[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I have had rather a lot of experience of that recently, and long may it continue.
I want to offer some definition and context to the discussion about legal highs, spell out some of the problems that they are causing for my constituents in Chesterfield and push the Government to act on this appalling blight. Legal highs are a growing menace in our communities, endangering the health of young people in particular, breaking the hearts of their families, leading to crime as users steal to fund their habit and terrifying shoppers and shopkeepers in the surrounding areas. The truth is that some retailers are mocking the law, laughing at powerless regulators while visiting misery and mayhem on our communities, and the time has come for us to decide whether we are willing to have that happen or whether we are seriously and finally going to act.
I will start by defining legal highs. They are often referred to as “new psychoactive substances”. They are chemicals that have been synthesised to mimic the effects of conventional illegal drugs. People often think that because they are legal, they are safe. That is a dangerous myth and a message that the Government must be much stronger at combating. People selling these substances on the high street next to respectable chemists, photography and chocolate shops only underlines the impression that they must be okay. Legal highs are called “legal” only because they have not been banned yet. People need to be aware that the name in no way indicates that they are safe to use.
Legal highs are being developed at a speed never before seen in the drugs market. They are now widely available from a range of shops, takeaways and petrol stations. Legal highs are often even more dangerous than currently illegal substances. That has been clearly demonstrated by the spate of deaths from fake ecstasy, which is the name for various kinds of new psychoactive substances that are extremely dangerous.
Deaths are not caused just by overdoses. Legal highs can also cause accidental deaths and suicides, which is why it took several years to reveal the true death statistics for mephedrone. Only in 2012, following a review of all the different causes, did we get the true figure for mephedrone deaths in 2010, which was 43—43 lives pointlessly wasted as a result of something that was legal at the time.
The number of drug-related deaths in Britain is more than double the average across Europe, according to a report from the European Union drugs agency. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction warned that so-called legal highs are involved in a growing number of deaths.
We know that there are more than 100 legal highs on the UK market. We have found out that these drugs are now available from more than 200 head shops on UK high streets. Today, we can see that they are also available from a range of other local shops and takeaways. It is estimated that 670,000 young Britons aged between 16 and 24 have taken legal highs. In the “European Drug Report” of 2013, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction said that the average mortality rate in Britain due to overdoses of all drugs was 38.3 per million of population—more than twice the average for Europe. The agency found 73 new synthetic drugs in 2012. It surveys the number of internet sellers in the UK, which rose from 170 in 2010 to 690 in 2012. Just in those two years, the number went up by more than 500. The UK’s market is now the biggest in the EU and the second biggest in the world. There are also estimated to be hundreds of high street legal high sellers.
Legal highs are a relatively new challenge in drugs policy and are difficult to control under traditional drugs legislation such as the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, because new versions of substances are developed at a swift rate to avoid the current controls. I would like now to talk about what the situation means to us in Chesterfield.
Chesterfield is a town that is performing well. Our town centre famously has fewer empty retail units than Windsor, and we outperform the local and national averages considerably. We have retained an old-style cobbled market feel with one of the UK’s largest outdoor markets, and we have an award-winning new indoor market. We have a successful fusion between the new retail offer and the traditional high street.
However, for retailers and traders on Packers row and Knifesmithgate, the existence of the Reefer store and the antisocial behaviour that surrounds its sale of products such as Clockwork Orange is turning trade, which is difficult enough in the present climate, into a total nightmare. No one should be frightened to go to work or to support shops on our local high street, but that is the reality for many retailers and shoppers in that area. Local cafés have had to deal with users falling asleep on their floor. Retailers have had the experience of terrified friends of users rushing in demanding that they call an ambulance. Market traders have been abused. Police have arrested those causing trouble only to find that the miscreants were back on the streets before the police had even finished their paperwork. Teenagers at the bus stop have been urged to buy legal highs for users who have previously been banned and have been asked for money to support the drug habit of those users. Shoppers have heard appalling language and witnessed much worse levels of antisocial behaviour. Shopkeepers have now branded Packers row a no-go zone, saying that it has become overrun with antisocial behaviour and drug use.
Chesterfield borough council and the community safety partnership have endeavoured to get the tenant’s landlord to take action using the immoral use clause in their tenancy agreement, but the landlord does not feel sufficiently empowered to do so. I feel that the landlord is wrong, but we need to do much more to support commercial landlords who want to get rid of antisocial retailers but do not feel able to do so.
I place on the record my thanks to Councillor Keith Miles, who is here witnessing the debate, and Councillor Sharon Blank. They continue to work on the issue with me. They, the community safety partnership and the police are rightly looking to us, as legislators, to back them up. I hope that we will not continue to disappoint them.
To give a sense of the impact that the problem has on the retail sector, let me read the words of Bridget Jones from Chocolate by Design, a retailer in Chesterfield:
“It’s absolutely horrendous, the shop”—
“is attracting an unsavoury group of teenagers that are hanging around here day in day out, their language is absolutely appalling and they are abusing old and young people…Just recently an ambulance had to be called out to somebody who had collapsed from taking these substances, somebody was actually treated in the shop next door too, after taking some sort of powder.
People won’t come up to this part of the town because they are ruining it, this behaviour isn’t just a one off, it happens all the time, we have just had enough.
My business is being affected tremendously, somebody is going to get killed out here from the stuff, that’s a definite.”
Bridget runs a store that holds parties for children who want to make chocolate and other confectionery. People come in to buy chocolate for their family and friends. Let us imagine someone trying to run a business in which they are trying to encourage young people to come from right across the east midlands to have an exciting birthday experience, and being greeted with that sort of conduct outside the store.
David Hilton-Turner, whose 14-year-old son almost died in Chesterfield as a result of legal highs, wrote to me to say:
“My son has been a victim of a legal high drug which he was lucky he survived. The shop in Chesterfield ‘Reefers’ sold it to a 17 year old who made an inhaler (bong) and gave it to my 14 year old son. He had never done this before but he ended up with a crowd of people who had. What I want is the shop closing down and somebody in government to ban this drug. It is sold as an herbal essence to over 18s but the shop does know what happens. Because of a legal loophole they get away with it. The police cannot do anything because of the loophole and I’m hoping you can before it causes fatalities. The substance in question is known as Clockwork Orange.”
In addition to the impact on the community, the police say that the problem around Packers row and Knifesmithgate is draining officers’ time and taking them away from solving other crimes. Nick Booth, police sergeant for the town centre, said that a lot of time was being spent in that troublesome area. He said:
“This is an area we are having to target for anti-social behaviour and perceived drug use. Kids are buying legal highs from Reefer and using them there.
Members of the public believe it is a big drug problem and it is still causing people harassment, alarm and distress.
Some of these young people are actually turning to criminality to fund this drug habit.”
Retailers are under siege from people who have taken legal highs or are involved in their distribution. This is a blight on our town centre, is frightening for the vast majority and brings shame on all those involved in it. Sergeant Booth said that the police had “their hands tied”, as the issue is difficult to manage. He said:
“Ideally we could do with a change in the law at government level that enables us to tackle them effectively.
Although the drugs are legal, they are similar to illegal drugs in the effects they have.”
The police are busy trying to educate people about the dangers of legal highs, and have made it one of the local policing priorities for Chesterfield, but they face an uphill battle. The Derbyshire constabulary sent out a warning about legal highs in May 2014 following the admission of two teenagers to hospital, but the Government’s current approach of attempting to ban them individually, substance by substance, which means that they are always one step behind the vagabonds who market these products, is clearly not working.
I understand that the Minister has appealed to the Chinese and Indian authorities for help in preventing the production of such products. Although I wish him well in that endeavour, surely we need to do more to target the retailers of the substances. On 27 February, he was reported to be within two or three months of publishing a review on legal highs, but four months on there is no sign of that review. I am informed—I hope that he can assure us that this is not correct—that he is considering the option of regulating rather than taking action to try to get rid of such substances. I think we need a much more robust approach.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He is making an excellent contribution. He has described the situation in Chesterfield, and it is one that I absolutely recognise in Barnsley. He has spoken about what Government can do to resolve the issue. Does he agree that part of the way to tackle legal highs nationally is through cross-departmental co-operation? We are not just talking about the Home Office, although it clearly has an important role to play; we are talking about the Home Office working in partnership with the Department of Health, the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government to tackle the challenge. Does he agree that cross-Government working is important in resolving the problem?
That is an important point, and the problem has an impact on all those Departments, as my hon. Friend says. We must get cross-Government and cross-party work on it. I pay tribute to him for the work that he is doing in Barnsley to try to rid his constituents of this nightmare, and we will look at that and learn from it.
The owner of Reefers, the store in question in Chesterfield, apparently told the Derbyshire Times that the packets of Clockwork Orange that he sold made it clear that the product was not for human consumption. However, his store has a provocative name, graphics of spliff designs were originally painted on the side and it sells products that are used in the consumption of drugs. It mocks the law by claiming that it does not encourage drug use.
The Minister is on record as saying that we are ahead of other countries in our response, but Ireland, through the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010, has already sought to ban legal highs. I would like councils to be given much greater powers to stand up for their local communities. I would also like us to take a lead and say that we are not willing to try to pursue the problem on a substance by substance basis, because the people involved are always one step ahead of us. They change the compound marginally, change its name and say, “You have not banned this.” I want us to get on the front foot and say that the producers of psychoactive substances know what they are doing and we know what they are doing, and that we will work collectively to get such substances off our streets.
We have rightly, over many years, taken the approach of refusing to legalise illicit and illegal drugs, despite the call from some quarters to do so. It is absolutely right that we treat legal highs, which are just as dangerous in many cases, in the same way. It is no good saying that products such as cannabis are illegal, but allowing producers of legal highs effectively to mock the law by creating new substances that have the same effects while we attempt to chase them item by item. It is time for us all to work together to develop a more constructive approach.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate on an issue that affects the constituencies of all Members, regardless of party. Does he agree that the approach taken by the US in the Federal Analogue Act, which banned substances that are similar to certain chemical compounds, could be a way of dealing with the whack-a-mole approach that he has correctly identified when it comes to proscribing so-called legal highs?
There is a lot of potential in that, and I think it is well worth investigating. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) has more expertise in that area.
When our communities feel under siege, we must not simply wring our hands and say, “There is nothing we can do. We know that there is a problem, but it is up to you to deal with it.” Our colleagues in local government and in the business world, and those in the police and the health service who are left to deal with the problems caused by legal highs, are looking at us and asking what action we will take. The time has come for us to act, and the steps that have been taken in America and Ireland offer us a potential way forward. There has to be a real sense of urgency. We should not seek to legislate in haste, but the situation is a national emergency. The scale of the response I have received since I secured the debate suggests that legal highs are a problem in communities up and down the land and that communities want action to be taken.
Alongside the potential for legislation, which I hope the Minister will confirm the Government are considering, I would like councils to be given greater powers to stand up for their local community. In the same way as they can deal with antisocial tenants, they should be able to curb the activities of antisocial retailers. We are facing a growing epidemic, and we must stand here impotent no more. It is long past the time for action. We must work together to cleanse our streets of this blight, and to protect our young people and communities. To do anything less would be a dereliction of our duty to our constituencies. The time for hand-wringing is over. The Government need to get back into the driving seat. Let us clean up Chesterfield and Britain, and rid our streets of legal highs once and for all.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on securing this important debate. I am seriously concerned about so-called legal highs—as the hon. Gentleman said, their proper title is new psychoactive substances—which are not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 because, according to some, they have not been well enough researched to legislate over. That does not allay my fears that those substances are at best dangerous and at worst fatal.
At a town in my constituency on Sunday 22 June, four teenagers aged between 17 and 19 had to be treated by the emergency services for the effects of a legal high. One boy became so violent towards paramedics who were trying to help him that the police had no choice but to taser him. The emergency services considered the situation to be so critical that the four boys were rushed to Derriford hospital in Plymouth under police escort so that they could get the treatment they needed. At least one of the boys was reportedly classed as being in a life-threatening condition and would have died had he not received the treatment he was given at the hospital. Because of the expert care given at Derriford hospital, all four boys made a recovery, but the outcome could have been so very different and tragic.
The products we are discussing are marketed as bath salts or plant food because they cannot be sold for human consumption, but people who seek to get high on such products know which are actually plant foods and which are merely sold as such. If that information is in the public domain, surely we can identify such products and restrict or ban them. When they are tested, it is not uncommon to find that they contain substances that are banned under the 1971 Act, which are not always listed in the contents. I appreciate that the Government cannot stop individuals using substances in a manner for which they are not necessarily marketed, but surely it is within our ability to legislate to restrict or even ban the sale of such products. I urge the Minister to seek ways to end the ready availability of legal-high substances to prevent any more people from being killed or injured, as so nearly happened in my constituency on 22 June.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on securing such an important debate at such a critical time, as the Government consider their future approach to the issue.
I start by making the Minister and the House aware of the results of an investigation conducted by the North-West Evening Mail last year as part of its “Ban Them Now” campaign. It sent an undercover investigative reporter to Living World, a pet shop on Duke street in Barrow where legal highs were widely known to have been on sale. The reporter picked up two substances, Sparkle E and Psyclone, and took them to the counter—there was of course the usual disclaimer that they were not for human consumption. The reporter asked the shop assistant what he was supposed to do with them and was told that he should “neck” them, or he could mix them together if he wanted. He was told that one was like ecstasy and the other like cocaine. There was only the merest veneer of legality over a common, out-and-out illegal drugs trade.
The Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), rejected my amendments to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill in Committee, but promised to look further at the issue, rather than rule out action altogether. I plead with the Government to take more effective action to deal with this scourge, which is making young people so vulnerable. We all know that it is almost impossible to drive out the illegal drugs trade completely, but it is horribly complacent to say that because we cannot hope to eradicate something completely, we might as well put up with these head shops. They are making substances available far more easily and attracting many more young people, many of them school pupils, into taking these substances, and those young people simply would not do it if it was made more difficult and such shops were driven out of our high streets.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution. Does he agree that people who have called for the legalisation of drugs on a much broader scale are wrong because, although they say we are criminalising young people who use drugs, the very fact that to use them is a criminal activity prevents many people from going down that route? People can buy those products without any fear of the law, knowing that what they are doing is entirely legal.
That is a great worry. I recognise that the issue is difficult for all our communities, as well as for policy makers, but look at Amsterdam, which has gone down the legalisation route for some drugs. Legalising or semi-legalising cannabis—or whatever its status is—has brought with it hard drug problems, making them far more available in that city. The Minister has said that he is considering regulating head shops. Surely the overwhelming majority of our constituents would be horrified by the idea that we might end up with mini-Amsterdams on high streets throughout the United Kingdom. I guess his review is ongoing, and we would appreciate an update on it, but I hope he will make it clear that he has categorically ruled out that idea. If his coalition partners want to intervene to give him some moral support while he does so, I am sure that that would be welcome across the House.
Have the Government had the chance to consider a suggestion by local police officers that more be done at ports to restrict the chemicals coming into the country from abroad? Rather than waiting until those substances are in the shops on our high streets, we should cut them out before they get there. I hope that the Minister has had the chance to consider my rejected amendment—how have we ended up with a legal system in which our trading standards officers and police officers, who fervently want to take action, are effectively fighting with one or two hands tied behind their backs? They have an overwhelming suspicion that every new substance is neither plant food nor bath salts, but just another repackaging of substances that are either illegal now or will be made so as soon as the law catches up.
Why not give the authorities the opportunity to confiscate the products when they find them and then let legal due process take place? If the owners of head shops really want to try to convince the authorities that these products genuinely are there to feed plants or make bathrooms smell more pleasant, let them do so. However, we are giving every new substance that comes along a three to six-month head start—perhaps the Minister will provide information on how long it takes to ban each substance—before it can be banned and the next one comes along. If every week the authorities can come and clear the shelves and say, “Come and start a new legal process if you want,” that will make it much easier to tackle this scourge on our high streets. There is an opportunity to do something about that, and if the Minister does the right thing, I am sure that the Opposition will want to back him.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on securing such an important debate on an issue that has not had enough publicity and comment. He is absolutely right to have put his arguments on the record and he gave a good summary of the problem nationally and how it affects his constituency. We have also heard about the problems in other places around the country.
My interest in the subject stems from constituency casework. A couple came to my surgery a year or so ago to tell me the story of their 16-year-old son. They were a perfectly normal family—fairly affluent, with good education and strong bonds—and their son was an A*-student at school with a bright future. Everything seemed normal, but he got hooked on legal highs. They were pushed by drug dealers in the area as an entry drug, and his life quickly deteriorated. He got into a vicious downward spiral, and the legal highs led him on to much harder illegal drugs. His education fell by the wayside. His family went through a living hell trying to get him off those and confronting the dealers. They tried everything at their disposal, but were not succeeding, until he went to an excellent local charity in Milton Keynes called Compass, which deals with substance abuse for people under 18.
I will say a little more about Compass shortly, but before I move on I want to say that when I spoke to the staff there they told me they are finding that young people using legal highs are becoming more addicted at an earlier point than would be the case with illegal drugs. There is a real problem in our schools and communities. The family of the 16-year-old told me that the knowledge of legal highs among school-age pupils is widespread; I think it would shock most of us to discover just how prevalent they are and how easy it is to get hold of them. They told me that getting hold of legal highs is easier than ordering a pizza—it is that easy. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) have highlighted how easy it is to buy such substances on the high street.
Locally, in my constituency and across Milton Keynes, we have seen a worrying increase in the number of deaths from legal highs, from 10 in 2009 to 68 in 2012. In the past couple of weeks, Public Health England has published statistics illustrating that there is a particular problem in Milton Keynes. Nationally, 1% of people included in the survey—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before the Division in the House, I was making the point that recent figures from Public Health England indicate that the problem in Milton Keynes might be greater than it is nationally. Some 1% of those surveyed nationally said legal highs were their drug of choice, but the figure in Milton Keynes was 6%, and I am sure that is replicated in other towns and cities across the country.
As we have heard, legal highs are dangerous, principally because there is a lack of evidence about their short, medium and long-term effects—people really do not know what they are taking. As we have also heard, the composition can be changed so that suppliers are one step ahead of the law at all times.
The police and other agencies do as good a job as they can to keep a lid on things. Compass, the charity I referred to, has done a huge amount of work locally to try to get to young people before their problem becomes too great and to turn their lives around. I am happy to say that the constituent whose parents came to me was sorted out in time, before his life spiralled out of control, but that was only after a living hell for him and his family.
Before the debate, I spoke to Compass about the steps it thinks need to be taken. One point it made was that voluntary organisations pick up the majority of casework. As good as their work is, it is not sufficiently comprehensive to catch all the people in this situation. Compass wants other organisations to do much more—particularly local authorities, given their new public health obligations.
Principally, however, Compass’s point was that much more needs to be done in schools to educate people about the dangers of legal highs. Drug education already goes on, but specific enough advice is not given to young people. Clearly, prevention and education are key. The hon. Members for Chesterfield and for Barrow and Furness made perfectly valid points about the need to look at the regulation of shops. Indeed, I very much support what the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness said about providing some sort of decriminalised or regulated environment not being the answer. However, as important as it is to look at the effect of those drugs on trade in our towns and cities, doing so deals only with the symptoms of the problem, not the cause. The primary focus must be on educating people about the dangers of legal highs and what they can lead to. Anything else must follow from that.
The Government are reviewing policy and legislation on this issue, and I simply urge them to get on with it—I mean that in the kindest way possible. It is easy to spend ages looking at all the evidence and at other countries, but while that is going on, more young people are being sucked into a sinister world. The duty that falls on our shoulders is not to rush into new legislation, but not to dither either. We must quickly grapple with a problem that, as we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, is afflicting many of our communities. If we do not take action soon, it will become far worse.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. May I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on introducing this important debate? He set out very effectively the nature of the problem, the size of the market, the number of deaths and the policy challenges.
The debate has been a rather rare one for this place. Many of us have learned a great deal about an issue we were not very familiar with—I was certainly pretty much unaware of it. Much like my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), I had the issue drawn to my attention at a meeting with a constituent. Richard Smith came to talk to me a couple of months ago about his son, who had started using legal highs. He talked about the disruption to his life, the cost to the family in terms of relationship breakdown, and the money his son was spending. He drew my attention to the fact that, in the early days, these products were readily available over the internet, and were also available on market stalls. However, like the hon. Member for Chesterfield, he pointed out that these products have become mainstream and are now drifting into the high street.
My constituent drew my attention to a shop in Leamington Spa, a leafy town in Warwickshire that is very pleasant. It is in the main high street—the Parade—with Laura Ashley and Austin Reed nearby. It is called Planet Bong and has an entry in the business improvement district company directory. It is described as
“a funky ethical Fairtrade store specialising in alternative…Fairtrade fashion…All influenced by Fairtrade practices”.
Yet that is where legal highs are readily and easily available. It shows how the issue has moved on.
My constituent also drew my attention to the way in which chemists who manufacture the product stay one step ahead of legislators. The Minister has I think described this as a “race with chemists”, and I am sure that he will discuss how society can start to win that race. After becoming aware of the situation their son was in, my constituents looked for support in the usual places. They went to the health service and looked at what was available through education. Much as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South found, support was lacking, absent or inadequate.
My constituent believes that much of the problem is that the people who use the products do not see themselves as victims in the way that the users of more conventional illegal drugs do. They are enjoying what they see as a recreational product and are often completely unaware of the dangers, or of deaths such as those we have heard about. They do not understand where use of the products may take them, and as a consequence they do not present themselves at more conventional drug treatment centres.
Is my hon. Friend concerned to hear that a constituent of mine who wrote to me on this issue said that it says on product labels, “not fit for human consumption”? No one seems to read that. People who are not users who go into the shop in Newton Abbot are horrified at the risk to their children.
It is part of youth’s belief in its invincibility. People take those products, believing that because they are young, their bodies are resistant, and they can deal with those things without a massively detrimental effect. How wrong can they be?
Another issue is the use of the term “legal high”, and the conclusions that it leads people to. If something is legal, they think it will perhaps do them no harm. If it is legal, why should they not do it? What should prevent them? The long and the short of it is that my constituent, frustrated at the lack of support available to his son, and concerned about others who might be dragged into using those products, identified a gap. He answered the question “What can be done about it?” by doing something himself: he set up his own company offering education and harm reduction advice. He set up five programmes, the first of which is called Legal Highs Game Over. It is a national awareness and harm reduction campaign targeting social media. It has a YouTube video and Facebook page, it is on Twitter, and there are posters. It addresses exactly the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South made about where young people now get advice and information.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about education and the role of the media. Does he agree that the media have a key role in making people aware of the dangers of such substances? My local paper, the Medway Messenger, ran a campaign on the effect and consequences of such highs, and other papers should do the same, to make people aware.
My hon. Friend is right—we need to raise awareness; but we should not use the term “legal high” when we do so. In this place, and in all work that is done on the matter, we need to start using the term “new psychoactive substances” rather than an expression that includes the word “legal”.
I do not want to engage in a debate entirely about semantics, but would the hon. Gentleman consider that the very fact that we allow products to continue to be legal when they kill people is shaming to us all? Should not that prick our consciences, because we have failed to take the action we should to make them illegal?
That is a matter for the Minister, and it will be interesting to hear what steps the Government will take.
The second of my constituent’s projects is Street Aware, a programme of targeted drugs education in schools that draws attention to the danger of substance misuse. The third is called Times Up and it is about issues to do with substance misuse in criminal justice settings such as police custody suites, probation hostels and custodial institutions. My constituent draws attention to the use of such products in the night-time economy, with a project called Last Orders, dealing with their use in conjunction with alcohol. I think that there is a sense among young people that it is fairly normal to use them while out drinking, particularly given that the products in question are not illegal. Finally, Health Call is a health-based drug and alcohol education and awareness programme, designed for health services, so that health professionals who come across people who exhibit behavioural difficulties can identify whether the products we are concerned with have been used. I hope that the work of my constituent will improve understanding, and that the Minister will support his initiatives.
I appreciate having had the opportunity to go the Backbench Business Committee, Mr Chope, to put my request for a debate on another subject, and the opportunity to participate in this debate as well.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on bringing the matter forward for debate. He said something that we can all support, which is that the issue exists in all our constituencies. My position on drugs and substances has always been clear and the issue of legal highs gravely concerns me. Urgent action needs to be taken and legislation is needed to stop young people being sold those dangerous substances from corner shops. It is outrageous that such harmful substances are so easily accessible to the vulnerable. Deaths from legal highs, which can be sold freely as long as they are labelled “not suitable for human consumption”, have jumped from 10 in 2009 to at least 68 in 2012, according to Britain’s national programme on substance abuse deaths. If any argument is needed, surely those figures are testament enough to how urgently action needs to be taken by the Government.
In fact, just a few days ago, on 27 June, two addicts passed out in a public toilet in Somerset after injecting themselves with legal highs. As if that was not bad enough, the toilets were close to a park that is full of children and adults during busy lunch times. I believe that the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) mentioned examples of such incidents happening in the day time. That has a detrimental effect on shopping, and on the activities of children and families. No arrests were made because the substances were not illegal. Where, then, are the deterrents? Perhaps the Minister can tell us what they are. Those are not the kind of scenes that we want our children to be subjected to; we do not want them to grow up thinking that such behaviour is normal and, furthermore, that it is okay to take such substances because they are not illegal. Clearly, although they are not illegal, they are still having harmful effects, and can lead to death.
I was pleased to hear that Glastonbury festival, which has been much in the news in the past week, has, along with several other festivals this year, taken steps to ban legal highs. That was done through the Association of Independent Festivals, which co-ordinates the campaign “Don’t be in the Dark About Legal Highs”. There is concern at every level about what legal highs do. If festivals are campaigning and showing their concern, the Government and the Minister’s response should reflect that.
Two or three months ago, I was on a Delegated Legislation Committee on legal highs. I supported Government policy at the time, as did the Labour party, but unfortunately it was not supported by the Lib Dems on the Committee. However, the majority of Members of Parliament supported the legislative change that was coming in.
It is fantastic to see such influential festivals getting involved in the campaign to rid our country of these potentially fatal substances, but more is required. Ian Rodin, a consultant psychiatrist and part of Glastonbury’s medical team, has pointed out:
“The problem with legal highs is people had assumed that if they were harmful they would be illegal, so people haven’t exercised the same caution as they would with an illegal drug.”
That is a clear policy direction from those involved in that and other festivals. They recognise the problem and are doing what they can to address it where they have responsibility. I understand that it is difficult for the Government to legislate against legal highs, given the nature of the substances and their ability to change quickly as new ones appear, but we must encourage and support community groups and police officers in tackling the problem.
I was delighted to see that mephedrone, once a legal high that was widely available and that caused grave concerns to parents in my constituency, has been made illegal. Unfortunately, whenever a substance is made illegal, other legal highs come in to take their place. There must be a policy like the one in the States to which the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) referred, which seems to take all that in. Maybe that is what we need to consider. We must be able to adapt to any other legal highs that suddenly come on the market.
The decision on mephedrone is certainly a step in the right direction. I hope that a similar decision will be made on AMT, a drug that appeared in the 1960s but that has been on the rise as a legal high across the United Kingdom in the past year or so. AMT can make users feel upbeat and excited. However, like all drugs, legal or illegal, it can cause hallucinations that can lead to paranoia, reduced inhibitions and, in turn, serious injury or even death. My greatest concern is that AMT is active in very small doses, meaning that it is all too easy to overdose. How can we allow that legal high to remain on the market? Again, perhaps the Minister will give us some indication of what is happening. A teenager from Southampton, Adam Hunt, died last year after taking AMT at his home, yet the drug is still available across the United Kingdom, even though it has been shown to have detrimental effects. Surely the loss of that young man’s life should be evidence enough that the drug needs to be banned.
According to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, AMT acts in the same way as LSD, and the council has called for it to be made a class A substance. Given the increasing number of young people having serious and, in some cases, fatal responses to such substances, that request must be met urgently. The ACMD agrees that along with AMT, another group of chemicals known as tryptamines, which includes 5-MeO-DALT, known as “rock star” or “green beans”, must be banned as well, as they are highly potent drugs that have become increasingly available over the past few months.
Just this morning, as I was on my way to Westminster to participate in business here today and tomorrow, I saw that my local paper, the Belfast Telegraph, carried a story, which I showed to the hon. Member for Chesterfield before this debate, with the headline, “Legal drug is linked to 19 deaths, inquest told”. The article reads:
“A drug involved in the deaths of 19 people in Northern Ireland is still unregulated, meaning it is legal to buy, sell and use…Forensic scientist Simon Cosby told Coroner James Kitson that there was very little known about 4,4”—
I will not say the next word, because I will probably get it all wrong, but it has about 20 letters—
“because it was a relatively new drug, and it is still not covered by legislation, therefore it is not illegal, and had been linked to 18 other deaths”
in the Province. Again, given that there have been so many deaths and there is so great an impact on communities not only across Northern Ireland but across the whole United Kingdom, we must do something fairly drastic to address the issue of legal highs.
We must be aware that although such substances might be considered legal, they often contain one or more chemicals that it is illegal to possess. Furthermore, the majority of legal highs have not been used in drugs for human consumption, so they have not been tested to ensure that they are in fact safe. Unfortunately, due to the lack of drug testing, the long-term health effects of the drugs are virtually unknown, as is the case with many other legal highs, but given what we know about the potential short-term dangers, the overall effect cannot be good.
What worries me even more is the fact that children can buy such drugs easily and cheaply. Before mephedrone was made illegal, children in my constituency could buy it for just £5, which was well within the buying power of almost any young child in my constituency. It was of great concern to me at the time, and it still is. Not only can teenagers buy some of those substances from local shops, they can purchase them easily online, often without anyone knowing. That gives rise to the question of whether there is a greater role for parents as well, and I am sure that the Minister will say that there is. Parents have a role in being aware of what their children are doing and keeping them safe. I appreciate, as always, that it is very difficult to watch everything that children do, particularly as they get older, but I urge parents to be aware of where their kids go and what they do after school or in the evenings, and to monitor their activities online.
As legal highs become increasingly available, more young people experiment with them, which leads to peer pressure, causing even more young people to feel obliged to fit in by doing what everyone else is doing. It is important that young people have somewhere safe to hang out with their friends, whether it is a local youth centre or a sports club. At least such places give parents peace of mind, and it means that they can monitor their children’s activities to some degree.
In conclusion, I urge the Government to ensure that AMT, the legal high that I mentioned earlier, is made illegal immediately, and that the various other legal highs currently on the market, including tryptamines, are also banned. We need to rid our society of these vile substances to prevent any other illnesses or deaths of the kind described in the newspaper article I read from destroying the lives of our young people, and ultimately those of their families as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I have already paid tribute to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) for securing the debate. I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the need for my hon. Friend the Minister to act on the recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on tryptamines. I know that he has had the report for a few weeks now; I think it was issued in the middle of June.
My hon. Friend knows of my continuing concern about AMT as a result of the tragic death of 23-year-old Christopher Scott in my constituency last year. Since that tragedy, Christopher Scott’s parents have been campaigning assiduously for the drug to be banned, and I have been working closely with them to achieve that. More than that, they, I and everybody in this room and beyond want a change of approach and culture. We want phrases such as “legal highs” consigned to the dustbin. We should be talking about “chemical highs” and reminding people that often, such drugs are mixed with already illegal substances, so they are not legal. Above all, we must emphasise that “legal” certainly does not mean “safe”.
My involvement with this issue spans my many years as a barrister prosecuting and defending in drugs cases and dealing with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and its limitations. More latterly, as the Member of Parliament for South Swindon, I worked closely with Swindon police on an issue relating to mexxy, or methoxetamine, a so-called legal high causing severe problems to users in my community back in 2011. I thank the Government for changing the law to create temporary drug banning orders, which have now been used hundreds of times to ban such chemical substances. Mexxy was one of those substances, but as a result of the early warning system and police intelligence provided to the Home Office, the Government took action to ban it within the short period of 28 days. The supply of that drug was made unlawful, and it is now a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
The Government have therefore already taken action to keep step with the rapidly changing scenario of chemical highs, but as is clear from this debate, more needs to be done, which is why the review that my hon. Friend the Minister is conducting is so important. I echo and adopt all hon. Members’ concerns about the situation, and I commend to my hon. Friend the work of charities such as the Angelus Foundation, which have done much to highlight the issues involved with legal highs and campaign hard to influence policy makers. Here are a few ideas for the review that I commend to him. They are the product not just of my thinking and representations but of organisations such as the Angelus Foundation.
I have mentioned the US Federal Analogue Act, which I commend to my hon. Friend. The Act bans chemicals that are “substantially similar” to any controlled drug listed in the schedules if they are for human consumption. At a stroke, it deals with the problems of definitional limitation inherent in including anything in classes A, B or C under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We clearly need a massive public awareness campaign that is national and reaches out into our schools and colleges.
We need to reverse the legal presumption on synthetic psychoactive substances. Instead of playing whack-a-mole, we now need to make illegal the supply of such substances. That could be done by making it a civil offence to sell them, with clear exemptions for alcohol, tobacco, medicines and some specified consumer products. Any establishment selling banned substances could be issued with an order, and any breach would be a criminal offence with penalties attached. That is one idea.
Another idea is to make the misrepresentation and mislabelling of substances an offence. The sale of products that are clearly for human consumption but are labelled the opposite should be treated as a criminal offence. Let us use civil orders to target head shops both online and offline—I must make the point that 80% of chemical high sales take place online. We must acknowledge that the internet is a real problem and a real challenge when it comes to this issue.
We could allow injunctions to be issued to head shops and websites that seek to sell chemical highs, and then we could treat breaches as a criminal offence. The attraction of using a civil approach, of course, would be that the balance of probability test would apply, as opposed to the higher criminal standard. To draw an analogy with consumer law and trading standards law, we could then apply a series of presumptions, meaning that defences would be limited. That is already done under legislation such as the Food Safety Act 1990 and the Consumer Protection Acts of the 1990s. I myself have cited those Acts in prosecutions, and they are entirely human rights compatible if anybody is worried about burdens and standards of proof. We could boost the penalties for regulatory offences, because we are dealing with products that kill people—plain and simple.
We also need to look at some of the existing legislation that is underused. There is section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972, which allows local government to take any proceedings
“for the promotion or protection of the interests of the inhabitants of their area”.
I know that there are pressures on trading standards authorities. They have limited resources; local government is under the cosh, as we all know. However, that approach should be part of my hon. Friend the Minister’s review. We should also have a look at part III of the Enterprise Act 2002 (Part 8 Domestic Infringements) Order 2003, which provides that a breach of one or two of the general rules of law contained in it will be a domestic infringement. Those laws are:
“An act done or omission made in breach of contract for the supply of goods or services to a consumer”
“An act done or omission made in breach of a duty of care owed to a consumer under the law of tort or delict of negligence”.
In other words, there is a general power that could deal with the sale of dangerous substances such as the ones we are discussing. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to review those existing pieces of legislation, to see whether they could be used as a basis for stronger concerted action.
The National Crime Agency should assist in tackling websites that sell legal highs. There is some important work going on with extreme pornography; the NCA could take a similar approach in relation to legal highs. Leadership from local authorities is, as I have already alluded to, also absolutely essential.
We have done enough hand-wringing on this issue; we now need action. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is absolutely committed to seeing the sort of changes that we all want, and I look to him for leadership and the sense of purpose that I know he shares with me.
Thank you, Mr Chope, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on securing this debate on a very important issue. In his opening remarks, he set out the situation that we find ourselves in today and the specific problems that he has identified in his own constituency. I listened to his account of what is going on in and around the Reefer store, and it sounds absolutely dreadful. Also, his account of the effects of the substance called Clockwork Orange was particularly concerning. I had a quick look in my own local paper, the Hull Daily Mail, which recently ran a story about Clockwork Orange. The headline was:
“How £10 clockwork orange ‘legal high’ turned caring mum into deranged Longhill attacker.”
Clearly, that kind of substance is available all around the country and are causing problems for all sorts of communities.
I was also very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who is not in his place at the moment, was able to contribute to the debate, because I know that he is particularly interested in the issue. He hit the nail on the head about the importance of cross-Government working. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) spoke with great passion about the action that is needed now. He made two interesting suggestions: one was about the seizures that could take place at the ports, and the other was about putting the onus on sellers to show that what they are purporting to be bath salts really are bath salts and are not to be consumed.
Many Members across the country have seen a proliferation in the number of head shops opening in the high streets in their constituencies, and we know that those shops are selling dangerous drugs. Obviously, the correct term is “new psychoactive substances”. However, I take the point that the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) made that that term is a bit of a mouthful. His idea of calling them “chemical highs” has some merit, because the problem with them being called “legal highs” is that it causes young people, in particular, to view them as being absolutely fine and safe to take.
We know that there is widespread concern among parents and communities about legal highs. Many Members have spoken today about particular cases in their own constituencies. The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) spoke about what was happening in her area, and the hon. Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) talked about their areas. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the important issue of legal highs being used at festivals, which at this time of year is quite an important issue to try to address.
All this activity has been going on for some time, but the Government have been very slow in coming to the table to sort it out. There is now genuinely a call for action from all parties in the House, and the Government need to do something. It was not until December last year that the Minister accepted that the situation was no longer under control, and he instigated the review that has been mentioned. The Opposition have been raising the matter with the former Minister with responsibility for drugs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), and the current Minister for the past three years. During that time, the UK has become Europe’s largest market for legal highs. We now have more than 500 internet sellers and at least 100 high street shops selling hundreds of substances. We have also heard that more than 650,000 young people in the UK are thought to have taken these substances, on some occasions with tragic consequences.
We know that the problem has been growing exponentially since 2009. In that year, 24 new psychoactive substances were identified in the UK and were linked with 10 deaths, but by 2012 73 drugs had emerged, which were linked to 68 deaths. We know that last year 81 new drugs emerged. I am glad that the Government have now recognised that they can no longer ignore the problem, and although the review is three years too late, I still welcome it. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us when it will be published, so that we can see what the Government’s plans are.
There are four issues about legal highs that I want to raise with the Minister. I want to highlight them and seek assurances from him that they will be addressed in the review and its findings.
The first issue is about information. It is difficult to address a problem when we do not understand or know the full scale of it, but at present we do not have a clear recording system to identify the spread of legal highs. There is no record of those presenting at A and E with complications resulting from legal highs. We do not know how often legal highs are implicated in mental health referrals or in adolescent mental health figures. There is even confusion about the drugs that have been identified as being available in the UK, with the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which is informed by the NHS’s National Poisons Information Service, consistently publishing a much more comprehensive list of substances than the list that the Home Office has on its forensic early warning system. There is a discrepancy in the numbers. Why does the Home Office not use the National Poisons Information Service as its source of information, since its list is more comprehensive? We need a co-ordinated Government strategy. It appears that at the moment one half of Government does not know what information the other half is publishing online. That would be the first step in establishing the baseline of the problem.
Secondly, the Opposition supported the Government in introducing temporary banning orders for new psychoactive substances, but in three years that power has been used just five times, while hundreds of drugs have emerged on the market. The ACMD has been clear that it is not able to assess more than three or four drugs a year. The Minister will say that he has used generic bans to outlaw whole classes—families—of drugs, but I am not convinced that that has worked, as hon. Members have highlighted. We need a new approach to tackling these substances.
Thirdly, it is not just about banning the substances; we now need to tackle an entire industry that has grown up to distribute them. We have heard how head shops behave, particularly the bad example in Chesterfield. Many are deliberately targeting young people, and drugs may be marketed as bath salts or plant food, but that is a thin veneer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness indicated, people will soon recognise that mislabelling when they seek a description of the drug and information about it from those selling it.
Perhaps the hon. Lady will comment on online purchasing of legal drugs, which I mentioned. Although they are available in shops, as we all know, they are also available online and people can buy them without anyone—their parents or their family— knowing. I regard that as a matter of greater concern.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Online sale of these substances is worrying. Just this morning I read a description of a drug on pills4party.com:
“DEX powder–new generation of legal high”
“pure dose of euphoric energy and keeps you charged for all night long. DEX powder is perfect alternative to cocaine that gives you more than the Snowman Experience without any hassles.”
I am sure, Mr Chope, that you are fully aware of what the snowman experience is, although many of us find that rather baffling. That shows how these substances are being marketed for consumption by young people. Nobody can be under any illusion that they are not being marketed as recreational drugs. I have heard of internet sellers sending out free samples of new drugs that have emerged on the market. It seems to me that they are treating our children as guinea pigs.
Until a little while ago, Amazon was selling legal highs on its site, but due to work by the Angelus Foundation I think that it has removed them. Many local authorities have attempted to use trading standards legislation to close head shops down where there is a problem, but such attempts are rarely successful. Indeed, last year a prosecution was thrown out by the judge, who, although sympathetic to the need to close such shops down, said that the legislation simply was not fit for purpose.
One idea, which was used in Leeds, involved solvent legislation, but of course that applies only to selling solvents to someone who is under 18. By extending the solvents legislation, as has been done successfully in Ireland, we could give local authorities the powers they need to close head shops down. I should be grateful if the Minister said what he thought of that idea, which was proposed in an amendment tabled by the Opposition to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. The Government saw fit not to support that amendment.
I was struck by the menu of ways to tackle the problem that the hon. Member for South Swindon proposed. I hope that the Minister will respond to some of those ideas.
My final point, which I have raised in many debates, is that there should be a proper drugs prevention strategy. The lack of one is the Government’s biggest failure. Legal highs have emerged as a new phenomenon, and the Government have done little to tackle the myths that have allowed those substances to take hold in the past few years. Even after a number of deaths, and the horror stories that we have read about and heard about today, some people still think that “legal” means “safe”. That misconception needs to be tackled head-on.
The Minister will claim to have invested in relaunching the Frank website and even to have launched a public awareness campaign last year, but it was too little, too late. In four years, just £67,000 has been spent on a one-off, limited campaign that generated just 75,000 web page views. That is feeble, when we consider that more than 650,000 young people have tried these substances.
Mr Chope, can I just check that the time for this debate has been extended to 4.15 pm?
I am grateful, Mr Chope. I did not want to eat into the time available to the Minister.
I pay tribute to the Angelus Foundation, which has done its best to get educational materials into schools and communities. It feels frustrated that the Government have not taken up the mantle on education in schools, in particular, which I think most hon. Members would think is important. Will the Minister talk to Public Health England, which also has a job to do in getting a message out?
A two-pronged approach is needed on prevention and education in schools, giving children the life skills they need. I know that it has been a long-standing commitment of the Liberal Democrats to have compulsory personal, social and health education in schools and, as a Liberal Democrat Minister in the coalition, I hope the Minister might be able to persuade the Education Secretary that that is a good idea.
Those are the four points that I want the Minister to address. I look forward to the review being published shortly, so that we can finally have a policy that gets to grips with this dreadful problem, which is growing and developing in all our constituencies.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on securing this important debate. I recognise that hon. Members in all parts of the House feel genuine concerns about these matters and, in particular, we have all had constituents contacting us with their concerns about what has happened to their families, so the hon. Gentleman is right to bring the debate before the House.
I agree with hon. Members who have expressed concern about the term “legal highs”. That is not an abstract matter; it is quite important, because, as hon. Members have said, using the word “legal” implies safety, and that is a misconception. Therefore, I am keen to get away from the term “legal highs”, and I try not to use it myself, except to disparage it. I am particularly attracted to “chemical highs”, which I have been peddling recently, but there are other options, such as “untested highs” or “danger highs”. We need to find an alternative phrase that conveys accurately the fact that these substances are not tested and not approved, and are probably not safe. I want to get some consensus on that, although the newspapers are attracted to the phrase “legal highs” and it is difficult to move them.
This is a global problem and no country has solved it—it is important to say that. The review process, which is under way, considered experiences in other countries to find out what works and what does not work, and why it was right to do those things. It is not fair to characterise the Government as not having done much on this matter. We have been pretty active on it, but I stress that there is no obvious silver bullet that cures all the problems that hon. Members have correctly identified.
We recognised the emergence of new psychoactive substances and the trade as serious threats from the beginning and have taken multiple and decisive actions to address them. We consulted the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to inform the action plan published in 2012 to tackle the trade from all angles. We have improved the UK’s drugs early warning system to enable real-time information sharing on emerging drugs between health and law enforcement, the advisory committee and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. We also created the Home Office forensic early warning system to detect and monitor the emergence of those substances in the UK, inform our response in legislation and provide support to the advisory committee and UK law enforcement. We have introduced temporary drug control legislation so that, together with the advisory council, we have been able to take swift action to protect the public from emerging new substances that we know have the potential to cause serious harm.
As one colleague said today, we are in a race against the chemist. The reality is, as in the rest of the world, we are chasing behind what appears on our streets, almost on a weekly basis, from chemical laboratories that are outside our jurisdiction and outside our control. We have tried to be swift in identifying substances as having appeared. More than 350 new psychoactive substances and their derivatives are now banned in the UK, mainly through our use of generic definitions banning entire families of drugs and related compounds under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Bizarrely, we have even banned substances that do not exist, because we have anticipated where the chemist will go next.
As a result, the majority—about 80%—of new psychoactive substances seen in the EU for the first time are already controlled drugs in the UK. Working with UK law enforcement, including trading standards, to support the use of existing powers to disrupt supply in our communities and online, we have seen some successes. For example, a week of concerted action last November resulted in 44 arrests and, I think, 73 seizures, including large amounts of those substances.
We have issued guidance to local authorities on the use of existing powers. I will not pretend that those powers are comprehensive and that everything that is available is all that we need, but there are powers that have been used successfully by local authorities. The General Product Safety Regulations 2005, which should not be underestimated, have been successfully deployed in Northern Ireland. There is also trading standards legislation in relation to misdescriptions. If somebody markets something as bath salts or plant food, that is a misdescription and trading standards can take action on that basis. That might be more difficult if something is called “research chemicals”, but if it is wilfully misdescribed action can be taken.
I will come to the steps that are being taken, but I want to stress at this point, since the hon. Gentleman has raised it, that a process is in place. We have appointed an expert panel based on the best brains in the country from various disciplines: law enforcement, those who have knowledge of drugs, those from the health regimes, those who understand the psychiatry of those who might use drugs and so on. The panel has been charged by me with finding the best way forward to minimise harms from those substances. That is its objective. It is therefore not for me to second-guess what the panel will come up with. The clear objective is to minimise harm, and I look to the panel for recommendations. I will come to the process in a moment. It would be wrong for me to rule anything in or out until the panel has had an opportunity to reflect and take professional advice as it is doing so. No doubt the hon. Gentleman’s points will be considered by the panel, along with everything else.
Time is pressing. I have been in post since October or thereabouts. The review panel was appointed in December and has almost concluded its work. I expect to have its final report on my desk in a couple of weeks’ time. The Government will reflect on the conclusions and we will publish our intentions shortly thereafter. That is our intention. I want to get a move on. There is no intention to delay matters. However, there is also no wish to end up with bad legislation that is rushed and might have unforeseen consequences. I stress that no country in the world has cracked the issue successfully. We have to look across the world at different practices to see what might apply best to our own situation.
I want to make progress, because a lot of points have been raised, then I will try to take one or two interventions.
I want to correct a point made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield. He said that the UK is the biggest market in the EU for these substances. I believe the shadow Minister said that as well. The advice I have received from officials is that the recently published preliminary results of the 2014 Eurobarometer study show that the UK was not the biggest market. There are three countries ahead of us: Ireland, interestingly; Spain; and France. It does not give me great satisfaction to say that we are fourth, but, for the record, that is what the latest survey shows.
As I said, the expert panel is looking at a range of matters, including descriptions and how substances are promoted and sold. If they are wilfully misdescribed—if the label states “bath salts” and the substance is not bath salts—action can be taken. If the label states, “Not fit for human consumption”, that is no doubt accurate and therefore more difficult. I assure my hon. Friend that that is not the only way into the issue.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred in complimentary terms to the action of festival organisers. I want to say for the record that I wrote to festival organisers to ask them to take that action, so if he was implying that the Government was not taking action that would not be accurate. The festival organisers responded positively to the efforts that we made in writing to them. Indeed, my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), wrote last year—successfully—and they took action as a consequence of his letter. We are taking action where we can on those important fronts.
Border Force has enhanced its capability to detect those substances—the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness made a point about ports—coming into the country with the introduction of new portable FirstDefender devices.
I absolutely take the point made by Members about prevention and education. I have given a strong steer to the expert panel that it should consider very carefully what can be done on education and prevention. I look forward to the panel’s recommendations on that particular front. Even so, in the meantime, our prevention message, especially to young people, that the products cannot be assumed to be safe has been consistent and clear. Our FRANK website messaging continues to be updated with information on the risks, consequences and harms of those substances, using the best and latest available information and advice.
We have researched user trends to inform further work on reducing demand, including online. In summer 2013, the Home Office ran targeted communications activity over the festival period to help to prevent the use of those substances and to raise awareness of their risks and harms. That was aimed at particularly 15 to 18-year-olds. With the media involved, we think that more than half of that age group got the message that we sent out last year.
There were 74,000-plus unique visitors to the campaign page on our website, and we saw an 84% increase in website traffic as a consequence. A survey of visitors to the website showed that our social marketing campaign has been effective in shifting attitudes and that a new campaign could achieve similar results, so we are planning to run similar activity again this summer.
We have worked with the Department for Education and UK law enforcement on guidance issued to schools so that drug education includes those substances, along with other harmful drug use, but I want to see what more we can do on that front.
I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. To go back to the review, when he says nothing is ruled in or out and that he is looking abroad, does that mean he has not ruled out the option of licensing head shops, which I asked him about in my speech?
I want to make it plain that I am not taking the decision to rule things in or out. I have given the panel a challenge to come up with what it believes to be the best way to minimise harms. It would be an odd remit if we started telling the panel in advance what it should conclude. It has looked at the various options; none is without problems. I think the hon. Gentleman refers to the New Zealand position, where having a regulated market has caused problems. There are problems in the US with the analogue system, which is potentially becoming a lawyers’ paradise, and there are problems in Ireland, where the trade has largely gone underground.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I have one more general point to make, then I want to pick up on some of the points made by Members. For the record, it is unfair and inaccurate to say that the Government has not been active in this area; we have been very active, including at the international level, with the adoption of new UN resolutions on the early identification of emerging substances, and with concerted action across our agencies. More recently, we have led the call for the international control of mephedrone. In fact, we are recognised as a world leader in dealing with that particular threat, and we have used our presidency of the G7 to deliver international action, and to promote successful engagement with source countries such as China and India on the challenges that we continue to face.
I support the Minister on that point. It is unfair and inaccurate to say that the Government have been doing little in this area. However, the young person who died at Glastonbury this weekend, and the one who died at the Boomtown festival in my constituency last summer, had taken ketamine, which the Government have banned. Banning things is important, but it does not necessarily protect young people.
Sadly, that is true, and it is a well made point. I was horrified by the description from the hon. Member for Chesterfield of what was happening in his town. He listed some of the problems; one of the options that his council might look at is using the Government’s antisocial behaviour legislation, which has potential to deal with the consequences outside the shop. That is not the full answer, but it provides potential for the police and the council to come together to use existing powers.
I am happy to make that suggestion to the council. I am joined here by one of our councillors who has taken a leading role in this debate. I was going to respond to the Minister’s point about the council having a role under general product safety, and his suggestion that the enfeebled trading standards might use misdescriptions legislation. I hope that when he has finished his review—I appreciate that we have to be a bit more patient on that—we will be able to give local authorities a little more for their armoury, so that they can tackle this important issue.
I hope that that is the case. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) was absolutely right to refer to the uncertainty about long-term consequences. The need to ensure that they are properly evaluated means that we should not rush into what might be the wrong answer, but should nevertheless try to ensure that we get the right answer as soon as possible. He was absolutely right to say that much more needs to be done on prevention—he said education was key, and I entirely agree. I also agree that there is a strong argument for having compulsory personal, social, health and economic education in our schools.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) listed some helpful initiatives taken in his constituency. I pay tribute to those who took that action, which was public-spirited and helpful. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) made some helpful suggestions, which I will pass on to the review panel. It has almost concluded its work, but those suggestions remain useful. I share the shadow Minister’s endorsement of and thanks to the Angelus Foundation for its superb work in the area; I am pleased to have been able to meet with people from the foundation on a number of occasions to discuss their work.
The shadow Minister referred to a number of issues, including information. I assure her that the expert panel that I have appointed has had a working group on the sharing of information and has also been identifying the need to ensure that it is shared with the health environment. We are therefore looking at information available from accident and emergency, to which she referred, and wider health service treatment. I expect recommendations in that area as part of the expert panel’s work. The hon. Lady also mentioned the National Poisons Information Service, which I assure her that the Home Office uses. The service is particularly important when we are gathering evidence for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; it informs ACMD’s advice and, subsequently, our decision on drug control. The service is used by and valuable to the Home Office.
On the figures for deaths, Members are right to draw attention to the increase to 68. For the record, that is 4% of drug-related deaths. Sixty-eight too many have died, but we must not take our eye off the ball: a lot more deaths from drugs have to be dealt with as well, whether they involve heroin, crack cocaine or other substances. I hope that that has been a helpful response to the debate. If there are any outstanding questions, I am happy to answer them individually.