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Volume 538: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Duddridge.)

I am delighted to have secured this debate, and I would like to start by paying tribute to the attempts by successive Governments to deal head on with specific issues encountered by minority communities—as we heard only today with the Prime Minister’s commitment to address forced marriage. I must admit, however, to being slightly disappointed that, as a Member of a party that raised the expectations of my constituents by pledging to ban the drug khat while in opposition—a commitment made by no fewer than three members of the shadow Cabinet on three separate occasions—I stand here yet again calling on the Government finally to fulfil their very clear commitment. This is not a partisan issue. Indeed, as I sense we shall see tonight, it unites the House, and it is time that the Government acted.

I have three main points to make but I shall give first a little background, which I hope will mean that the Minister in his response will not need to dwell on the past, but can focus on the future actions his Department intends to take. The distinctive customs and traits of other cultures constitute the vibrant country that we live in today. East African culture has had a particularly far-reaching effect on our society. The religious dedication and hard-working ethos that colour the characters of east Africans have been something to admire over recent years, with independent businesses and community leaders flourishing across towns and cities in the UK. However, with the highs come the lows. One element of east African culture which has long been disputed is the legality of the native east African drug khat. Given the frequency with which khat has been discussed over the past year, I know that most hon. Members are now familiar with the drug, but for the benefit of those who are not, I shall explain in more detail.

Khat plants are grown in Africa and the middle east, and are chewed primarily among Somali, Ethiopian and Yemeni communities. The effects of khat are varied but as a stimulant it creates euphoria and increased sociability—hence its popularity at social gatherings such as weddings. However, the paranoia, aggression and hallucinogenic effects make it extremely disruptive not just to the individual and their health, but to their family and wider society.

Khat is a barrier to inclusion and integration, and it was my sincere impression—and more importantly that of my constituents—that this Government intended to act. This is the second time I have raised the subject of khat in this Chamber and I was deeply encouraged when the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright). confirmed in response to the first debate that in February last year the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was ordered to carry out a full review of the available evidence on khat, and to reconsider the question of controlling it. One year on, and with no report to speak of and none expected anytime soon—indeed, this week the Department confirmed that it will be at least another year—the same amount of limited research is available to us.

From the first mention of khat in Parliament 16 years ago to this very day, Members on both sides of the House have shared their evidence. From Portsmouth to Glasgow, councils and local authorities are standing in isolation, but what we need is a joined-up, united front. My debate today has been sparked by the frustration of my constituents that after 19 months of the coalition Government we appear to be no further forward.

In seeking to progress the matter, I wish to highlight three distinct points. First, I wish to remind my hon. Friend the Minister, for whom I have enormous respect, of the detrimental impact that khat has on issues ranging from health to crime. This will demonstrate how simply kicking this issue into the long grass with further “monitoring” is simply unacceptable. Secondly, I want to revisit the pledge that we made in opposition to act on khat, and to ask why we now seem to be shying away from this pledge. Lastly, I will suggest that tackling khat fits in with this Government’s recent accomplishments in determinedly facing up to the problems that divide our minority communities.

The hon. Gentleman has outlined some of the side effects of the drug, which also include insomnia and depression. Does he feel that those two health effects are sufficient reason to ask that the legislation be changed urgently? Does he agree that it is important that any legislative change should affect all the regions, in conjunction with the devolved Administrations, so that it applies UK-wide?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point; indeed, I will come to the health effects in greater detail shortly. However, let me be absolutely clear that I am pressing for this Government to act in the manner that he suggests.

In my constituency, there are more than 6,000 Somali residents. One of the leaders of the Milton Keynes Somali community, Adan Kahin, has shared many alarming stories with me. His biggest concern is that khat is at the root of family breakdown, owing to issues such as unemployment, economic hardship or aggression arising from heavy usage. Adan has expressed explicit concern about the number of teenage boys whose fathers are absent from the home, instead spending all day chewing in a mafrishi, or khat house. If the Government are truly concerned about the antisocial behaviour witnessed last summer, it is vital that we shine a light into those corners of society. Adan has warned of usage spreading to female members of the community—women who are left alone all day with large numbers of children and little escape. What links all users, however, is the common belief that turning to khat will alleviate the destitution and stress that permeate their lives. I am even aware of instances in well-regarded British institutions where khat has been chewed inappropriately during working hours. There have also been complaints about disturbances caused by delivery of the plant and violence outside mafrishis, with one incident even leading to the death of a seller in my constituency.

Our hands-off policy means that there is absolutely zero quality control. One box of khat checked by port health at Heathrow contained such high levels of pesticides that it was unfit for human use, and that is just one box out of the 10 tonnes arriving each week. Because of the lack of information held on hospital admissions, we are still uncertain about the overall long-term health effects. Problems range from the need for substantial dental treatment, owing to the quantity of sugar and cigarettes consumed, to more serious conditions, such as liver failure and psychosis. It is clear that health practitioners are clueless about how to advise users. Those wishing for a fresh start are stranded, with little or no support—no addiction services or pharmacological agents who can treat khat dependence. Essentially, there are few ways out.

The last review of khat surmised that usage is not prevalent. That may be true for the mainstream population, but not for the demographic concerned. It has been put to me that the Government are not interested because this is perceived as a minority issue. I know that this is not the case, but it is in the Minister’s hands to demonstrate to my community that he does care, as actions, as we all know, speak louder than words.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On that very point, when the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs reported in 2005, it said:

“On the basis of the evidence, the Council recommends that Khat is not controlled”.

However, the following sentence, to which I think he is referring—this is the pertinent one—says:

“Use of the substance is very limited to specific communities within the UK, and has not, nor does it appear likely to, spread to the wider community.”

Does it not appear to him that there is no equality under the law in this case? The last time the issue of khat was analysed, it seems that the ACMD advised that we not ban it, simply because it applied only to that minority community.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which simply underlines what I said earlier. I know that the Minister is committed to equality, which is why I am sure he will address the issue when he responds to this debate. Khat does easily not fit a pre-existing drugs profile, given that its use is limited to certain ethnic communities. That is precisely why we must give it special attention.

Let me move on to my second point. The Government’s silence on this issue prompted me to re-read our manifesto, to make sense of the khat conundrum, but it holds no evidence of a U-turn, with other evidence actually pointing to the contrary. In a 2008 article in The Guardian, the co-chair of the Conservative party, the noble Baroness Warsi, claimed that khat was

“far from harmless and should be banned”.

Indeed, the title of that article was “Conservatives will ban khat”—not “Conservatives might ban khat”, not “Conservatives will consider banning khat”, not “Conservatives will seek advice from the ACMD and then ban khat”, but “Conservatives will ban khat”. In a 2006 report entitled “The Khat Nexus”, the then shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), claimed that a Tory Government would

“schedule khat as a class B drug.”

Those were watertight pledges, made regardless of an ACMD review. So if nothing else, can the Minister explain to my constituents why we now appear to have had a change of heart?

This Government have, however, made a beeline for new legal highs. It is right that we award legal highs that attention, but we cannot ignore the fact that khat, by its very nature, also fits the description of a legal high. I was shocked to learn that cathine and cathinone, two components of khat, are members of the same group of drugs as mephedrone. As components, cathinone and cathine are illegal, as is mephedrone, yet contradicting all common sense, khat, which contains those same substances, is legal. I would like to know how we can continue to promote the hypocritical message that cathinone is okay in one substance but not in another? Just because a drug is legal does not mean it is safe. Tackling new legal highs cannot be a flag-waving policy; we must not forget the question of khat, which has languished in this Chamber year after year. As we take action on those powerful synthetic drugs, khat users and their families watch from the sidelines as their plea goes unheard yet again.

Another reason for my keen interest in this topic is that it is a cross-party point of concern. Wherever large immigrant groups of Somalis settle, the problem of khat is never far behind. This is an issue that the whole House can support, and we should therefore be working towards an integrated solution. It does not help that councils and local authorities are standing alone on the issue. I commend Hillingdon council’s recent report, produced in 2011, which was forthright enough to make recommendations to the Government on matters ranging from classification to temporary bans.

Unlike the UK, some countries are acting. As of yesterday, even the Netherlands—a country renowned for its liberal drugs policy—has banned khat. The UK is now the only legal point of entry for khat into Europe, and that is an embarrassing position to find ourselves in. The Dutch Government have clearly stated that 10% of users, who are predominantly Somali, develop problems with khat. I want to ask the Minister what is preventing us from safeguarding our citizens in the same fashion. The most disturbing comparison comes from Somalia itself: even that war-torn country has made moves to control khat. Islamist courts there are working to put a stop to the khat scourge, and to promote a more stable and cohesive society. What we need is joined-up thinking, and top-down leadership to reassure councils and communities that they are not alone. This is an ideal opportunity for the Government to prove to our communities that we recognise—and, indeed, will tackle—the problems on their doorstep.

That leads me nicely on to my third and final point, which is the commendable way in which this Government have faced up to issues that traditionally effect ethnic minority communities. We have not shied away from those problems, which are so often left to rot at the core of our society. We have rightly begun to take steps to address forced marriage in this country—an issue that has shocked the nation and that works directly against the values and self-worth that we teach our young women, of every background, in British schools. The work that we are promoting on the subject of domestic violence will have a direct effect on majority and minority ethnic communities.

That is not all. I was encouraged to read in the Conservative manifesto that we would be promoting improved community relations for minority ethnic communities, which action on khat will help to deliver. In my own constituency, good work is being done to address those marginalised, sometimes controversial, issues; acting on khat will not be out of step with the current momentum. We can prove to those who doubt our intentions that when we make promises, we stick to them, which is why I am sure the Minister will agree that it is important, given our previous promises, that we are seen to act on khat.

Finally, I want to bring the debate right up to date. We are standing here today, almost one year on from the report being ordered, with no new evidence from the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs. Since its appearance on the British crime survey of drug misuse, the usage of khat has increased. We are unaware of the percentage of khat imports that are being used to extract cathinone and cathine, and in turn, being illegally re-exported. Also, we have only anecdotal evidence that usage is spreading to the indigenous population. Why have we not commissioned a report to explore that threat?

Today, I want to know why my Government’s previous enthusiasm for acting on khat has waned so suddenly. May I ask the Minister to consider how I should respond when my constituents ask again what the Government are doing to protect future generations from the dangers of khat? And—if I may have the audacity to predict his response—may I ask whether he realises that, in order to get the evidence that his Department repeatedly demands, procedures have to be put in place first, in order to reap that information? Banning khat is unfailingly the end-state that I and the community want from this Government, as previously promised, but I wish to outline other possible interim measures.

The drug khat is controlled in America, Canada, Norway and Sweden, to mention but four examples. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the Government could make contact with those countries to ascertain how they went about criminalising the drug? Might this not provide a way forward on the basis of information that might be helpful for the Government?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that suggestion, which underlines the ridiculous point that, following the Dutch move only this week, khat is controlled everywhere in the western world apart from in the United Kingdom.

These are the interim suggestions I would make to the Minister—hopefully to be implemented before we get around to banning khat. Better provisions must be made for addict support. The most effective way of delivering this would be to provide targeted training to those already working within areas affected by khat, to deal with it in a culturally acceptable way. Community mobilisers who already assist with housing, health and education are incredibly well placed to co-ordinate this. Evidence suggests that heavy users are unlikely to seek help, which means that we must do more to reach them.

Secondly, a full health practitioners’ guide to khat and its health effects should be prepared and delivered to GPs and pharmacists nationwide. Thirdly, greater attention must be given to the importation of khat at ports. Finally, the disruption caused by khat houses and mafrishi congregations can be controlled through licensing. A minimum age should be introduced to protect young British citizens from the harm caused by the drug. Checks must be carried out on premises to ensure that they comply with health and safety standards.

After years of talk on khat, if my Government wish to retain the trust of the east African community, the time has come to follow the rest of the western world and act on khat.

This has been an interesting and impassioned debate, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) for continuing to raise this issue. I am mindful that this is the second debate he has secured, having previously spoken on the same topic in a pre-summer recess debate last year. He represents well and effectively his constituency and these particular parts of the community in it by seeking to draw attention to this issue this evening.

My hon. Friend said that there was some kind of formal commitment and he drew attention to statements of shadow Ministers in the Opposition prior to the last general election. I would say to him, however, that there was no specific manifesto commitment and no provision was made in the coalition programme for government for the classification of khat. I would like to assure my hon. Friend, the community he represents and other communities and interested parties that the Government are concerned about this serious issue. It is a matter we want to investigate properly and effectively by closely examining the problems highlighted this evening; we do not want to kick this into the long grass.

We have heard today about real public concerns over health issues—sleep deprivation, loss of appetite, oral hygiene and mental health—and particularly about the social harms associated with the use of khat. Although its use has a cultural context and can be socially accepted among Somali, Yemeni, Ethiopian and Kenyan communities in the UK, many concerns have been raised within these communities. Higher prevalence of khat use among them and its potential for misuse might well disproportionately affect the social cohesion around khat users and their families, as well as their quality of life within wider UK society. We need fully and properly to understand this dimension.

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the Government are required to look to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to provide advice on drug-related issues, including on the case for control based on available evidence at the time of its consideration.

As my hon. Friend knows, the ACMD last formally considered the misuse of khat in 2005, when it advised against bringing the plant under the control of the 1971 Act and made recommendations for health and prevention approaches responding to local community needs, which the last Government accepted. In the light of those 2005 recommendations, the handling of khat-related issues has focused on the tailoring of health and education responses to local community needs, such as the availability of appropriate drug prevention materials and information to raise awareness among practitioners and khat-using communities.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government are under no obligation to follow the ACMD’s advice? The last Government did not do so when it came to the reclassification of cannabis.

The Government will consider the evidence and recommendations supplied to it by the ACMD. The ACMD has an advisory role in that context and Ministers make the ultimate decision, but we have stated in our working protocol with the ACMD that we should properly consider the advice that we are given, and I think that that is the appropriate course.

The FRANK service provides information and advice on khat and harms associated with its use and misuse, directed at young people, their parents, and those working with them. Treatment for khat misuse typically consists of psycho-social interventions and talking therapies to help change behaviour, and drug action teams are expected to review commissioning of local services in order to respond in the best way to the diverse needs of their local communities. My hon. Friend has specifically sought to draw attention to that diversity this evening.

Can the Minister confirm that FRANK offers that information and advice in the native languages of the east African communities?

I am told that a leaflet has been published in English and Somali, that a range of other drug information leaflets have also been published in Somali, and that the helpline is equipped to take calls in Somali via a translator. However, I understand my hon. Friend’s wish to ensure that the service is provided in a way that makes it accessible to those who may be in the greatest need of its support, and I agree with him that more needs to be done.

The Government are concerned about khat use—particularly among young people—and about the societal impact on the most affected communities, and they adopt a serious approach to their role by taking appropriate action to protect all sections of the community from harms caused by drugs. Since the ACMD’s last review in 2005 there has been an advance in the evidence base, which is why I requested the ACMD to undertake a comprehensive review to update its 2005 assessment. The chair of its khat working group has told me that the planned process of evidence-gathering for the review will be rigorous, and will include engagement with communities and stakeholder organisations and a public evidence-gathering meeting.

The ACMD review will cover issues including classification of khat under the 1971 Act, reporting the prevalence of khat use, identifying key khat-using populations, identifying and quantifying harms associated with khat use—specifically social harms—developing an understanding of responses to khat use through services and public information campaigns, and considering the nature of the khat trade, including international trafficking. The chair of the working group has indicated that he would be pleased if my hon. Friend put him in contact with constituents who have evidence to contribute to the review. Furthermore, the ACMD would welcome sharing its terms of reference for the review and its planned process for evidence collation. I would certainly encourage my hon. Friend and other Members present to get involved and support that. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will emphasise in her annual commissioning letter to the ACMD, which will be issued shortly, the priority that this work should now continue to have as part of the ACMD’s work programme in order to ensure its advice is delivered on time.

We have published two studies on khat, one in October 2010 and the other in July 2011. They reviewed perceptions and international evidence on the link between khat use and social harms, and included an overview of the evidence in respect of legislative approaches adopted abroad. These studies have been shared with the ACMD to inform its review. We identified research gaps, which was why those two studies were commissioned. We anticipate that they will help inform the ACMD’s review. We will ensure that there is appropriate information and we encourage others to participate in the review.

The October 2010 study of perceptions of social harms found that khat use was widely socially accepted within Somali, Ethiopian and Yemeni communities, and that there was an increased prevalence of use including among women and young people. There was widespread support for some level of Government intervention, but there was no consensus, although there was a range of suggestions, including regulation of trade, local investment in tailored services and more research and better statistics, and some called for control.

The July 2011 review of literature on social harms found no robust evidence either for or against in respect of the link between khat and social harms, but there were perceptions of social harms among the UK’s immigrant Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian communities although there was little evidence of a clear causal relationship to support this view. Reference was made to stronger evidence on the health harms of khat consumption.

The Government have made clear in our drug strategy a commitment to a drug policy that is based on evidence and outcome. We have placed proper consideration of the advice provided by our independent experts, the ACMD, at the heart of enabling the delivery of the strategy. The Government and the ACMD have also agreed a new working protocol, which has been placed in the House Library, setting out a framework for mutual engagement in line with statutory duties. I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my anticipation at the publication of the ACMD’s findings and appreciates the importance of considering the advice of our experts before deciding on next steps, in particular any legislative intervention. My hon. Friend will not expect the Home Secretary to prejudge the outcome of this advice and preclude the consideration of evidence that will be available then. I take this opportunity to invite Members to direct any representations and evidence in respect of khat to the secretariat of the ACMD, based at the Home Office.

We take this issue very seriously. I commend my hon. Friend on the way in which he has approached it and his continued focus on it. We will not kick it into the long grass. We remain focused on this matter and will take action if that is judged appropriate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.