I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is an honour and a privilege today to introduce this Bill, which has had extensive scrutiny in its passage through the other place. At the outset, may I thank Her Majesty’s Opposition—the new shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and her predecessors, and the Chief Whip, who has spoken to me extensively about the Bill—for their co-operation? I also thank colleagues from across the House. Sadly, some colleagues in the House are going to oppose this Bill, but, within reason, across the House and across the country we have agreement. I hope that during this short Second Reading debate we will be able to convince those who do not think it is a good thing, because last year 129 people lost their lives in this country because of what they thought was a legal, safe high.
The Bill is a broad piece of legislation, and I freely admit it is new to this House, as we are bringing in a blanket ban. The reason we are doing that is simply that we have been chasing the chemists from around the world for too long. We have attempted to ban 500 substances in this bracket, but then they have tweaked the formulas and the next minute we are back in the same position again.
The Minister has already said that some people in this House, although they do not like psychoactive drugs, do not believe this is the right way of going about legislating on them, not least because similar bans in Ireland led to an increase in the use of these kinds of drugs. Given that that is the case, will he be properly reviewing the implementation of this Bill? If it is put into force and then leads to an increase in online marketing and so forth, will he then repeal it?
I did not expect to be in confrontation with the hon. Lady so early on, but I think, yet again, that she is wrong. I have been to the Republic of Ireland, as well as to Northern Ireland, and not only seen the damage that these psychoactive substances have done, but met Ministers and their chemists. They think their legislation is working, and I agree with them, and New South Wales has implemented similar legislation within the past five days. The rest of the world may not be right, but in this case I think it is. I have looked extensively at this issue, as has the Select Committee on Home Affairs previously—it is doing so again and we are awaiting its report. In the Republic of Ireland the head shops vanished overnight. There are young and old people who thought these drugs were safe. Whether or not we or the scientists like to call them that, they are classed as and felt in the public domain to be legal, safe highs. That is what young people think they are.
I hope that the Minister accepts that those people who have concerns about this legislation have the same purpose in mind: to try to address substances that are causing harm. Does he not have any concern that if the effect of the legislation is to hand the entire industry over to organised crime, we may end up with unintended consequences?
If I thought that was going to happen, I would not be standing at this Dispatch Box. It has not happened elsewhere; it did not happen in the Republic of Ireland. What has happened there is that people are alive today who would not have been if the legislation had not been introduced there, which is why this Bill is so important. We will, however, make sure that we learn from the mistakes in the Republic of Ireland, and we are going to accept and work with lots of amendments that were tabled in the other place. I will have to table consequential amendments in Committee to make sure that the Bill is legal in that framework, but we are going to accept these recommendations and changes proposed in the other House.
The right hon. Gentleman will know from his experience in Northern Ireland that it is organised crime and paramilitaries who have exploited this legal loophole, making misery for the young people who have got involved in taking legal highs and for the families. I am a Member of Parliament for a mother who grieves for her son who thought he was taking something that was going to do him good but who died because of it. Will the Minister confirm that in Northern Ireland there will be no hesitation in using non-jury trials where there is intimidation and a present and real threat of jury tampering by paramilitaries when we are trying to take forward a prosecution for using these highs?
Under this legislation, the highest penalty for selling or purchasing these products—particularly for selling—will be seven years, which is not a light sentence. It indicates the severity of the offence. We do not want to criminalise a whole group of people who have, for many years, been buying a product that was perfectly legal, but there are some real changes that we need to make on behalf of our constituents, which is why we are all in this place. For once, we should get ahead of the drug dealers and chemists. Huge amounts of money are involved not only within the paramilitaries but within organised crime. By having a blanket ban, there are real concerns that we will be banning things that we all enjoy. I am talking about caffeine—
The Minister mentioned the Home Affairs Committee inquiry. In fact, the Government caught the Committee by surprise. We were expecting this Bill to come before the House in November. We have finalised our report, thanks to the efforts of the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), and it is due to be published on Friday. I wish to put it on the record that Members of the House will be able to look at the deliberations of the Select Committee when it comes to the Committee stage of the Bill, because the Minister has moved so speedily and brought the Bill to the House before we expected it.
I look forward to the report, not least because of the excellent work that I know has been carried out not only by the Chairman and other Members but by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes).
One reason why we have brought this Bill before the House so quickly and why the business managers have given us the time that we needed is the previous inquiry of the Home Affairs Committee
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will give way once I have finished this part of my speech.
The truth of the matter is that we will have an opportunity at Committee and on Report to look carefully at what the Home Affairs Committee has said and to see whether it can be used to improve the Bill.
The Minister mentioned amendments in the House of Lords and sentencing. He will know, because we have corresponded about this, that one of my concerns about this otherwise excellent Bill is to do with the statutory aggravating factors. At the moment, a person will receive a stiffer sentence if they sell outside a school, but not outside a children’s home. I urge the Minister to look at the amendment that was proposed in the House of Lords, encouraged by the Children’s Society. Also, given that the substances are very often targeted at young people—I have evidence in my own constituency of the drugs being used to lure young people into inappropriate sexual relationships—he might consider an amendment to make it a statutory aggravating factor to sell to anybody under the age of 18 so that it attracts a stiffer sentence. Will he consider that on Report?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; we have corresponded on this matter. I have looked carefully at what was said in the other place. The Sentencing Council will be responsible for the guidelines. I know that my hon. Friend and the Minister in the other place have agreed to write to the Sentencing Council, and I will do so as well. I will, if I may, keep a very open mind about this matter as we go through the Bill’s stages, particularly the Committee stage.
If we are to have a Sentencing Council, we need to use it in the way that it was designed. I know that there is an anomaly, but my view is that at the moment I will keep an open mind on the matter.
We want such places to close down before this Bill is passed. I want this House to send a message to those who are selling these products—head shops or any other premises, or those selling in other ways—that on the day this Bill gets Royal Assent, such selling will become an offence. In saying that, these people have been selling these products perfectly legally for many, many years, so we need to give them an opportunity. This is only part of a process. We are talking about educating the public as well as helping people who are addicted to these substances. At the end of the day, these sellers have to know that, from the day this Bill gets Royal Assent, selling these products is illegal and attracts a seven-year sentence.
I very much commend this Bill. I have been calling for it for many years. The Sentencing Council has an important role to play. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, sentencing is linked to harm and is commensurate with the offence. At present, there is inequality in sentencing between all types of new psychoactive substances. We need to be clear and link the harm level to the sentence, and that is the important role that the Sentencing Council will have to play.
That important matter was put to me when I gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. The difference between what we are doing here and what we are doing with other illegal substances is that this is a blanket ban. If we try to indicate the level of harm on every single one of these substances we will be here forever, which is why we have gone for the blanket ban, and why the Republic of Ireland did the same. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), we will continue to look at this matter, but the guidance to the Sentencing Council is very strong. I am so pleased that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) said that he had been calling for this ban for some time, because I shared an office with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate for five years and I know exactly what his views are. I can genuinely say that apart from a few nuances here and there, most people want to see this Bill on the Statute Book.
It will be just the same as if a person went to a head shop. It is illegal. The National Crime Agency, which is now operating in Northern Ireland—I visited it recently to see the work it is doing—will be working with other agencies to ensure that we prosecute those involved in the crime. People say to me that the web is so open, but at the end of the day, purchasing, like selling, is an offence. If a person purchases these products, we will try to ensure that they are convicted. It does not matter whether they purchase them from a head shop, a friend or online, it is an offence. We are talking about purchase, not possession.
I welcome the fact that the Government have worked with the Scottish Government on this issue of joint concern. Will the Minister set out the contact he has had with Scottish Ministers on this issue to date? Perhaps he could advocate this partnership approach to others in his Government who may benefit from Scottish Government input in a range of areas.
The Scottish Government were working on this matter long before I became the Minister. It was a real pleasure to see the reports that had been done in Scotland. They coincided with the reports that we were seeing from elsewhere. I have corresponded back and forth with Scottish Ministers. We used some of the evidence from their reports in preparing our own legislation. I cannot comment further, but those who know me in this House will say that I always try to ensure that it does not matter what party or what part of the country we come from, because what is important is our constituents and what is right for them. That is why I am so keen for this Bill to get through its Second Reading this evening.
When I raised this matter on my Facebook page yesterday asking for the views of young people in my constituency, one constituent said that some legal highs specifically say on the packaging that they are not fit for human consumption. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that such a statement will not allow the producers of these drugs simply to bypass the new law?
I can confirm that. There are uses for some of these drugs within industry, and we want that to continue, particularly in the research field. We cannot help the people who are addicted to some of these substances if we do not give them the right support. If it is seen that someone is producing a product for an industrial use, or for any other use, but they are knowingly selling it, they will be prosecuted. It will be an offence whether or not the product carries that label. That is imperative as we take these measures forward.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), it seems to me that the difficulty is that there will be a defence for suppliers of so-called legal highs under clause 5(2) if they do not know or are reckless as to whether the substance is likely to be consumed. If people can say that they are not selling products for human consumption because all that happened was that someone came in and asked for some plant food, it does not necessarily follow that they will be committing an offence under the Bill and that the head shops referred to by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) will close straight away.
My hon. and learned Friend has studied the Bill and I have worked with him on other Bills, so I know exactly where he is coming from. The intent of the Bill is there. The evidence from the Republic of Ireland is that that did not happen, but if we need to tighten the provisions in Committee we can do so; I think there is consensus across the House on that. The head shops closed literally overnight in the Republic of Ireland, and the problem with that type of sale fell through the floor. If we pass the programme motion later this evening, we will be in Committee next week and we can tighten the Bill if consensus allows.
We can go through all the clauses, but I am sure that everybody has read the Bill so in the time available I want to concentrate on two points. First, what is the purpose of the Bill? It is intended to save people’s lives. I completely get where my former right hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)—he is still my friend—is coming from. We might not agree 100% on the method, but let us take the Bill through Committee and let us consider the evidence. I know that there is some other evidence from the Republic of Ireland: I have seen it, I have sat with the scientists and I have sat with the Ministers. Let us see whether we can save lives, bearing in mind the 129 we lost last year. That figure is growing dramatically year on year, which is why there has been a campaign for the Bill for some time.
If the Irish ban has been so successful, why has the lifetime prevalence of the use of novel psychoactive substances among young people there increased from 16% to 22% in the past three years? Would it not have been sensible to have done an impact assessment of the situation in Ireland before pressing ahead with the Bill?
The answer is no, because I do not want any more deaths, which will happen if we hold back now and wait for more studies, for more this and for more that. New South Wales have done this in the past five days. If I look around the Chamber, I see most people nodding and perhaps one or two people doing otherwise—I do not know how the Hansard reporters will work that out later, but they can try. At the end of the day, I am determined to protect the young and old—
The hon. Lady shouts across the Chamber from a sedentary position, but she has not brought the Chamber with her—[Interruption.] Yet again she shouts from a sedentary position and, in a moment, when she has the opportunity, she will try to convince the House that she is right.
I have not spoken to them directly, but I have evidence in my hand that tells me that the prevalence among young people has increased from 16% to 22% as a result of the ban in Ireland. I am simply asking the Minister why, if the ban is so successful, the prevalence has gone up.
So, the answer to my question was no, and the hon. Lady has not been to the Republic of Ireland and has not spoken to the scientists, but she has a piece of paper in front of her that says that we are all wrong and that she is right. On this point, as usual, I am afraid that she is wrong. At the end of the day, what are we sent to this House to do? It is to protect people, and that is what we will do this evening.
Can the Minister tell us the effect of the ban on khat? The reports are that its use continues, but it has gone underground and become more expensive. Or what about the ban on mephedrone? There was a report that in my area after the ban its use increased by 300%. How many bans reduce drug harm and use?
I am sure that many individuals in this House could pick on individual substances that have gone underground, making the situation worse, but the vast majority of products that were sold to people who thought they were safe are no longer being sold. That has happened in Ireland and in other countries. I had the New Zealand Minister with me only the other day to look at exactly what we are trying to do. The legislation has been campaigned for over a considerable period and we are taking action, which I would have thought is exactly what we should be doing.
As I have said, I will table amendments in Committee. We listened carefully to the work done by our noble friends in the other place and we will have to make quite a few consequential amendments to frame the amendment they made in the Bill. We are also considering whether there are areas in which we should ban possession.
The Minister mentions the word “possession”. The word “prisons” appears on the face of the Bill only once. I see that the Prisons Minister is sitting with him on the Front Bench, and I wonder whether when the Bill goes upstairs to Committee they might consider making possession an offence inside the secure estate.
I have received a large number of delegations that have made arguments about the effect on the prison population, on prison officers and on morale and safety within the secure estate, which includes prisons, and we are going to look very carefully at whether we can propose an amendment. I believe that there are some processes to be followed to ensure that we can do that, but the Prisons Minister and I are minded to ensure that the prison estate is as safe as possible for prisoners as well as staff. Legal highs are having a massive effect on that part of the prison estate as well as on other parts of the secure estate. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), like others in the Chamber, has campaigned long and hard on this issue and has brought it up on more than one occasion. We are considering the issue and I hope to table amendments in Committee.
My understanding was that those who would be criminalised by the Bill were those who were supplying, marketing, producing and selling, but twice now the Minister has made a comment that suggests that those who purchase these products might also be criminalised. When I look at clause 8 a wee bit more closely, it seems to be saying that those who purchase via the internet could be criminalised. The Minister is talking about making amendments, so will he be proposing an amendment to take that out? It does not fit the spirit of the Bill.
The spirit of the Bill is that we do not want to criminalise individuals for possession, but we are going to criminalise the sale and purchase of these substances. That is in the Bill and in the spirit of the Bill, and is in line with the work that we have done.
The hon. Lady asked me a question, and I will answer it. In Committee, we will study the Bill line by line, because that is how we do these things and that is right and proper. If the hon. Lady has concerns, we will consider them carefully, but we cannot have someone being able to buy things on the internet and for that to be illegal—or legal—when it would be the opposite to do it in a shop or on the street.
I do not understand this argument, and I do not know whether the shadow Minister does. If someone is buying a product that is illegal, that will be illegal. If they are selling a product that is illegal, that will be illegal. We will not criminalise a small group of people—
I am a little confused by the diversion from where I thought we were going. Would not a purchaser need to know that the substance was illegal when purchasing it? If so, we will need a definition of what psychoactive means. Is that not right?
If this is about people knowing that the products are illegal, can the Minister tell us a little bit about the education campaign that will go hand in hand with the legislation to make certain that young people are aware of the dangers and the fact that they will be committing a criminal act?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said earlier, this is only one part of a campaign to make sure that people understand the dangers and the change in legislation. The police are starting to talk to people and are going into schools. Treatment is important too, but it is a difficult area. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue.
I confess to the Minister—I am trying to help—that I am a little confused as well. I do not think that the Bill creates an offence of purchasing so-called legal highs. Importing is a different matter, and is dealt with in clause 8, which he will no doubt confirm. If he can do so the debate about people buying so-called legal highs and being criminalised will go away.
May I tax the Minister on something else? It is my understanding that if a user of legal highs purchases three or four pills over the internet that are not for human consumption, then gives them to his mates on a night out he has committed an offence. In Committee, we may have to look at whether we intend to criminalise those individuals in the Bill.
I apologise if I have confused hon. Members. Let me try again. There are relevant provisions: producing a psychoactive substance, which is dealt with in clause 4; supplying, or offering to supply a psychoactive substance, which is dealt with in clause 5; possession of a psychoactive substance with intent to supply under clause 7; and importing or exporting a psychoactive substance under clause 8. I apologise: I kind of misled the House unintentionally on individual possession. I was talking about intent to supply, not intent to use. Making a purchase from a foreign website would be caught, but the purchase on its own from a website or foreign website would not, and I apologise if I misled the House on that point.
I thank the Minister for that. I support the Bill, but I am slightly concerned about clause 8, which says
“the person intentionally imports a substance,”
“the person…intends to consume the psychoactive substance for its psychoactive effects”.
It seems to me that if someone imports and possesses even a small amount of the substance over the internet he is criminalised, but if he bought it in a head shop, for example, he would not be criminalised, which seems to be a strange provision. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) is trying to make the point that we support provisions to deal with people who have these substances with intent to supply, or are supplying them to people in an evil trade, but to criminalise people for having small amounts of those substances is slightly dangerous.
The Minister is very generous. Does he agree that there is a particular challenge in dealing with the supply of substances from overseas areas outside British jurisdiction? Having an offence in relation to the purchasing of those substances on the internet, which almost certainly would be the means of purchase, helps in some ways to deal with a situation that is otherwise difficult to deal with and legislate for.
I am grateful to the Minister. To follow up the point made by Scottish National party Members, will he explain again why it is illegal to purchase a product that is being imported, but why the Bill does not criminalise the purchase of exactly the same product in this country? We criminalise someone if they happen to buy it overseas, but not if they buy it in this country. What is the logic?
The logic is to try to stop dealers bringing stuff in through websites. That is close to the legislation that is being used in Ireland, where it is working, so we think it is appropriate.
We will make sure that the House protects people without criminalising any individuals for having small amounts of a substance. We are going to do something that should have been done years ago. There will be a blanket ban so that chemists, organised criminals and, in some parts of these islands, paramilitaries do not work together. We will make sure that the legislation is as tight as possible and will at last do something we should have done before by introducing a blanket ban on psychoactive substances. I hope that the Bill completes its Second Reading this evening.
The Opposition support the principles of the Bill. The 2015 Labour manifesto included a commitment to ban the sale and distribution of dangerous psychoactive substances, which is why we are with the Minister tonight.
The illicit drugs situation in the UK and throughout the world is constantly changing. Protecting young people from harm is our responsibility, even if we know that there is no silver bullet to reduce the trade in drugs. New psychoactive substances can be a significant danger to public health, and they have taken people’s lives. Jimmy Guichard was a fun-loving, sporty 18-year-old bloke living in Kent. He had heard of legal highs and decided to try them. He bought a packet of Clockwork Orange from a local head shop, and he may have taken a high dose, possibly the same as he would have done for ordinary cannabis. He had a severe reaction, suffered a heart attack and, sadly, died the next day.
Owain Vaughan was 14 when he tried a brand of synthetic cannabis with friends and was overcome by its potency. He described the effects to BBC News:
“It made me physically ill, I collapsed, I started fitting, I tried to get up, but fell straight back down and banged my head…I felt my own heart stop and I was scared.”
Unfortunately, stories like Jimmy’s and Owain’s are not isolated incidents. The Office for National Statistics reports that there were 67 deaths in England and Wales involving psychoactive substances in 2014, so the problem is clearly growing.
We do not have comprehensive evidence about the overall harm of psychoactive substances, but people have died as a result of taking these drugs. Some of the substances can cause severe adverse effects such as heart palpitations, panic attacks, hallucinations and even psychotic episodes.
The supply of these drugs is becoming an industry. They are made, marketed and supplied by unprincipled organisations for financial profit. Our understanding of the dangers of legal highs has been greatly enhanced by the work of the Angelus Foundation, and I pay tribute to Maryon Stewart, who established the foundation after losing her daughter Hester, a medical student, to the legal high GBL in 2009. Research by the Angelus Foundation has estimated that there were more than 250 head shops in the UK selling these products in 2013. According to the crime survey of England and Wales, around a third of all new psychoactive substances purchased in the UK came from such businesses. Head shops claim that they do not sell illegal substances, but Home Office tests have shown that almost 20% of packets of new psychoactive substances contain illegal drugs.
Head shops and other high street retail outlets normalise drug taking and encourage people to experiment with and use drugs. The names and packaging are designed to attract young adults to experiment, and free samples are regularly used as part of marketing strategies. The fact that substances can be bought on the high street in broad daylight without any sanction whatever gives the illusion that the substances are both safe and legal. There are hundreds of internet sites that sell these substances online, with little or no knowledge of who they are selling to. The Home Office estimates that the industry has an annual turnover of £82 million. Overall, the UK has the largest new psychoactive substances market in Europe.
As the Minister stated, drugs have traditionally been controlled in the UK through the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, under which the Home Secretary has the power to put substances on a banned list, so long as he or she has consulted the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Since the middle of the previous decade, that mechanism has been put under great strain by the explosive growth of new psychoactive substances. We have managed to control some of them, but let us be under no illusion—that has not solved the problem.
The relatively easy process of creating new psychoactive substances means that these new drugs are appearing on the market all the time. In each of the past six years, more substances appeared on the market than was the case in the previous year. The Home Office and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs cannot keep up because the traditional process of classifying the drugs, with its independent and objective process of assessing the overall harms of a particular substance, can be cumbersome. It is a game of whack-a-mole that the authorities are hard pressed to win. In 2011, the Government tried to deal with the problem by introducing temporary class drug orders. TCDOs allow the Government to ban the production and sale of new psychoactive substances while the ACMD gathers more information on the risk and harm associated with those drugs.
There are problems with TCDOs. First, they are inherently reactive, and there is always a time gap between a drug coming on to the market and being subject to control. The second problem is that TCDOs last for only 12 months, which puts significant pressure on the ACMD to assess the harm caused by the drug quickly. Another approach taken by the Home Office under the Labour Government was to add generic groups, rather than specific compounds, to the list of controlled substances. Although this procedure has had some success in controlling new psychoactive substances, it is clear that we are dealing with an evolving problem that our current legal framework cannot get to grips with.
In December 2013, the Government appointed an expert panel that recommended that the most effective way to deal with new psychoactive substances would be to introduce a blanket ban on the supply, importation and exportation of any psychoactive substance that was not specifically controlled or exempted. This approach, as we have heard, is modelled on legislation passed in the Republic of Ireland in 2010. There were 102 head shops in Ireland at that time, according to the Irish police force, and they have now “virtually disappeared”. The expert panel was clear that the number of clients attending drug treatment services had declined: 368 people received treatment for problems in 2011 and that number fell to 220 in 2012. Although I accept that it is too early to make a long-term judgment on the success of the Irish model, it seems to have made a start at tackling the problem.
The Bill takes up the expert panel’s recommendation and makes it a criminal offence to produce, supply, import or export these drugs. I am not so naive as to think that we are going to shut down the industry altogether, even though that is what many people would want, but by more quickly containing production and supply upstream, we will hopefully reduce the harms to young people downstream.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern, which we need to consider when we think about the Bill, that the closure of the head shops makes it possible that the entire trade will be driven underground, that it will link itself with the illegal drug trade, and that those who might at present go on to the high street or into a garage and purchase what they think are legal highs, which may be very dangerous for them, will end up using much more serious class A and class B drugs?
I accept what the hon. and learned Gentleman says, but one of the things I find particularly repulsive is that our young people see these head shops in front of them on the high street, and then think that the shops are legal and safe because if they were not, the police would have come along and nabbed them. I will answer him later because we do need to think about what happens with an underground market.
This Bill sends out a message to young people who are unaware that these substances are dangerous. Many of those that are sold in the shops are illegal now, let alone before we ban the lot of them. As I support the aims and general approach of the Bill, I want to ensure that it is drafted and implemented as effectively as possible, so I will press the Government on several issues and worries. I hope that the Minister will take my recommendations and concerns in the constructive manner in which they will be intended.
My first point is about education. The Bill is an appropriate way to try to tackle the supply of dangerous psychoactive substances, but we need to reduce demand. Unfortunately, there is a load of misinformation about psychoactive substances. Research by the Royal Society for Public Health found that a quarter of young people aged between 16 and 24 believed that so-called legal highs were safer than illegal drugs. This is a dangerous misunderstanding, because some of the new psychoactive substances have gone on to be controlled and designated as class A, indicating that they were some of the most harmful drugs around before they were controlled. Passing this legislation has the potential to put to bed the dangerous myth that psychoactive substances are safe, but the measure will do so only if it is supported by a concerted communication and education strategy.
The Labour Administration in Wales have shown us how that can be done by putting education at the forefront of their drug prevention strategy. There is now a core substance misuse education programme in 97% of Welsh primary and secondary schools to ensure that almost all Welsh schoolchildren receive accurate, consistent and credible information about the potential harms of drugs, rather than having to rely on myths and guesswork. Labour Members have consistently emphasised the role of PSHE—personal, social, health and economic education—in reducing drug use. I have voted to make PSHE compulsory in schools, and that needs to be considered again.
This aspect did not go to the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs and has therefore been put together without its advice. The use of illegal drugs has been going down not because of locking people up and criminalisation, but because of education. We all want these chemicals not to be used, but we must not overreact and not use education enough, because it is a key tool.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; I completely and utterly agree. Education is the key to this. We need to reduce the demand for the supply.
Thus far, a mere £180,556 has been spent on education programmes on new psychoactive substances, as the Minister told the House in a written answer on 2 June. Sadly, the Government rejected Labour’s amendment to the Bill in the Lords which would have placed a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to increase public awareness and help schools to educate children about the dangers of these drugs. Let me say gently that that is a wholly inadequate response given that the Government themselves recognise that these drugs are a serious problem. If we want young people to have the resilience, the confidence and the knowledge to say no, we have to be fully committed to a comprehensive education programme across the UK.
The next area where the Minister needs to exercise care and caution is proportionality of sentencing. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, sentences are linked to the harm caused by the drug possessed, supplied or produced—the more harmful the drug, the harsher the maximum sentence. Of course, there is judicial discretion in applying individual sentences, but the general approach of linking to relative harms is important.
The Bill represents a radical departure from previous attempts to control drugs, because it legally decouples controlled substances from an independent and objective assessment of the harm they cause. We understand why that may be appropriate. The process by which the ACMD determines the harm of a substance can be lengthy and resource intensive, which is precisely why the Home Office cannot keep up with the illicit market. It is difficult to introduce the concept of harm to the Bill without denying the Home Office the tools it needs to deal with that central problem.
It is because this Bill suggests such a radical change that we need carefully to consider the impact it will have when implemented. I am worried that we might end up in a situation where someone who is prosecuted for selling a weak psychoactive substance faces the possibility of the same seven-year custodial sentence as someone who sells a very dangerous substance. The Bill contains no classification system to differentiate between those two crimes. I fear that the proposed laws could lose the confidence of the public and the judicial system if the issue of proportionality is not looked at carefully. As the Minister will be aware, the issue has exercised the Home Affairs Committee.
I am particularly worried about the proportionality of sentencing for young people involved in social supply. It is not unusual for a number of young people to club together and for one person to buy substances off the internet and distribute them among friends, or even for one individual to sell a small amount to a friend. The Bill makes no distinction between those people and large-scale importers. We need to look at that.
Has the Minister considered providing credible measures for a relatively harmless substance to be excluded from the controls, if that is deemed appropriate? Conversely, if a new psychoactive substance proves to be particularly harmful, surely it should be removed from the scope of the Bill and controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Reviewing that may be an appropriate responsibility of the ACMD.
Another issue that needs careful consideration is how the police and prosecutors can both determine and prove that a substance is psychoactive. I am sure the Minister is aware that Professor Iverson, chair of the ACMD, has previously written to the Home Secretary warning her that we will have to rely on proxy measures of psychoactivity, such as in vitro neurochemical tests, in order to prove psychoactivity, but that they may not stand up in court.
We should take Professor Iversen’s warnings seriously. Although similar legislation in Ireland appears to have been broadly successful—given the statistics I quoted earlier—there have been only five successful prosecutions. Police in Ireland have admitted that that is because they find it difficult to prove the psychoactivity of substances. We want sellers to stop selling psychoactive substances voluntarily, and for consumers to stop purchasing the drugs. However, it is hard to imagine that that would work without any prosecutions at all. The law simply would not provide a credible deterrent.
I raised this issue with the Minister in Ireland, where local authorities and others can use the powers they have been given without having to go all the way to the criminal courts. This Bill also gives extensive powers to local authorities. That addresses some of the hon. Lady’s concerns, but the Bill Committee will look at the issue in more depth.
I am grateful to the Minister for that assurance. If the ban pushes supply away from the high street and increases online sales, there will be a need for resources and to look at how technology and international co-operation can disrupt supply and delivery routes. Is the National Crime Agency going to take the lead on online sellers? Does the Minister have the information to hand? Perhaps he could inform us of the plans when he winds up the debate.
The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon has reported that the lifetime use of these substances in Ireland before the ban was 16%, but that four years after the ban it had increased to 22%. Is it not true that almost every drug ban has resulted in an increase in usage?
I have only been in this job for two weeks, but if I had been in it for a bit longer and the Public Bill Committee was not next week, I would have nipped over to Ireland to find out. My information is that the ban has closed down the head shops. The second piece of information from Ireland is that the number of people going to hospital with the effects of psychoactive drugs has also declined. I have managed to glean those two pieces of information from Ireland. I promise that I will do more research on Ireland before the Committee next week. Even if I am not allowed to go across to Ireland—can I go?—I will certainly have a look at that. [Interruption.]
I will not take that groan personally. To follow up on the intervention by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), the hon. Lady may be interested to know that in Poland, where the same approach is being applied, the number of poisonings—this is about damage to young people—has gone up dramatically since the ban came in from 562 cases in 2010 to 1,600 in the first 10 months of 2014. Does that not give her cause to pause in supporting the Bill?
I thought I had said that, but I obviously did not say it well enough. However, I thank my hon. Friend for his assistance.
I understand that the ACMD has offered to work with the Home Office to try to overcome the problem of needing to prove psychoactivity, and that the ACMD believes the issue can be resolved. I look forward to the Minister informing the House about what progress is being made on that issue so that we can be assured that the Bill has the teeth it needs. The definition of psychoactivity should be at the core of the Bill, so I am rather surprised that the Government felt able to move the Bill’s Second Reading without that point being resolved. The ACMD recently met the Home Secretary, and the House really needs some detail on how the discussions are progressing.
I want the Minister to consider monitoring and evaluation. I am pleased that the Government are now making a statutory commitment to review how well the Bill works. However, it is important that we are given more details of the intended scope of the review. We need to know that we are breaking up not just the legal market, but the overall supply chain as well. Ultimately, the ban may have the effect of reducing the number of users of NPSs, but of increasing the risk for those who continue to use them. It is clear that a wide-ranging and comprehensive review, backed up by thorough and better research, will be necessary.
I also want the Minister—he can see that I have a long list—to speak to his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to see whether the impact on prisons can be given particular attention. I am sure that he was as alarmed as I was by the prisons and probation ombudsman’s report in July, which found that new psychoactive substances were a factor in the deaths of at least 19 prisoners between 2012 and 2014. The annual report of Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons was just as concerning. It found that NPS
“has had a severe impact and has led to debt and associated violence.”
That is a real problem for our prisons, and we need to know that it is being dealt with.
A point that may not have occurred to the hon. Lady arises from the two points that she has put to the Minister—the impact on the MOJ’s budget of the difficulty of proving that something is a psychoactive substance within the meaning of clause 2. That issue will inevitably have to go to a jury, and will therefore require expert evidence on both the prosecution and the defence sides. Has she considered the potential financial effects on the legal aid budget if clause 2 is not amended?
I am clearly being far too subtle. I am not often accused of that. I talked about resources and clearly we understand that that will be an issue. I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for drawing the point out and for being so succinct.
The Home Secretary has said that the Home Office is actively considering the point about prisons and intends to table an amendment in Committee. I hope that that is still the Government’s intention. I will examine any such amendment carefully.
In conclusion, the Opposition want the best possible Bill so that young people are not exposed to these dangerous, untested substances and so that we reduce the harm that they do. I want to work with the Government to ensure that that happens. That means looking seriously at the potential weaknesses in the Bill. We will stress throughout the legislative process and beyond that this problem cannot be tackled through law enforcement alone. We need to restrict supply and demand. That means looking once again at the state of drugs education in this country, alongside reducing the overall public health harms.
It is a pleasure to follow the shadow Minister. I very much enjoyed her subtly constructive contribution to the debate. I am sure that the Committee will be great fun.
There were many good things about the Conservative manifesto on which Government Members were elected in May. The inclusion of a commitment to
“create a blanket ban on all new psychoactive substances”
was very welcome to my constituents in Winchester.
Like many Members who are here tonight, I have spoken about this subject many times since entering the House in 2010. There have been numerous debates in this Chamber and Westminster Hall, and it has been raised frequently in Home Office questions and Prime Minister’s questions. As a Back Bencher in the last Parliament and, in its final year, as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the excellent Minister who opened the debate from the Dispatch Box, this has been something of a mission for me. I must say at the outset that I will support the Bill tonight. I thank the Minister for the way in which he laid it out for us.
As I have said many times, new psychoactive substances, or legal highs as they are commonly known, are often not legal and do not always get people high. Why do I say that? Very often they land people under arrest because they are not legal and, in too many tragic cases, they do not get people high but cost them their lives.
NPSs are notoriously difficult to identify. Currently, they have to be regulated on a substance-by-substance or group-by-group basis because of their diversity and the speed with which they are developed to replace drugs that are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Many NPSs are legal because they have not yet been assessed for their harm and considered for control under the 1971 Act. That is not because they are inherently safe for human use—far from it.
That is the cruellest danger of the legal highs that I have seen. So often, they are sold as harmless fun at high-street head shops or at the festivals that I happily frequent every summer. As the Parliament of this country, we have a grave responsibility to protect our children from this menace. As things stand, we are simply not doing that.
Mephedrone is probably the best example of a legal high that was just that until people died and we acted. It appeared in 2008-09 and quickly gained a lot of media attention due to its tragic death toll. It became a class B drug in April 2010 and has declined significantly in popularity since.
Ketamine is another example of a “party drug” that, although originally a class C drug, has left lives ruined or worse in its wake. For those who are listening to this debate, whether outside the House or inside it, I will be blunt. Ketamine is a powerful general anaesthetic that stops one feeling pain. It is used for operations on humans and animals. If you’re lucky, the effects do not last that long. Until those effects wear off, ketamine can cause a loss of feeling in the body, paralysis of the muscles, confusion, agitation, panic attacks, and impairment of the short and long-term memory. Frequent use is sometimes associated with the development of severe depression. Again we acted, and in June 2014 ketamine changed from a class C to a class B drug.
Sadly, that was not soon enough for 18-year-old Ellie Rowe, who collapsed at a festival in my constituency in August 2013 after taking the drug. Ellie was a dedicated Army cadet, and she obtained the Duke of Edinburgh gold award a few months before her death. She had everything to live for, but for £40 her life was gone. That paltry sum got her and her best friend two grams of the drug which, according to the inquest that followed, she inhaled after drinking several cans of lager and suffered a fatal cardiac arrest as a result.
Speaking after the verdict, her dad said:
“I always imagined if any harm came to Ellie it would be on a bungee jump or canoeing down a fierce river or in an accident on a mountain—but nothing like this. She was so sensible. It’s an absolute tragedy for our family. It was one act of stupidity that has destroyed a family.”
Ellie’s mum was at the festival in Winchester this summer and last summer—the summer after her daughter died there—warning young people about the dangers they face from these drugs. I spoke to Ellie’s mum, Wendy, this morning, and it was not an easy conversation. She gave me permission to use her daughter’s tragic case in today’s debate, for which I thank her. Her message was this: yes, ban these substances, especially if it reduces demand, but please do not think that the law is the start and the end of the matter—I suspect that other Members will raise that point tonight. Of course we do not think that, and as the Minister said in his opening remarks, we must be careful about criminalising young people for silly mistakes. A criminal record can also ruin lives, and education about the dangers of these drugs—legally as much as physically—must not stop if this Bill receives Royal Assent.
Wendy’s final point when we spoke this morning was telling. She said that we should help young people to broaden their horizons and expand their consciousness without the aid of mind-altering drugs. Perhaps our education system in this country is not making room for our young people to be creative enough—possibly that is too deep for this time on a Monday night, but my point remains.
I am reminded of the opening lines from that seminal track, “Loaded”, by Primal Scream—a band that I am sure you are very familiar with, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is taken from the classic 1960s film “The Wild Angels” starring Peter Fonda. The question posed at the start of the song is:
“Just what is it that you want to do?”
Heavenly Blues, played by Peter Fonda, replies:
“We wanna be free
We wanna be free to do what we wanna do
And we wanna get loaded
And we wanna have a good time”.
It is a great song.
That may be the first time that Primal Scream has been quoted in this House, but there is a serious point. The music industry and the popular culture industry have a responsibility, and we as a society must dig deep into why young people in our country today want to alter their state of mind and get so “loaded” or “wasted”—there are many other words—as part of what should be a fun night out.
In preparing my remarks for this debate, I acknowledge the contribution of Hampshire constabulary, Dr Ruth Milton, our director of public health in Hampshire, and Jack Briggs of drug and alcohol specialists Baseline Training, which is based my constituency. The picture they give of NPS prevalence in Hampshire is consistent and deeply worrying. An intelligence overview produced by Hampshire constabulary in March this year found that across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight there were at least 16 NPS retailers—head shops—with the number growing all the time. Analysis by the constabulary suggests that NPS use is more common in areas surrounding head shops, and that in turn leads to more shops opening to meet the demand.
Winchester has its store on Stockbridge Road, which is passed by hundreds of school and college students every day. It is even neatly placed right by the city railway station. I have been inundated with complaints about that shop from constituents, and I was pleased to give them our manifesto commitment—which we are debating today—in response.
An intelligence report to the Hampshire and Isle of Wight drug strategy group in April this year reported that NPSs remain in “prolific common use”, with vulnerable people such as those with alcohol addiction, mental health issues and homelessness being susceptible to targeting by NPS dealers.
The reference to homeless people in the city of Winchester and long-term drug users being targeted to move on to NPSs certainly struck a chord with me. Trinity Winchester is a charity in my constituency which addresses the effects of homelessness and vulnerability through specialist practical help and support. Sue and Michelle from Trinity confirmed to me, ahead of today’s debate, the stark increase they have seen in clients under the effect of NPS. Equally, Winchester’s night shelter sees the effects of NPSs on a daily basis in its work.
The harm NPSs are causing and the complexity they are adding to already stretched public services is of grave concern to me as a constituency MP. This is supported by anecdotal reports from Winchester’s mental health team, which reports considerable problems as a result of NPS use. They speak of some withdrawal symptoms which appear to mimic mental illness, settling down once the NPSs have left their system. The mental health team reports that NPSs have been noticed locally as having a significant impact on severity, longevity and intensity of psychosis. They also cause problems with finding the right treatment for a patient, hence the case complexity. As Sue from Trinity said to me just this morning:
“We exist to help people with work and housing problems. We cannot begin with them if they are presenting to us spaced out or worse.”
Before concluding, I want to touch on prisons. In the previous Parliament, I was fortunate enough to serve on the Justice Committee, which gave me a wide insight into prisons and the challenges they increasingly face with NPSs. It is true that problems in the wider community sooner or later become problems in the secure estate. Whether we like to admit it or not, prisons are merely a reflection of our society. According to an excellent briefing sent to me by the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust, NPS use has quickly become widespread among prisoners. The 2015 annual report from the National Offender Management Service affirmed that increased NPS use among prisoners is generating high levels of debt, intimidation and violence between prisoners, and is likely to be the main catalyst for the recent rise in attacks on prison staff.
Reports given to me by HMP-YOI Winchester confirm the use of legal highs inside its walls is now widespread. Winchester now has trained drugs dogs, but there are a variety of compounds used in NPSs, so if the core compound is not the same as the dog has been trained for, it simply misses the substance. It seems the new currency inside our prisons is not tobacco or cannabis, but the NPS known as Spice. It is a lethal substance existing under the brand names Herbal Haze, Damnation and Space Cadet. The governor told me that on one day last month there were three ambulances in the prison yard, after three prisoners had taken Spice.
I have already talked, in exchanges with those on the Front Bench, about amendments I would like to see tabled in Committee on the possession of legal highs in the secure state. The Minister gave a very strong response. I dare say the hon. Gentleman will have his chance to make his remarks later on.
This trend in our prisons is worrying on many levels, but it is another reason why we need a social revolution in this country about how we use prisons. As the governor of Winchester prison said to me, today’s debate is not just about making NPSs illegal; it is about looking at the effects that that will have on the prison economy and behaviours. He said:
“Prisoners will always want to use illegal substances whether they be a class A or B drugs or NPS. There has to be more done to support for those who want to kick the habit. Our services are being stretched. The punishments for those caught with NPS or any other drug have to be substantial. However, the trick is to ensure that this does not then incentivise more bullying and coercion. A total ban will clarify the position, but cannot be done in isolation in my view. There needs to be a range of things available to support vulnerable prisoners who have a drug habit.”
I could not put it better myself, which is why I quote the governor.
I want to place on the record how pleased I was to see noble Lords in the other place amend the Bill on Report to ensure the supply of a substance banned under the Act in prison would be an aggravated offence under section 5. I believe we need to go further, and that has already been covered with the Minister.
It is important to note that tackling this menace is not all about waiting for this Parliament to act, important as that is. Just last week, the police and crime commissioner for Hampshire, Simon Hayes, launched his Lethal Highs campaign to raise awareness among young people of the dangers of NPSs. The advertising campaign that supports it does not pull its punches and that is welcome by me. Equally, Hampshire’s public health response is built around reducing demand, restricting supply and the use of Trading Standards. Hampshire is working with Catch22, training professionals in education, social care and health to better support their efforts, and Hampshire Trading Standards has been active in pursuing a change in the legislation—I believe it supports the Bill. Using the existing law, however, Trading Standards has been unable to secure a prosecution for the sale of NPSs. Instead, it focuses on supporting the police down the route of antisocial behaviour legislation where the problem is associated in the area of a particular retailer.
It does not take a genius to work out that this is fiddling while Rome burns. It is all good work, but we are tying hands behind backs without the Bill. Its critics, from whom I dare say we will hear tonight, have argued that the market will continue as before, through internet sales, and be driven underground into criminal hands. I am not sure I entirely agree. The expert panel reported that the main drivers of NPS consumption were, one, legality; two, availability; three, potency; and four, price. Often, these substances are highly intoxicating but give relatively little pleasure, so it is reasonable to argue that people will be much less likely to seek them once their legal status has changed.
In conclusion, by creating a blanket ban on the production, distribution, sale and supply of psychoactive substances in the UK, we will change the rules of the game hugely in favour of the police and other agencies working to keep our constituents safe. For that reason, I am happy to support the Bill on Second Reading.
I rise to offer the Scottish National party’s tentative support for the Bill to proceed to the next stage. I say “tentative” because as it stands the Bill has not resolved many fundamental questions, meaning that the Committee will have its work cut out. None the less, we will support it today because we must tackle the alarming rise in the use of so-called legal highs and because further delays might result in lives being lost that could have been saved.
Of course, the term “legal high” is misleading, given that not all these substances are stimulants and many contain controlled substances. It misleads young people into believing that they are safer, more sophisticated or less likely to land them in trouble than the traditional drugs they mimic. Language is important, and nobody knows that better than those who bring these products to market. I refuse to name any products because the names make them sound bold, exciting and adventurous, when in fact they can have catastrophic impacts on someone’s life, and, as we know, in many cases they have ended people’s lives, sometimes in minutes.
I urge colleagues to refuse to use the names that the marketing consultants give to their dangerous substances and to limit their use of the term “legal high”. Some believe they would not be legal if they were dangerous, so we, as legislators, must ensure consistency in how we deal with these emerging substances. The Bill will create a blanket ban to prohibit and disrupt the production, distribution, sale and supply of NPSs in the UK. This consistent approach will have the benefit of removing all doubt about the legal consequences of being involved in the manufacture or distribution of these substances and will highlight the safety concerns of society at large about NPSs.
An organisation called FASA, which is doing some great work in my constituency, has indicated to me its concern that resources be put in place to help people off those legal highs when the law changes—I hope—next April. Should the Government look at that as well?
I will always support treating drug use as a health issue above anything else, so obviously I would support giving help to people struggling with it.
The Bill addresses the difficulties that have arisen in controlling the use of these substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The SNP supports the aims of the Bill, and the Scottish Government have been working with the Home Office and other partners in combating the use of harmful NPSs. Let us not pretend that they are not harmful. A Scottish Drugs Forum survey of drug services in 2013 provided a summary of some of the key harms associated with NPS use—overdose and temporary psychotic states, attendance at A and E, hospital admissions, sudden increase in body temperature and heart rate, coma, risk to internal organs, hallucination and vomiting. The list goes on. Some would argue that many of these effects can occur as a result of alcohol abuse, but with these substances no abuse is necessary; simply their use can have catastrophic effects. There were also some associated long-term health issues such as an increase in mental health issues, including psychosis, paranoia, anxiety, psychiatric complications and depression —and dependency, which can happen over a very short period of time, sometimes just a matter of weeks.
Many hon. Members will have received correspondence from their constituents, and today we have heard some horrifying examples of the impact of these substances. Faced with a personal testimony and a growing body of research from health practitioners and academic researchers, we have a duty as legislators to get this legislation right. We are not yet there. The Committee must explore in detail some of the concerns raised today, including the issue of driving sales underground, internet sales and how to ban them, either on the clearnet or the darknet, and the issue of proportionality in sentencing, which the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) mentioned. There are many other issues, too.
The Scottish Government have commissioned research to look at trends and, more importantly, at the motivations of those consuming these substances. In February this year, the expert review group commissioned by the Scottish Government put forward a number of recommendations, which should be of interest to Members in debating the Bill. One of these was the development of a definition of “new psychoactive substances”, which could be used across all sectors attempting to deal with these issues, especially the NHS and enforcement agencies.
It is crucial to ensure that we get the definition of NPS right in this Bill. Speaking as a new Member, I often wonder whether it is just the way things are done here, but I am quite certain that most Members would agree it is not acceptable to have reached this stage of legislation while still not having a definition with which everyone can agree. Most alarmingly, the chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has said that the definition we are being asked to agree to is unworkable. I urge the Bill Committee to consider the evidence of the ACMD and find a workable definition.
I do not want to let this subject pass. The Republic of Ireland has very clear legislation with a very clear meaning. Does the hon. Lady feel that the Republic of Ireland has set in place legislation that could set a precedent for the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I think the legislation in the Republic of Ireland is interesting. It is one of a number of countries whose legislation we should look at. A number of countries throughout the world have experience of legislating on this issue, and we should reflect on such legislation.
A related issue that also featured in the recommendations is ensuring a cross-agency working approach, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) discussed with the Minister earlier, that is required to tackle what is a sophisticated—unlike myself—emerging and extremely adaptable public health problem. If we get this Bill right, it will be a significant step forward. That is why I ask the Government to ensure that the legislation is not rushed. Although we all would like to see this threat dealt with speedily, it is in no one’s interest to see the Bill rushed through with loopholes that can be exploited by the producers of these products in the future.
At the age of 18, I recall thinking that people in their 20s, including 20-year-olds, were so much older and far too old to understand what it was like for us 18-year-olds. It sounds ridiculous now that I have aged just a fraction, but it is just a fact of life that if any of us here—and yes, this might even include my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands)—were to try to tell a young person about the potential hazards of these substances, they would be more likely to switch off, asking themselves, “What do they know?” It is therefore crucial that young people equip themselves with the facts and educate each other. We can support that education, but we absolutely must work with young people.
In recognition of that point, Paul Wheelhouse, the Scottish Government’s Community Safety and Legal Affairs Minister, attended an event at the Scottish Youth Parliament at the end of September to discuss the best approaches to raising awareness of the dangers of NPSs. The SNP Government will continue to work closely with the SYP—there are too many letters here—and they will shortly present a report on their findings to the NPS ministerial cross-party working group.
I would urge both Governments to continue to work with young people, but I would urge them to work with a broad spectrum of young people. For example, looked-after young people who have come through the care system will have a different perspective from those who have grown up in a traditional family. Young people with BME backgrounds may have a very different perspective from members of the predominant race in their society, and those growing up in poorer areas and households will undoubtedly see things very differently from those with healthier upbringings.
I want to share with Members my perspective on all this during my youth. I confess that I have never—not once—touched a single illegal substance. I say “confess” because when I was growing up, it was a bit of a confession. There was a lot of peer pressure, although nothing like as much as there is today. I managed to resist all temptation because of a hauntingly beautiful young woman of whom I would catch a glimpse from time to time as my dad dropped my mum off at work. My mother was a psychiatric nurse who worked night shifts. I always said that I could not do that, but here I am.
Fiona was not the name of that beautiful young woman, but that is what I am going to call her. She had a look of Snow White about her. She was 18. She had been celebrating with her friends, and she had had much to celebrate, because she had just heard that she had managed to get straight As and would be heading off to medical school the following month. She did not make it. Instead, she ended up in a locked ward with my mum as one of her nurses. She remained there for almost four decades, and has only now moved into supported accommodation.
Fiona’s life turned out to be so different from the one to which she had been looking forward on that fateful night. She ended up in hospital that night, and spent nearly four decades there, because she had taken something. No one knew exactly what it was, and her friends say that her drink must have been spiked because she would not have done it voluntarily. Who knows the truth? But it was a hallucinogenic, and it sparked off a latent psychosis which might have lain dormant throughout her life. Instead, it was activated that night, and her life became dominated by terrifying panic attacks, hallucinations, and paranoia so great that she felt like a kidnap victim who was being kept against her will rather than a patient being cared for by my mum and her colleagues.
This hauntingly beautiful, extremely intelligent young woman with a bright future ahead of her got none of what she deserved from life. Her story is an extreme one, and the risks of the same thing happening are relatively low, but the consequences would be too great for anyone to bear. There were too many unknowns for a control freak like me, and, by telling me that story, my mother very cleverly guaranteed that I would never take the risk.
There will be many different motivations that entice or drive young people to experiment with mind-altering substances, and many different messages that prevent others from experimenting. Our primary interest should be in keeping them safe and healthy, not in punishing them. I therefore welcome the commitment that I believe the Bill provides to criminalising suppliers and not users. I also welcome the Minister’s assurance, following interventions from Members on both sides of the House, that he will iron out the anomalies in clause 8. Not sitting in moral or legal judgment of those who use these substances will give us a huge head start when we are trying to find ways to discourage them. The Bill is right to target those who gain a financial benefit from dangerous substances, the dealers and producers. Many NPSs are cynically marketed to avoid existing restrictions while also making clear what effect they will have on the purchaser.
There is an important international context as well. As the example of Poland shows, if we do not ensure that our neighbours are on side, legislation in one country can be undermined by a lack of legislation in neighbouring states. NPSs are developed and sold across international markets. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has emphasised the importance of international collaboration in information collection and data-sharing, and, indeed, the G8 countries have agreed to share data on NPSs. It is worth noting, however, that most of these products are produced in China and India and then shipped in bulk to Europe, where they are sold to consumers. It is also worth noting that the Prime Minister is to meet the Prime Minister of India shortly when he visits the UK—and, of course, we are all too well aware of the state visit of the President of China, which will start tomorrow. Perhaps the Minister will ask the Prime Minister to raise the need for international collaboration on NPSs with both Mr Modi and President Xi Jinping.
In conclusion, the SNP supports the Bill at this stage, but not unequivocally. We believe there is a job ahead for the Bill Committee to catch up with where we should have been now in terms of the definitions, and I would like to think the Committee will take a robust approach and listen to those who have expressed concerns about the working of the Bill, and to those who have more experience, like Professor Iversen, as well as to those who currently use psychoactive substances recreationally. Their voices will inform us greatly.
We do not want to be having to return time and again to amend the Bill, nor do we want to have to look at repealing it because it is unworkable, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) suggested we might have to do at some stage. Let us get it right from the start. The best way to do this is to collaborate with as many interested parties as possible.
I rise to speak in favour of the Bill. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), who spoke very eloquently in outlining some of the very real human dangers of some of the substances we are discussing, drawing on the personal experiences of people she knows. It brings home to us that when we debate issues in this House, they are about real people and their lives—and in the current debate are about the effects these psychoactive substances can have, including the potentially devastating effects on people’s mental and physical health. In some rare cases, their use has led to the death of the user, with tragic consequences for their families.
We have had a very consensual debate among Members on both sides of the House. There has been some legitimate probing of some of the nuances and legal framework of the Bill, which will be discussed in greater detail in Committee. The discussion has been beneficial, and it has flagged up a number of the challenges we face when making laws in this area, showing why it is so important this House passes this Bill.
The Bill rightly recognises that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was drawn up at a time when there was a fairly static drugs market. The situation today is very different. We have an influx of hundreds of new products and drugs on to the market almost by the year. Many of these drugs have potential consequences for human health and wellbeing.
I also echo the point made by the shadow Minister and my right hon. Friend the Minister that there has been success in Northern Ireland, which we hope to replicate through the passing of this Bill in England, by helping to close down head shops and some access to these substances. The shadow Minister made a compelling point: having shops on the high street that sell substances which can damage human health and lead to death but that appear to be just like any other shop on the high street is a form of legitimising these substances. It is important that we take action through legislation, as this Bill does, and recognise the importance of helping to close down those shops. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) mentioned a shop in Worksop and I am sure there are many others up and down the country that at the moment are seen by many people to be legitimate high street shops. They are not; they are selling substances that can be very damaging to human health.
Indeed, we can draw a parallel with the approach that we have taken, not so much through the criminal law as through drug regulations, to Chinese herbal medicine practitioners. People often believe that such practitioners are perfectly harmless, and many of them do practise in a responsible and harmless way, but some people have died as a result of metal toxicity, including lead poisoning, and other associated consequences of the activities of unscrupulous practitioners in that field. That is why Parliament needs to legislate. We need to point out that just because a shop is on a high street, it is not necessarily carrying out desirable or even safe pursuits. It is our responsibility in this place to make that clear to the public, and that is an important part of the Bill.
We also need to get to grips with another issue in Committee. The general principle behind the Bill is that it will become illegal to supply or intend to supply the drugs, which appears to mean that mens rea will have to be actively involved. We need to consider how suppliers of the medications could try to get round the law. I mentioned Chinese herbalists. I use them only as an example; I am not in any way discriminating against or picking on them. I think that they are covered by schedule 1 to the Bill. We need to examine how people classify themselves as suppliers of these substances. Perhaps they will classify themselves as industrial suppliers, for example, or as Chinese herbalists. We must not allow them to circumvent the intention of the Bill by finding a gap in the law in that way. I hope that we can discuss that in greater detail in Committee, so that the Government can determine whether any parts of the Bill need to be tightened up in that respect.
I also want to speak briefly about education. Simply criminalising certain activities will not necessarily stop them happening, and it is key to recognise that criminalising the people who often use psychoactive substances—the most topical is cannabis, as we discussed in Westminster Hall last week—will not tackle the educational challenge. We need to make people aware of the dangers of using those substances. People who have a mental illness, as well as children and young people, are particularly susceptible to the messages about using the substances and particularly vulnerable to the people who supply them. I would like to hear more in Committee about how we can better educate people.
We need to take a two-pronged approach in dealing with this challenge. Making the substances illegal is absolutely the right thing to do. We have a cumbersome legal framework at the moment, and it takes too long for the Government to act to protect the public. The Bill is all about supporting a much more proactive, interventionist approach to protecting the public from the harms of these substances, but it is also important to have an educational strategy for making young people in particular aware of the dangers of the drugs. We need to take that two-pronged approach, and I hope we will hear more about that in Committee.
A further point about cannabis came up in the recent Westminster Hall debate, and I wonder whether there will be an opportunity to table amendments in Committee relating to it. Cannabis is perhaps the best known psychoactive substance, but at the moment there is a potential challenge. Under that slightly antiquated legislation, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, cannabis is classified under schedule 1 to the Act. It was seen as having no medicinal benefit, whereas the more recent evidence, for example, from the United States, is clear that there is potential medicinal benefit from cannabis and its derivatives. As we have a Bill dealing with psychoactive substances, surely this is a good opportunity to look at the international examples, such as that of the United States, where more than 20 states have legalised the medicinal use of cannabis and helped to promote additional medical research into its use.
The Bill provides an opportunity to examine that psychoactive substance and the fact that other substances are classified under schedule 2, including methadone, because it has a medicinal purpose. We may recognise that in today’s medical world cannabis has a medicinal purpose, that the old scheduling might be out of date, and that we have an opportunity to enhance medical research and to alleviate the pain and suffering of a number of people who could benefit from the medicinal benefits of cannabis and some of its products. I hope that could be looked into in Committee, because I am sure it would be helpful for medical research and for patients, and I know it would garner a lot of support in parts of the medical community and among a number of patient groups.
I do not wish to detain the House any longer, other than to say that this is a good Bill that addresses some of the current legislative inadequacies in dealing with a fast-moving drugs market, and the House should support it. I hope that the issue of the scheduling of cannabis and the difficulties we face in properly researching and using some of the benefits of cannabis for the relief of pain in palliative care and elsewhere will also be looked into, either as part of this Bill or elsewhere. On that note, I close my remarks by supporting the Government and hoping to carry the whole House with me this evening.
I should say at the start that I am instinctively hostile to drugs and their excessive use, be they legal or illegal. I make the same admission as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), the spokesperson for the Scottish nationalists: I have never taken any illegal substance. My absolute anxiety about the impact of drugs on society does not lead me to conclude, however, that this Bill is the right way—the best way—to address the problem. I am anxious about the impact of prohibition. As we have seen so often internationally, it brings with it unintended consequences, so we have to proceed carefully.
My plea to those who support the Bill is that they accept the bona fides of those of us who have concerns, as we may have exactly the same interest at heart. I share all the anxieties that the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) expressed, but we reach a different conclusion about the best way of addressing this harm. My whole interest is in reducing harm, particularly to young people. My anxiety is that although this Bill is seductive in its attraction, it is none the less misguided.
I do not mean this unkindly and I realise that the Lib Dems are moving on from the manifesto on which the right hon. Gentleman stood at the last election, but did not that manifesto contain a pledge to implement exactly what his colleague, the former Member for Lewes, laid the groundwork for in government with regard to this Bill?
I would have to check that. All I want to do is say what I believe, which is ultimately what we should be doing in debate in this place.
First, let me raise a concern about process. The Government have circumvented the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but they are unwise to do so. Its clear legal remit has been ignored. It is there to advise precisely on such issues. It seemed somewhat cynical to consult it after the text of the Bill had been drafted and just two days before the Bill was laid, and then for the Government to ignore its recommendations. Instead, the Home Office convened a separate new expert group. What on earth is the point of that when we have an advisory committee that is legally obliged to advise on such issues? It seems that the duty of the advisory committee has been fettered in a very damaging way.
The definition seems to be flawed. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North East said, is it not extraordinary that at this point of our consideration of a Bill there is such concern about the possible implications of a definition? The view of many is that it is impossible to provide a scientifically or legally meaningful definition of a psychoactive substance. The definition is very broad. At least in principle, it could cover thousands of plants, spices, herbal remedies and over-the-counter medicines. The degree of psychoactivity necessary to establish a criminal offence is also completely unclear, as it is unspoken in the Bill, but that will create a legal and scientific minefield. As the advisory committee warned, there is a risk of serious unintended consequences.
Under the blanket ban, there will be absolutely no distinction between very risky substances and relatively safe ones, as all are treated exactly the same under the Bill. Two of the most dangerous drugs of all—alcohol and tobacco—are exempted. Hon. Members should bear in mind that tobacco kills 100,000 people in our country every year. What is more dangerous than that? Alcohol causes untold damage to society, yet it is exempted from the Bill, and that seems to undermine respect for the law.
Let us look at the international evidence. Since a blanket ban was introduced in Ireland in 2010, usage has increased to the point where it is the highest in Europe. That is under a system that involves a ban, so should not that make us pause for reflection? In Poland, there was initially a drop in use after the introduction of a ban, but there was then a dramatic increase in use. The number of NPS-induced poisonings—we are now talking directly about harm to individuals—has risen dramatically from 562 cases in 2010 to 1,600 cases in the first 10 months of 2014. Does that not cause the Government to stop and think about the implications of passing the Bill? The analysis of the Home Office—the Department promoting the Bill—says:
“Looking across different countries, there is no apparent correlation between the toughness of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug usage.”
Again, should not the Home Office be reflecting on its own analysis?
The hon. Gentleman, like a few others, is making a great play about this Lisbon-based European monitoring body and its report. Can he confirm whether it is a report of all 28 member states and whether the United Kingdom is included in the comparisons, or was the UK, along with the Netherlands and many others, excluded from the Lisbon report?
The hon. Gentleman might be right—I thank him for his intervention—but that does not in any way undermine my concern about what has happened in Poland since the introduction of a ban. The number of poisonings has gone up dramatically.
The effect of the Bill will be to hand the entire supply of these substances to organised crime. What a triumph of Government policy that is, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Let me make this point, as I am conscious that other people, perhaps including the hon. Gentleman, want to speak.
Does a criminal have any interest in my welfare? Of course they do not. Remarkably, as we were discussing earlier, the Bill manages to criminalise the purchase of a substance imported from overseas, but does not criminalise the purchase of exactly the same product domestically. Is that not just ridiculous? Can anyone in the Chamber possibly justify that distinction?
The Bill does not criminalise possession for personal use because the expert group acknowledged the negative impact on young people. It is good that that is acknowledged, but if the Government accept that criminalising usage has a negative impact on young people, why not apply that approach to drugs covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act? We have managed to come up with three tiers of approach for substances with a broadly equivalent risk. We have one tier that criminalises the use and supply of drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Another approach—the one taken in the Bill—criminalises supply but not possession, while the third approach is the legal supply and use of two of the most dangerous drugs of all, tobacco and alcohol. It seems to me that that undermines respect for the law.
We should at least consider regulation rather than prohibition. If lower-risk drugs were subject to a regulated legal framework, the incentive to develop and market new psychoactive substances would diminish. That is exactly what has happened in the Netherlands, where the de facto legalisation of cannabis has removed from the market far more risky synthetic cannabinoids. The Government ought to reflect on that.
The hon. Gentleman cited Poland, but did not reference his source. He now cites evidence from the Netherlands without referencing his source. Is not his source a badly researched, unquantified report by Transform, which is a pro-drug lobby group, rather than academic research?
Rather than dealing with the accusation that the hon. Gentleman makes, my concern is to encourage him to reflect on what I said at the start of my speech. We ought to be able to discuss these issues recognising that while those the other side may sometimes have a different point of view, they might be seeking the same objective. The Government have not carried out any risk analysis of what happened in Ireland since it introduced a ban, but surely that is exactly what they ought to have done.
The Bill is flawed and our debate suggests that many Members recognise its flaws. My fear is that it will not work and that it will be brought into disrepute. My preference would be to work on an approach that protects young people, that avoids enriching criminals as well as lawyers, that provides clarity, rather than legal confusion that can be exploited in court by lawyers, and that is based on health and the reduction of harm.
It is a privilege to be called to speak in this important debate. I join many right hon. and hon. Members from across the House in congratulating the Government on introducing this long-awaited Bill.
We have already heard some powerful speeches on why the Bill is so important, none more so than that from my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine). I agree entirely with the Minister, who began by saying that we have been chasing the chemist for far too long. For far too long, York, along with other cities and towns across the country, has been on the front line in the fight against legal highs. Only by making it an offence to produce or supply these drugs, and by imposing a blanket ban on psychoactive substances, can we be sure to clamp down on this dangerous trade once and for all.
It has been well publicised in both local and national media that NPSs can be purchased on York’s bustling high street. The fact that such dangerous substances can be purchased in the centre of an historic city that welcomes thousands of tourists every year demonstrates the scale of the problem. Furthermore, the ease with which these drugs can be bought for as little as £7 should be at the centre of the debate. It is for those reasons that many impressionable young people have failed to appreciate the dangers of such substances. Even the name, legal highs, gives a misleading impression of safety. Sadly, too many families up and down the country have first-hand experience of the problem, and know that that is not the case, having seen their loved ones suffer the devastating consequences of taking such drugs.
Simply stamping “not fit for human consumption” on a brightly coloured packet that claims that its contents mimic the effects of illegal drugs is not enough to keep people safe. Those who sell such substances know that, yet they are happy to let their customers play a highly dangerous game of Russian roulette in exchange for a quick profit. More needs to be done to establish the impact of NPSs on crime rates. This summer, the shop in York to which I referred was broken into late at night as a result of one man’s unquenchable addiction to legal highs. On his arrest, he told police officers that when he took the substances something changed in his mind. It emerged that because of NPSs he had tried to commit suicide and had spent time as an in-patient in a psychiatric hospital. That frightened him so much that, thankfully, he no longer takes those substances, but he is one of the lucky ones.
North Yorkshire police are not alone in experiencing a growing problem with NPSs and the practice of double dosing. People, often recovering drug addicts, use legal highs alongside prescription drugs. They mistakenly believe that legal highs are less harmful because they are sold on the high street. That is the essence of today’s debate. Selling such dangerous substances in a highly appealing way in shops gives the illusion that this trade is in some way acceptable. It is simply not. The sale of legal highs is a trade in human misery. While legal highs have brought out the worst in some, the issue has thankfully brought out the best in others. Voluntary groups such as York against Legal Highs have sprung up across the city, providing valuable information on social media to those who need it. Furthermore, York’s premier newspaper, The Press, has consistently reported on the problem in a responsible and commendable manner. The daily publication deliberately decided against revealing the name of the shop that sold NPSs so as not to provide it with additional publicity. It has also printed many articles highlighting the dangers of consuming legal highs.
That may have saved lives, and it is my sincere hope that the Bill will do the same by clamping down on the trade in these drugs once and for all. However, successful prosecution is vital under the legislation, which means closing all the loopholes. I look forward to seeing further details as the Bill proceeds through Parliament.
I had the distressing experience of hearing the evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, particularly that of the mother who founded the Angelus Foundation, and heard the terrible experience she had with a young, beautiful, ambitious, gifted daughter whose life was taken away from her by the use of a legal high. Quite rightly, we all empathise with that. We all want to stop that. We all want to reduce the harm caused by drugs, but we should stop falling into this lazy thinking that leads us to believe that a ban on drugs means a reduction in use and a reduction in harm.
We are sent here to legislate and the least we can do is to avoid doing harm. Drug legislation for the past 45 years in this country has done more harm than good. At the time of the 1971 Act there was hardly any cannabis use in Britain. There were 1,000 cocaine and heroin addicts. After 44 years of the strictest prohibition in Europe, there are now 320,000 addicts. Recently we banned mephedrone. Everyone agreed with that. Very few voices were raised in the House against the ban. The assumption, which was naive and evidence-free, was that if we banned mephedrone, harm would go down. It did not; it went from 16% use in the population to 42%. We know what happened in Ireland. Use and harm have increased, rather than being reduced.
It is a widely believed myth in this country that bans work. But prohibition does not work. Look at the prisons. In a recent parliamentary question I asked how many prisons in this country are drug-free. They have walls around them, they have guards, they have rules, they have searches, but how many are drug-free? The answer that I received was that 81 prisons were drug-free for a month last year. Next question: how many prisons were drug-free for a year? The answer that came back was that one prison had reported no drug use last year. How many prisoners were in that prison? The answer came back: none, because it was closed down. That is the defensive attitude of Government. They had solved the problem of drug use in prison not by taking the drugs out of the prison, but by taking the prisoners out of prison. It is the kind of self-deception that goes on in Governments of all parties.
I attended a debate here once when the Opposition spokesman and the Minister had to leave the Chamber during a three-hour debate because they needed a fix. They were both addicts to tobacco, and they could not see the contradiction between their own addition to a deadly killer drug and the way they were restricting the use of drugs by young people.
The Bill is impossible. There is no way of tackling the issue sensibly. There is an almost infinite number of combinations of chemicals in the drugs that are being produced. The chemistry is ferociously complicated. It can never be proved in vitro that a drug is psychoactive. The test tube shows no emotion. The drug can be tested only on human beings, which is impossible. The challenge throughout the world is one that cannot be solved sensibly and legally by testing for the drug and proving that it is psychoactive.
So what do we do? Well, we are politicians. Dogs bark, babies cry, and politicians legislate. When we cannot think of anything sensible or intelligent to do, we pass a Bill. People will feel good as they think, “We did something about that. We passed a Bill.” This Bill, like most of the other Bills that have gone through this place introducing bans, will probably do more harm than good. There will be more tragedies as a result of this, not fewer. Khat was banned. The idea was that the authorities were going to get rid of khat, but of course they have not got rid of it. Instead, they have pushed a wedge between the Somali and Yemeni communities and the police. They have driven a legal market into being an illegal market. The price has gone up sky high, and the criminals who are now running it are making bigger profits. That has been the story throughout the world.
I ask Members to consider the possibility that they are wrong, and that all parties have been wrong on our drug laws for 45 years. The best thing we can do is to throw out this piece of legislative garbage that disgraces the House and will be treated with derision by future generations.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I very much welcome the Bill.
I am tempted to detain the House for many minutes to respond at length to the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who repeated the same lines that he has for many years. I respect the fact that he is consistent in his liberalising argument. He is now joined by the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who has gone against what his colleagues did in government when they helped prepare the way for this Bill. They both talk about the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs when they choose to. They both talk about relying on the evidence, but they do not do so when it goes against their argument, which is made of straw. They should listen to the evidence given to the Home Affairs Committee. Professor Iversen, the chairman of the ACMD, said that this is the most significant piece of drugs legislation in 40 years, and he and the Committee broadly welcomed it.
There is a consensus in the House that this Bill is not going to prevent everyone from taking NPSs—we all accept that—but it will restrict supply. The Bill is focused on the suppliers of this evil trade. The hon. Member for Newport West talks about a deception. I will tell him what a deception is—it is in any way suggesting that NPSs are legal and safe. That is a deception that has harmed people and led to lost lives, and we are going to tackle it. We are not just going to hold up our hands and make the liberalising arguments saying “Let’s try and do something different.” We need to focus on the supply. This Bill does that, and I welcome it.
Five years ago, on 9 September, I urged the then responsible Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), to follow the route that has already been trodden by the Irish, recognising that what we have been trying to do in this House, which has been pretty much a useless deception, is to catch up. We have been trying to react to the latest NPS on the market with the temporary class orders that followed on from the advice given by the ACMD, and then we eventually get to the point of having a statutory instrument that is far too late for young people, particularly, in our country. This Bill will at last try to be proactive and respond quickly and expeditiously. What happened in Ireland will happen here.
The Bill says loud and clear that it is calling time on head shops in Bassetlaw and elsewhere and saying very clearly, “Give up, go away—the police are going to come after you and get rid of you. Make sure that you don’t carry on the deception where you are selling these substances used for research on fertilisers, air fresheners and herbal incenses.” That is what I call garbage—not safe garbage but garbage that harms young lives. This approach is worthwhile, but it is not going to solve the problem. There are problems with the internet and with importation and exportation, and we need to do a lot more.
The Bill is not perfect. It needs improvement and scrutiny, particularly in relation to the definition. I declare an interest as a criminal defence lawyer. I want to make sure that my colleagues who are still practising will not be faced with extra loopholes and unintended defences because they are unable to look at the definition as they can now and say, “We are going to have to instruct experts to measure the issue of psychoactivity to assess the behavioural aspects.”
We recognise the example in Ireland, where the Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau has said of the problems with the current definition:
“We are relying on scientists to assist us with these prosecutions and, unfortunately, they haven’t been able to provide the evidence to us.”
We have also listened to the ACMD, which said:
“The only definitive way of determining psychoactivity is via human experience, which is usually not documented.”
I remember my days dealing with the issue of cannabis and its impact on fitness to drive—
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 15),
That, at today’s sitting, second reading of the Psychoactive Substances Bill [Lords], may be proceeded with, though opposed, until Midnight.—(Sarah Newton.)
Question agreed to.
Question again proposed, That the Bill be read a Second time.
Attempting to prove the behavioural impact of cannabis on fitness to drive is subjective and can cause problems. It can result in prosecutions failing and can defeat lawyers and experts. We need to consider the ACMD’s additional recommendation to link the definition of psychoactive to the public health threat. That, together with certain tests included in the Bill, will provide objectivity and clarity.
We need to work on sentences as well as definitions. As I said in an earlier intervention, it is important that someone who is convicted in court is dealt with in a way that is commensurate with their offence. They must be dealt with justly, which means that cases involving controlled drugs should be linked to harm. We need to look carefully at that. The Sentencing Council will have its work cut out, but we should ensure that it is able to play a leading role in ensuring that people are sentenced appropriately. The maximum sentence is seven years, but plainly not everyone who supplies NPSs will face that penalty. In such cases, one usually considers purity as well as the links to harm.
We all agree on education and treatment. Between 2013 and 2015, £180,556 has been spent on NPS education. We need to do better than that. This Bill should spark off further educational investment. Prison education is also important. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who has responsibility for prisons, is present. I understand that in the past year, 30 ambulances have attended north-west prisons because of NPSs. That is an issue of education as well as of restricting supply. Something is clearly going wrong and it is impacting on our prisons.
On treatment, we visited the drug clinic in Chelsea and Westminster. It is run by the Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust. Its specialist, bespoke work does a great job of addressing why someone takes a particular drug as well as treating them. That provides a lesson not just for specialist clinics, but for our treatment system, which is behind the times. Gone are the days when we just doled out a substitute drug to treat those addicted to opiates, crack and other controlled drugs. We are talking about the new drug on the market and it is causing harm. We must ensure that the drug treatment system across the country wakes up to the fact that we should deal not just with the substance, but with the addict and provide all the therapeutic support they need and deserve. I hope the Bill will spark off that approach.
I have waited many years for this Bill, as have others. I will not take up any more time. Colleagues who are waiting to go home have been very patient, but I hope they feel that this Bill is worth the wait.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), particularly in debates about drugs. Indeed, one could say that he came to the kinder form of politics—and made his initial contribution to the topic under discussion—well in advance of the rest of the House. A number of us have weighed into previous debates and backed the concept that only a blanket ban could possibly work, because anything else would constantly be chasing something that was always elusive.
There are differences of opinion. The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) represents another form of kinder politics. He is a great font of wisdom when it comes to his brilliant work on mental health, but he struggled to evidence his case tonight because the evidence is not there. The argument is based on assertions by lobbyists who are lobbying for a particular political outcome. The evidence base does not exist. I would not call this great survey that has been cited a rigged survey, but it is not a full survey. It misses out whole countries—the United Kingdom, for example—so comparing Ireland with all the countries of eastern Europe, where statistics are not calculated in so defined a way as in this country, is not making a valid international comparison. Statistics do not exist, on either side of the argument, about what might or might not work.
We need to look at the evidence base. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) has always been consistent in this approach—I do not know whether he has been in the House for quite 45 years, but he has been very consistent all the way along—but that has not been the response of all of us to making legislation. My approach to drugs when I entered the House 14 years ago was not to rush in to demand legislation; it was to go into the communities to talk to those using drugs, to their families and, yes, to the victims of crime who suffered in vast numbers from that drug use in my constituency and get their evidence. That is what I have done when it comes to psychoactive substances: to ask those in the communities that suffer the most about their experience.
My instinct for a long time—this is why I have called, both in my party and in the Houses of Parliament, for a blanket ban for a long time—has been that there was sufficient evidence, from what I could see on the ground, that lives were being damaged. With these substances, I found that it was particularly common for the users to be young. We all talk about young people and the misuse of drugs, but I found that the age profile is much lower for these drugs than for others. It is very much the school or the just post-school generation who are the most susceptible or the most attracted and to whom the worst episodes happen. I could give chapter and verse, as other hon. Members have, of precise examples of horrific things that have happened to my constituents, but what is uniform is how young they are in each case.
It is the traditional working-class mining communities in my area who are the most adamant that shops such as Bing Bong in Worksop—not far from my office—should be shut down. They know who goes past the darkened windows and in through the shut door to buy drugs. Let us kill the myth that that is all done legally. I can tell hon. Members that there is a huge illicit market alongside such shops. How can 14 and 15-year-olds access drugs? If they were going into such shops, that would be easy. I would soon have those places shut down for illegal trading. They are not buying the stuff there; there is a huge secondary market. Who provides the secondary market? The same people. We call them drug dealers, but that term is not particularly accurate. They sell all sorts—alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine and, if they can get it, heroin. They sell anything that is going, any kind of pills and any bag of anything. Those people are providing far more drugs in my community than Bing Bong, although that may well be one of the initial sources.
If hon. Members want to know what is happening with drugs, it is always good to go and talk to those in the post office or the sorting office. They are highly unionised in my area and they are always happy to talk to me. They tell me, officially or unofficially, what is going on. There are all sorts of dodgy packages. Without having to refer to the police, they show me some of the addresses, and I think, “Hang on a minute. I can see what’s going on here.” There are addresses that get no post other than these strange envelopes. Perhaps people are purchasing something else, but I suspect not; I suspect that these substances—often junk—are being provided to them.
What else can we do as a Parliament? Of course education is good, but how can we educate such people when names change and the actual substances can change? That can have a dramatic impact on people, and the motivation for taking something changes, because they do not know until they have had it what it might result in; they can only copy somebody else. That is precisely why I and a few others, including the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), have argued repeatedly that the crudeness of a blanket ban is the only way to deal with this problem. That is why I applaud the Government’s speed. Yes, there will be problems in getting the legislation exactly right, but there is no other coherent approach that will work.
I want this legislation for my constituents, particularly my constituents who are well informed on this matter—the mothers and grandmothers who deal with this problem all the time. They are the ones who come and see me to demand that Bing Bong is closed down and that this stuff is forced off the streets, where possible.
This is not just about legislation. My area has done more to get people off heroin than anywhere else in the country. That has not been done through legislation, but through effective research, arguing the case and putting good systems in place. When I was elected, a lot of people were on heroin. When I look at statistics, I do not look at those for the prevalence of drug use, which are unreliable, but at crime statistics, burglary statistics and hospital statistics on overdoses—how many have there been, how many have resulted in death, how many have resulted in in-patient stays and what the cost of all that is. Those are real statistics that quantify this problem over time. In my area, we have got on top of a lot of these problems, but not through legislation.
I am seeing these problems slowly creep back in. Last weekend, I spoke to people who came off heroin nine or 10 years ago. Their view is that we need to act. Their view is that Bing Bong and its products need to be removed. Why? Their advice is that this market is fuelling the overall market in illicit drugs. They know that because they know what is happening and the people it is happening to. They can give evidence that goes way beyond the normal statistics.
I put only one caveat to the Government. The Government have made a big mistake with heroin treatment. They have decided to play the role of doctor by specifying what should happen with methadone. In Brighton, Pavilion, the privatised service run by Crime Reduction Initiatives has led to the biggest increase in heroin deaths anywhere in Britain. That organisation now runs the privatised service in my constituency and across Nottinghamshire, using the methadone elimination model that the Government have brought in. My message and that of those who have been on heroin in my area—
No, it’s not rubbish; it’s factual.
My message to the Government and the message of those in my area who have been on heroin is to let the doctors make the medical decisions, not the politicians. Let those who have been on methadone in my area stay on methadone, so that they are stable, out of crime, back at work and are not dragged in with their families and called drug addicts again, which is what is happening in my area with Crime Reduction Initiatives—this so-called charity. I say the same thing when it comes to psychoactive substances: let the doctors determine the treatment, not the politicians. On this, the Government have got it wrong.
Through his brilliant and superb Parliamentary Private Secretary, I invite the Minister with responsibility for drugs to meet some of the people in my constituency in the near future.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was only just walking in when he started talking about Brighton, Pavilion. The randomised injecting opioid treatment trial—RIOTT—in Brighton, Pavilion has had some of the best results in the whole country in getting people off heroin. When I was elected in 2010, Brighton was the drugs death capital of Britain. It no longer is and some excellent work on drug deaths is going on. The hon. Gentleman should do a bit of homework and know his facts before he makes such claims.
I have done my homework and I can tell you that it is a place where heroin deaths are going up. This mickey mouse charity replacing GPs offering real treatment has been disastrous in Brighton, disastrous in Nottinghamshire and disastrous elsewhere in the country. You should talk to those who have been on heroin—
Talk to those who have been on heroin in my area and see what it is doing to them, their lives, their children and those who are back at work. It is a disaster.
I hope that the Minister will come to my constituency —he will get in and out safely with my assistance—and meet people privately. That will also give him and the Government—[Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the hon. Lady asks how I dare. She should come and talk to those heroin addicts about that mickey mouse waste-of-time charity from Brighton that has come in and replaced GPs and the national health service. It is a privatised service. The so-called Green party, with its privatised NHS—but that is a separate argument. I hope the Minister will come to my constituency, because with these substances we should trust GPs and medical experts to solve the problem.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The way that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has been carrying on in the House is completely unacceptable. He has launched into an unfounded attack—[Interruption.] Will you just be quiet? CRI has nothing to do with the Green party, and it is out of order to make such accusations with absolutely no evidence. To blame that on Brighton and the Green party is simply wrong.
I thank the hon. Lady for that point of order, but things are getting a little heated. She was making comments from a sedentary position and the debate got rather heated. I do not know what the facts are so I cannot make a judgment on that, but it would be good if we could move on now. John Mann, is the speech complete?
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). I hope to make a short contribution, which might be less colourful than his. I am pleased to support the Bill and the powers that it will give the police and local authorities to tackle the sale and misuse of dangerous drugs.
In Pendle, there is genuine concern about the use of so-called legal highs, especially among young people. Just two weeks ago, I joined Lancashire-based charity, Early Break, which educates young people about the dangers of drug use and helps those who are affected by substance misuse. I accompanied its outreach team on the streets of Nelson, to see at first hand the impact of drugs on young people in my area, and on their families and the wider community.
Early Break told me that since 2011 and the emergence of mephedrone, there has been a big shift in the substances that young people are using compared with when it started working in the area 21 years ago. It is well connected to younger residents in my area, especially though its use of social media to get its message across, and young people recognise Early Break as a key provider of support and advice. Last year, Manchester Metropolitan University evaluated its outreach to young members of Burnley and Pendle’s BME communities and praised its work highly. Sadly, the university’s findings also made clear just how normal it is for young people in my area of all backgrounds to take drugs.
The rise in legal highs, which mimic drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines or ecstasy, causes wider social issues that our police, social services, NHS and schools have to deal with daily. As a community first responder with the North West ambulance service, I have seen with my own eyes the effects of drug addiction. I have dealt with people who have overdosed and seen the harm that drugs do, and I know the damage that they cause to communities.
More and more, the problems that we come across in Pendle are with not traditional drugs but legal highs. These drugs are legal not because they are safe, but because we have not got round to banning them. The people profiting from this evil trade have a head start on those who are trying to remove drugs from our streets, and it is time that those who are opposed to the Bill open their eyes to the damage that the current law allows. Making legal highs illegal sends a clear message—the right message—that those drugs are not safe and that young people simply should not be taking them. Be under no illusions: lives are being wrecked, and in many cases lost, to legal highs.
Our local police are working incredibly hard to fight the drugs trade. Two years ago, they launched Operation Regenerate to target organised criminal gangs and drug dealers in Brierfield and Nelson. I had the pleasure of introducing the then policing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), to some of the dedicated officers working on Operation Regenerate when he visited my constituency in June 2014. Although the officers were hugely effective, they could not touch those selling legal highs. The number of legal highs available as a substitute for illegal drugs, as well as the speed with which banned drugs are replaced on the market, undermine the efforts of our police to protect young people and to get drugs off our streets. When I speak to police officers in my constituency, I am told of their frustration when they arrest someone for selling illegal drugs, but then find that an equally or more harmful drug that is perfectly legal is being sold just down the road.
Most damagingly, while these drugs are technically legal, saying that they are legal implies that they are safe. Young people told Mixmag in a survey that they take them because they are more available than illegal drugs. Indeed, as many hon. Members have said, they are openly sold online and in head shops. Early Break is clear that legal highs are not safe and the House should be clear about that issue, too. Legal highs can cause a lack of inhibitions, drowsiness, paranoia, comas, seizures and even death. They can also play a role in the grooming of young girls by gangs, which use them as a gateway to drug addiction and sexual exploitation.
I do not wish to detain the House, so I shall conclude by saying that the Bill will be warmly welcomed by those authorities dealing with the consequences of dangerous drugs and young people themselves who fear that many of their friends are at risk of serious harm. I strongly welcome the Bill, which is necessary to ensure that we are doing our best to keep young people safe and to stop people from profiteering through peddling dangerous substances on our streets.
We can call these things what we like—legal highs, new psychoactive substances, NPSs, lethal highs—but it all amounts to the same thing: a product that is highly dangerous, addictive and readily available on our streets. In my constituency, these horrendous substances are blighting the lives of those taking them, creating havoc for the communities who have to endure the antisocial behaviour associated with them and terrifying the families of those young people who take them. Mothers have told me they fear that the next time their child walks through the door, it could be the last time they see them. The biggest problem is that we do not really know how to treat those who react badly to them.
Emergency admissions caused by these drugs have soared by 1,460% in just three years at my A and E department at Morriston hospital in Swansea. Between April and August this year, 78 people were admitted to that department, whereas in the whole of last year, 46 were treated. In 2013-14, 16 were treated. Between 2012 and 2013, fewer than five were treated. Such is the growth in numbers that Abertawe Bro Morgannwg health board now specifically records the numbers of legal high admissions.
The packaging and naming of these killers are intended to look and sound attractive. They have colourful sachets with names such as Spice, Gogaine, Exodus and Rush. They are normally labelled as “room deodorisers” and will be stamped as “not fit for human consumption”, yet I am reliably informed that staff at the head shops will often advise customers how to take them. The chemical composition of the drugs is unknown, but I would argue that all should be regarded as potentially fatal, as taking them even once may lead to lasting physical and/or psychological harm.
So-called legal highs, which can come in powder, pill or herbal form, are designed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs, including cannabis, and can have stimulant or hallucinogenic properties. Most of the drugs are produced in China, India and, to a lesser degree, eastern Europe. Many local drugs projects and local police are now running schemes that are dedicated to raising awareness of the potential risks and harms involved with taking these substances, and giving harm reduction advice to those who intend to use them. Just last week, Swansea police embarked on a roadshow of local schools to highlight the problem to years 7 and 8. The loudest message, however, must be that legal does not mean safe. I have heard stories of vulnerable people, perhaps in debt to a dealer, being used as guinea pigs to test the potency of a new batch—the term “Russian roulette” comes to mind. I have also heard of heroin dealers who are so concerned about losing customers to these new substances that they offer former addicts freebies to entice them back.
At present, substances are banned on a case-by-case basis, but with so many different versions being produced, a blanket ban is essential. Since the Republic of Ireland legislated to introduce a similar ban, the indications are that the problem has dramatically reduced. In my constituency, I have had meetings with and briefings from the police, whose hands are tied by the legality of the drugs, and trading standards, which is often the only agency that is able effectively to police the sale of these horrendous substances. There is an increase in the number of prosecutions, but analysing the products is a time-consuming and costly process. The city and county of Swansea are leading the way with good practice, as are South Wales police, but given that they have one hand tied behind their backs, they are finding the job difficult.
I urge the House to come together as one to ensure that these sickening and fatal substances are removed from our society once and for all. As a politician, I am extremely concerned about them, but as a mother, I am terrified.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) in supporting the Bill, but I also have reservations and concerns, which I will cover in my remarks.
In Midlothian, as in constituencies throughout the country, we have seen the tragedy that legal highs can bring. Only this year a young man in Gorebridge died after injecting a new psychoactive substance, and it was not quick—it took him seven weeks to die. Despite several operations and a huge effort from medical staff, he eventually died from septicaemia, so death is not always immediate. Despite such tragic and unnecessary deaths, however, there is still a legal high retailer right in the centre of the county town of Dalkeith in Midlothian, so the risk of more unnecessary deaths continues. I praise those in my constituency who have long campaigned against this retailer and the dangers such substances present. The campaign is supported by the local press, through The Midlothian Advertiser, local MSPs Christine Graham and Colin Beattie, Midlothian Council, particularly Councillor Margot Russell, and the safer communities board, which has worked with partners to address the dangers presented by NPSs in every possible way.
Although I welcome the Bill and have no doubt that it is necessary, we can and must do much more to address the issue as a whole. Organisations have raised their concern that illegal dealing networks might be boosted by the closure of so-called head shops, so the Bill as it stands might not achieve its aims and could even have serious unintended consequences. I therefore agree that we need to thrash out the detail in Committee.
It is not often that I agree with the House of Lords, but I noted with interest a few of the points made in the debates there, especially regarding the notion that while the aims of the Bill are clear, the underpinning legislation— the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971—probably needs to be reviewed. If we do not take that chance now, it will be a missed opportunity. The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said something similar. Although I am disappointed that that proposal did not receive the support in the Lords that it warranted, I am grateful that it received such attention. Perhaps that could be considered during the Bill’s passage.
We certainly should do what we can do now, but if the Bill passes, it should come into action alongside a robust and solid plan that focuses on educating our youngsters not just about NPSs, but about all drugs—legal or otherwise, To achieve the necessary level of awareness, we will need far-reaching drugs education as much as the Bill.
Research by the Angelus Foundation, which I believe is the only dedicated charity looking at and combating legal highs, was established by a mum, Maryon Stewart, who lost her 21-year-old daughter to a NPS in 2009. It identified that
“currently only 15% of schools teach drugs and alcohol education for one hour or more per term”.
We need to look at the problem in much more detail, and I very much encourage more emphasis on education. While this Bill represents some progress, it is not enough. We must do more to inform teenagers in all our communities about legal highs and other drugs. We also need to get effective preventive messages to young people through all kinds of social media. Let us address young people through the ways they access information.
I want to make clear the challenges surrounding the identification and exclusion of substances. It is right that the approach should be robust and preventive, but we must consider the impacts for medical and scientific research and give careful consideration in our approach to which substances should be banned. This, of course, must be balanced with the need to keep up to date with the ever-changing chemical compounds of the substances, as other Members have mentioned. The other huge challenge is the time gap between a new drug becoming available and an opportunity for the Government to react against it. We must ensure that sufficient resources are in place to deal with these challenges, so I ask the Government to outline clearer details about that as the Bill goes through its next stages.
I warmly welcome the Bill, and I can say with a fair degree of confidence that many of my Chester constituents will share that feeling. I pay tribute to the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice who has taken on this issue with his usual no-nonsense approach, which is to be applauded.
Members who know the city of Chester will know it as an historic city with great tourist attractions—the hon. Members for Winchester (Steve Brine) and for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) spoke in similar terms earlier—but one that has been blighted by a large usage of legal highs in the city centre. On a Friday a couple of weeks ago, I was on a walking tour around my constituency. I was on the road in a double row of shopping streets known historically as the world’s first shopping mall when we were disturbed by a paramedic and a police officer racing up with their blue lights on to attend an emergency. A young gentleman was splayed, arms akimbo, completely unconscious on the road, not 30 yards away from a legal high shop. It took no amount of medical knowledge to understand what had happened.
The local council in western Chester is seeking to implement a public space protection order, and the Cheshire police have recently introduced community prevention notices on three shops in Chester that have been selling these legal highs, asking them to desist from doing so. Members would be right to ask why, if those measures are in place, we need the Bill. Well, the Bill will put us on the front foot and enable us to tackle rather than just chase after the problems, giving us for the first time a proactive approach to combating them.
Members have raised questions about the advisability of forcing legal highs underground. With his permission, I should like to quote my constituent, Daniel Schott. He writes and blogs about life in Chester, and he is a recovering legal highs addict who is currently looking for work. I believe that in talking about his own difficulties and putting his own frailties on the line to prevent others from falling into the trap into which he has fallen, he has adopted a very brave approach.
Daniel said that a major part of the problem was the fact that the drugs were so accessible, because the shops were open from 10 am until 5.30 pm every day.
“It just spiralled out of control really”,
“We didn’t think it was harmless, we thought it was the Holy Grail because I could walk into the shop and pay on Switch. If I was smoking weed then I had to find a dealer. He might have some he might not, then we have to meet up, wait down a dark alley somewhere or wherever you get this sort of stuff from. This isn’t like a weed dealer. You can go from 10 am in the morning and pay by Switch.”
We may be forcing the supply of legal highs underground, but we are certainly making it a whole lot harder and a whole lot less normal for ordinary people to become involved with these drugs. That is why it is important to recognise that, whatever the complications, this is absolutely the right thing to do. I pay tribute again to my constituent Mr Schott for the way in which he has shared his experiences. He has urged everyone to back the Bill because he found himself in such a desperate circumstance.
In the spirit of cross-party consensus, I want to introduce a note of party-political criticism—criticism, that is, of the previous administration of Cheshire West and Chester council, which, under the terms of the public health contract, put the local drug and alcohol addiction clinic out to tender when it did not need to do so, and refused to allow the current NHS provider, Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, to go beyond the initial stage of bidding. That led to a hollowed-out and greatly diminished drug and alcohol service in Chester.
Members on both sides of the House have talked of the importance of education, but I do not want us to criminalise people with addictions. Addiction is a health problem, and should be dealt with through health policy. It is a shame that the provision for drug and alcohol support in Chester has been so diminished. I hope that at some point we shall be able to rebuild it, and that, as well as dealing with the criminal matters to which the Minister referred, we shall be able to implement a health policy along with the education policy that other Members have described. Chester is a small, historic city, which has been blighted by the three shops that are selling these products.
I apologise for intervening—I know that my colleagues would like to go home—but I think that the issue of head shops is very important. When I announced this policy, one of the first newspapers that rang me was one in Falkirk. This is so moving that I think that the House should know about it. I was told that yesterday a gentleman and a 16-year-old girl—I shall not mention any names—went to a head shop and bought what they thought was a safe, legal product for a bit of fun. I do not know whether they paid with a credit card. The gentleman took the drug and died within two minutes. The girl was critically ill, and we do not know what the long-term effects will be. We know about the 129 people who died last year, and we have the other figures about people who have died, but we do not have figures that would tell us how many lives had been destroyed and how many people have lost their loved ones.
I absolutely understand the Minister’s point. As I said earlier, I believe that the Bill will put us on the front foot rather than chasing after the problem, and I welcome it. I am sure that a large proportion of my constituents will support it as well, because so many of them have seen at first hand, around the city centre, the effects of legal highs on people who are addicted to them and seriously damaged by them, and who are often found sprawled semi-conscious or unconscious, or being treated by paramedics.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to participate in this debate. It is important to focus on why we need a novel piece of legislation like this. It is because the traditional, general classification of illegal substances does not suit circumstances in which natural compounds do not maintain their composition and, more than that, there is an easy ability to alter the chemical composition of these legal highs. Traditional classification could be achieved, but so could a slight alteration creating a different product that therefore falls foul of the legislation. That, of course, is the intended purpose.
As has been fairly reflected throughout the House this evening, the legal highs that are available are not only dangerous but can cause catastrophic consequences not only for the young people who use them, but for their wider family and the communities in which they live. We know of deaths and we know of tragedies within our own constituencies. When I was Lord Mayor of Belfast I had the opportunity to go out with FASA. It was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), but Hansard could not decipher his dialect. FASA is the forum for alcohol and substance abuse. It has been involved in significant amounts of research within the city of Belfast on legal highs. Through it, I had the pleasure of meeting people who have been affected and were attracted by a product which is marketed particularly for young people. Many names have been mentioned: china white in Belfast, pink panther in Belfast, magic dragon in Belfast, with cartoon characters and colourful print, designed and marketed so that young people find them attractive.
I was then introduced by FASA to young people—sorry, by hardened drug users. This is important. The hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) got it wrong when he said we do not want to be pushing the sale of legal highs towards those who sell illicit drugs—currently classified as A and B drugs. This is where there was a mistake. When I met the hardened drug users, they said, “We wouldn’t touch that stuff. We wouldn’t touch legal highs with a bargepole.” We have stuff in Belfast that is advertised as 10, 15 or 20 times the strength of opiates, yet it is classified as a legal high. That is one of the significant difficulties. Those who are used to using illegal class A or B drugs would not touch this stuff at all because of the impact on them and, more importantly, on young people who are lured into believing that these are a safer option.
It is only fair to say to the Minister that there is a difficulty with the definition in the legislation, because there has been a difficulty in implementing a similar definition in the courts in the Republic of Ireland. The Minister was treated unfairly at the start of the debate about the Republic of Ireland experience. As somebody who lives just over the border, 100 miles away from Dublin, I travel there quite regularly. Anyone who knows Dublin or who arrives at Connolly station will know that the street that takes them from there to O’Connell street was a pound shop alley 10 years ago and a head shop alley five years ago. It was not an attractive street to walk down. I was there three weeks ago, and there is not one head shop on that street. That is the marked improvement there has been in the Republic of Ireland, but it cannot gain convictions because the definition is too onerous. At any given stage with each individual—with their own make-up and the alternate make-up of the legal high—it is difficult to prove that that product would have had a psychological impact on them. The Minister is aware of those difficulties.
Clause 4 addresses production. I know what is intended by the clause when it says that “the person” must either intend
“to consume the psychoactive substance”
or know or be “reckless as to whether” it is likely to be consumed by “other persons”. Many hon. Members throughout the debate have referred to standard household products that are freely available and freely manufactured or produced. Those are not made for human consumption, but someone could be reckless if they did not acknowledge that they might be consumed by individuals. I am thinking of air fresheners, pot pourri, deodorants and superglue. We all know that such items were abused by individuals 10 or 15 years ago. Glue was a particular case in point. There have also been deaths associated with aerosols and deodorisers. It is important for the Minister to take the opportunity to state explicitly, in our forthcoming discussions as well as in the Bill as it stands, that the production and manufacture cannot be reckless.
This is why we have given such wide-ranging powers to trading standards in the legislation. When we had the glue problem, we addressed it through trading standards legislation, which is why we no longer have the terrible problem that we had on our streets just a few years ago.
I am grateful to the Minister.
Before I touch on our experience in Belfast, I want to mention one quirky concern that has been raised by the Association of English Cathedrals. It fears that incense might no longer be able to be used in worship. I am not sure whether it needs to be exempted from the legislation. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that.
My hon. Friend is far too modest to tell the House that he was involved in the legislative change in Belfast City Council that set a precedent for the whole of Northern Ireland. Will he acknowledge that that legislative change in Belfast could set a precedent for the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, although he did not give me the opportunity to be modest or otherwise. But we will get there.
Rather than describing the legislative change, I want to outline the approach that Belfast has taken to legal highs. I think that would be valuable for the Ministers present here tonight, and for the hon. Members for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Winchester (Steve Brine), as well as for the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and his Bing Bong shop, to which he has been referring all evening.
Because of my experience as Lord Mayor, I tabled a motion and got involved in action on this issue with our town solicitor, John Walsh, who was supported by the Attorney General of Northern Ireland. I have heard numerous colleagues saying that their councils have been frustrated because they have been unable to pursue or to make significant achievements on head shops in their constituencies. We have made such achievements in Belfast, however. We went down the trading standards route and we tackled the shops on the basis that they were selling products that were harmful to the public and that were being sold for human consumption. The Attorney General and the town solicitor for Belfast went to the four or five head shops in the city, all of which were concentrated in an area of seedy sex shops. The sale of legal highs was associated with that world. Not one of those shops now sells legal highs. That is a success. Two of them refused to abide by confiscation and destruction orders, and that is how we got the High Court to approve the necessary actions in Belfast.
So there are steps that local authorities can take today, with or without this new legislation, and I assume that if they do so, they will be able to use the same legislation that we did. We seized criminal assets without the assistance of this Bill, which was crucial. Although two of the shops refused to comply with the confiscation and destruction orders, the courts finally upheld the ruling that legal highs may no longer be sold in head shops in Belfast. Those shops have since closed.
The Government are to be commended for the speed with which they are proceeding with this Bill, and we must now consider how best we can hone it. We must consider issues relating to production, and to whether individual possession should be criminalised. Those matters can be debated in Committee. In the meantime, however, hon. Members can make changes today. They can remove this dreadful scourge from society. Legal highs are destroying young lives, destroying families and destroying communities, and it is important for all of us to bring their proliferation to an end.
I will be as quick as I can, Mr Deputy Speaker. Like my colleagues, I support the Second Reading of this Bill, but not without a degree of hesitation and of sympathy for the arguments contained in the reasoned amendment. As a member of the Home Affairs Committee, I would like to thank all those who submitted written evidence or gave oral evidence to our short inquiry, and the staff and the former patient of the Club Drug clinic we visited for their constructive and thoughtful criticisms of the Bill. It is fair to say that there was broad, but not unanimous, support for the overarching aims and approach of the legislation.
As the Minister said at the outset, the strategy proposed also had backing from a Scottish Government expert review group and from a report by the Welsh Assembly Health and Social Care Committee. Given that consensus, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) that it is surprising and a little frustrating—
Absolutely. I do not intend to give away any of our conclusions or the recommendations we are going to be making in that report. I am merely referring to evidence that was given in oral sessions or in the written evidence which is freely available.
It is frustrating that we are so far into the legislative process and yet some fundamental questions are still to be resolved. Of course, nothing could be more fundamental than the definition of “psychoactive substance” itself. Addressing that will be the first and most important task of the Public Bill Committee, and it will have to assess whether the definition currently proposed is preferable to that put forward by the ACMD.
A second fundamental problem was highlighted by the evidence provided by both Police Scotland and the Scottish Government on how the current definition of a “psychoactive substance” will require evidence from qualified experts with experience of working with NPSs in order to be able to identify the substance and prove its psychoactivity. Establishing that knowledge base against the background of the fast-paced evolution of psychoactive substances would be difficult, and a constant requirement for expert evidence in court would be very costly. Some of the contradictory reports from Ireland suggest similar problems, and again serious scrutiny of these issues is still required.
Perhaps the most important thing to say about this legislation—we have appreciated this during our inquiry—is, as another hon. Member said, that we cannot see this Bill as a silver bullet. Of far more significance will be the strategies that must be put in place to prevent harm through education and awareness raising, and to intervene where individuals are at risk—that includes the risk that some, but far from all, psychoactive substance users will move to controlled substances or to unregulated dealers. We also need to reduce harm. It is only fair to say that there is a huge distance to travel before we can say that this is being done as well as it must be done. Perhaps in Committee we will be able to consider making information on these matters an express part of the review requirement under clause 57.
In short, this Bill is not a silver bullet—indeed, we could shoot ourselves in the foot if we are not careful to get this right. If the Bill is scrutinised carefully and amended in the light of the evidence, it could be a useful first step in tackling the dangers that many Members have spoken about and that are posed by new psychoactive substances, but the Government need to address the legitimate questions that have been asked tonight. They include questions about the definition, the problems with clause 8, the issue of purchasing for friends, the contradictory evidence from Ireland and the potential for displacement. I wish the Bill Committee well in sorting it all out.
First, let me thank right hon. and hon. Members for contributing to this good debate. I wish to thank the hon. Members for Winchester (Steve Brine), for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) and for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), the hon. Members for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), for Midlothian (Owen Thompson), for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) and for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Newport West (Paul Flynn), for Bassetlaw (John Mann), for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for their contributions.
Before I start my contribution, I wish to echo the Minister’s words in opening by congratulating the work of my right hon. Friend the Opposition Chief Whip, who has long championed this campaign. I am pleased to see her in her place. May I also admit that I was very pleased to hear the Minister’s assurance on the issue of incense? As someone who has served as a thurifer, I do like the odd whiff of incense, so I am quite happy with what I heard in that regard.
I am not a member of the shadow Home Office team, but I am a member of the shadow Health team. As a number of Members have said, this Bill is as much to do with public health as it is to do with home affairs. I commend my own party for recognising the importance of the public health element of the Bill, as we do not want the Bill to remain the sole preserve of the Home Secretary. It is regrettable that we have to resort to criminal sanctions to control the flow of these substances, but a Government must do many things that perhaps might be considered regrettable.
With my public health hat on, I will begin by raising the point that local government is just not getting enough support from the Home Office. Local authorities spend about a quarter of their health budget on drugs and alcohol misuse. I was very concerned to hear my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester talk about how the tendering of the service under the previous administration in Cheshire West and Chester has led to a worsening service for those involved in drug and alcohol misuse. Across England, about £760 million a year is spent on drug and alcohol misuse.
I was disappointed that the Government rejected Labour’s amendments to this Bill in the other place. The amendments would have put a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to help schools educate children about the dangers of these substances. Some very powerful points were made by Members across the House, and across the various parties, on the importance of education and of raising awareness among young people. This legislation will have a profound effect on public attitudes towards these substances, but only with the appropriate education and public information strategies.
What has not been fully understood by those Members who are not as supportive of this Bill as I would wish is that it is as much about the messages that are sent out that these drugs will not be legal and that they are not safe as it is about the actual enforcement of the law. In many ways, to use the same logic, it is similar to the recent legislation on smoking in cars with children. Many critics of that legislation say that it is incredibly difficult to enforce, but it is as much about the public health messages that are sent out that that behaviour is no longer acceptable. That aspect of this Bill should not be misunderstood. It is as much about the message that is sent out that these products are no longer legal and they are not safe. That is what is important. Young people think that these substances are legitimate and safe simply because they can buy them on the high street. If only the supply side of these substances is to be tackled, it would be appropriate for there to be an obligation on the part of the Government to provide public education on the nature of these drugs.
Briefly, let me discuss the issue of medical research, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) mentioned. The current legal framework impedes legitimate research due to the requirement of a schedule 1 drug licence, which is very expensive. That type of licence also takes a considerable amount of time to set up, which undoubtedly deters scientists and manufacturers from getting involved. It also massively hikes up the price of the drugs, and simple market forces will dictate that other areas of research will be more profitable, and even possible.
Forty eight years after the prohibition of LSD, psychedelic drugs remain more legally restricted than heroin and cocaine, which are schedule 2, class A. That puts a stop to all research. I am concerned that the vague definition of psychoactive substances, with several common sense exemptions, will impede legitimate research. Would it not be a tragedy if the United Kingdom, one of the leading research nations in the world, avoided finding a cure for some awful psychiatric disorder due to our failure to include the appropriate exemptions for scientists?
I also want to raise the issue of stop and search. I wonder what would constitute reasonable suspicion for the possession of legal highs with intent to supply. Likewise, how is a police officer to identify the source of somebody’s ecstatic state? Is it from real ecstasy, or caused by an artificial substitute with similar psychoactive effects? Is the person to be taken into custody whilst a full chemical analysis is performed? Some clarity on these points will be needed in Committee.
Despite the unanswered questions, the Opposition will support the principles of the Bill. We committed to banning legal highs before the last election, and we maintain that commitment. The preponderance of evidence suggests that it will be effective in reducing the usage of psychoactive substances and we need only to look to the Republic of Ireland to see the effect it can have. That point was well made in the opening speeches and in contributions from other Members, but most powerfully by the hon. Member for Belfast East, who spoke about his experience visiting Dublin and seeing the difference that the law change has made south of the border. There has been a dramatic reduction in the number of hospital admissions as a result of the use of the newly outlawed psychoactive substances, and the near elimination of the dodgy shops that sell them.
I also think that a blanket ban is the only way to deal with the problem. As I mentioned earlier, the main issue we face with psychoactive substances is their legitimisation, whether their legality is real or merely purported. The nuance in the four-decade-old law controlling psychoactive substances is clearly insufficient for its modern purpose, and I think we all agree on that.
There are some who argue that the criminalisation of supply will simply move the trade to the unregulated black market, but I do not accept that. These substances are entirely unregulated already. There is no incentive for suppliers to attempt to subject their products to regulation for the very reason that it would alert the forensic early warning system to the presence of a new drug on the street, leading to an expedited prohibition.
We therefore lend our qualified support to the Bill. We recognise the need to control the production and supply of these substances, but we also recognise the need to educate young people on the real nature of such drugs. We want to improve the Bill. We will not oppose it tonight, as we support its aims and it is Labour party policy, but in Committee we will make serious amendments on some of the points we have raised tonight.
We have had an excellent debate this evening and I am grateful to all Members who have taken part. The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who speaks for the official Opposition, gets it and I am grateful for her support. She pressed us on the issue of education and Public Health England is full square and centre in trying to achieve what we all want to see.
My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), in an outstanding speech, gave us his strong support, for which I am extremely grateful. He told the tragic story of a young female army cadet who lost her life to NPSs at a festival in his constituency and quite rightly said that the music industry should be more responsible. He told us that there were 16 head shops in Hampshire and mentioned the impact on homeless people, which we should not forget.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) spoke for the Scottish National party with an excellent speech. She said that she would not name individual NPS drugs and I support her in that. I prefer the term “lethal highs”, as I think it is more accurate. Of the 129 deaths in 2014, 62—nearly half—were in Scotland, so it is quite right that there is strong interest and support from the SNP Benches on these matters. She also told us the tragic story of a young woman about to go to medical school who then spent four decades in supported accommodation because of an hallucinogen, a type of NPS, that she had taken. I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who is a doctor and former Health Minister. He said that shops selling NPSs legitimatise them—I believe that he is right—and he will be aware of the important role of Public Health England and its equivalent in the devolved Administrations in the education piece, to which he rightly drew attention.
The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) made an important point about importation. The Bill tackles the trade in psychoactive substances, whatever form it takes, including importation. Removing importation for personal use from the measure would open significant loopholes. Someone could import substantial quantities claiming it was for personal use, making it impossible for the Border Force to look behind each and every importation to check whether it was for personal use or not. It must be able to seize or require that people forfeit all psychoactive substances at the border. The right hon. Gentleman’s former colleague, Lynne Featherstone, said:
“I will be working right up until the dissolution of Parliament to ensure we have done as much as we possibly can to pave the way for a general ban. This will mean the next government can act quickly to clamp down on this reckless trade.”
The right hon. Gentleman was a little vague about his manifesto. I have done a bit of research, and the Lib Dem manifesto said that the party would
“clamp down on those who produce and sell unregulated chemical highs”.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) told us about the amount of NPSs sold on York’s tourist-filled high street for as little as £7. He told us about a constituent who attempted suicide, and about the group, York against Legal Highs. I am grateful to him for drawing that group to our attention, and I commend it on the good work that it does in his constituency.
The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) has indeed been consistent on this issue, and takes a fundamentally different view from the majority of speakers in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) has pushed for action on this issue for many years. He is a practising criminal solicitor, so we should listen carefully to him. He said that the Bill would call time on head shops, and he is right about that. I thank him for his support.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has a proud record of standing up consistently and in a no-nonsense manner on this serious issue, and I thank him for his support. He drew our attention to the fact that it is younger groups of users who are being drawn to these terrible substances. I will not give publicity to the head shop that he mentioned in Worksop, but I can tell him that the Bill sounds its death knell. He is a strong supporter of central parts of the Bill, and he told us that ex-heroin users say that we need to act.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), too, speaks from good, practical experience, because like me, he is a community first responder. I commend him on the practical action that he has taken. He told us about the problems that his police force experiences in tackling NPSs as a result of a lack of legislation—something the Bill will deal with. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris)—again, in a powerful speech—told us that her local hospital had admitted 78 people to accident and emergency for taking NPSs between April and August. She also told us that the police were having to educate children in years 7 and 8 in her local schools—further reason why we have to act.
The hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) told us about a young man who died after several weeks and a number of operations after taking NPSs. The cost to the health service of the issue that we are discussing is huge. He, too, wanted more education, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice absolutely gets that, and we will make sure that it happens in the Bill.
The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) said that NPSs blight his historic city centre, and spoke about the fact that the ease of paying for NPSs by debit card sends an appalling message. He is absolutely right, and he told us that his constituents support the Bill. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), a distinguished former Lord Mayor of his city, has taken practical action at local authority level, and I commend him for doing so. I commend Lincoln and Lambeth—other local authorities that have acted in a similar manner. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the blanket ban. Interestingly, he told us that class A drug users in his constituency told him that they would not touch NPSs because they were far too dangerous which, again, should spur us to action.
Finally, I can tell the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) that we will continue to listen to the Home Affairs Committee. We have listened to it, we respect it greatly and we will continue to listen to it as the Bill goes into Committee.
I have spoken already of the 129 deaths in 2014. The number of substances has increased exponentially. There were 24 new substances in 2009, 41 in 2010, 49 in 2011, 74 in 2012, 81 in 2013, and in 2014 101 brand-new substances. The old method of trying to ban each individual substance has not worked, which is why the blanket ban approach must be taken. We should listen to the wise words of Professor Paul Hayes, former chief executive of the National Treatment Agency, who said in his evidence:
“Closing down the visible points of sale will tend to deter novice users and, just as importantly, will prevent the normalisation of NPS use which the presence of open sale promotes.”
Over a third of NPSs are bought from shops and it is estimated that there are 335 UK head shops, which is appalling.
As the Prisons Minister, I want to end by talking about the terrible impact of psychoactive substances in prisons. I saw a report last week from a prison where five prison officers had been sent to accident and emergency as a result of an NPS incident. Three of them had been bitten. No public servant should have to put up with such behaviour in the course of their duty. It is appalling. That is another extremely important reason why we need this Bill. Within prisons the harm is magnified. Officers and prisoners die or are badly injured, as I just described. Prisoners and their families are bullied, they get into debt and they are used as guinea pigs by other prisoners. There is a trail of human misery caused by new psychoactive substances in prisons. That is the reason, among all others, why we need the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Psychoactive Substances Bill [Lords] (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Psychoactive Substances Bill [Lords]:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 29 October 2015.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Consideration and Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of the proceedings.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion four hours after the commencement of proceedings on Consideration.
(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of any message from the Lords) may be programmed. —(Margot James.)
Question agreed to.