Thursday 6 June 2013
[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Drugs: Breaking the Cycle, Ninth Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, HC 184, and the Government response, Cm 8567.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Jeremy Browne.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, in this important debate. I am pleased to see the Minister here, as well as the colleagues from the Select Committee on Home Affairs who said that they would come. I pay tribute to those Committee members who participated in drafting and agreeing the report: the hon. Members for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) and for South Ribble (Lorraine Fullbrook), my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) and the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless). In particular, I commend the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and our colleague the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, who first pressed for the inquiry. The hon. Member for Cambridge is in his place. Like me, he is torn between two debates in the House on home affairs. We are occupying the time of Home Office Ministers in both Westminster Hall and the main Chamber: gladly, not the same Minister. I am also grateful to Committee staff, particularly the specialist Ellie Scarnell, for all their hard work.
The Committee’s report, published on 3 December 2012, is entitled “Breaking the Cycle”. It is our first report on drugs for more than a decade; the last time we considered the issue, in 2002, a young Member of the House, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), was on the Committee, which should give other Committee members heart that they have a great political future ahead of them. We spent a year looking in depth at drug education, prevention and treatment for drug addiction, at reducing the supply of drugs in both the United Kingdom and abroad and at the evidence on which drugs policy was based. We visited two countries: Colombia, where we travelled into the jungle to see where cocaine is produced, and Portugal, to examine the drug laws there. We had nearly 200 evidence submissions and 48 conclusions and recommendations. We heard views from people as diverse as Sir Richard Branson, Russell Brand and Peter Oborne. The ex-president of Switzerland, Ruth Dreifuss, also gave evidence to the Committee.
This debate, for which we canvassed so many people’s support, is current. Just today, there was a letter in The Times calling for an independent review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, signed by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) as the former leader of the Green party, Professor David Nutt, Sting and many others, including the hon. Member for Cambridge and myself. Public response to the report has been overwhelming. Society cares deeply about the issue, because it affects us all and the costs are borne by each and every one of us. In the United Kingdom alone, drug addicts commit between one third and one half of all acquisitive crime, and drugs cost our health and justice system £15.3 billion a year.
The debate following the report’s publication caused great excitement in the press. The Mail on Sunday front page read:
“MPs pave way to legalise drugs”.
The front page of the more sober Guardian said that MPs were calling for
“a royal commission on failing drugs laws”.
It has become a feature of reports by the Home Affairs Committee and other Committees that we do not just make recommendations; we also monitor them to see whether they have been implemented. I call it our traffic light report. Each recommendation is awarded a colour: red when the Government have done nothing about it, yellow when they are moving in the right direction and green if the recommendation has been accepted. After all—you will know this, Mr Bayley, from your distinguished service on Select Committees —there is no point in having a Select Committee inquiry, going into a subject in depth and providing recommendations if nobody wants to implement them.
I am pleased to say that the Government have accepted or partially accepted just under 50% of the conclusions and recommendations in our drugs report. That is not as much as in other reports, but they are moving in the right direction. It was, however, disappointing that they rejected our main recommendation calling for a royal commission, although I warmly welcome the Deputy Prime Minister’s support for it.
I am delighted that the Minister of State, Home Department, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), who is here today, is following our recommendations and considering drugs policies abroad, visiting countries such as Denmark and Sweden. In particular, I am glad that he is considering visiting Portugal, or may have done so already; we will hear his travel plans and where he has been in his speech. We visited Portugal, as I have said, and saw at first hand what the Portuguese are doing. I hope that when he went to Portugal he met, or that if he goes to Portugal he will meet, Dr Fernando Leal da Costa, the Portuguese Health Minister, who was kind enough to attend our drugs conference in September and give the 200-plus attendees a fascinating insight into the impact of their policies.
We decided to call our report “Breaking the Cycle” because we identified a number of critical intervention points where, if the right action is taken, the devastating cycle of drug addiction can be broken. The first critical intervention point is during childhood. Prevention is better than cure, and the education system has a vital role to play in ensuring that children and young people resist peer pressure and understand the risks involved in taking drugs. We found that drugs education provision was patchy. The Department for Education noted that most primary and secondary schools provide it once a year at most. A number of our witnesses were highly critical of the quality of awareness provided in the education system. In some cases, they believed that it was likely to inspire children to take drugs rather than the opposite.
The Government have now told us that education will be their focus in the third year of the drugs strategy. In our view, we cannot wait three years for a resolution to the issue. This is the earliest possible chance to break the cycle of drug addiction, and we cannot squander it. Local authorities are being left to decide and fund the most appropriate way of educating children about the dangers of drugs. As focus rightly moves from enforcement for possession to tackling supply and demand, it is vital that our children are aware that there are more risks to drug taking than just being arrested.
Another critical intervention point is recovery from addiction. In 2011-12, some 96,070 people were given a prescription for a substitute drug as a method of treatment. Another 30,000 people were given a prescription and some sort of counselling. Only 1,100 people were in residential rehabilitation.
If the Government are serious about their policy of recovery, they must improve the quality and range of treatments available. There is an over-reliance on prescription treatment, and no recognition of the importance of also treating the psychological symptoms of addiction. Each individual needs a treatment plan tailored to their needs. Intensive treatment is more expensive in the short term, but if it breaks the cycle of drug addiction, the long-term benefits to society are enormous and the cost to society is greatly reduced.
Treatments that we know work, such as residential rehabilitation and buprenorphine as an alternative to methadone, are under-utilised. In 2011, more than 400 deaths were related to methadone. Treatment must also be supplemented by housing, training and employment support, if required, because the end goal of recovery is integration into society. A league table of treatment centre performance should be established so that patients do not waste time and money on care that is not up to scratch. The Department of Health and the Home Office should lead jointly on drugs to ensure that the focus on recovery is maintained. If we reduce demand, we automatically reduce supply.
Many groups are working hard to bring such matters to the Government’s attention, and we met some of them during our inquiry. I want to commend the work being done by Mitch Winehouse, and the living memorial that he has set up to his daughter Amy. He has been one of the most vocal and articulate voices about the provision of rehabilitation support to so many people.
Prison is another critical intervention point. Tackling drug addiction, as the Secretary of State for Justice has said, is vital to the prevention of costly reoffending. Some 29% of prisoners reported having a drug problem when they arrived in prison, 6% developed a drug problem after having arrived and 24% reported that it was easy or very easy to get drugs there. Last year, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, reported an increase in the number of people in prison with prescription drug addiction.
The Committee visited Her Majesty’s Prisons Brixton and Holloway, and we were impressed by their voluntary testing schemes, which were having a real impact on addiction. I want to thank the governors of Brixton, Edmond Tullett, and of Holloway, Julia Killick, for helping to make that happen. We were, however, concerned that funding for such schemes was under threat.
I welcome the Justice Secretary’s commitment to a rehabilitation revolution, with inmates being met at the prison gates to be given support. To identify those who need rehabilitation, we need compulsory testing on entry to and exit from prison, including for the use of prescription drugs. We must also ensure that the voluntary sector, with its valuable experience, has a chance to win rehabilitation contracts against large procurement companies such as G4S that are cheaper but, frankly, just do not have the expertise.
The Committee’s visit to Miami alerted us to the epidemic scale of prescription drug addiction in the United States. More than half of American drug addicts are prescription drug addicts. It is difficult to measure the exact scale of the problem in the UK, because treatment is by general practitioners and is not treated as drug addiction. However, valuable reports by newspapers such as The Times highlight that it is a ticking time bomb in British society that we are doing very little to address. It is a problem not just in our prisons, but right across the country.
I was pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who has responsibility for public health, highlighted her concerns about the abuse of prescription medication several months ago. I hope that the Government will heed the Committee’s warning and push the issue up their agenda as a matter of urgency. In Miami, we heard about the first prosecution of a doctor for giving out multiple prescription drugs. People sometimes say that if we look at America, we see what might very well happen in Europe: it is on an epidemic scale, and I urge the Government to consider that very carefully.
If prescription drugs are a powder keg awaiting a spark, legal highs have already exploded. In 2012, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction identified 73 new drugs in Europe, which is 10 times the number of new substances identified in 2006. A survey on the drug use of 15 to 24-year-olds found that 8% of them had taken a legal high.
The drugs market is changing, and as well as warning our children of the dangers of heroin, cocaine and ecstasy, we need to worry about the creation of a culture in which people can order so many legal highs for next-day delivery through the internet. The Government have introduced temporary banning orders, but just last month Maryon Stewart, who gave evidence to our inquiry, found legal highs on sale on Amazon. There are 200 different substances that are not covered by our drug laws, and we do not know the dangers of those psychoactive substances because, clearly, we have not tried them. Temporary banning orders work, and once a substance has been banned it can no longer be used, but what are the Government doing about the five substances that are created for every one that is banned?
New Zealand is introducing a law to regulate such substances, under which the requirement to prove that the drugs are safe is a duty on the manufacturer. I do not want to extend the Minister’s travel plans, because I know how much he likes staying in his constituency, having been a Foreign Office Minister and gone all over the world, as he did so assiduously, but we should look at what New Zealand is doing. I am suggesting not that he needs to go there, but that he engage with what New Zealand Ministers have done, because we should adopt such good practice in future. I urge the Government to follow our recommendation to make retailers liable for the harms caused by untested psychoactive substances that they have sold. Just as a garage would be responsible for a crash involving a faulty car, legal high sellers should be accountable for the effects of their products.
The cost of ineffective drugs policy reaches far wider than the United Kingdom. During the Committee’s visit to Colombia, we witnessed how the devastating impact of drugs extends far beyond the addict. In 2010, coca was cultivated on 149,100 hectares in Andean countries—an area roughly one and a half times the size of Hong Kong—that cannot afford to fight the drugs war on their own. The value of the global cocaine market is £543 billion, while Bolivia’s national budget, for example, is just £1.69 billion. Despite damage to their land, farmers receive only 1% of the revenue from global cocaine sales. When the Committee met the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, he asked us why his policemen, his judges and his citizens should die in the war on drugs when members of the British public were the ones who wanted to use those drugs. The responsibility lies with us.
I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to President Santos and his soldiers and police officers who, day after day, die protecting us from the scourge of cocaine. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. I shall be meeting him this afternoon as he is in London and I will again convey the thanks of our country. I also want to thank the Colombian ambassador to the United Kingdom, His Excellency Ambassador Rodriguez, for his assistance with our visit to Colombia and for keeping us informed with a regular dialogue.
Some 85% of profits are earned by distributors of drugs in the United States or Europe, and the United Nations estimates that global drugs profits stand at £380 billion, the vast majority of which ends up in our financial system. Antonio Maria Costa, the former head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, has said:
“I cannot think of one bank in the world that has not been penetrated by mafia money.”
Banks with British bases, such as Coutts and HSBC, have been found guilty of laundering drugs money, yet there have been no individual prosecutions, just fines, which are basically a drop in the ocean for multinational banks. Those companies need to hear the rattling of handcuffs in their boardrooms. We must bring forward new legislation to extend the personal criminal liability of those who hold senior positions in our banks and who have been found wanting for not dealing with money laundering.
The Financial Services Authority did not come up to scratch on that issue, as it ignored almost $380 billion of money laundered by the drug cartels and dealers. I hope—I look to the Minister for assurance on this matter—that the new Financial Conduct Authority will be much tougher than the FSA, because we were not overly convinced by the FSA’s work.
After a year scrutinising UK drugs policy, it was clear to the Committee that many aspects of our current drugs policy were simply not working and needed to be reviewed. When the then Lord Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), gave evidence to the Committee, he told us that the war on drugs had failed. The Prison Governors Association also recently said that we needed to rethink our approach to drugs. We are not dealing with the dealers or focusing on the users. Drugs still cost thousands of lives and billions of pounds each year.
People are already describing Guinea-Bissau as the world’s first narco-state. That is why we felt that, even after a year’s inquiry, the visits that we made and the evidence that we took, it was vital that the Government established a royal commission. We felt that the best way forward was to bring all the people with great expertise, including those who have been affected by drugs, before a royal commission headed by a High Court judge so that we can study in huge depth this subject that even we, after a year, have not got to the bottom of.
I urge the Minister to reconsider our proposal on a royal commission. I think that he supports the idea of one, but the problem is with other parts of the coalition Government. It is the policy of his party and his leader, the Deputy Prime Minister, to support a royal commission, and it is a policy that has been advocated by the hon. Member for Cambridge. I cannot remember the quote of the Deputy Prime Minister, but he once lavishly praised the hon. Gentleman, saying that as far as he was concerned, on certain aspects of policy, what the hon. Member for Cambridge said went. I hope very much that the royal commission can be established and that the Government will look at all aspects of drugs policy, so that there is a proper debate. We do not want a situation in which politicians run away as soon as the word “drugs” is mentioned and everyone hides under the table. We want a proper and open discussion, as I had in Leicester. I asked the Leicester Mercury to conduct a citizens’ poll to tell me what the people felt about the matter. I pay tribute to the Leicester Mercury and all the other local papers that were part of that debate. Let the people decide; let them put forward their views to a royal commission. I believe that that is the proper way forward.
To those who say that a royal commission could last forever, let me say that we thought about that, which is why we suggested that it should have an end date of 2015—that magic year in the history of our country when all things will change and all things will become visible. This matter is a great challenge for us and for our generation of politicians and I hope that we will rise to it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and to follow the Chair of the Select Committee, especially after his kind words. I am not sure that they were entirely accurate. I think that he was referring to the draft Communications Data Bill, which he and I and various others have discussed in the past.
I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee on having the courage to ensure that the Committee considered this issue, because it is so sensitive and can lead to a huge amount of concern in some parts of the press. I also congratulate him on his leadership and on his speech, which took much of the content out of what I was planning to say, so I will only focus on a few key issues. There is a huge amount in this very thick and detailed report, and I support it completely.
I want to begin with the basic principles of how we start to work. First and fairly obviously, drugs are harmful. They are harmful whether they are legal or illegal; whether they are cocaine, marijuana, paracetamol or one of the new legal highs. They all have harms, and many of them also have benefits. As we say in one of the key parts of the report, the question is how we deal with those harms. Paragraph 14 of the report states:
“Drug use can lead to harm in a variety of ways: to the individual who is consuming the drug; to other people who are close to the user; through acquisitive and organised crime, and wider harm to society at large. The drugs trade is the most lucrative form of crime, affecting most countries, if not every country in the world.”
The principal aim of the Government drugs policy should be first and foremost to minimise those harms, but how do we go about doing that? How do we reduce the harms from alcohol and heroin and the harms from prescription drugs, which can be abused? For more than 40 years now, the answer has principally been to separate drugs into a category of legal or illegal—I use the term loosely of course because the drug itself cannot be legal or illegal, but possession can be. For the illegal ones, we have focused principally on the criminal justice approach—policing, courts, prisons and all the sanctions of the Home Office.
When the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was passed—interestingly, it has never been reviewed since 1971—the debate was all about how it would lead to the end of the use of illegal drugs. That was the Act’s aim. It certainly has not worked in that respect. If we were in a world now where no one had any of the drugs for which possession was illegal, we would be having a very different debate.
The Act simply has not worked, and that has been very expensive. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has estimated that 0.48% of the UK’s GDP is spent on our overall drugs strategy. I think that that is the highest rate of expenditure in Europe, and yet for many drugs, we have among the highest rates of use in Europe. We are spending lots of money, but there is lots of drug use—the Act is just not working.
In the process, we have hit many people’s lives. We have left people to languish in jail for a long time. Also, we have made people who possess small amounts of drugs go to jail, and many of them suffer problems trying to live and work afterwards. Even a caution for the most minor offences can still affect people’s ability to live and work. So we need to change things.
I have heard it said—there is some basis for saying it—that drug use is currently down. However, that is only true when looking at the drugs that we have made illegal. What we know—as the Chair of the Select Committee highlighted—is that there are now many other new psychoactive substances that people are moving to because of the pressure that we are putting on for legal reasons. We have no idea whether encouraging people to stop taking marijuana and to start taking one of the new things that they can find legally online somewhere is better or worse for them. We have no idea whether the harms caused by the other drugs will be better or worse. So we may well be pushing people to things that are far worse than the things that we are trying to clamp down on.
We also have to look at this issue in the round. We have to look at the pressures of alcohol. I asked one of the police officers who gave evidence if his officers would rather face, at the end of an evening, a group of four men who were drunk or a group of four men who were stoned. Most police officers would far rather deal with the people who had used marijuana. We have to look at the impacts of some of these other issues.
As the Chairman of the Select Committee quite rightly said, one of the key things that we say is that we need to look again at this issue. These days, we do not allow legislation to sit by for 40 years without looking at it; we try to have post-legislative scrutiny to see whether a law is working and doing what it is supposed to do. That is why the Select Committee has called for a royal commission to look at the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. That is what our report says, and we are not the only people saying it by any stretch of the imagination.
The UK Drug Policy Consortium has done six years of work on the issue and it has called for many of the same things that we have called for; I commend all its detailed publications. Huge numbers of organisations say what our report says; I could mention many of them, such as Transform and Release. Also, we are increasingly getting senior people who have had experience of this fight, including senior people from MI5, MI6 and the police, who say, “No. We’re not doing it the right way. We have to change.” In Cambridgeshire, Tom Lloyd, the former chief constable, who has huge experience of dealing with the criminal justice approach to drugs, is very clear—indeed, categorical—that we need to change.
Our Committee has not gone as far as some suggest. The Chair of our Committee referred to the article in The Mail on Sunday, which suggested that we support full legalisation, but that is not what we recommended. However, we supported a proposal that was made more than 10 years ago by the Home Affairs Committee and supported by the Prime Minister, as he is now. That proposal was very clear, and the Prime Minister voted in favour of a proposal that we also endorse. It is that
“we recommend that the Government initiate a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma.”
That is what the Prime Minister said 10 years ago. The key thing in that recommendation is that not only legalisation should at least be considered; we also have to regulate. That may or may not be the right answer, which is why we need a royal commission.
Our Committee called for a royal commission and we published this detailed, thick report. I was impressed that, within only an hour or so of its being published, the Home Secretary was able to say no, nothing in the report was new and that people did not need to learn from it. That was an impressively fast response. I commend my hon. Friend the Drugs Minister for the work that he has been doing on this issue. There have been some positive things, and the full Government response was rather more positive than the initial comment that came out from the Home Office.
The Chair of our Committee described the Government response as supporting about half of our recommendations. In a number of cases, the suggestion from the Government was that what we were recommending was already being done. We could argue about the extent to which that is true, but my summary is that the Government response was largely saying no to most of our new suggestions.
However, I strongly welcome two things in the Government response to our report, because I think that they will make the difference. Again, I strongly commend my hon. Friend the Drugs Minister for his work to get them into the Government response. One of them is set out at the top of page 15, where an interesting sentence says:
“High quality drug treatment is the most effective way of reducing drug misuse and reducing drug related mortality.”
I agree completely with that. To start off by putting treatment as the principal aim rather than the criminal justice focus is exactly what many of us have been arguing for. We now need the Government to follow through on their own statement that we need to focus on the “high quality drug treatment” and not on the policing or the criminal justice. That fits with our recommendation that we need to get the Department of Health far more involved.
With the greatest of respect to my hon. Friend the Drugs Minister, having a Drugs Minister based in the Home Office means that the starting point will always be the criminal justice-led approach. There is co-operation and working with the Department of Health, but many other countries have the lead for drugs policy based in their departments of health—or their equivalent—because the focus needs to be on treatment, as the Government here have now accepted.
The other key thing that came out of the Government response was the international comparators study. I was very pleased to see that. During our evidence sessions, it was clear that although there was a stated commitment, in the words of the Drugs Strategy 2010,
“to review new evidence on what works in other countries and what we can learn from it”,
that commitment was being honoured—certainly at ministerial level—in a slightly more relaxed way than perhaps some of us might have liked. It is absolutely right that we should proactively look at other countries to see what they achieve.
My hon. Friend the Minister has been to Portugal already, and I am sure that he will talk a bit later about what he saw there. When our Committee went to Portugal, we saw a few things that were really striking. The Portuguese model is often misdescribed. In Portugal, it is still an offence to possess large amounts of any drug and it is still a criminal offence to supply drugs. The key difference is that possession of a relatively small amount of any drug—up to 10 days’ personal supply, and there are estimated figures for what that amount is—is treated outside the criminal justice system. There are dissuasion commissions that deal with those cases in a non-judicial way; there is no criminal sanction and the focus is on treatment. The aim is to have individualised care, to make sure that people can get out of using drugs.
We were impressed by how fast people could be set up with treatment in Portugal. There are often delays in the UK in trying to find appropriate treatment facilities. In Portugal, people said that it was very frustrating that sometimes they would have to wait for two days, which would be amazingly fast for many of the people in my constituency who I have spoken to. So Portugal has this process whereby people who are addicts are pushed towards treatment. There are other ways that they can be dealt with, but none of them involves dealing with the criminal justice process and none of them affects people’s ability to work, except in a very few special circumstances.
The Portuguese approach was controversial when it was established but it seems to have worked, and there are a number of ways to look at it. According to the official Portuguese figures, the number of long-term addicts has declined from more than 100,000 people before the new policy was enacted, which was about 10 years ago, to half that number today. The Portuguese have also found less drug use in prison.
What was striking when we went to Portugal and spoke to politicians from across the political range—from the Christian democrats on the right to the communists on the far left—was that none of them disagreed with the policy. With the Christian democrats, we had an interesting meeting with a very impressive woman from the party who had opposed the policy when it was introduced. The Christian democrats had made all sorts of dire predictions about what would happen—the sort of thing that we can read in The Daily Mail—but they said, “We were wrong. We didn’t see increased drug use, which we were concerned about; we didn’t see drug tourism; we didn’t see any of the problems.”
The live debate in Portugal around drugs policy is whether treatment should be funded on a national or regional basis. That was the debate across the political spectrum. Nobody was questioning whether the decriminalisation of possession of small amounts was the right thing or wrong thing to do. The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), who was leading us on that occasion, made a point of asking everybody whether they agreed in principle with the policy. Not a single person disagreed; we could not find anybody who did so. We spoke to the police, who had originally opposed it, and they said, “Actually, this has been better for us for policing. We don’t have to spend so much time on people who are addicts, who are small users. Instead, they can help us to deal with the people who are dealing, who are causing the higher-level problems with gangs and organised crime.” Nobody opposed the policy.
We met a gentleman who leads a non-governmental organisation that is staunchly anti liberalising the drugs policy—it was the closest we came to meeting somebody who disagreed—and he said that 10 days’ supply was too much and that it should be more like two or three days’ supply. I explained that that would be seen as phenomenally liberal in this country, and he was shocked. They all agree that that is not the right way to go. I hope the Minister found things much the same in Portugal—I am sure he will speak for himself—and that there was a strong sense that the policy worked well.
The principle of focusing on not criminalising people in possession has already been accepted by the Government in a different context: temporary class drug orders, brought in a couple of years ago to allow the temporary ban on drugs while we are trying to find all the evidence. The Government have made it an offence to supply large amounts of such drugs, but not an offence to possess small amounts. All I am suggesting is that we apply the same principle to other drugs, because it has been found to work in Portugal, to be publicly accepted and to have good outcomes.
I am keen on an evidence base. There is a fantastic piece of evidence from the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic used to have no criminal sanction on possession of small amounts, but in 2001 it changed the law and criminalised possession, and there was a big debate. The sort of arguments were made that might be expected, with people saying that if possession were criminalised fewer people would use drugs, people would be healthier and better, and there would be less drug use—all of that sort of thing. The Government there did something that Governments rarely do and set out their hypotheses, worked out how to measure and test them, and published a proper impact analysis, internationally verified, of their predictions. They found that they did not get what they expected from criminalising possession.
The implementation of a penalty for possession of illicit drugs for personal use did not meet any of the tested objectives, was loss-making from an economic point of view and brought about avoidable social costs. It was found that criminalisation made things worse. That suggests that decriminalisation—not an absolute parallel, but as close as one can get—would not be likely to make things bad.
The summary of results in the Czech impact analysis states that
“from the perspective of social costs, enforcement of penalizing of possession of illicit drugs for personal use is disadvantageous”.
The hypothesis that availability of illicit drugs would decrease was rejected, as was the one suggesting that the number of illicit drug users would decrease; and rather than the number of new cases of illicit drug use decreasing after criminalisation, incidence in the general population increased. Rather than finding no negative health indicators relating to illicit drug use, there were more fatal overdoses from illicit drugs after criminalisation, and the hypothesis that social costs would not increase was rejected. Having done this study, the Czech Republic went back and decriminalised possession, because it found that it was better for its society and was cheaper and more effective at dealing with drugs. We can do this in this country.
Of course, no country is a perfect model, but we know that in Portugal decriminalisation of possession of small amounts works and has societal benefits and is well accepted, and that in the Czech Republic it is better to decriminalise possession than not to. We can try that here. We would need a royal commission to work out the exact details of how to do the work here. We can make a difference.
Although I would love to talk about other domestic issues, I do not have time to go through them in perfect detail. The focus on treatment is right. I am alarmed that there is a push to suggest that abstinence is the only form of treatment that really counts. Where people are having treatment, we want to move them from high usage to lower usage. For some people that will mean abstinence and for others it will mean maintenance. We want to offer them the choice of whatever will get them to the lowest level we can. The Chair of our Committee was right in what he said about prisons and the need to get smaller providers involved in drugs treatment.
I want to pick up on an issue, drug-driving, that plays into Home Office discussions. It is right to have a criminal offence for drug-driving, just as there is for drink-driving, and the threshold for harm should be the same. We allow drivers to drink up to 0.08 mg per ml, and we should allow the same equivalent harm from drug use. For someone whose drug use has taken them to that risk level, that should be the key test. We make that recommendation in our report in paragraph 2:
“the equivalent effect on safety as the legal alcohol limit, currently 0.08 mg/ml.”
We must ensure that we get health further involved.
Let me finish by mentioning supply, because drugs are not just a UK problem but a huge international problem. Although we have had 50 years of criminalisation, illicit drugs are now the third most valuable industry in the world, after food and oil. That is incredibly damaging. We tracked the routes for cocaine, as our Committee Chair said. We went to Colombia to see where it was grown; to Florida, where we saw how the US military tried to combat it; and we saw the customs’ efforts to try to stop it flooding into the US. I spoke to parliamentarians from west Africa, looking at that stage of the process. In Portugal, cocaine is coming into Europe. The message at every stage was clear: supply cannot be stopped. It can be squeezed in various ways. For example, massive military efforts can be made in Colombia to reduce the amount of coca plantation, but it moves to a neighbouring country. Interdiction can used and the navy can block one side of central America, but it goes to the other side or takes an air route.
It was astonishing to see the mini-submarines now being created by the Colombian drugs lords, which cost about $1 million and have a range that allows them to reach London. The cocaine loaded on to those can be sold for about $500,000. The US navy was clear: with the best will in the world, it cannot spot a small submarine somewhere in the Atlantic. Supply cannot be controlled.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. I was flabbergasted to find out just how much money was involved. I was even more surprised to discover that, in Portugal, where there has been a problem for a while with people flying drugs in from west Africa—they have tried to combat that—drugs are now being flown back from Portugal into west Africa. On asking, we were told, “We think it is because the drugs are returned to the sender if they are not of good enough quality.” If people think it is safe enough to transfer drugs internationally that they can have a returns policy, we are nowhere near stopping supply, and in the process we are losing control of country after country to the drugs cartels. The profits are huge, and criminal gangs and cartels across the world thrive on them. The banks have a huge part to play, as the right hon. Gentleman was right to highlight. This is wrecking many countries. We did not look at the situation with heroin and marijuana, but the same damaging effects apply in different countries.
President Santos has been taking a strong stance, saying that his country will try to control this problem; but we cannot expect countries to be torn apart for ever in an effort to control a problem that cannot be controlled. I am delighted that, in 2016, the United Nations General Assembly will have a special session to look again at its international drugs policy. I hope that, whatever flavour of Government we have then, we will be working with people like President Santos and with the reformers to try to solve this global problem.
We have worked for 40 years with a criminalisation process that has not delivered what we said it should deliver in 1971. It has not worked for the users of drugs, for society at large or for the Treasury. There are much better ways.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Bayley. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I apologise, but I have a very sore throat, so my voice is not quite as it should be. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert). I will certainly look to his pronouncements in future for an indication of Liberal Democrat policy.
I start by recognising that the report is an important piece of work. I pay tribute to the leadership of the Select Committee’s Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). I also pay tribute to all the members of the Committee who contributed to the report, which draws upon the huge experience of different people and organisations. As we have heard, many different countries have been considered.
I had an opportunity to listen to some of the witness sessions. I heard Sir Richard Branson and Russell Brand give evidence, and I attended the Committee’s one-day conference in Parliament. I think it was very useful to invite the general public in to hear the deliberations of that Committee.
I visited Colombia after the Select Committee’s visit, and I know from my conversations with the Serious Organised Crime Agency officers based in Colombia that they were delighted to be able to explain the international role they play in addressing the drugs problem. They do some very important work, which I am pleased has been recognised in the report.
The report is wide-ranging and contains many recommendations. Because of the time, I will go through some of the recommendations that I believe are key. I look to the Minister to answer some of my questions on the approach the Government will take to addressing the Committee’s recommendations.
I start with the recommendation that the lead for drugs policy should be shared between the Home Office and the Department of Health, with a designated point person co-ordinating policy. That might seem an unlikely place to start, but I think it is absolutely essential that drugs policy is co-ordinated across Departments. I will address that theme in the points I raise this afternoon. The Opposition recognise the importance of a co-ordinated approach, and it is certainly important to recognise that there has been a high level of cross-departmental work on drugs over the past 10 years.
The Minister, although based in the Home Office, is responding on behalf of the Government, and I know he takes seriously his responsibilities on drugs. I question whether it should be necessary for two Departments to be involved with drugs, because the Minister is able today to discuss aspects of the drugs strategy that sit not only within the Home Office but within the Department for Education and other bodies, such as Public Health England and the NHS.
That leads me to the report’s recommendation on the need to strengthen and open up the inter-ministerial group on drugs, which the Minister chairs. One of the recommendations is that the group’s minutes, agendas and attendance lists should be published. I have spent much of the past 18 months trying to get details of those minutes, agendas and attendance lists through parliamentary questions, and I have resorted to freedom of information requests. I have been continually thwarted by the Home Office, so I think that recommendation would help us to understand and appreciate what is happening across Government.
We can see the importance of cross-Government working when we look at the record of achievement over the past 10 years on reducing the health harms of drug use, particularly heroin and crack cocaine use. All the key indicators are improving, and some of them have already been mentioned.
The number of drug users is falling, particularly among the 16-to-24 age group, although, as the hon. Member for Cambridge highlighted, that may not give us a true picture if we take legal highs into account. The number of drug deaths has fallen even more sharply—more than halving between 2001 and 2011—partly because we have had much better access to treatment and because treatment is more successful. The average waiting time to access treatment was nine weeks in 2001; it was five days in 2011, and it is getting more effective. Only 27% of treatment programmes were successful in 2005, but the figure rose to 41% in 2011.
Finally, and probably most importantly, more people are completing treatment. In 2005, 37,000 people dropped out of treatment before completion, whereas only 11,000 completed it. By 2011, those figures had almost reversed: 17,000 people dropped out of treatment, whereas nearly 30,000 completed it. I am sure we could see further improvement, and I am not complacent at all, but we ought to recognise that there has been huge improvement in treatment outcomes over the past 10 years. I say that in particular because much of what has been achieved was within the framework of collaboration.
The National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse was set up as a joint Home Office and Department of Health project to ensure that drugs treatment had the required priority in the NHS. Although the NTA was funded by the NHS, the Home Office had representation on its board because there was clear acceptance that the Home Office had a key part to play. We knew that drug treatment was important in reducing crime. We wanted to ensure that those two parts, treatment and crime prevention, sat together. I think the NTA was an unprecedented success, and I pay tribute to the recently retired chief executive, Paul Hayes, who did an excellent job over many years.
I saw at first hand how collaboration can work effectively when I visited a drugs treatment facility in Wakefield run by Turning Point. In one building there were police officers, probation officers, social workers and a range of medics and support officers, which works very well, but I share the Committee’s concerns about how such a set-up will fare in the new frameworks. Such facilities will depend on the co-operation of the new police and crime commissioners, who will have some responsibility for funding, and the new health and wellbeing boards. In the case of the facility that I visited, the PCC will have to liaise with nine different health and wellbeing boards, each of which has a huge number of priorities. We need to keep an eye on how well such facilities continue to be funded under those new PCCs and health and wellbeing boards.
I am also concerned about the level of co-ordination between health and wellbeing boards and the criminal justice system. I am pleased that in my home city of Hull the police have been co-opted on to the health and wellbeing board, but I do not think that is the norm. I support the Committee’s recommendation that more information be collected from health and wellbeing boards on where their money is being spent and who is involved in that decision making. The Home Office should ensure that that includes information on co-ordination with criminal justice partners. Drug treatment is not sexy, but for it to keep working a huge number of local politicians will have to continue to prioritise drug treatment and the spending that it needs. I question whether, in the financing regime they have set up, the Government have put enough in place to incentivise local politicians to recognise that.
Quite rightly, much of the Committee’s report addresses how we can improve treatment and increase recovery rates, and I particularly want to mention prisons. The Committee makes a number of recommendations about improving provision in prisons, and that seems sensible. Will the Minister tell us how far the Government have started to implement some of the recommendations? In particular, I echo the Committee’s concerns about the importance of treatment and the availability of support at the prison gate to prevent recovering addicts from relapsing, especially because of the recent changes in the NHS. I understand that in-prison drug treatment is being commissioned not in the locality but by a national agency, but that what happens when the person leaves prison and returns to the community depends on the commissioning arrangements of the clinical commissioning group and the health and wellbeing board.
I thank my hon. Friend for taking part in the debate. Given the state of her voice, she probably needs a prescription, so I am grateful to her.
What is the Opposition’s position on compulsory testing on entry and exit? Everyone wants to help people, but if we do not know who needs help we cannot really give that help.
The Chair of the Select Committee makes a powerful argument for having data that allow us to understand the number of people affected and therefore how to treat them. I am sure the Opposition would want to consider that, recognising that the issue has been raised by the Committee, which sees it as an important part of tackling some of the problems in prison.
Will the Minister also address an issue that has arisen since the report was published, which is the use of the private sector in the probation services provided to people leaving prison? What thought has been given to ensuring that appropriate drug treatment and support is available through the new providers?
At the start of this Parliament, there was a lot of political rhetoric from Government Members about what constituted recovery, to which the hon. Member for Cambridge referred. The view at first appeared to be based on ideology and not on looking at the individual needs of each person. For some people a life of abstinence would be appropriate; for others, a life supported by methadone or another drug. When people want to move to abstinence, it is important that they have the necessary support to do so, and that a range of programmes are available to support them.
The Committee’s report highlights the large variations in the success of different programmes, which is of concern, because we want to ensure good value for money and that we get the right outcomes. An average success level of 41% could obviously be improved upon. Payment by results should help to improve standards, but I echo the concerns expressed by the Committee, and this afternoon by its Chair, about how that method of funding might hamper small providers. It is also important that support is given to a range of commissioning bodies to enable them to sort through the data on what is effective. Given the multitude of different commissioners, can the Minister explain what role Public Health England will play in guiding commissioners?
Of course, we all want to see fewer people taking drugs in the first place, and I will concentrate for a few moments on the need to have more effort directed at prevention. I agree with the Committee that drugs prevention and education are the strands of the drugs strategy to have had least work and least interest. In the review of the drugs strategy, the Government could identify just two areas of progress: they had relaunched the FRANK website, and they were reviewing the curriculum for schools. Since then, the curriculum review has finished, but my understanding is that there will now be even less drugs education in the science curriculum. That cannot be seen as progress. At the same time, the Government have abandoned Labour’s plans to make personal, social, health and economic education a statutory requirement for schools and have closed the drugs education forum.
Figures from Mentor, the drug and alcohol charity, show that at present 60% of schools deliver drug and alcohol education once a year or less. That education is often poor, incomplete or totally irrelevant; pupils aged 16 seem to get the same lessons as pupils aged 11. An example given was of sixth-form students being required to colour in pictures of ecstasy tablets as part of their drugs education. Earlier this year, Mentor told me:
“Drug and alcohol education should not be disregarded as a trivial add-on. It should be fundamental to pupils’ education. The links between early drug and alcohol use and both short and long term harms are clear, and there is compelling evidence showing longer term public health impacts of evidence based programmes. The cost benefit ratios are significant, ranging from 1:8 to 1:12.”
The Committee’s report is clear:
“The evidence suggests that early intervention should be an integral part of any policy which is to be effective in breaking the cycle of drug dependency. We recommend that the next version of the Drugs Strategy contain a clear commitment to an effective drugs education and prevention programme, including behaviour-based interventions.”
I wholeheartedly support that, and I repeat Labour’s commitment to bringing in statutory PSHE to achieve it, which I tried to do recently myself by introducing a ten-minute rule Bill in the previous Session.
For the interim, the Committee recommends
“that Public Health England commit centralised funding for preventative interventions when pilots are proven to be effective.”
Again, that is something I support. The Department for Education has a set of programmes that have been approved and are listed on the Centre for the Analysis of Youth Transitions database. A wide range of programmes, they are all evidence-based and have been tested and proved to be effective. They are life-skills programmes that not only tell children no, but empower them to resist peer pressure and to make informed decisions about alcohol and drugs. Furthermore, they dispel myths such as those going around suggesting legal highs are safe. What is unfortunately lacking at the moment, however, is the political leadership to get those lessons into schools.
I mentioned earlier my attempts to see the minutes of the inter-ministerial group on drugs. I never managed to get the minutes of the meetings, but I did get the agendas, which showed that in the first 18 months of this Government drugs education and drugs prevention were never discussed. Can the Minister tell us whether he has put either drugs education or drug prevention on the agenda of the group in the nine months that he has been chair? If not, perhaps he can promise to put something on the agenda of the next meeting. Previously, when there was a problem with prioritising drug treatment within the NHS, Ministers came together to form the National Treatment Agency. There now appears to be a problem with prioritising prevention work in schools and education and in public health, so perhaps the Minister can show a similar initiative and work with his colleagues to set up a cross-departmental body to tackle the issue.
Finally, I want to discuss the problem of the new psychoactive substances. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction is now monitoring 280 new substances throughout Europe; 73 new substances came on to the British market last year, and they are now freely available from 690 online shops. In addition, the Angelus Foundation, which has already been mentioned, reports that there might be up to 300 “head shops” selling those substances on the UK high street. The figures are truly shocking and will terrify every parent in the country, but even those figures do not quite show how readily available the drugs are through peer-to-peer selling in schools. As the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee mentioned, even Amazon was recently selling the drugs, and some online sellers are sending out free samples to children once a new compound arrives from China. Our understanding of the dangers of legal highs has been greatly enhanced by the work of the Angelus Foundation, and I pay particular tribute to Maryon Stewart who founded the foundation after tragically losing her daughter, Hester Stewart, a medical student, from the legal high GBL in 2009.
As we heard, the Government have introduced temporary banning orders to make such drugs easier to prohibit. The Home Secretary promised that they would allow for swift and effective action. In two years, however, one temporary banning order has been used, during a period when more than 100 new legal highs have emerged on the market. I understand from the press that two more temporary banning orders are in the pipeline, which I will come on to.
The first thing we need to do to get better understanding of the harms of such drugs is, as the Select Committee said in its report, to improve data collection on drugs. Nowhere is that more pressing than with the new psychoactive substances. First, we need better information about their prevalence. I am very concerned that those drugs are not being properly recorded in the Mixmag drug survey or the British crime survey.
Secondly, we need to understand the harm they cause. I have heard from front-line practitioners in addiction services and A and E that they are encountering more and more people who have taken legal highs, but that is anecdotal and we need proper data collection. If someone presents to A and E having taken a legal high, that should be properly recorded.
Thirdly, we need the major databases to work together. For the last year, I have tried to ascertain how the EMCDDA database liaises with the Home Office’s much-touted early warning system. Last year, I asked why it was monitoring 13 substances when the EMCDDA had 47 on its list, but I have still not received a satisfactory explanation. I would also like to know how the Home Office’s system is informed by the TICTAC database of toxins, which is run by the NHS, and the National Poisons Information Service’s TOXBASE. In the past, work on collecting data was done by the Forensic Science Service, but it has been disbanded. I hope that the Minister will explain who is doing that work now.
This week, the Government announced that they will finally ban Benzo Fury. It is clear from the letter that the Home Secretary received from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that there are real concerns that the system that has been set up is failing. The drug has been putting people in hospital since 2009, when it was first reported to TOXBASE, and since then there have been 65 more referrals. Will the Minister explain the point of a temporary banning order if it takes four years from the first hospital admissions to a ban on the sale of the drug on the high street? No deaths from this drug have been reported in the UK, but deaths have been reported in other countries. Professor Les Iversen, chair of the ACMD, said:
“Sooner or later we will get unexpected and serious harm emerging with one of these compounds and then we will blame ourselves for allowing them to be sold without the usual safety data.
That’s why I think this is a serious problem, it's not just a nice set of party drugs that we can let people get on with, it's a set of chemicals that are potentially very dangerous.”
I hope the Minister will respond to that comment.
The Committee’s report recommends that more advice and support be given to allow trading standards to take action against sellers, and that recommendation was also made by the UK Drug Policy Commission. What has the Minister done to investigate implementation of those two recommendations? Several recent attempts to take action through the courts have failed, and trading standards are already exceptionally stretched because of the massive cuts in local government. I hope the Minister will review that, and look at who is responsible for tackling online sellers.
I have highlighted a few of the key issues in the report, but there are many others. I again congratulate the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee—
The hon. Lady has highlighted some issues and talked about a failing system. Will she clarify her position on the suggestion of a royal commission to examine the matter and to try to fix the whole system, and on the concept of decriminalisation? Where does she stand on those two issues?
Perhaps I may correct the record. When I talked about a failing system, I meant the legal highs and the temporary banning orders that have been put in place. I am not sure that they are delivering what the Government intended them to do swiftly and efficiently.
On the other point raised by the hon. Gentleman, it is certainly important to look at what happened in Portugal, which I am pleased the Minister visited. I am particularly interested in what is happening in New Zealand with legal highs, and I hope the Government will look at the New Zealand Government’s experience. I think that President Santos is doing important work in Colombia. But today I wanted to concentrate on the issues in the report which the Government have an opportunity to respond to and to do something about. I am particularly concerned about the lack of action on education, and that has been my main focus.
I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee on a well-reasoned and thoughtful report. I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to discuss it this afternoon, albeit with a small number of Members. The quality of debate has been high.
I hope to continue the high level of debate on which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) commented. I am grateful, Mr Bayley, for this opportunity to serve under your distinguished chairmanship and to debate this important subject with hon. Members who take a particularly close interest in the topic.
Like others, I congratulate the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and its members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), on their interest in the matter and their attention to detail in compiling a lengthy and insightful report which, as the Committee’s Chairman reminded us, the Government have accepted in part but not in full. He and other members of the Committee were pleased that the Government were willing to accept some recommendations, and I will touch on some of them during my deliberations. Instead of giving a completely off-the-peg Home Office Minister’s speech—I may do that in part—I want to engage with some of the themes that have emerged during the debate.
Some extreme libertarians may not accept the harm premise, or they may believe that people should be entirely free to inflict harm on themselves, but the mainstream debate, by and large, starts with acceptance of that premise. I think that everyone who has participated today accepts that drugs are often harmful and may be extremely harmful, and that it is in the interests of the Government and Parliament to try to reduce the harm caused by drugs that may sometimes lead to death, or to severe injury and disability that may last for the rest of someone’s life.
Quite a few people reach for the view that there is a right answer and a wrong answer to the problem of drugs and the harm they cause, and that a royal commission or some other august body of dispassionate people could tell us what it is, or that we could go to another country that has done the work before us and it could tell us the right answer, which we could adopt and solve all our problems. My experience of this difficult area of policy making is, sadly, that it is far more difficult and complicated. Many well-meaning, expert and informed people can come to different conclusions about how best to address the problem.
There are reasons for cautious optimism about Government policy and its impact on society, and about how society is evolving in comparable countries, particularly in our part of the world. There are signs of progress. Some may be a direct result of Government intervention and some may arise from the evolution of society, which is less easy to attribute directly to Government action. However, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic, and I will come to them shortly.
If there was a straightforward answer—for example, to decriminalise drugs—it would be a persuasive path for many people, but we have just heard from the Chairman of the Select Committee that when it went to Miami it saw the chronic problem of people addicted to decriminalised legal drugs. One issue in this debate is the growing problem of legal highs. In this country, consumption of illegal drugs has reduced, but consumption of legal drugs has increased. That presents all sorts of thorny and interesting public policy issues, but does not automatically lead to the conclusion that the more drugs we legalise, or at least decriminalise, the better the effect on public health. The effect may be better—I am not ruling that out altogether—but I caution everybody in this debate not to leap to immediate conclusions about public policy outcomes, because in my experience, the more carefully one looks at the issue, the less obvious the conclusions become.
I welcome the way in which the Minister is dealing with the issues raised in the debate. On legal highs, does he agree with the Committee that those who sell them need to be responsible for what they do? Would he look at the New Zealand model and try and adopt it, because it means that the responsibility is on the manufacturer? They should not be manufacturing drugs that end up killing people.
I am very attracted by the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. My intention at the moment is not to go to New Zealand, in part because I am mindful of the cost of doing so and I think we should spend public money cautiously. However, I will be speaking by video conference call to New Zealand officials next month—it is quite hard to get a suitable time to speak by conference call to New Zealand, because the time difference is so big, but I will do that. When suitable New Zealand officials or Ministers are here in London—they tend to pass through on a fairly routine basis—I also hope to take the opportunity to draw on their expertise.
I am attracted by the idea of whether people should be made more accountable for the drugs that they produce or sell in this space, but even that is not straightforward, because the issue often arises about who has produced the drugs, and they are often sold as not suitable for human consumption. All kinds of legal problems make what appears, on first inspection, to be a very seductive idea slightly less straightforward in practice than I would wish, but I am open-minded to what more we can do in that area, because it is worth exploring.
The Minister is making a very good case about there being lots of different types of harm and no single obviously right answer. He is absolutely right to say all that, and to say how complicated it is. He talked about it not being straightforward, so does he not think that he is making a very good argument for a royal commission? It is precisely because it is not straightforward and there is not one clear answer that we need that level of inquiry.
I think that that is a good argument for elected politicians, including those who have participated in the debate this afternoon, to devote more time to thinking seriously about the subject. The point I was making about a royal commission was that we can put together an expert body of men and women who are full of integrity, knowledge and decency, and they could spend a long time thinking about the issue, but they would not produce “the right answer”, because I fear that the right answer does not exist in that form. They would produce a series of interesting observations and recommendations, which may match, to a high degree, the series of interesting observations and recommendations that the Committee made in its report. We would then have a debate along the lines of the one we are having this afternoon. As I said, although a royal commission would be a good opportunity for stimulating debate, I do not think that it would in itself necessarily reach the outcomes that we seek, because I am not sure that the outcomes are ever fully attainable.
A number of other issues have come up. The Government’s strategy has three prongs: reducing demand, restricting supply and building recovery. In addition, we have always said that we are open to learning from best practice in other countries. I have had the opportunity to travel, as recommended by the Committee, to Portugal, and last week I spent 24 hours in Denmark and 24 hours in Sweden. During the remainder of the year, my plan is to visit South Korea, Japan, the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic and Switzerland. We should be open-minded to the ideas that such other countries have come up with, because they are broadly equivalent to us in their economic and social development, and they are confronted by the same problems as us in terms of drugs policy. There is no reason to believe that every good idea in the world originates in this country, and they may well have ideas that we can learn from.
Going to Portugal was interesting—my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge dwelt particularly on that country. I will write a report when I conclude the process, so I will not do a running commentary on a weekly basis. I thought Portugal was interesting, but I was perhaps slightly less bowled over by it than I might have expected to be, because in some ways, the Portuguese codify what, in practice, happens to a large degree in this country anyway. People might think that that is quite interesting in itself. The fact that Portugal has made that formal codification is a significant step, but, in practice, there are very few people in Britain who are in prison merely for the possession of drugs for personal consumption. People are in prison because they have stolen money to buy drugs, or because they have supplied drugs to others, but most people in Britain who present with a severe heroin addiction, for example, are treated. We try and find ways of enabling them to address their addiction and, in time, recover from it, rather than treating them straightforwardly as criminals. Therefore, the gap between what happens in Portugal and what happens in practice in the United Kingdom is perhaps not as great as some might say.
It was interesting, for example, to talk to the Portuguese about the impact of changes in their laws on infection and blood-borne illnesses caused by the injection of drugs. They had a very big rise in instances of HIV infection in intravenous drug users, and when they changed the laws, there was a dramatic fall. It is a striking graph—like a mountain, it goes up and then comes down, and there is a clear correlation. The only thing I would say is that their starting point was higher than the United Kingdom’s. They then went to a point that was dramatically higher than the United Kingdom’s, and they have now come down to a point that is just higher than ours—but they are still higher than us.
For a number of reasons, we have never had that level of infection in the intravenous drug-taking community. Because the scale of our problem is dramatically different from the scale of the problem that they were confronted with when they changed the law, we should not automatically assume that changing the law would have a similar impact on infection rates in this country. There are interesting lessons to learn from talking to people in other countries, but we should not automatically assume that changing the law in the way that other countries have will lead to the same public policy outcomes, as we are starting from a different point in this country.
The Portuguese are having conversations about how their law is working in practice. In my experience—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge—it was virtually impossible to find anyone in Portugal who wanted to turn the clock back and change the law to what it had previously been. Last week in Denmark, which is one of the more liberal countries in the European Union in terms of drugs policy, I found that some of the liberalising measures that had been taken had become widely accepted, even among people who had initially been sceptical about the changes.
In Portugal, however, there was a debate about whether it could modify its law and in some ways potentially strengthen it. The idea of having 10 days-worth of personal drugs consumption was thought by the Minister to be a high figure. There was a lobby or case for reducing that to five, or even possibly three days. I suppose that if someone who was minded to transport drugs for sale to others had 50 days-worth of supply that they wanted to take to another house five minutes’ walk away, they would be better making that journey five times, with 10 days-worth on them each time, because they would then not be breaking the law. There was some thought about whether that law was perhaps too liberal and could be slightly tighter to restrict the potential for abuse.
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
My point is that there were many interesting features of the experience in Portugal, as there were in Denmark and Sweden. I am genuinely open-minded on this matter. I approach open-mindedly what changes we could consider and potentially even adopt in this country to make our laws more effective.
I heard the point that was made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North, who speaks for the Opposition, and others about where responsibility lies for drugs policy in the United Kingdom. It is worth noting that in all the countries that I have been to so far, the lead responsibility lies with the Health Department. In this country, of course, the lead responsibility lies with the Home Office. I am not sure that in practice that is as significant as it is regarded as being by both those who believe vehemently that it should remain with the Home Office and those who believe vehemently that it should not, because we have a cross-Government approach.
There needs to be a lead Department, and of course much of drugs policy is about law enforcement, so there is a persuasive case to be made for that being with the Home Office, but we also of course involve the Department of Health, the Department for Education, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Cabinet Office and others in a cross-Government strategy on drugs, so I would not want anyone attending this debate to think that the Home Office ploughed on without listening to other parts of the Government.
The three parts of the strategy are demand, supply and recovery. We have a range of initiatives on demand reduction. The FRANK website and programme was mentioned during our debate. That has been updated and relaunched and is widely used as a source of information—particularly, but not exclusively, by young people. Another example is the Choices programme that we have developed. That focuses on preventing substance misuse and related offending among vulnerable groups of young people aged 10 to 19. The programme received funding of £4 million in 2011-12 and engaged more than 10,000 vulnerable young people.
This issue is not just about schools. In fact, many people take drugs for the first time when they have left school—when they are adults. Schools have a part to play, but so do other methods of education. It is worth noting that the number of young people taking up drugs and particularly school pupils experimenting with drugs has fallen markedly, so there does not seem to be a shortage of information among young people about the harmful consequences of taking drugs. Indeed, increasing numbers of young people seem to be mindful of those harmful consequences and, as a result, have not taken drugs.
In the light of the fact that for many years, as I understand it, it has been Liberal Democrat policy to have PSHE as part of the statutory national curriculum, I wonder whether the Minister, as a Liberal Democrat Minister in the coalition Government, is satisfied that enough is currently being done through the Department for Education to ensure that there is good drugs education in all our schools.
This is a wider issue. I will engage seriously with the question, because I think that it is fair. It is about the degree to which we, as a Government and a country, use schools to inculcate desirable behaviour in children of school age. There is a powerful lobby in the House—I have received its representations—that says that it is crucial for part of the curriculum in schools to be about tackling drugs and the harmful effects of drugs.
I have also had representations from people saying that children should be taught in school about sexually appropriate relationships and that that should be part of the curriculum. I have also been told that children should be taught in school about responsible financial management, because children leave school without necessarily being able to make mature decisions about their personal finances. I have also been told that children should be taught in school how to cook properly, because large numbers of children are not as adept as hon. Members at this debate are at making delicious meals for themselves and that that should be part of the curriculum. I have been told that healthy eating more generally should be part of the curriculum in schools because otherwise children would eat unhealthy food through ignorance rather than because they preferred the taste of unhealthy food. I have also been told that there should be more awareness of alcohol and the dangers of cigarettes and that there should be more public health information generally.
The point that I am making is that there is a reasonable nervousness in the Department for Education that, unless we try to rationalise the activities that children are taught about in school, all of which are individually worthy—I think that everyone would accept that—teachers might get to the end of the school day and find that there is not much time left to teach children some of the core academic subjects that parents rightly expect them to be taught. There is a genuine debate about whether schools are there primarily to create good citizens or to educate children in core areas of academic knowledge. There is scope for a bit of a trade-off. Most people would want their children to be adept at maths, English literature and other typical academic subjects and to be rounded citizens at the same time, but there are only so many hours in the day and the Department for Education has to make some judgments about how to fill those hours intelligently.
On supply, we work closely with partner countries in Europe particularly. While I was in Portugal, I also took the opportunity to visit MAOC—the maritime analysis and operations centre—which is an initiative primarily involving Atlantic-facing European countries, although I think that the Dutch are also involved. They do not really face the Atlantic; it depends how far one thinks the Atlantic goes down the English channel. But the United Kingdom, the French, the Portuguese, the Spanish and others are working to try to intercept drug shipments.
Before becoming a Home Office Minister, I was a Foreign Office Minister who covered, among other places, Latin America. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has met the Presidents of Colombia and Panama. Home Office Ministers have met the Interior Ministers of Colombia and Brazil and the Foreign Ministers of Bolivia and the Dominican Republic. But I hope that I do not sound immodest when I say that I suspect that, probably more than anyone else in government, I have an insight into the countries that we have talked about. Since this Government formed, I have been to Colombia on three occasions and Peru on two occasions. I have been to Bolivia; I have been to Ecuador; I have been to Panama on two occasions and so on.
In the countries that I am talking about, the issue is cocaine, and there is indeed a severe impact on those countries. We recognise our responsibilities to them as a consuming country. We work closely with the Governments of all those countries to varying degrees and certainly with the President and Government of Colombia, to whom many in this debate have already paid tribute.
Recovery is an area where there is quite a lot of innovative public policy making. We have the world’s first payment-by-results programme to try to incentivise recovery outcomes. It is being piloted in eight areas, and I have attended an extensive meeting with people from the eight areas in the Department of Health to talk to them about the progress that they are making in Bracknell Forest, Enfield, Kent, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, Stockport, Wakefield and Wigan. We are optimistic that they will make good progress, but they will not all make identical progress. Part of what will be interesting about the pilot studies is how local providers, tailoring their services to their local problem, will produce outcomes that we hope will reduce harm and drug taking and enable people to recover in their areas.
There is an interesting debate, which I think my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge touched on, about how one measures recovery. We have had that debate in Government. I accept, as I think most people do, that it represents progress when we take someone whose life is chaotic, who is a drug taker and who is unable to work or to take responsibility for themselves in quite elementary ways and we stabilise their life—perhaps through some programme of replacement drug treatment—so that that they can perhaps address some of their underlying social problems and, in time, find a job. I would not want the Government to fail to recognise that, because a lot of people, including in the voluntary sector, work to try to bring about that progress, which leads to improved outcomes for the people affected and, in many cases, for their spouses, their children and others around them.
The only caveat that I would enter is that the Government are cautious about regarding that as a desirable end point. Although some people may struggle to get beyond that point, most people—if they were talking about their own children, for example—would regard it as a desirable interim point. Ideally, however, they would like the end point to be that the person was free from addiction to whatever substance has made their lives so blighted and difficult in the first place.
There is an interesting, worthwhile and entirely valid debate about the point at which progress starts to put down roots and just becomes the new normal. If someone has been moved from a chaotic life on drugs to an ordered and managed life on drugs, that is definitely progress. If, 10 or 15 years later, they are living an ordered and managed life on drugs, one could argue that it is time for a bit more progress, and we might try to get them through to an end point where they are no longer on drugs at all.
What we do not want to do is to institutionalise the interim measure; we want to make interim progress, because that is better than making no progress at all, but we have to be careful about progress freezing before it has reached its most desirable destination. That is an insight into the conversations that we are having. Of course, if we are looking at payment by results, we then have to think about how we incentivise people not only to make progress but to complete the journey, rather than to leave it half completed.
The Ministry of Justice is doing lots of extra and innovative work on rehabilitation and on how to help offenders. The Government were not minded to accept the Committee’s recommendation on drug testing in and out of prison because we remain of the view that random testing is superior and that people who know when they will be tested may take measures to avoid showing up as positive. Other people may have different views, but we had good motives for objecting to that recommendation.
A lot of work is going on in the Ministry of Justice, rather than directly in my Department, on how we can help people who leave prison with a modest amount of money—£46, I think—and few other support structures to get back on their feet and rebuild a meaningful life, with housing and employment, rather than lapsing back into criminality. There are two interesting pilot studies on payment by results and on trying to incentivise prison providers to help people with rehabilitation once they have left prison.
But the point is this: is it not wrong that so many of the people we send to prison get the drugs habit there? Does that not show that something is wrong with the prison regime? If people are tested, helped and rehabilitated when they are in prison, things will be much better for everybody when they come out.
My short answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question is yes, it is wrong. It is a source of great regret and sadness that someone might go to prison, not as a drug taker or drug addict, and become one while they are there. I recognise there are practical difficulties with trying to restrict drugs in prisons, and people find ingenious ways to smuggle drugs into prisons, just as they find ingenious ways to smuggle them into other places, but the Government are doing work, as we should be, to try to reduce that threat.
What I am saying is that we could just as well do random testing throughout the period people are in prison. I have been told that if we tell somebody they will be tested on a set day, they may take steps to make it less likely that drugs will be detected in their body on that day. We are not, therefore, against the idea of testing prisoners, and we are strongly in favour of trying to ensure that people do not take drugs in prison, while those who might be minded to take drugs are dissuaded or prevented from doing so, but the proposed testing regime would not necessarily automatically have the most successful outcome.
On the Government’s approach to reducing demand, it is worth putting on the record that drug use remains at around the lowest level since measurement began in 1996. The 2011-12 crime survey in England and Wales estimated that 8.9% of adults—about 3 million people—had used an illicit drug in the previous year. In 1996, the figure was 11.1%, so there was a fall of a bit less than a quarter—about 20%, according to my rough and ready calculations. There was therefore a significant fall in the number of people who said they had taken illicit drugs in the previous year.
School pupils also tell us they are taking fewer drugs. In 2011, 12% of 11 to 15-year-olds said they had taken them in the previous year. In 2001—a decade earlier—the figure was 20%, so it fell from 20% to 12% in a decade. Some hon. Members may think that 11 to 15-year-olds are not entirely reliable when talking about their drug consumption, but there is no particular reason to believe they were any more or less reliable in 2011 than they were in 2001.
The number of heroin and crack cocaine users in England has fallen below 300,000 for the first time. We have now got to a situation where the average heroin addict is over 40. The age of heroin addicts is going up and up, as fewer young people become heroin addicts in the first place. We are trying to rehabilitate and treat addicts and to keep those figures falling. They are not falling dramatically, but they are falling consistently, year on year, for those very serious drugs, which often concern people most.
On restricting supply, we have talked a bit about the countries that some of the class A drugs come here from and about the work we are doing with European partners and others. Tribute has rightly been paid to the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and the National Crime Agency, which will succeed it later this year, will also have a focus on working with countries around the world to reduce harm in the United Kingdom.
On building recovery, the average waiting time to access treatment is down to five days. There is an impressive support structure available, and drug-related deaths in England have fallen over the past three years. Record numbers of people are recovering from dependence, with nearly 30,000 people—29,855, to be precise—successfully completing their treatment in 2011-12. That is up from 27,969 the previous year, and it is almost three times the level seven years ago, when only 11,208 people recovered.
I do not pretend that we have all the answers or that the situation is perfect, but we should not despair, because, in the light of all those statistics, there is good reason to believe that the harm resulting from many of the drugs that have caused people the most upset and alarm over many years has diminished to a degree.
The problem is evolving. For example, cannabis, which was largely imported a decade ago, is increasingly home grown by criminal organisations in the United Kingdom. The cannabis that people consume is also a lot stronger. I sometimes tell people that the active substance in cannabis is as much as seven or eight times stronger than it was, so people can be talking about quite a different drug. Sometimes, older people talk about cannabis in a bit of a summer of love, Janis Joplin, 1967 way. Now, however, we are talking about a much stronger drug, with the potential to cause greater harm.
It is a bit like going from drinking a pint of real ale to drinking a pint of neat vodka. In both cases, an alcoholic drink is being consumed, but most people would accept that the potential for harm is quite a lot greater in the latter case. That is what we are discussing. The strength of modern cannabis is seven times greater, which raises some interesting public policy questions about how we deal with cannabis and how much concern we should have about people consuming it.
The Minister is absolutely right to say that there are different strengths of both THC and some of the psychoprotective components of cannabis. It is of course hard to regulate and set standards for something that is fundamentally illegal. Has the Minister looked at the experience in California, for example, where medical marijuana is available? The different levels of strength are clear, so people can judge what they actually want to buy. I have no idea what will happen, but will the Minister keep an eye on the legalisation trials in Washington state and Colorado?
As I mentioned earlier, I am going to the United States of America and I am visiting both Colorado and Washington state, which are the two states that have voted to legalise cannabis. I was in Denmark last week and the mayor of Copenhagen is keen to legalise cannabis, but the pretty liberal Danish Government are keen to remind the mayor that it is not within his power to legalise cannabis and that it is not a policy that they want to pursue.
The point is that the public policy debate around cannabis is evolving. The potential health harms caused by cannabis are greater than when it was a much less powerful drug. People sometimes talk about cannabis as being the softer end of the drugs market and say that cannabis could be legalised while everything else is kept illegal as if it were a benign drug and all others harmful. If that were once the case, it is less the case now. Cannabis does have cause to concern people.
I move finally on to psychoactive substances, which is a whole new area that is evolving a lot. It is good that we see significant reductions in people consuming heroin and crack cocaine, which are very harmful drugs, but new psychoactive substances are a fast-evolving threat to many people. In the most tragic cases, some people have died after taking such drugs. People sometimes assume—this is interesting for public policy—that because something is legal it is safe. People have quite paternalistic assumptions about the state even when they are not necessarily minded to believe the Government in other areas of public policy. Just because something is legal, that does not mean that it is safe to consume.
Some such drugs get under the barrier by claiming not to be for human consumption and serious harm has been caused to people by consuming so-called novel psychoactive substances. We have tried to adapt how we respond to such substances to take account of their fast-moving nature. As has been mentioned, we have introduced temporary class drug orders and just this week the Government laid such an order in my name that will take effect from 10 June for two groups of NPSs known as NBOMe and Benzo Fury. We are discussing families of drugs, because, as has been said, these chemical compounds can be manipulated and form whole categories of drugs. We therefore do not just ban street names or individual drugs; we ban groupings of drugs to try to stop people breaking the spirit of the law but staying within the letter of the law. The problem, however, is constantly mutating and we want to maintain the academic rigour that enables the ACMD to consider such matters at length while also having the speed to deal with evolving threats more quickly than it otherwise could. That is why we have the temporary orders lasting 12 months and a more considered process following on from that. I do not pretend that this is an area in which any country does not have public policy challenges to consider. How such drugs are couriered and supplied is also a potential new cause for concern, because people order them on the internet and the drug smuggling does not take the familiar, conventional form.
This is a big area of public policy and there are some causes for cautious optimism. Some drug consumption trends in this country are positive. If they were going in the opposite direction, I suggest that there would be far more Members at this debate and a bigger clamour to ask the Government what they were doing about increases in heroin or crack cocaine consumption. We should momentarily reflect on the good news and progress, where it is being made.
However, this is an area of public policy that never stops evolving, and many new drugs are becoming available. The patterns of drug consumption are evolving. It is subject to fashion and trends, and we must be alive to the harms, educate people about them, try to persuade people not to take drugs, look at where we can restrict supply to benefit public health and help people to recover. All of those are part of our strategy. I welcome the contributions of hon. and right hon. Members and I remind open-minded as to how to ensure that we can work as intelligently as possible to reduce the harm to the British public.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Betts, even though the sign in front of you, which has not been changed, still describes you as the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley), so we shall perhaps ever more call you by the previous Chair’s name.
The debate has been excellent and I thank the Minister, the shadow Minister, who is suffering greatly with her throat infection, and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) for taking part. As the shadow Minister said, it is not about the numbers present, it is about the quality of the contributions, and the Minister’s approach has been extremely measured and positive.
The Select Committee on Home Affairs will look again at the subject in six months, but we promise to do so every 12 months when we publish a report. At the moment, the Government have adopted five of the 10 recommendations—50%. We encourage the Minister’s trips around the world. We do not usually like to see Ministers, in particular those from the Home Office, go abroad, but we understand the need to travel. Actually, I think it would be a good idea for him to take the shadow Minister with him in this era of cross-party co-operation on drugs, because there is much cross-party agreement on what we should do. Perhaps she should go with him after she has had treatment for her throat, and we could get a cross-Parliament approach.
We will continue to monitor the matter, and I am grateful to the Minister for his indications. He has shown that he is prepared to listen to the shadow Minister, which is extremely important, but also to the hon. Member for Cambridge, who originally suggested this inquiry to the Home Affairs Committee. He has done the most work and has been as assiduous as always, passing between Bill Committees and sittings of the Home Affairs Committee, and the report will be important to reflect on in future.
Question put and agreed to.