with the European Union before the measure can become effective. Will the Minister confirm that he, like me, is satisfied that that is not the case, and either that the relevant EU directive does not apply to this situation, or that there is an appropriate exemption to ensure that the order is effective and can be effective in a matter of days?

People have also queried whether the resignation of any members of the ACMD undermines the approval process and the council’s advice in support of the order. For the record, can the Minister confirm that that will not impact on the order’s effectiveness? He will be aware of the strong indications that many young people have taken the drug thinking that because it was legal it was safe. What public health or media campaigns does he envisage forming part of the order’s implementation? In particular, does he acknowledge that simply passing the order this afternoon will be insufficient unless it is backed up by an awareness campaign to highlight the risks and dangers not simply of mephedrone, but of any other legal highs that might subsequently become available?

Allied to that is the issue of treatment for those who have become addicted to mephedrone. I was speaking to a father of a young man who has become a mephedrone addict. He expressed his frustration at simply not being able to obtain any appropriate advice on the treatment options for his son; how his son had become depressed and was exhibiting other psychological problems; and how he felt powerless to help, because no health professional seemed able to offer a suitable clinical pathway.

Drug therapists have told me of their surprise at how quickly addictive and problematic behaviour has been identified with mephedrone. People have suggested that it can become particularly addictive because it gives a short-term high, leading to binge drug-taking by some users. What steps is the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse taking to address that apparent gap in provision? What assessment has it made of the types of service that may need to be procured at local level? He has talked about advice and guidance in the health service, but what steps is the Department of Health taking to ensure that GPs and other local health practitioners are receiving suitable training to help meet the needs of patients presenting with clinical symptoms linked to mephedrone addiction?

Looking ahead, there is a strong suggestion that the napthyl analogue of pyrovalerone may be the next new psychoactive substance to hit the streets and the club scene. There are already reports that NRG-1, as it is being referred to, is being marketed as a mephedrone substitute. The ACMD has said that it intends to

“review these substances and provide further advice at a later date.”

When does the Minister expect that advice to be forthcoming? In the light of recent experiences, what steps is he taking to ensure that we do not have a rerun of mephedrone with NRG-1?

More generally, the current situation highlights the relationship between the Government and the ACMD. Whatever the Minister may claim, there has been a serious problem with the ACMD and its ability to function effectively and provide Ministers with much-needed advice since the Home Secretary’s inept handling of the sacking of Professor David Nutt and the high-handed way in which he dealt with the AMCD subsequently. That has led to a lengthening line of resignations. Is it not the case that the Home Secretary’s actions have caused inertia and damaging delay at the heart of Government drugs policy?

Eric Carlin, who resigned from the ACMD over the bank holiday weekend, has said that the council is in “deep trouble”. Professor Neil McKeganey, the Scottish drugs adviser, has said that

“the relationship between the ACMD and government has broken down.”

Will the Minister accept that the fracturing of the relationship, breakdown of trust and deep trouble lies entirely at the door of the Home Secretary? We need effective expert advice to inform policy making on drugs. The problems of addiction and multiple substance abuse are complex and multifaceted, and the ACMD has an essential and important role to play.

I am sorry to stop the hon. Gentleman in mid-flow. I know that the personality issue and the question of relationships is central to his argument, but is this not an appropriate time to consider the structure of decision making and the distinction between Ministers and advisers? Subject to the general election, he may be on the Government side of the House making decisions on behalf of a future Government, and it is time to examine that structure.

The right hon. Gentleman made an important point in an earlier intervention about the relative role of advisers and Ministers, and he made it well. Even if we pass the order this afternoon, there needs to be an assessment of the relationship between the Government and their scientific advisers. We look forward to the publication of the Ormond review, which cannot come a moment too soon. This has been a sorry episode for this increasingly sorry Government.

I will not.

This episode has come at a time when an effective relationship between the Home Office and its drugs advisers could have facilitated a more effective and speedy response to the emerging harms of legal highs.

Order. I think the hon. Gentleman has indicated that he is not giving way at the moment.

To quote what is becoming an increasingly well-worn but entirely apt phrase, we simply cannot go on like this.

There is agreement, at least between the two Front Benchers who have addressed the House so far, that the Government have done the right thing in the current circumstances. I will not be sure what the Liberal Democrats’ position is until we hear from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), but there is agreement about the decision that has been taken. I join the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) and the Minister in accepting that it was the right course of action for the Government to take. They acted speedily in respect of the recommendation from the ACMD.

The decision was speedy in that the report went to the Home Secretary on Monday, and on the same day he decided that the drug would be reclassified. It took the Government only a few hours to make that decision. However, I am concerned about the time it took for the advisory council to get to the position to make that recommendation to the Government. Well done to Ministers and, in the last instance, to the Home Secretary for making the decision quickly, but I am worried about the time it took for the recommendation to come before the Home Secretary. The concerns raised by the Minister, the hon. Member for Hornchurch and others in the House were first brought before Ministers a year ago. Those concerns—about how dangerous the drug was—were raised with the previous Home Secretary. So I praise the Government on their decision, but lament the fact that it took 12 months to get to the position to make it.

We have to look at how these decisions are made, and the purpose of the ACMD is central to that. The hon. Member for Hornchurch, in an election period, obviously makes hay with the fact that members of the council have been resigning over the past few months. I would be astonished if he did not use that fact for party political advantage in the current climate. Indeed, it is embarrassing that only last week another member resigned. So it is an appropriate time to look at the entire structure of how these decisions are made. As I said to the Minister in my brief intervention, in the end it has to be up to Ministers to come before the House, and to make and defend such decisions, and they must rely on expert advice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) is, of course, much more experienced than probably anyone else in the Chamber today in these scientific matters—I do not want to disparage anybody else—because he is a bona fide scientist. He is a doctor, so he must be. If we can divorce ourselves from the fact that we are experts in certain fields, we have to rely on the expert advice of people who have impressive titles, such as professors and doctors, to give us the advice and expertise that we do not possess.

We should look at the structure of the advisory council. We must not get to a position where such an important body, which makes representations to the Government on a very important area of policy, should have acting chairpersons, committee members resigning and members who do not understand that, at the end of the day, decisions have to be made by Ministers. It would not be right if such decisions were all made by experts. There is absolutely no point in a Government having a drugs policy as part of their portfolio if Ministers are not prepared to act. I hope that we can use the current episode to look at structures. Of course, it is difficult to do that in the middle of a general election campaign, but whichever party is in power—obviously, I hope it will be Labour—the Government need to look at those structures and ensure that the system is improved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is in his place, and the Government will have noted the last report of the Home Affairs Select Committee on cocaine and the increase in the amount of it entering the United Kingdom. We suggested that it is vital that there be better co-ordination of Government drugs policy. The hon. Member for Hornchurch rightly raised the point that even if mephedrone is reclassified, in various parts of the world—I do not know if it is just in China—people are sitting down, as we speak, to try to concoct the next drug for the market. We are, in a sense, powerless to deal with the fact that, whatever we do in this place and regardless of decisions made by Ministers, at the end of the day, in order to circumvent the reclassification of this drug, somebody somewhere on this planet will be devising the next drug to be made available to young people and others. The hon. Gentleman is also right to mention the importance of the internet, and although I am not sure whether people in China will be able to buy such drugs on the internet, given what has happened with China and Google, the fact is that people in this country might be able to do so. That is something that we have to look at.

That brings me to my penultimate point, which is about the European Union and its failure properly to grasp this as an important policy issue. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North came with us when the Committee visited Lisbon as part of our inquiry into the cocaine trade, but we came across the European research and drugs agency. We were treated extremely well when we went in, as I am sure parliamentarians from across the European Union are. There were half a dozen experts—or perhaps even up to a dozen—sitting before us telling us what the agency was doing on drugs policy. However, what concerns me is that although we have all those experts sitting around in Lisbon talking about policy issues, we still have an unco-ordinated policy in the EU. Mephedrone is banned in Sweden and Denmark, which are in the EU, and in Norway and Israel, which are outside it, but in France and the United Kingdom—until this order goes through, of course—there is no ban, and anyone who goes to Spain can buy it there, too.

The European Union prides itself on co-ordinating policy on serious and organised crime, counter-terrorism and so on, and here we have a policy that is crying out to be co-ordinated at a European level, yet there is no co-ordination. That is why it is important that Ministers, shadow Ministers and alternative shadow Ministers should look at the European Union’s drugs agency and ensure that it does the work that was intended when the Government supported its creation, by providing research, information and expertise, so that the work can be done on a Europe-wide basis—the very issues that the hon. Member for Huntingdon referred to. The fact is that there are people in different parts of the world trying to second-guess the decisions that we are making and trying to create the next internet drug. Those in the European agency are the kinds of people who have the resources to ensure that we remain one step ahead of the people who wish to create the next-steps drugs. If we work in a co-ordinated way, that will make the policy easier to implement and absorb.

Finally, to return to my earlier point, I said right at the beginning that we should welcome what the Government had done, but lamented the fact that it had taken so long. There is no excuse when concerns are raised with Ministers and when Ministers say to the advisory council, as they did last November, “This is a serious issue. Please get on with making a decision as soon as possible.” Let us look at the referral time. The Home Secretary asked the advisory council to look at the issue in November. Resignations aside, it is now April. We have had five months since the original referral. The process has taken far too long.

Leaving the structures aside, we need a measure that will allow an interim decision to be taken, at least in the short term, because since the matter was first referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), after the concerns raised by parliamentarians and our Committee—we have written to Ministers about the issue on a number of occasions, most recently a couple of weeks ago—some 25 young people have died. They include Louis Wainwright and others, and teenagers and young people go to nightclubs, where they have been able to buy mephedrone, every Friday and Saturday night.

Has my right hon. Friend not touched on the nub of the problem? How do we persuade people, and particularly young people, not to take such drugs? Are we satisfied that criminalising drugs will resolve the difficulties? Doing so may well resolve them, and no one has suggested that we decriminalise all drugs—or, indeed, any of them—at this moment. However, the real challenge, in saving lives and saving people from serious injuries, is surely to persuade them not to take drugs in the first place.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is what the Select Committee report said. The need for persuasion and awareness is very important. The Minister has the Frank campaign to assist the Government, but we need more than that. We could simply say, “Take this drug and you will die”, as 25 teenagers and young people have done since this matter was referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch. Those 25 young lives could have been saved if the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs had produced its report more quickly following the Minister’s referral of the matter to the advisory council. They were not saved, however, because we have acted so slowly.

Over the past few weeks, many people have been saying that mephedrone is killing young people, yet the evidence shows that the young people who are using it—I would not advise them to use it at all, frankly—are often using other drugs as well. Until the coroners’ reports have been published, we cannot say whether mephedrone killed Fred Bloggs or not. We have to wait for those reports. The problem is that young people are often using another drug—usually alcohol—as well as mephedrone, and sometimes another drug in addition to those two. So the real problem is poly-drug use. May I urge my right hon. Friend, in his capacity as Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, to look at the poly-drug use problem when Parliament returns?

I cannot give my hon. Friend an assurance on that, as it will depend on various factors. He is right, however, to identify that problem with mephedrone. Professor Iversen appeared before the Committee and said that mephedrone was an amphetamine by any other name, and that it could have harmful effects. My hon. Friend might be right about the individual cases, but my point is that 25 deaths were in some way related to the use of that drug—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), for whom I have huge respect, is huffing and puffing—in a perfectly legal way—from his position on the Front Bench. The fact is, however, that I do not share his philosophy that people should just have any drug that they want. I am sure that he will have the opportunity to put forward his view in a moment.

I shall return to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, for whom I also have huge respect. He is very knowledgeable about these matters, and he is right. I will not jump on to the bandwagon about alcohol use, but, as a teetotaller, I believe that alcohol-related crime and deaths probably far outnumber those related to drug use. My hon. Friend is right; we need to look at this matter. I do not think that we should wait for the coroners’ reports before doing what the Government are seeking to do today, however. We should act quickly and, if necessary, have an interim recommendation to the Home Secretary from the advisory council, so that he can act accordingly. This is the only lesson that we have to learn from the delays of the past 12 months. If we learn it, we will really be able to save lives in the future.

It is a pleasure to follow the speech of the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz)—made without notes, I see—even though he was wrong. The fact that he was wrong was also confirmed by the tremendous speech made by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). Despite my warning to the right hon. Member for Leicester, East not to be dazzled by titles such as “Doctor” or “Professor”, I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East is indeed an expert in this area. He must be mortified by the way in which drug policy has been handled in this country over the decades—and, increasingly, now—by politicians and by the media. I say that not because he is some kind of drug-crazed libertarian; I know that he is not. I spend time with him on the Science and Technology Select Committee, and I know that he is concerned about ensuring that we have the right evidence-based policies and that the harms are minimised. That means not always jumping to the beat of the tabloid press. He was right to point out that the report produced by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which everyone is praising, makes it clear that we cannot say that the 25 deaths linked to the use of mephedrone were caused by mephedrone.

I want to make some progress first.

The position of the Liberal Democrats is that we should, by and large, follow the properly formulated advice of the ACMD, as it is an expert body. We have said that on previous occasions. We do not know that that advice was not properly formulated, and, working on the basis that it is indeed sound, we support the statutory instrument that the Government have proposed, as well as the ban on mephedrone, and its classification as a class B drug. That does not mean, however, that we should suspend all inquiry into some of the issues and possible consequences of the decision.

Allegations have been made that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which gave this advice, was not properly constituted, that the advice was not correctly considered—these are concerns coming from within the ACMD—and that although it did its best, it had to make recommendations based on inadequate data. I think that those concerns are framed by the contributions made not only by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, but by the Conservative spokesman, to the effect that the ACMD was hampered in its work and there was delay, because it was short of its chairman for quite some time and suffered a number of resignations.

When the ACMD makes a recommendation, the Government are, of course, entitled to accept or reject it. If the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee read the excellent report by the Science and Technology Select Committee on how to use scientific advice, he would see that that unanimous report—there was considerable input to it from the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East—made absolutely clear the Committee’s view, which is also the Liberal Democrats’ view, that politicians who are accountable should make these decisions, and that the role of advisers is to give advice.

The key thing is that politicians must consider that advice, and when they reject it they should be very clear about why they reject it, so that they cannot pretend that they are taking the advice and basing their policy on evidence when they are not doing so. It is perfectly legitimate for politicians to base their policy on things other than the evidence, such as manifesto commitments, ideology—if hon. Members remember that term—economics or other matters. They can even base it on their desire to kowtow to the tabloid media. They will then be accountable for all those things; what they should not do is claim that they are taking an evidence-based approach when they are not.

I agree to this extent: the hon. Gentleman is coming round to the view that scientific advice is, in the end, only advice, and that what the Government have done represents the right approach. People can advise, but at the end of the day Ministers have to make the decision.

I have not come round to that; it was my position five years ago. If the right hon. Gentleman looked at the record, he would find that that is what I have been saying. The point is, however, that what we cannot do—I hope the right hon. Gentleman will agree—is so to bully our advisers, or threaten them with the sack if they give the “wrong” advice, that they provide the advice that they think Ministers want to hear. It ill behoves the Conservative spokesman, particularly in view of the BSE fiasco, not to bear in mind the very clear conclusions in the Phillips report of 2000, which said that scientific advisers should not have to go back and do it all again because the Minister is not happy with the content of the advice. We must have clear published advice, and the Government must consider it properly. I shall return to this issue again in a few moments.

What the ACMD usually does is consider the harms that drugs cause, and then consider the harms of illegality. It is important to be aware that there are risks and benefits both ways. There is no doubt that mephedrone is harmful. Although I am only a medical doctor, my advice to people is very clear—that they should not take this drug. I am possibly one of the few Members who can say that they have never taken an illegal drug, which may say something about my university time, as I was never offered it. I am also very clear and passionate about alcohol abuse and, indeed, nicotine abuse.

It is nevertheless important to recognise that banning a drug has potential harms, and these are aspects that we would expect advisers to consider. First, the purity will be impacted by the substances with which the drug is cut by people illegally peddling it for profit. Secondly, criminal gangs can take over. Indeed, in paragraph 6.6 of its report, the ACMD points out that in Guernsey, where mephedrone was banned, criminal gangs have taken over and violence is now associated with accessing the drug, which was not the case previously. Although the ACMD listed that under “Societal Harms”, it is actually a harm of criminalisation.

Thirdly, users—if they are not prevented from using the drug—will be driven into the hands of those who want to sell them even more addictive and more harmful substances. Alternatively, they will turn to another substance which is still legal and may be more harmful. Furthermore, a ban may cause the price to rise, and acquisitive crime is more likely to be committed by people who are addicted to the substance. That is a logical consequence. I accept that drugs ruin lives, but criminal records ruin lives as well. Criminalising people, whether they are under 18 or young adults, has a consequence for those people which we cannot discount.

I have not heard a word about any of those issues in the media coverage, or from the Minister or the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire). I think it wrong for Ministers, or people who want to become Ministers, not to address any of the potential downsides of the policy. I still support what the Government are doing, but at least I have considered those issues, and I question whether the ACMD had a chance to do so. I urge the media, when they see parents of young people who are upset that their child, or young adult son or daughter, is using the drug and bemoan that fact, to bear in mind that banning it will not cure the addiction.

Paragraphs 5.12 to 5.17 of the ACMD report deal with deaths. The report states that

“There have been at least 18 deaths in England where cathinones have been implicated”

and that

“There have been at least seven deaths…where cathinones have been suspected.”

It continues:

“Currently, seven of these”—

the 18 deaths in England—

“have provided positive results for the presence of mephedrone at post mortem. To date, in one case the coroner concluded that the death was ‘natural’ and that an inquest was not required. The remaining cases are awaiting inquest.”

We know, then, that one case was a “not” and the others are only “maybes”.

I shall not repeat what was said by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East about poly-drug use, but this drug is used in combination with other drugs, which may themselves be the cause of death. The same applies to the other reported deaths. I do not for a moment minimise the potential impact of the drug, but we must think carefully before stating as facts things that are not facts. We are all entitled to our opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts.

I realise that there is not much time for the Minister to respond, but I want to say a bit more about the ACMD. As the hon. Member for Hornchurch pointed out, the problem lies not with the ACMD but with the Home Secretary. However, I should like to know whether the hon. Gentleman, who seeks to be a Minister, thinks that Professor Nutt should have been sacked for the lecture that he gave at King’s college, as professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial college, and, if so what he should have been sacked for. I tried to ask the hon. Gentleman that, but he would not allow me to intervene, which is not a good sign. Someone who wishes to become a Minister dealing with these matters should be expected to be able to answer questions of that kind, whether they come from parents, enforcement agencies or experts.

I invite the hon. Gentleman to tell us now that he agrees with the Home Secretary—and the shadow Home Secretary, who needs as much help as possible at the moment—that Professor Nutt should have been sacked, and should have been sacked earlier. If he does end up as the Minister, he will find that, on that basis, people will be unwilling to give him the advice that he seeks.

I have written to Lord Drayson asking whether the Government’s own principles for the treatment of scientific advice were not breached five times last week by the Government, who acted not just without considering the report—which they were bound to consider under the Government principles issued on Budget day—but before it had even been published. In fact, according to Eric Carlin, who resigned last week, when the chair of the ACMD left to brief the Home Secretary for a press conference the ACMD had not even finished the report. The Government responded to the press not only on a report that had not been considered, that had not been published and would not be published for three days, but on a report that had not yet been completed. That makes a travesty of the advisory process.

If, as a result of that, this statutory instrument, if—or rather, I suspect, when—it is passed by both Houses, is challenged in the courts as being ultra vires and the Government lose the case, something which, as has been said, should have been done much earlier, will be delayed by months. The Government will find that people are unwilling to give advice if they break their own rules and pre-empt the work of the experts. The Government do not have to take that advice, but they promised to consider it properly and I do not believe that in this circumstance, they did so. Although the Liberal Democrats are happy to support the order, it is with sadness that we do so at a time when the advisory system on which we rely for proper policy is in crisis. It is not just the Government who suffer if they do not get good advice; we all suffer, because we end up with bad policy.

In the short time available to me, I wish to comment, in reverse order, on the main points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) made a number of serious allegations. The first was that the ACMD was not properly constituted when it came to this decision; we reject that view. He said that evidence was not properly considered; we reject that view. He said that this decision was based not on evidence but on tabloid headlines; we reject that view. He said that advisers were bullied and threatened by Ministers into making this decision; we reject that view, too. The hon. Gentleman needs to examine the evidence that the chair of the ACMD gave to the Select Committee on Home Affairs on 23 March—I believe that was the date—because he would then see that the relationship is very different from the one that he describes. If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about the process that we have gone through, and so concerned that the principles on which he relies for good decision making have somehow not been matched on this occasion, he should stick to his principles and to the logic of his arguments and oppose this order, instead of trying to dance on the head of the pin with the logic of his argument.

One of the allegations made by the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) was that the Government have “downplayed” drugs seizures during our time in office; that is not true. He talked about the work of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the UK Border Agency, and I have outlined their response to the issue before us. There is a fundamental misunderstanding in the question that he asks, because SOCA does have a role to play. However, it often has a role to play downstream; it is no good simply strengthening borders—we are, however, doing that—because we have to address the issue of drugs further downstream.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) raised the issue of poly-use and of drug and alcohol use. I welcome his contribution, because what he says is right. Whoever carries out this role after the general election, and whichever party is in government, they and this House will have to return to this issue, because it is important.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) again raised the issue of policy at a European level. There is disagreement among European countries about the best way to develop drugs policy, but there is a growing acceptance of the need for a harm-reduction approach. I also very much welcome the evolving approach of the new Administration in the United States.

One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the Deputy Speaker put the Question (Order, this day).

Question agreed to.


That the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 30 March, be approved.