I beg to move,
That this House has considered drugs policy.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to open this debate on drugs policy because, as many Members will know, the Government have just published an ambitious new drug strategy, which sets out a range of new actions to prevent the harms caused by drug misuse. The Government’s previous drug strategy, launched in 2010, balanced action against three strands: reducing the demand for drugs; restricting the supply of drugs; and supporting individuals to recover from drug and alcohol dependence. Since the 2010 strategy was published, local communities have been placed at the heart of public health, giving local government the freedom, responsibility and funding to develop its own ways of improving public health in local populations, including action to reduce drug and alcohol use and to support those recovering from dependence.
We have already taken concerted action to tackle new threats, such as the supply of so-called legal highs, through the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, and there are positive signs that the Government’s approach is working. Compared with a decade ago, drug misuse among adults and young people in England and Wales has reduced from 10.5% in 2005 to 8.4% in 2015-16.
Drug and alcohol abuse is a difficult issue to address. What consultations has the Minister had with the various groups and communities that are rightly concerned about the mental health problems related to such abuse? Has she had any discussions?
We have consulted widely with a range of experts and academics, and we are well served by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but we have also consulted communities, users and people with frontline experience of addressing these issues. I totally agree that we have to consider the complexity of the challenges facing individuals who are drawn into substance misuse, and we must ensure that we have tailor-made recovery solutions, which will often include support on underlying vulnerabilities or mental health issues. The strategy, as I will outline in some detail, seeks to take a multifaceted, joined-up approach so that people right at the heart of it can make a sustained recovery, which is what we all want to see.
The Minister says there are signs that the policy is working, but does she ever pause for thought when she sees the significant increase in the number of people dying from drug misuse in the past three years? That picture is not mirrored in other European countries that take a more enlightened approach.
There is no complacency in my approach, or in the Government’s approach. In setting out the context of the new strategy, it is worth reflecting on some of our past successes—we have a good evidence base upon which to build for the future. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I am concerned by that increase in the number of deaths, often of people with long-term substance misuse problems. If he stays for the debate, I hope he will hear about our approach to prevent those deaths, which is a key part of our new strategy. I will welcome further interventions at that point. A speech from the right hon. Gentleman, who served so well as a Health Minister in the coalition and who played such an important role in some of the Department’s successes, would be carefully listened to and taken into consideration in our work in the years ahead.
The rate of drug mortality started to rise in 2013, when the ring fence was removed and local authorities became responsible for drug and alcohol treatment. Does the Minister regret her Government’s decision to remove that ring fence?
I will address how more people with long-term substance misuse problems are dying, but I remind the hon. Lady that the public health grant remains ring-fenced. It is for local authorities, working with partners in their communities, to come up with the best ways of tackling people’s serious and long-term substance misuse problems.
We have seen a phenomenal improvement in our understanding of the overlap between mental health problems and substance abuse problems. Councils not only have the public health grant and their partnerships in local communities; they also have the significant additional funding that the Government have made available for mental health services and community mental health services, as well as the homelessness prevention and troubled families funding. As I will hopefully have an opportunity to say, what is different about the strategy, in part, is the partnership working that we see as being at the heart of driving further improvements.
Parents will welcome the Government’s focus on an updated and joined-up strategy. The mental health impacts associated with cannabis use, particularly by teenagers and young people, are one of the most upsetting issues raised in my constituency surgeries. Does she agree that this joined-up approach to local access is vital to the affected families?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I doubt there is a single Member who has not had either a family member or a constituent come to speak to them about their huge concern about the harrowing effect on young family members who get involved in drugs. There is a growing evidence base and deep concern about the impact of cannabis on the development of young minds. A lot of concern is being raised about how psychosis can be brought on by even modest exposure to cannabis. It is essential that we consider mental health and substance misuse together. I assure her that that is at the heart of what we will be doing.
Although we have all far too frequently come across these heart-breaking cases of young people who have faced the terrible consequences of taking drugs, including losing their life, it is worth noting that, overall, fewer young people are taking drugs. Reliable data show that drug use among 11 to 15-year-olds peaked in 2013, and there has since been a continual decline. Again, we are not at all complacent, and we will be doing more work to educate young people about those harms.
Not only are fewer people taking drugs in the first place, but those who enter treatment services are having a good experience. The average waiting time to access treatment remains three days, and within two days for under-18s. Some 80% of young people who enter treatment leave successfully, so we have good foundations on which to work.
The Minister is making good points about the seriousness of this issue. Does she agree that, although total drug use figures may be coming down, we all see a small number of high-profile incidents in our communities—often murders—involving drugs and drug dealing? That unsettles our communities. Does she have any hints on what we can all do to try to improve the situation? On the business of curing people, has she had a chance to look at the programmes introduced in Gloucestershire by the Nelson Trust, which takes a tough-love approach that seems to be working well?
I have not visited the Nelson Trust in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but perhaps in a subsequent intervention he will invite me to come along. It is important that we continue to build the evidence base on what works. We have an open mind on innovation and on new ways of helping people give up their addiction.
My hon. Friend raises a good point on the overlap between crime and substance misuse, and of course there is a strong correlation. The modern crime prevention strategy identifies substance misuse—both alcohol and drug misuse—as a key driver of crime, so law enforcement has a critical role to play in our drug strategy’s joined-up solution.
We want to ensure that law enforcement has all the tools it needs. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 has had a positive impact, and hundreds of retailers across the United Kingdom have closed down or are no longer selling psychoactive substances. The police have arrested suppliers, and action by the National Crime Agency has resulted in the removal of psychoactive substances from sale by UK-based websites. The first offenders have been jailed, and we are seeing the police use their new powers, with more people going through the criminal justice system.
I would be delighted if the Minister cared to visit Gloucester to see the county council’s Families First troubled families programme, to look at the Nelson Trust’s drug rehabilitation programme and to meet the Hollie Gazzard Trust, which is doing a lot to educate people in schools about the dangers—Hollie Gazzard herself was murdered.
My hon. Friend illustrates well that in a local community what is needed is a joining up of services, whereby everything from prevention in schools right the way through to the criminal justice system and recovery services is working well. Of course I will be delighted to visit his constituency to see how those different services are joining up so well in Gloucestershire.
Police and law enforcement issues have also been raised in my constituency. Will the Minister be prepared to consider legislation to deal with situations where prolonged cannabis use is having an impact on neighbours, with long-term users having an impact on the daily lives of children and babies next door?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. What I would be prepared to do is write to her setting out the range of powers that already exist. I know from my constituency that the police are not always aware of all the civil powers they have, in addition to the criminal powers, to tackle some of the antisocial behaviour associated with persistent drug use. I understand and recognise the challenge she is portraying. The troubled families programme is designed in part to help those families where a drug user has substance misuse problems and, in so doing, help the children living in those households.
We have already had more mentions in the first 10 minutes of the police than we have police officers in Bassetlaw. Will the Minister confirm that we remain the only country in the world, other than the United States, where the Government lead for drugs is in criminal justice, as opposed to health? If the approach is evidence-based, why is that the case?
I am sure there are many more police officers in Bassetlaw than there are Members in this Chamber this afternoon. I am proud that our drugs strategy is world-leading, and is recognised to be so, because we take this cross-government approach. This is not a simple issue. Tackling substance abuse and preventing people from taking drugs is not a simple thing to do, which is why we take this whole-government, joined-up approach. Our colleagues from the Department of Health are firmly involved in our activity, as is almost every Department.
Greater Manchester police would argue that since the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 supply has shifted to the streets, and the product was more consistent in the headshops, whereas now it is constantly changing. Does the Minister agree that that shift is part of the reason for the epidemic of Spice use in Manchester, which is causing huge problems?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comment. We were all really concerned when we saw those images of people on this kind of new zombie Spice in Manchester, but I was pleased that the 2016 Act proved itself in the case of Spice, because as soon as we saw those dangers emerging we were able to take action to ban it through that Act. As we did the testing to understand the chemical components and how serious they were, we were then able to shift them into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which gave them a proper classification. Just this Friday I was pleased to see that in Manchester the whole community got together with other cities—there were people there from Nottingham and Wrexham. Law enforcement, the mayor, civil society and local authorities all came together to do exactly what we are proposing in the drugs strategy, which is to take a multi-agency approach, so that the issues that brought about those awful scenes we saw, where vulnerable homeless people in Manchester were so wickedly targeted with that type of Spice by drug dealers, are now being properly managed. This allows homeless people to get the support they need so that they do not fall prey to that activity. The more stringent measures and sentencing available under the Misuse of Drugs Act mean that the police in Manchester have the full range of tools they need to take action there.
The Netherlands has had a pragmatic, intelligent policy of drug decriminalisation for 50 years. It now has a serious prison problem, because there are not enough prisoners to fill its prisons. Is that not a problem we would like to have here?
I accept that some Members and some people in our country think that we should decriminalise drugs. I do not agree, because we are evidence-based policy makers and all the evidence shows the awful harms caused by the drugs that we ban and restrict. Our primary job is to keep people safe, and the way to do that is to prevent them from taking drugs in the first place.
I note the point about this being “evidence-based”, but the evidence clearly shows that the most dangerous drug in terms of harm is alcohol. So will the Minister explain the different approaches the Government take to alcohol, the most dangerous drug, and to cannabis?
I would not agree that alcohol is the most dangerous drug, as we can see if we look at the substances we are restricting. There are people who take alcohol to such a harmful degree that it is devastating for them, and for their family members and the wider community. I fully accept, as the Government do in the modern crime prevention strategy, that the misuse of alcohol has dramatically harmful effects and contributes to crime, but alcohol taken in moderation is not a harmful drug. The Department of Health constantly keeps this under review and is doing research all the time to understand the health impact of alcohol, and it revisits what it considers to be safe drinking guidance. Public Health England has only recently updated the guidance, which suggests that people should be consuming less alcohol.
Last week, I visited Path 2 Recovery, which does the drug recovery work in my constituency. It expressed concern about the effectiveness of the drug rehabilitation requirements, feeling that they did not have enough teeth, took up a lot of staff time and were not very effective. I note that page 23 of the strategy says that the Government are evaluating the framework pilots. Will the Minister say something about her thinking on the current effectiveness of drug rehabilitation requirements, and whether we can do anything differently and better?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He takes a deep and sustained interest in this policy area. We are very much hoping that when we have the recovery champion up and running, they will take a key role in looking at best practice and developing our evidence base as to what works. We have set out clearly in the strategy that we see sustained abstinence over a 12-month period, getting back into work and playing a full part in society as key outcomes of recovery. That will address some of my hon. Friend’s concerns about how in the past too many drug recovery programmes have really just been a revolving door, where people came in and were there for too short a time, and although they may have got clean, what they needed was support on housing, jobs or education so that they could sustain their recovery. Those programmes were not incentivised to enable that. So we are looking at outcome frameworks over a longer period which make sure people have the best possible chance of recovery, with mental health services and recovery services involved in this.
I wish to refer back to the point about alcohol abuse, with which I agree. Alcohol is consumed throughout this House; we have 15 bars and restaurants in this place, all selling us alcohol. Some 90% of recreational drug users are not a problem—they consume their drugs and get on with their life—and only about 10% are a problem, so I cannot see why the Minister wants to take alcohol as one problem and drugs as another.
Our published drugs strategy definitely recognises the relationship between those who take drugs and those who drink alcohol, and understanding that relationship will be a key part of our recovery programmes. In our modern crime prevention strategy, we have a whole series of actions around alcohol. Public Health England and the NHS do a lot of work in that area as well. We are very understanding of the hon. Gentleman’s point, and it will form part of our joined-up integrated approach. Is there a further question I can take before making some progress?
An enormous part of the harm that is done by drugs is when people, particularly young people, do not know what it is that they are taking. If we are considering a harm prevention strategy, should we not be trying to ensure that we can protect people and help them to know what they are taking? Does that not include making drugs available legally so that we can test them and properly protect people?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We need to be really clear here: we do not ban substances without an evidence base that shows that they are harmful to people’s health. The reason why we put in those protections—whether it is through the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, or the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971—is that the evidence base clearly shows that these substances are harmful. There is no safe way that people can take these products. It would be terrible to confuse young people by saying that they can, somehow, safely take a legal high. I know how difficult it is to have these conversations with young people; I have three children in their 20s. I understand the world in which they live and the temptations with which they are faced, but that is why it is so important that we have very clear messages and effective education tools for teachers, which we are investing in now. We will be legislating to make personal, social, health and economic education statutory in schools so that every young person understands the risks of taking alcohol and drugs, which will make them more resilient and more able to resist the temptations. I have said to my own children, “If you can’t go into Boots or any other reputable pharmacist and buy something, then it will not be good for you.” It is really important that we have very simple and clear messages for young people.
I thank the Minister for generously giving way so many times, but I must challenge her. She said a moment ago that there is such a thing as a safe level of consumption of alcohol, but that is not what the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines say. The NICE guidelines are clear and accurate: there is no safe level of consumption of alcohol. We allow it to be consumed legally and we provide information, treatment and recovery, but we do not criminalise people who are consuming alcohol. Why will she not consider the graph that I can show her—[Interruption.] No, I am not supposed to do that. Evidence is available that shows just how much more harmful alcohol is than any other drug.
This debate today is about the drugs strategy. I have been very generous in answering questions. We understand that there is a relationship between drugs and alcohol, but I will not be drawn into a wider debate about the current legal framework around alcohol, because we are here today to talk about our drugs policy. [Interruption.] May I just finish my point? Look, our policy is based on independent evidence, and is informed by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The vast majority of academic and medical research backs up our position.
No, I will not give way as I wish to make some progress. I will answer some more questions later.
Let me remind everyone that we are not at all complacent about this. We definitely recognise the scale of the threat that drugs continue to pose to our society. They do destroy lives and have very serious impacts on families and communities. The cost to society is about £10 billion a year, half of which is related to theft and criminal activity around drug usage.
I wish to go back to this very serious point about drug-related deaths and how they have increased by 10% in the past year. Again, using the best available evidence, we understand that there is a cohort of people—and of older people—who have been taking heroin and crack cocaine for some time, which has had a very significant impact not only on their mental health, but their physical health. That is a driving factor in our strategy. Using the evidence base, we are able to segment better the treatment and the recovery programmes. We will be doing that with the firm hope that, by tailor-making the support that they need, we will see fewer people die and more people—even if they have been taking drugs for some time—being able to get off drugs and have the independent and fulfilled life that we want everyone to enjoy.
We are also very concerned about the way that synthetic cannabinoids—commonly known as Spice—have been so ruthlessly targeted at the homeless population. We are working on that, alongside our homelessness reduction programmes, with mental health services. In particular, we are looking at young people who might be vulnerable to these types of substances. We want to ensure that everybody has access to the best possible recovery programme.
The strategy builds on the three strands of the previous strategy—reducing demand, restricting supply and building recovery—by embracing a smarter, partnership-based approach, both locally and nationally, and recognising the links between different Government Departments and different Government ambitions. Clearly, we want to reduce crime, improve people’s life chances, promote better health, tackle homelessness and protect the most vulnerable people in our society. The strategy sets out key actions covering the wide range of partners critical to tackling drug misuse successfully, including those in education, health, safeguarding, criminal justice, housing and employment.
The strategy also introduces a new fourth strand on global action to bring out the critical importance of international co-operation. We want to reduce the demand for drugs by acting early to prevent people, especially young people, from taking drugs in the first place and then preventing escalation to more harmful use. This starts with universal action to give all young people the resilience and confidence they need to make positive choices about their health and well-being, including resisting drugs. For example, we will be legislating to make PSHE statutory in schools and expanding the Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention Information Service for young people. That will be complemented with more targeted action to prevent drug misuse among vulnerable groups, including young people who are not in education, employment or training, looked-after children, offenders and the homeless. There will also be a targeted approach for emerging and evolving threats such as performance-enhancing drugs, so-called chemsex drugs and, sadly, the misuse of prescription drugs.
Tough enforcement is also a fundamental part of our drug strategy and we will continue to bear down on those who seek to benefit from the misery caused to others. We will take a smarter approach to restricting the supply of drugs, adapting our approach to reflect changes in criminal activity. For example, we have taken action to close down the mobile phone lines being used for drug dealing and other dreadful exploitation such as the trafficking of young people to sell drugs. Those mobile phone lines will be closed down. We will also use innovative data and technology to disrupt supply over the darknet. Our Serious Organised Crime Agency and the National Crime Agency have a very important role to play.
Let me take the Minister back to investment and the idea that if this matter was treated as a health issue, there would be more investment in drug treatment services. Is it not the case that in France, where this is treated as a health issue, the investment is less than it is here where we have treated it as a criminal justice issue and a health issue combined?
I just do not accept the premise of what the hon. Lady is saying. We do not take it in the way that she describes. We see this very much as a partnership or a joined-up whole Government approach. Of course health and recovery is at the centre of our strategy. It is not a fair interpretation to say that this is led by justice. It is about a joined-up whole system approach. Recovery remains a vital part of the Government’s approach.
I will make a bit more progress. We are absolutely determined to improve support for those dependent on drugs by raising the quality of treatment, and to improve outcomes by ensuring that people get the right interventions for their needs. That means ensuring that they can access the full range of services to help them rebuild their life, which may include mental health, housing, employment and training services, and a lot of support for a stable family life, free from crime. I am pleased that we will appoint a national recovery champion, who will drive progress by visiting different parts of the country to identify good practice and ensure local collaboration. We will also encourage partnership working and transparency by developing a new set of outcome measures to give local areas further support through Public Health England.
For the first time, we are setting out global action. We are already taking a global lead on our psychoactive substance work, encouraging data exchange to give us a richer picture of international trends, and bringing in global bans on the most harmful new psychoactive substances. We will continue our work through the United Nations. We have a balanced, evidence-based approach to drugs. Collaborating with partners around the world will help to give us a better intelligence base and enable us to take better action.
I hope that Members will see that this is a truly cross-Government strategy that requires the commitment and coming together of many Departments. The Home Secretary will establish a new drugs strategy board, of which I will be a member. It will include people from all the key Government Departments, Public Health England, and national police leads. Then we can all plan together to implement the strategy and hold each other to account. I am confident that the strategy is grounded in the best available evidence. We consulted extensively with key partners working in the drugs field, and I am sure that the strategy will make a lasting difference, but we know that there is no easy way to tackle drugs and the harms that they cause, and we need to do much more. Our strategy is flexible enough to enable us to respond to emerging threats.
Finally, by working together across government, locally and nationally, we can genuinely deliver the safer, healthier Britain, free from the harm of drugs, that we all want.
Everyone in this Chamber knows that drug abuse casts a long shadow over our society. Whether it is the many thousands of crimes committed by drug users seeking to fund their habit—fully 45% of acquisitive crime is committed by regular heroin or crack cocaine users—the chaos caused in families and communities by drug use, or the lives ruined or cut short by it, the scale of the problem is truly shocking. We have the highest recorded level of mortality from drugs misuse since records began. There are record numbers of deaths from morphine or heroin, and from cocaine abuse. Under this Government, the UK has become the drugs overdose capital of Europe.
According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, one in three of Europe’s overdose deaths—they are mainly related to opioids—occurs in the UK. That is roughly 10 families a day bereaved as a result of illegal drugs—more than are bereaved in traffic accidents. We have an overwhelming economic, moral and public health case for examining this country’s drugs policy.
Labour Members welcome the publication this month of the 2017 drugs strategy, even though it comes two years after the Government’s self-imposed deadline. However, having waited nearly two years for it, we have to confess to being a little disappointed. Let us remember what has happened along the way. Drug rehabilitation centres have been closed; budgets to tackle drug abuse have been cut; key services such as the NHS are under increasing pressure; and there have been cuts to police officers and Border Force guards by the thousand. In the light of these constrained resources, it is not clear how much impact this strategy, in which there is much to welcome in principle, will have.
Official drug strategies always include reducing demand, increasing awareness and education, restricting supply, tackling organised crime and improving treatment and recovery, so those elements, although important, are not new. The Government’s recognition of the importance of evidence-based treatment, recovery and harm reduction is welcome, but what stakeholders, and families and communities up and down the country who are suffering from drug abuse, want to know is whether the strategy is not just old methods in a shinier package. We frequently use the term “war on drugs”; I ask the Minister how exactly we expect to win a war with reduced forces and resources on the frontline.
Responsibility for drug and alcohol treatment was transferred from the NHS to local authorities in 2013, which was undoubtedly a good idea in principle; local authorities are much better placed than central Government to facilitate co-operation between drug and alcohol services, local police, those involved in social and youth work, education and housing and other stakeholders, but sadly local authorities gained those new responsibilities at a time of bone-crunching pressure on their budgets, and this transfer of responsibility meant an end to ring-fenced budgets for drug treatment.
I agree exactly with my right hon. Friend, but does she think that when the Government transferred that responsibility to local authorities, they missed a trick by not making it clear that police and crime commissioners and representatives from the criminal justice system should sit on health and wellbeing boards, so that they could provide input on drug and alcohol treatment services?
Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the vast number of Labour local authorities that, in 2013, took their drug service out of the NHS and gave it to private providers? That includes mine in Nottinghamshire. Should we not have a Labour party position that would stop them doing this?
It is unfortunate that many authorities, including many Labour authorities, privatised these services. Privatising them necessarily makes it harder to achieve the co-ordination and co-operation that was the whole point of having these services sit in the local authorities.
Local councils face unprecedented cuts to their funding—anything from 25% to 40% of their entire budget. Is it any wonder that drug-related deaths are increasing when local authorities do not have the funds necessary for comprehensive treatment programmes?
The right hon. Lady has talked about the war on drugs, and how it has been undermined by a lack of resources, but does she favour simply increasing the resources in that war, or a more enlightened approach that involves decriminalisation and, potentially, the regulation of cannabis markets so that we take the criminals out of the market altogether?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We cannot have a meaningful strategy on drug abuse without looking at the question of resources, but I would be the first to say that it is more complex than simply providing more money.
To give an overview of what local authorities are facing, Barnsley cut its drug and alcohol service by more than a third between 2015-16 and 2016-17. Some services will be unavailable and key drugs practitioners will be made redundant. Staffordshire County Council was forced to make cuts of 45% to its drug and alcohol treatment budget over the past two years, due to its local commissioning group pulling the expected £15 million of NHS funding. Middlesbrough Council, which sadly has one of the highest rates of death from heroin overdoses in the country, cut its budget by £1 million last year.
When the Home Office announced those policies, it correctly said that for every £1 spent on public health, £2.50 is saved. However, instead of helping local authorities to follow that logic, the Government have obliged them to pursue short-term cuts. Some local authorities have tried, and some have been particularly innovative in seeking efficiencies in their public health budgets, but the reality is that too many are looking at significant reductions in services, and some are even privatising services. When it comes to public health, the Government talk a good talk but do not follow through with the resources. I note with dismay that the strategy includes no mention of providing more resources to local authorities, which after all are on the frontline of any strategy against drug use.
Bearing in mind the figures that my right hon. Friend has set out—for every £1 spent on public health, £2.50 is saved for the public purse—does she agree that the overall cuts of £85 million to local authorities’ public health budgets are a false economy that are not serving our communities, or even the Exchequer?
I think that the public health cuts were disastrous. The Treasury, in an extraordinary example of short-term thinking, clawed back the funds that had been promised. The King’s Fund has shown that local authorities in England are being forced to spend more than 5% less on public health initiatives this year than in 2014, and tackling drug misuse in adults will face a 5.5% cut of more than £22 million. Until the Government put their money where their mouth is on the drugs strategy, they will have to accept that some stakeholders remain sceptical.
There was an interesting discussion about alcohol earlier in the debate. Ministers seem to struggle with the notion that alcohol is actually a drug, but the truth is that in absolute terms alcohol causes more harm than any illegal drug. It is shocking that the strategy managed only two paragraphs on alcohol, which is a major killer in Britain today. Professor Ian Gilmore, chair of Alcohol Health Alliance UK, has said that
“we also need a dedicated strategy on alcohol which recognises the breadth of harm done by alcohol. In the UK alcohol is responsible for over 26,000 deaths per year, over 1 million hospital admissions per year, and…alcohol cost the UK economy between £27—£52 billion in 2016.”
In 2015, there were 8,000 casualties caused by drink-driving alone. Professor Ian Gilmore continued:
“The time has come for the Government to take an evidence-based approach to controlling the supply of and reducing the demand for a legal drug which is sold on virtually every street corner, sometimes at pocket money prices.”
Portugal de-penalised drug use in 2001 and, as a result, halved the number of heroin users in the country, and the number of deaths has fallen from 80 a year to 16 a year. In the 30 years in which my right hon. Friend and I have been in the House, can she think of any initiative by any Government that has reduced drug harm so spectacularly?
My hon. Friend is a passionate proponent of decriminalisation, and I think that he makes his own case.
The strategy claims that the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 has been hugely successful in stopping the proliferation of legal highs. It is true that in the first six months since the Act came into force nearly 500 people were arrested. However, as various drug charities suspected, despite those measures demand for the substances continues to increase. So-called legal highs have simply been pushed into the black market or on to the internet, which I suspect is why the Government have in the same breath claimed that they will focus on eliminating the vast range of problems that these substances cause. That exposes something that the Opposition made clear during the passage of the Act: legislation is effective only if there is a wider strategy in place.
The strategy has now been produced, but meanwhile legal highs are more dangerous than ever, affecting the poorest and most vulnerable in society. It remains the case that too many people, particularly women, go to prison without a drug habit and leave with a drug habit. I believe that Ministers, working with the Ministry of Justice, could do a great deal more to make our prisons drug-free zones. It is an elementary issue, but one that the Government continue to fail to address.
I am sure that most Members were as alarmed as I was last year by CCTV footage of a drone making deliveries to a prison. That is the favoured manner of getting contraband, in the form of mobile phones, weapons and drugs, into our prisons. There are no easy answers, but if there are not enough guards to guard the prisoners, I find it hard to believe that they could devote much time to searching one another or taking down drug-mule drones. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Justice has repeatedly said that the decimation of prison officer numbers under the Conservatives is a key reason for the Government’s inability to stem the growing influx of drugs into prisons. What specific extra staffing resources will be given to prisons to enable officers and prison authorities to meet the objectives of the new drugs strategy?
The Minister referred to global issues and to the international war on drugs, but she will be aware that it is largely regarded as failing. We would like to hear how Ministers plan to make the international war on drugs more successful than it has been. There are some aspects of the strategy that we welcome. For example, it is excellent that greater efforts will be made to provide young people with effective, evidence-based drug prevention education. As a parent, I think that most parents are unable to keep up with the kinds of drugs that young people are discovering nowadays. As I said earlier, it is very important that prisoners are given more help to get into recovery and that their progress is monitored closely. We need far clearer and more explicit guidelines on the value of opioid maintenance treatment which, if properly implemented, allows many people with opioid dependence to live their life and, crucially, prevents overdoses.
Another important aspect of the strategy is its recognition that people can slip through the cracks of dual diagnosis of mental health problems and problem substance use. I am glad that the strategy, at least in principle, wants those people to be better catered for, rather than shunted between services that are reluctant to take on complex and demanding cases.
There is a tendency to regard drug use and abuse as a personal failure. We in the Opposition would rather regard it as a societal failure. We say that any drug strategy has to look at the broader picture, including what is happening in society and the resources available. Although we welcome the drug strategy in principle, we question whether the resources or the will is there to make its worthy aims real and manifest.
I suspect that the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and I will have sympathy with my hon. Friend the Minister, given the bounds within which she has had to present this strategy to the House. She presented the strategy with candour; my only concern is whether she really believes in it. As I will discuss, the evidence from around the world is that the approach within the strategy is profoundly mistaken and simply not working.
I rather suspect that the speech made by the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) will have disappointed those behind her the most: here was an opportunity really to engage in thinking on this issue and to persuade us to consider the actual evidence from around the world. I fear that the right hon. Lady opted for the “safety first” routine: she will have avoided disagreeable headlines about the Opposition’s drug policy in the Daily Mail. As I shall come on to say, we need a space in which we can properly consider the issue. The kernel of my argument is that we need a royal commission to assess our drugs policy, to get it to the right place.
President Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971. Nearly half a century later, I defy anyone to disagree that it has been a global public policy catastrophe. We desperately need a new approach and a completely different strategy. Although I welcome the emphasis that the Government strategy puts on improving treatment and recovery for users, it also rehearses the same failed arguments for prohibition and criminalisation that have patently failed. The measure of that failure is spelt out in the strategy itself: it tells us that in England and Wales the number of deaths from drug misuse registered in 2015 increased by 10.3% to 2,479. That follows an increase of 14.9% in the previous year and 19.6% the year before that. Deaths involving heroin—about half the total—more than doubled from 2012 to 2015, as the right hon. Lady mentioned. The strategy also informs us that, each year in the United Kingdom, drugs cost society £10.7 billion in policing, healthcare and crime, with drug-fuelled theft alone costing £6 billion a year.
I am delighted that the Government have published these figures. When I was the criminal justice Minister, between 2010 and 2012, the Ministry of Justice would not provide the numbers to me, directly or otherwise. In the end, I got Bob Ainsworth, a former drugs policy Minister, to table a written parliamentary question to me as a way of eliciting the numbers from the Government. I am fine about their being on the public record now: we can see the cost of our failure of public policy in this area.
The hon. Gentleman is noted for his candour on this subject and the House respects him for it. Until 1968 we ran what was widely known throughout the world as the British system: GPs prescribed diamorphine hydrochloride and cocaine hydrochloride. We had nothing like the number of deaths today because of the purity of the product. Now the cause of death is impurity and differentiated supplies.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it has been almost impossible to have a rational, sensible and sane debate on this subject? The 1968 legislation was a panicked reaction, fuelled by the most reactionary forces. As a humble individual on these Benches, I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept my wholehearted support for his excellent idea that a royal commission should consider this issue. Frankly, there is not a country in the world that does not have a drug problem, and there is certainly no victory in the so-called war on drugs.
I wholly agree. If the evidence of failure is clear in the United Kingdom, the problem is dramatically worse in other countries of the world. However, even in the UK, as page 16 of the strategy makes clear, drugs are
“a significant threat to our national security.”
There is a way of dealing with the problem.
Ever since prohibition or criminalisation of illicit drug use was enshrined in the 1961 UN convention on narcotic drugs, we have been fighting a losing battle to stem the global drugs trade. As is increasingly recognised—especially in Latin America, where many leaders are crying out for their societies to be rescued from the malign fall-out from a multi-billion dollar criminal industry—eradication, interdiction and criminalisation of consumption have failed. We have left the manufacture and supply in the hands of organised criminals and treated their victims—many of whom are vulnerable members of our society and many of whom have mental illnesses—as criminals, and they are unable or unwilling to seek medical help due to the illegality, exclusion and stigma.
I hope that hon. Members will reflect on this simple statistic: between 2006 and 2013, 111,000 people died in the Mexican drug war—as a result not of drug consumption, but of the wars over the control of this vast industry. Building on the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, convened by former Presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, the Global Commission on Drug Policy has opened a public discussion about the association between the drug trade, violence and corruption.
I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. He has talked about the number of people who have lost their lives through violence in Latin America. Does he agree that the policy engenders violence in our own communities—particularly poor communities—in this country? The only way in which the supply to a particular community can be maintained is through the use of extreme violence. Does that not add to the case for much needed reform?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I declare an interest: I used to prosecute national-level drug barons. We are talking about gun-toting criminals, who think nothing of shooting each other and the people who carry their drugs for them. What on earth does my hon. Friend think their reaction will be to the idea of drugs being regulated? Does he really think that these awful people are suddenly going to become law-abiding citizens?
I shall come to my hon. Friend’s point directly. We have set up the business model that those people use. The value of that business model is why people go to the lengths they do to kill so many in trying to maintain control.
I come back to commending the work of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which has advocated a balanced, comprehensive and evidence-based debate on drugs, focusing on humane and effective solutions to reduce the harm caused by drugs to individuals and societies. Last year, it succeeded in getting the issue back on the international agenda at the United Nations General Assembly special session. Tragically, however, the regressive voices upholding prohibition and criminalisation stopped the endorsement of a new approach. All the while, however, more and more countries are starting new policies, while we lag behind.
Decriminalisation of personal possession is proving to have significant effects in reducing harm where it has been tried. In Portugal, where the possession of small amounts of drugs has been de-penalised since 2001, there is now a clear political consensus behind the policy. The data show that decriminalisation has not led to increased drug usage rates—in fact, in numerous categories, Portuguese usage rates are now among the lowest in the EU, particularly in comparison with states with stringent criminalisation regimes. Drug-related pathologies, such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to misuse, have decreased dramatically as the Government are able to offer treatment programmes without having to drag users into the criminal justice system, where it becomes even harder to manage addiction and abuse. The focus is public health; penalties are used only if considered necessary and productive.
My hon. Friend is being generous in allowing me to intervene. I refer again to my experience in the criminal courts. We tried that experiment in this country, when David Blunkett downgraded the classification of cannabis. The impact of that on the ground in magistrates courts up and down the country was terrible. Young people were coming to court with very severe mental health problems because of their use of cannabis. We tried the experiment and it failed.
It has not failed. If we adjust one part of the system and move from a categorisation of B to C, as we did with cannabis, then that sends a message about usage and the rest. However, if the supply of cannabis is in the hands of people who are not going to tell people what is in it, or educate them as to the effect it is going to have on their mind, it is hardly surprising that we see a massive increase in schizophrenia caused by the use of these drugs, because people do not know what they are buying and we are not in a position to educate them properly about the consequences of their use. That is why there is a public health issue about getting a regulated supply into place whereby we could educate people at the point of purchase. I will come on to talk about the relationship between the dealer and his interest in how he deals with his client base in a regulated and licensed system.
Having been in the House at the time of David Blunkett’s change in the category of cannabis, and very much involved with it, I remember that everyone predicted an increase in cannabis use when the classification was changed. That did not happen. In fact, there was a reduction in the use of cannabis when the penalties were less. Contrary to all the expectations, and the great argument we hear in this place, it is not the drugs that are killing people—it is prohibition that is killing people.
While I am obviously minded to agree with the hon. Gentleman, the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) and the Government are putting forward in trying to send a message should be considered somewhere so that we can go through the evidence. That is very difficult to do in a charged environment where the tabloid press will be seeking to send a message if we are perceived to be weak in this area of public policy. Yet hundreds of thousands of people across the world are dying because this policy is in the wrong place globally. I rather hope that a royal commission here in the United Kingdom could assist us in getting to a place where, based on evidence, we can begin to lead the international debate.
As well as the decriminalisation of personal possession, we ought to consider the merits of a legal, regulated market taken out of the control of organised crime. A recent report by the drugs policy think-tank Volteface makes the case for a legal, regulated cannabis market in the UK to improve support, guidance and access to treatment for people experiencing problematic cannabis use. It found that the current illegal and unregulated market means that cannabis users are hidden from health practitioners, leaving them
“fumbling around in the dark trying to find them”.
Among people showing signs of cannabis dependence, only 14.6% have ever received treatment, help or support specifically because of their drug use, and 5.5% had received it in the previous six months. The report says a regulated market would provide
“opportunities for more public guidance, packaging controls, products which vary in potency, research into cannabis culture and consumption to improve interventions, and reduced stigma to enable access to services.”
I am sorry to say that the drug dealers reading the strategy and watching this debate will simply laugh at us. We are doing nothing to undermine their basic business model. By ensuring that supply is criminal, we have created a highly lucrative, criminal black market for the distribution and sale of drugs, worth an estimated £4.6 billion per year in the United Kingdom—and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and Europol estimate that the global market is worth $435 billion a year. That is an astonishing amount of money, and it is hardly surprising that people arm themselves, and fight and kill, to try to maintain their share of that market.
Drugs are believed to account for some 20% of all crime proceeds, with about 50% of all organised crime groups believed to be involved in drugs, and about half of transnational organised crime proceeds derive from the drugs trade. Profit margins are enormous, with 100-fold increases in price from production to retail. Exploited customers, trapped in addiction—indeed, having been encouraged and incentivised there by the criminal dealer—turn to crime to pay the inflated prices. Those using heroin, cocaine or crack cocaine are estimated to commit between a third and a half of all acquisitive crime. Drug dealers vie with one another to gain market exclusivity in their domains, leading to further appalling gang violence.
Yet that is only part of the story, as the uncomfortable truth is that respect for our laws is diminished when large swathes of the population can see no difference between their recreational drugs of choice and their recreational use of alcohol and tobacco. Alcohol prohibition was an acknowledged public policy disaster when it was tried in the United States in the 1920s. If the state or its licensed agents became a benign, regulated monopoly supplier instead, that would smash the drug dealer’s business model. Proceeds from sales or taxation of sales would pay for treatment and public health education. We would protect people because they would know what they were buying.
Instead of more of the same, we should be brave enough to be at the forefront of international thinking. Legalisation, licensing and regulation may be radical ideas for the United Kingdom, but forms of decriminalisation are already being widely put into practice in Europe and in North America and Latin America. The merits of other countries’ approaches, and the extensive work of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, warrant proper consideration in British public debate and policy making. A royal commission would be able to do that. It would be the most appropriate way to consider fully and carefully the complex issues involved and all the policy options, exploring best practice abroad and responding to increasing calls here and internationally for a truly new strategy.
It is a pleasure to take part in today’s general debate on drugs policy—a very important issue that affects every community, class and creed in the country. The scourge of drugs misuse and its associated criminal and antisocial behaviours has been a blight on too many of our cities, towns and villages for far too long.
Only last week, I conducted a home visit to a distraught family who were coming to terms with the tragic loss of a young man from drug misuse—a thoroughly decent family who had tried to get help for their loved one, but sadly were not successful in time. I will not go into the specific details, but a grieving mother and sister explained about the physical and behavioural changes they observed, and about their loved one stealing from other family members and the general antisocial behaviour that ensued. This story is not uncommon across any of our communities.
That set of circumstances brought home to me why we need aggressively to tackle the forces of organised crime, who are making millions from human misery—effective enforcement against the dealers is a key factor in the war against drugs—while sympathetically addressing the health and safety of users, and with greater emphasis on prevention and harm reduction rather than punitive punishments. Once criminalised, these victims can often face further life challenges and stigmatisation, all of which can result in users finding it harder to recover and to move on from drug problems and addiction, in some cases even trapping them in a self-destructive cycle.
As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, health and justice, which are key areas in any joined-up drugs policy, are devolved to Scotland. The regulation of all proscribed drugs remains a reserved issue, and the policy is set by the UK Government. There is a strong argument that drugs policy should also be devolved to Scotland. The Minister herself referred to a joined-up, whole-policy approach, and that would be easier to achieve in a Scottish context if we had all the levers of policy. However, the Scottish Government continue to work with the Home Office to implement a series of actions against drug misuse in Scotland.
It is estimated that drug misuse costs society in Scotland £3.5 billion a year. That is very similar to the impact of alcohol misuse, which is estimated to cost £3.6 billion a year. Combined, this amounts to about £1,800 for every adult. In 2008, the SNP Government published the current national drugs strategy for Scotland, “The Road to Recovery”, which set out a new strategic direction for tackling drug misuse based on treatment services promoting recovery. The strategy continues to receive cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament. Evidence has shown that drug taking in the general population is falling, with misuse among young people at its lowest in a decade. However, drug deaths are currently at their highest. The approach taken recognises the importance of supporting families, and the number of family support organisations across Scotland is growing. In addition, several national organisations have been established or commissioned to support delivery of the strategy. They include the Scottish Recovery Consortium, which was established to drive and promote recovery for individuals, family members and communities affected by drugs, as well as Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol & Drugs and the recently launched Partnership for Action on Drugs in Scotland.
The Scottish Government also work with Scotland’s 38 alcohol and drug partnerships, which bring together local partners, including health boards, local authorities, police and voluntary agencies. They are responsible for developing local strategies for tackling problem alcohol and drug use, and promoting recovery, based on an assessment of local needs. A good example is the current Glasgow city health and social care partnership proposals for a pilot safer drug consumption and heroin assisted treatment facility in the city centre. The latest iteration of its business case was presented to the HSCP on 21 June 2017. The facility is designed to service the needs of an estimated 400 to 500 individuals who inject publicly in the city centre and experience high levels of harm. In particular, it is anticipated that the facility will significantly reduce the risk of further outbreaks of blood-borne viruses.
In 2015 there were 157 drug-related deaths in the Glasgow City Council area—up from 114 the previous year—and 132 of them involved an opiate or opioid. The recent rise in deaths is concerning and not unique to Glasgow. I am grateful to the Transform Drug Policy Foundation for its briefing, which informed me that around a third of Europe’s drug misuse deaths occur in the UK. We all need to do something to address this challenge. The British Medical Association and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs have indicated their support for pursuing safer drug consumption proposals to promote harm reduction. Although that remains a matter for authorities in Glasgow to take forward, the Scottish Government will subsequently consider any formal proposal that is brought to their attention for consideration.
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is reserved legislation, so any proposal is dependent on authorities in Glasgow making a formal request to the Lord Advocate to vary prosecution guidance. It would make sense to devolve all drugs policy to Scotland, to allow the Scottish Parliament to legislate on it and other issues.
The Scottish Government have followed entirely the Tory Government’s approach on recovery-based treatment, as opposed to NHS treatment. Why would devolving power make a ha’pence of difference, when all the SNP has done is to adopt Tory policies and their consequential failures?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, but I am saying that it would be another tool in our armoury that might allow future drugs policy to go in a different direction. We can only work within the current constraints. At its conference last year, the Scottish National party backed the decriminalisation of cannabis for medicinal use, but that is another issue currently reserved to Westminster, so we cannot go down that line.
A few years ago, a survey conducted by Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol & Drugs found that peer support was an important part of the recovery process. It also found that despite the pressures most families wait at least two years before seeking help—a delay that can prove fatal, as evidenced by the constituents I mentioned earlier. Their loved one had been using for about six months, by their own reckoning, prior to his death.
In my area we have a wide range of support services. In Linlithgow, the 1st Step Café is run by people who are in recovery, and who now help others living with the effects of addiction. Across West Lothian, the social work addictions team—known as SWAT—supports those affected by drugs or alcohol to plan for recovery, and promotes goal-focused work to make positive changes. In the Falkirk and Forth valley area, Addictions Support and Counselling assists with community rehabilitation and recovery.
Undoubtedly for the users, their families and local communities, recovery is the key, but it cannot work on its own. It has to be coupled with education about the dangers and about harm reduction, and with public health measures—improving access to treatment and reducing waiting times. In short, the issue is no longer simply one of law enforcement, although tackling the supply of drugs and drug-related anti-social behaviour will, I suspect, remain a permanent feature of our societies for some considerable time.
I very much welcome the strategy, with its emphasis on effectively treating and, even more importantly, preventing substance misuse problems. I welcome the acknowledgement that national and local government have a clear responsibility to improve public health with regard to addictions. Indeed, because such problems often affect the most vulnerable in society, this is a matter of social justice. I welcome the strategy’s recognition of that, and of the clear and very sad links between substance misuse and a range of other issues: underperformance at school and later exclusion from the job market, domestic abuse, mental ill health, sexual exploitation, homelessness and imprisonment.
I welcome the recognition of the need for a joined-up, partnership approach to address those issues. I implore local government to ensure that, as some local authorities do, individuals receive support from one lead caseworker rather than from a confusing mix of social workers and agencies. I heard of one family who had to cope—yes, cope is the right word—with 26 different local agencies trying to help them.
I particularly welcome the strategy’s focus on helping the most vulnerable young people, such as those in care, those on the streets, those in the criminal justice system or at risk of entering it, those in troubled families and young girls at risk of entering prostitution. We know how pimps use drugs to enslave young girls, particularly those who have been trafficked. I welcome the strategy’s prioritisation of helping those young people, many of whom have never had a first chance in life. The strategy’s approach is designed to give them the chance they need to live a life of self-worth, free of the devastating impact of substance misuse.
I particularly welcome the Minister’s statement that we must look at mental health and substance misuse together, and the recognition of the key role that parents and families can play in the treatment and prevention of substance misuse. Family breakdown—or, if not breakdown, chaotic or dysfunctional family relationships —must surely be one of the key reasons, if not the key reason, for young people seeking comfort in drugs. I welcome the inclusion in the strategy of the need to support families in their own right, with the suggestion:
“Evidence-based psychological interventions which involve family members should be available locally and local areas should ensure that the support needs of families and carers affected by drug misuse are appropriately met.”
That echoes a comment piece that I wrote for this week’s The House magazine about young people’s mental health problems, in which I said that we need to do much more to strengthen family relationships and offer holistic family support, engaging parents, carers or wider family members. If we are to do that, there needs to be substantial growth in the number of people in local authority services trained to provide relationship and family support, and to provide appropriate counselling and help for young people in such difficulties. I am glad, too, that the strategy recognises that the reality of harm experienced by substance abusers’ families is significant, and that families need help as well.
I am chair of the all-party group on alcohol harm. I recognise that the strategy contains recommendations for joined-up action on alcohol and drugs, and that areas of the strategy apply to both. As we have heard this afternoon, however, we need to do more. Statistics illustrate the extent of the harm caused by alcohol. In 2015 there were 2,479 deaths from drug misuse. In the same year, there were 23,000 alcohol-related deaths. Drug deaths equate to only 10% of the number of deaths caused by alcohol. We must rise to the challenge of providing sufficient resources and setting out a clear Government alcohol strategy. The current strategy is more than five years old, and much has changed in that time—yet, sadly, much has stayed the same.
I would particularly like the Government to address the impact of alcoholic parents or carers on children. An estimated 2.5 million children in this country live with problematic drinkers. In a debate on alcohol harm that I secured on 2 February, Members gave deeply moving accounts of living as children with alcoholic parents and carers. Those of us in the Chamber very much welcomed the response of the then Under-Secretary of State for Health, the former Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, who said that she would look into the matter. I ask the Minister to take back to her successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), a request for further progress, because the very important and specific issue of children living with problematic drinkers has not been sufficiently addressed.
Evidence shows that spending money on treatment is effective, with every £1 invested generating £2.50 of savings for society. Yet only 6% of dependent drinkers in this country actually access treatment. It is vital that we recognise the need to review the alcohol strategy. The current level of alcohol harm illustrates the need to do so urgently. If Members will bear with me, I want to go into this in a little more detail. The harm caused by alcohol consumption extends not just to the families of the individuals involved but to wider society. It often harms innocent bystanders, such as those injured in road traffic accidents or patients needing treatment for serious illnesses who have to wait because precious NHS resources are being used to tackle the issue. It affects us all as taxpayers through the tax bills we pay, and it affects the emergency services.
Just a few months ago, our all-party group produced a report, “The Frontline Battle”, on the impact of the misuse of alcohol on those who serve us in the emergency services. Some of the stories about emergency services staff being assaulted are heartrending. I therefore welcome the private Member’s Bill, which I understand will be presented by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) tomorrow, to address assaults on emergency services staff. However, we cannot address that without also looking at the fact that so many of those attacks are caused by alcohol abuse.
There has never been a greater need for robust Government action to tackle the massive problem resulting from alcohol consumption. That has been evidenced by the Public Health England report, which has already been mentioned, that was published in December 2016 at the specific request of the former Prime Minister David Cameron. It paints a bleak picture: 10 million people are currently drinking at levels that are increasing their risk of health harm. Devastatingly, it finds that for those aged 15 to 49 in England—those of working age—alcohol is now the leading risk factor for ill health, early mortality and disability. There are now over 1 million hospital admissions relating to alcohol each year, half of which involve those in the lowest three socioeconomic deciles. Alcohol-related mortality has increased, particularly for liver disease, which has increased by 400% since 1970. We need a strategy because 167,000 years of working life were lost to alcohol in 2015. Alcohol is more likely to kill people during their working lives than many other causes of death—in other words, it causes premature deaths. Alcohol accounts for 10% of the UK’s burden of disease and death, and in the past three decades there has been a threefold rise in alcohol-related deaths.
I very much share the hon. Lady’s concerns about the danger of alcohol and the damage it causes to society. Does she support the case for a minimum unit price for alcohol? It could act as a deterrent, particularly to prevent young and disadvantaged people from ending up with all the consequences that flow from excess alcohol use.
I agree. In fact, the introduction of minimum unit pricing was the very first recommendation in the 2012 strategy. The most recent review states that it
“is a highly targeted measure which ensures tax increases are passed on to the consumer and improves the health of the heaviest drinkers. These people are experiencing the greatest amount of harm.”
Increasing the price of alcohol would save lives, but would not penalise moderate drinkers, so I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Public Health England very clearly states in its report that affordability is the lead factor in addressing health problems resulting from alcohol harm.
If I may, I will mention the issue, which again relates to cost, of white cider products, such as Frosty Jacks. They are almost exclusively drunk by the vulnerable, the young, the homeless and dependent drinkers—just the kind of people who, as I have said, need help. Just £3.50 buys a large bottle of white cider that is the equivalent of 22 shots of vodka. Time and again, homeless hostels tell us that that is what the people there drink and what, because of its high strength, causes their deaths. One of the most heartrending meetings I have attended in the House was when a mother came to talk to our all-party group about her teenage daughter. This happy, carefree young girl had gone out one night, but when she got back she told her mum that she did not feel very well. Her mum said, “Well, have a drink of water. I’ll put you to bed, and we’ll see how you are in the morning.” When her mum went into her room in the morning, she was dead. She had drunk three bottles of white cider, which means that she had drunk well over 60 shots of vodka in one evening. That is the devastation this drink can cause.
Ciders of 7.5% alcohol by volume attract the lowest duty per unit of any product, at 5p, compared with 18p per unit for beer of equivalent strength. There simply is no reason not to increase the duty on white cider and so save some of these young lives. Some 66% of the public support such a policy. It is a matter of social justice, so I ask the Minister to go back to the Treasury. I know that the former Member for Battersea looked at the issue in the last Parliament, and I ask the Minister to go back to her successor and ask for progress to save these young lives before any more families suffer as the one I have described did.
Another key intervention for an alcohol strategy is to improve the training of GPs and other people working in clinical centres, so that they can give very brief additional advice on how to prevent alcohol harm. For example, just during the few moments when someone is having their blood pressure tested, they can have a short conversation about how much alcohol they are drinking and suggest that a couple of days off a week to rest their liver would not be a bad idea. We need to pursue such improvements to prevent the kind of damage suffered by so many people in the country through excessive alcohol drinking. No one that I am aware of in our group is saying that people should not drink alcohol; this is about drinking alcohol responsibly.
I want to close by borrowing the words of our former Prime Minister in his foreword to the 2012 alcohol strategy:
“We can’t go on like this.”
He was right, but insufficient action has been taken since. Things have not improved—rather the opposite—so I call on the Government to save lives and reduce harm for us all by revising the alcohol strategy. We cannot have a successful long-term approach to substance misuse without looking at both alcohol and drugs.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to make my maiden speech within such an important debate. I commend the previous speakers, hon. Members, for the eloquence with which they have delivered their strong message on the drugs debate.
I first wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, Fiona Mactaggart, for her two decades of determined and dedicated service for our constituency. She, along with her predecessors, are very fondly remembered by the people of Slough for their honourable service. I will try to emulate them by becoming a hard-working MP for my constituents, because that is what Slough deserves.
Slough is a major cultural and creative hub, with one of the highest numbers of corporate and start-up companies and headquarters anywhere in the country. Slough trading estate, for instance, is the largest singly owned industrial estate, providing more than 17,000 jobs. Having run my own small start-up construction business, I appreciate how hard businesses need to work to succeed and become the engine of our economy. Home to some of the top-performing state schools in the country and with superb infrastructure links, I think hon. Members will agree with me that Slough has a very bright future. I am from the silicon valley of England.
We have a vibrant and diverse community, with Kashmiris living harmoniously side by side with Punjabis and those with Irish, Polish and African-Caribbean ancestry. Indeed, it is the world in microcosm.
However, juxtaposed with this idyllic scenario of low unemployment is the fact that we have some of the highest levels of homelessness, child obesity and malnutrition in the country. There is a lack of affordable and social housing, and that is why I need to work closely with Slough’s Labour-run council to help deliver for our residents. But we need to achieve that economic progress for all, while caring for our environment.
Slough is a town of firsts. It elected the UK’s first ever black lady mayor and now, more than three decades later, it has elected the first ever turbaned Sikh to the British Parliament—indeed, I believe, the first ever to be elected to any European Parliament. A glass ceiling has truly been broken. I sincerely hope that many more like me will follow in the years and decades to come.
The enormity of what has been collectively achieved has not escaped me. The hand of history—the huge excitement, anticipation and sheer expectations—weigh heavily on my shoulders. Among the literally thousands of good-will messages from around the globe, one individual very succinctly put it:
“I feel really happy, because finally there is someone that looks like me, sitting in Parliament.”
However, I was most overwhelmed during a recent trip up north, when an elderly gentleman walked up to me with tears streaming down his eyes and said, “I’m proud, son, because I didn’t think that I would see this in my lifetime.”
It is about a sense of belonging—when you get bullied at school for looking different, when you stand out from the crowd. It is a case of being respected and embraced by your fellow countrymen and women, including within the highest echelons of the establishment. What could demonstrate greater embrace than being elected to serve and sit on these green Benches in this august House in the mother of all Parliaments?
In addition to human rights abuses elsewhere in the world, forget being embraced, even acceptability is still a huge problem, for example in our neighbouring France. I find it extremely disappointing and incredibly ironic that more than 80,000 turbaned Sikh soldiers died—yes, died; not injured—laid down their lives to liberate the very country where their descendants cannot even have their ID photos taken without having to remove their turbans, and cannot even send their children to most state schools without removing their turbans. This same warped interpretation of secularism precludes Muslims from wearing their hijabs and niqabs, Jews from wearing their skull caps and Christians from wearing their crosses. Acceptability is still a problem in advanced nations, such as our close ally the United States, where several Sikhs have been shot dead because of mistaken identity—mistaken for being terrorists.
The only way to fight such ignorance, to overcome the politics of hate and division, including the Islamophobia that is so prevalent in certain sections of our society and media, is to call it out and condemn it, and to espouse the politics of integration. These are not just hollow words; I believe strongly in community cohesion and integration. When I served as mayor in 2011, integration was my mayoral theme. The message that I consistently took out to our schools, our various faith groups and the wider community was that we should all be proud of our own distinct identity, whatever that may be, but that we should also be proud of our shared heritage, and for those of us who were born and brought up in Britain, are British nationals, we should also be proud to be British. I thought it was particularly pertinent that I should deliver that message, because I belong to a “minority” community.
None the less, being distinct or standing out from the crowd has its own distinct advantages. I, for one, Mr Speaker, am very much hoping that these brightly coloured turbans will act as a magnet as you repeatedly point towards the Member for Slough to make his invaluable contributions to proceedings in this House. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
Whilst I am proud to be a Sikh, I will be serving in the true Sikh spirit of “sarbat da bhalla”—working for the betterment of all, regardless of background, or colour or creed. As I stand here today, I do feel immensely proud to be British; to be part of the most diverse Parliament ever, wherein more women MPs, more ethnic minorities, more lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and more people with disabilities have been elected than ever before. While further work of course needs to be done by the political parties, the British public can rightly be proud of this, their achievement.
While faith, family and community have been central to my life, there is one more thing that has been pivotal in my life and will no doubt continue to guide me in the coming years—Labour values: of equality and social justice; of delivering high-quality public services; of being part of a society where we are truly in it together, looking out for and sharing with others; of solidarity, as expressed by unions of hard-working people; of co-operative and internationalist values; of free quality education, including higher education, for all; and of free quality health and social care for all, free at the point of need, the zenith of which was the formation of the NHS.
My grandfather, a retired teacher and committed socialist, explained to me at a very young age what Labour did for him and his family: “They treated us as equals and just because we have a few bob in our pockets, it does not mean that we’ll now abandon them.” While others were busy making speeches on “rivers of blood” and trading with an apartheid Government, Labour was speaking up for people like him and standing in solidarity with black South Africans. It is very easy to pay platitudes to Nelson Mandela, a personal hero of mine, when the whole world regards him as a hero, but to stand in solidarity with him and his people when the chips are truly down takes immense courage. That is what Labour does best.
To conclude, having been born locally, when my father worked at the Langley Ford factory and my mother worked for a local petrol pump company on Farnham Road, little could they have imagined that their son—the son of immigrants—would go on to serve as the town’s MP. Indeed, little could I have imagined that my constituency office would be just a stone’s throw away from where I spent my early years on Lorne Close in Chalvey. From such humble beginnings, it is with great humility that I take on this august office. After the faith they have placed in me, I really hope to make the people of Slough proud of their MP, as I seek to serve my constituency and my country.
I commend the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi)—or, should I say, for the silicon valley of Europe?—on his excellent maiden speech. It was thoughtful and thought-provoking, and I am sure that I am joined by colleagues on both sides of the House in looking forward to his contributions in the future.
I must first declare an interest, because my husband works for a company that has a Home Office licence to grow non-psychoactive versions of cannabis to treat epileptic conditions in children. It is groundbreaking work, but I thought I should declare it, given that I will be talking about the psychoactive version of cannabis in due course—a very different substance.
I welcome the new strategy and the joined-up approach by Government to tackling the problem of drugs in our local communities and on a national and international scale. Although my hon. Friend the Minister and others were good enough to take interventions from me about my experience in the criminal courts, I share with them the hope that we can find more international solutions to tackling the problem of drugs. It is not just a problem in the United Kingdom: sadly, it is a problem that pretty much every country faces. We will have to improve our relations internationally if we are to have any chance to tackle the growers and dealers on an international scale.
As I have mentioned, before my election I worked as a criminal barrister. In my early days, that meant that I often used to defend young people afflicted with drug addictions in youth courts and magistrates courts. As I rose up the ranks, I began to prosecute high-level drug cases—the sorts of cases that are stories in the newspapers, with international drug barons who supply the first tier of the market in this country, which then disseminates the drugs regionally and eventually down to the street. It goes without saying that the tonnes of cocaine, heroin and cannabis that featured in the cases on which I worked were of a very different purity from the substances that would be bought on the street. Like any efficient—I hesitate to use that word—business model, criminals diversify. They pad out the product as much as they can to try to increase their profits.
One of the most fascinating witnesses I have ever called in a criminal trial was the Metropolitan police’s expert witness on the business of drugs. The idea that the drugs industry is run by anything other than consummate professionals—ruthless and evil, but none the less professionals—cannot be gainsaid. Like legitimate companies, these people have branding, and send out testers to their best purchasers. They are utterly ruthless in the way they sell their product, and that is why I do not share the optimism of others about tackling the problem through regulation—I will say more on that later.
The high-level criminal gangs that operate in these markets do not only import drugs. Having a method of importing drugs means having a way of importing guns and ammunition and, sadly, smuggling people in. Those drug gangs have a host of criminal behaviours to try to spot flaws in law enforcement across the European Union. They find the holes and they exploit them to make huge profits.
Other hon. Members have talked about alcohol, which creates its own harms, and I understand that. However, I urge a note of caution when comparing class A drugs to alcohol. When a drinks company legally makes an alcoholic drink, it is an efficient process with factories, licensing and so on. The reality of the drugs market—and one I fear cannot be changed—is that by definition the drugs that cause the most harm, heroin and cocaine, cannot be grown in this country, which means that they must be grown overseas in nations that tend to be poorer, such as Mexico, Colombia and Iraq.
Those drugs then have to get into this country. That happens in a variety of ways, but the most distressing for me—and it is one we should perhaps educate our young people more about—is the use of swallowers. There are various drug routes from Colombia and Mexico, and they usually pass through the Caribbean. Young people, and sometimes children, are persuaded or forced to swallow condoms full of cocaine or heroin. They are sent by air to major airports in Europe and then bounced into the United Kingdom. One has to hope beyond hope that those young people are caught by customs officials at Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton or wherever they end up, because that is their best chance. If they are caught by customs, they are taken to a customs facility with special—I am phrasing this carefully, because I am conscious this is a public sitting—lavatory facilities to enable the condoms of cocaine to leave the human body. They are watched as that happens by customs officials because, for evidential reasons, we need to know which evidence came which person. Obviously, they are in great pain as the condoms leave their bodies, because the human body is not made to pass such objects.
The lucky swallowers are caught by customs and dealt with officially—protected, I have to say—by customs officials. The worst-case scenario for the swallowers is to pass customs, meet the dealers and be taken to their headquarters. In unsanitary and unpleasant conditions, they are forced to try to pass the condoms. If they do not pass them, the dealers have a decision to make. They have as much as £50,000 of profit in a swallower’s stomach—how are they to get it out? It is not pretty. They are ruthless and violent, so they use a knife to get the profit out of that person’s stomach. That fact is not often reported, which surprises me because if we could communicate to people who use cocaine that that is how it ends up in that wrap in their club or wherever they buy it, they might pause for a moment.
I know that some hon. Members will say that is why we need to regulate and take the criminals out of that market. I can understand that view, but my experience from the courts means that I do not see how we will persuade people who are ruthless enough to gut another human being like a fish to follow a law-abiding existence. Forgive me for being a beacon of pessimism, but I just do not see how we can do it.
That is a perfectly proper question. The only solution I have come up with—and I am a person, not a think-tank or a Home Office official—is to continue and increase our pressure on criminal gangs. We are getting better at it, but we need to work internationally with other countries. We could do more in some of the countries I have mentioned to try to remove the financial attraction of giving a field over to opium poppies.
I take that approach rather than the “let’s regulate it” approach—apart from my cynicism that the dealers will withdraw from criminal activity—because of the nature of addiction. When I used to mitigate for young people in the criminal courts, I would try to explain the addiction in the following way. I think that it takes three forms. There is the physical addiction, in which the body craves the next fix. There is also the mental addiction: “How can I cope? How can I get through the day, the week, without my next fix, my few fixes?” But there is also the social addiction.
If you are in such a dark place that you are addicted to a class A substance, you will probably not be hanging out with people who are not also addicted. We know that people gather to share instruments, substances and so on. That is a social addiction, and it must be challenged. I hope that that will happen, and I am very encouraged by what I have seen in the drugs strategy. At present, when a prisoner is released from a certain prison in south London—I will not name it—the dealers line up on the avenue outside the prison saying, “Oh, hello, old friend, you are back, would you like a fix on me?” If we can break that social addiction, it will help such people to break the addiction overall.
I welcome the idea of a national recovery champion, and all the other ideas in the drugs strategy, because we are finally looking properly at the ill effects of addiction as well as the law enforcement side. However, I still strongly believe that we must focus on the criminal aspect. It is possible that, in the event of regulation or decriminalisation, some addicts would be able to make the journey to the local chemist, or wherever it might be, to pick up their doses, but I fear that the social addiction and the pressure of the dealer would still play a part. The dealer would say to the addict, “Oh, well, you may be getting your fix from the chemist or wherever, but you really want to buy your fix from me, don’t you?”
Given the mental and the social addiction and the threats that dealers are quite prepared to use, I fear that there will be a black market, and there is evidence to suggest that that would happen. We know that, sadly, when heroin users are prescribed methadone, they are not always able to withstand the enticements of their dealers. That may be partly because they want to carry on using heroin, but I worry that the regulation/decriminalisation strategy will allow the dealers to carry on dealing on the streets.
There is a black market in tobacco and there is a black market in alcohol, but most people do not obtain their tobacco and their alcohol from the black market. Is it not the case that there would be less temptation, and that over time there would be a reduction in the number of people using dealers?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because the subject of counterfeit cigarettes was next on my list. Again, I speak from personal experience. I prosecuted a criminal gang who, at the time, controlled the counterfeit cigarette market in the north of England. When the customs knocked out that gang—they did fantastically well: they got the guy at the very top as well as the distributors at the bottom—that knocked out the counterfeit cigarette market in the north of England for six months. After that, however, another gang came in and filled the vacuum. I do not have to hand the figures on usage of counterfeit cigarettes, but it is a fact that many people seek them out, not least because cigarettes are generally priced very highly—and rightly so, because we want people to stop smoking. Although I do not have the figures now, I remember reading them when I was dealing with that case. It is compelling to see many people use counterfeit cigarettes.
We know that there is also a growing market in counterfeit alcohol. In the last six months, corner shops have been warned that they need to be aware of very good reproductions of certain brands of vodka. The vodka that people may be buying in good faith from their local shop is, in fact, far more alcoholic than they would expect. I hope that, if nothing else, I am explaining my worries about how complex the position is, and demonstrating that we cannot just rely on the idea of regulation and decriminalisation.
Is the hon. Lady not impressed by the simple fact that, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), in 1971 fewer than 1,000 people in this country were addicted to heroin and cocaine, and there were virtually no deaths because those people were receiving their heroin from the health service? After 46 years of the harshest prohibition in Europe, we now have 320,000 addicts. Is it not true that prohibition creates the drug trade, creates the gangsters, and creates the deaths?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has a long history of campaigning on this subject, which I respect. However, I am afraid that I must disagree with him. A very great deal has changed since 1971. Criminal gangs come to the United Kingdom from all over the world because the UK is much more densely populated than other countries, and they come here to sell drugs. I am sure that some Members sometimes want to turn the clock back to 1971, but I do not think we can do that. We now have to deal with the international movement of criminals and so on as it happens.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to other countries that have decriminalised drugs, and the impact that that has had on addiction rates. I know that in various American states that have decriminalised cannabis—which, obviously, is a different substance from heroin—there is evidence of a growing backlash against that decriminalisation. People may like the idea in principle, but when it comes to practicalities such as where the shop that sells the cannabis will be located in their towns—will it be the post office?—and whether advertising will be allowed near a school, they feel uncomfortable.
We need look no further than my own county. The city of Lincoln celebrated the Government’s introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 because it was fed up to the back teeth with having headshops all over the city. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman and I will never see eye to eye on this, but I do not think we can turn the clock back to 1971.
The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) cited Portugal and the number of drug deaths there. I assume that he took his figures from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which I think contains the latest statistics. It turns out that Romania has the lowest rate of deaths through drug use, followed by Portugal, and that Bulgaria and Turkey have the third and fourth lowest rates. I do not know, but I suspect that Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey do not have liberal policies on such matters as drug use decriminalisation. I urge Members to exercise a bit of caution when looking at those statistics, because decriminalisation may not be the whole answer.
We know that the potency of the psychoactive substance in cannabis has increased from an average of about 1% in the 1960s to about 11% in 2011. What on earth does that mean? According to my research, it is equivalent to an increase from one low-alcohol beer a day to a dozen shots of vodka a day. That is quite a jump in potency. Sadly, as we know, skunk can be even stronger, with up to 30% of tetrahydrocannabinol potency. As I mentioned earlier, we see the real impact in the criminal courts: we see young offenders with mental health issues who have also used skunk on a regular basis. Those are the people I want to protect. If we can persuade fewer young people to smoke dope or take drugs, that has a benefit for them and their families, and it has a huge benefit for the local community. We all know of the role that drugs play in onward crimes, committed to fund the next drugs purchase.
I am conscious that I have taken a long time and we have a very exciting maiden speech on its way. Although the international debate on how to deal with drugs continues, it is essential that the Government set out a strategy for what we do at home. I am really impressed by this drug strategy. I welcome in particular the introduction of a national recovery champion. It is a good idea to have someone looking over good and not so good practice. We may not agree on decriminalisation, but I am sure we all agree that healthcare must form part of the drug strategy. We have to be able to look after addicts to help them to get rid of their addiction. None the less, I am still a firm believer that law enforcement plays a vital role here and internationally in stopping the drug barons profiting from this terrible industry. I will support the Government in their efforts to stop it.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on a really excellent speech? It was a privilege to be here for the first maiden speech by a brightly coloured turbaned Sikh. I am looking forward to a number of maiden speeches today. In my own maiden speech two years ago, I said among other things that I looked forward to arguing for reform of our drug laws. There has been very little chance to do so since then, so I welcome the debate today. However, unfortunately, the Government’s new drug strategy is a massive missed opportunity.
We do not get a new strategy very often. There is always the hope that it might contain some radical thinking. This strategy, sadly, offers little that is new. It is more of the same approach that is not working, that has seen an increase in drug-related deaths in the UK and that sees the UK responsible for nearly a third of Europe’s drug deaths.
My friend Cara’s son is five tomorrow. It will be his third birthday without his father Jake, who died of a heroin overdose. Cara wants to legalise drugs to end the stigma around drug use and to end the unnecessary criminalisation of drug users that made it so hard for her family to deal with Jake’s addiction, and makes it more difficult for people to seek help with drug problems.
The day after tomorrow, Thursday, will be the fourth anniversary of the death of 15-year-old Martha Cockburn, who died after taking ecstasy that turned out to be 91% pure; as a result, she died of an accidental overdose. Martha’s mum, Anne-Marie, who I think is in the Public Gallery, now campaigns for the legalisation and regulation of ecstasy, among other drugs. Martha died because there was no controlling measures on the substance that killed her and no way for Martha to check the safety of the substance she was using. Martha was failed by our approach to drug policy.
Many people who have been touched by the loss of loved ones want a more measured debate and a more rational approach to drug policy. Fifty people a week are dying of drug-related deaths in the UK—50 Marthas and Jakes. Our first duty in this place has to be to try to keep people safe and we are failing. The biggest missed opportunity in this strategy is the fact that we have not even considered decriminalisation or legalisation of some drugs as a solution to the problem. We have heard a number of times about Portugal, which decriminalised the use of drugs in 2001. Its drug-induced death rate is five times lower than the EU average. It had 16 overdose deaths last year and there has been a massive reduction in HIV infections.
In an article last week on the publication of the strategy, the Home Secretary said:
“We owe it to future generations to work together for a society free of drugs.”
Talk of a society free of drugs is a dangerous fantasy. Humans have taken drugs for thousands of years and are not going to stop because the Home Secretary produces a new strategy. It is a dangerous fantasy because it diverts attention and resources from the real challenge, which is how we make drug taking safer, how we educate users, how we reduce the consumption of dangerous drugs, how we take control of the drug trade from the criminals who want to exploit vulnerable users, and how we stop criminalising thousands of people unnecessarily. Many people are being criminalised because they have a medical or psychological problem. We need to recognise the link between early childhood trauma, including abuse, and addiction in later life. It is a closer link than that between obesity and diabetes. Drug addiction is often a psychological or biological problem, and criminalising people who have those problems is not the answer. In other cases, we are criminalising people unnecessarily for using a relatively harm-free intoxicant.
The best example is cannabis. It is surely wrong that we criminalise people for using a substance less dangerous than tobacco or alcohol—a substance that the overwhelming majority of people find pleasant, relatively harm-free and even a rewarding experience to take. We have all-party parliamentary groups that extol the virtues of beer, wine and whisky, but when we talk about a substance that is less harmful than alcohol, we are not allowed to say that it can be a positive experience.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, but I regret to say that he is wrong in one particular regard. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has made it crystal clear that cannabis is an extremely dangerous drug that can be a gateway to mental health difficulties. Does he not agree that, if we were to decriminalise it, it would send a dangerous message to young people that cannabis is somehow safe? Nothing could be further from the truth.
My hon. Friend is making an informed statement. Does he agree that cannabis sativa and cannabis indica are totally different from the skunk that we have discussed? The experience in the western United States is that one can have a perfectly civilised purchasing system for cannabis sativa and cannabis indica. May I possibly appeal to the more avaricious elements on the Government Benches, as that is a vast revenue stream of taxation, which surely should delight even their dark hearts?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. He knows it, and I suspect that very many Members in this House know it—far more than are represented here today. I think plenty on the Government side know it, too, and perhaps even the Home Secretary knows it but, because of the toxic climate of the debate around drug policy, we are not able to say so.
If we legalised and regulated cannabis, we would take it out of the hands of the dealers, and reduce the opportunities for them to tempt users into experimenting with more dangerous drugs. We would also regulate the product, so users know with confidence what they are getting, so people who are worried about high levels of THC do not have to take whatever they can get on the street. There is a bonus too: we would raise many millions of pounds for the Exchequer to spend, if that is what we desire, on drug education or the NHS.
Around the world, countries recognise that cannabis prohibition is failing, and many of them are regulating. Uruguay was the first to do so. Eight states in the US, representing 20% of the population, have now legalised and regulated. Next year, Canada should become the first G7 country to do it. It is time we did the same. My personal belief is that this is going to happen. It is inevitable that it is going to happen in this country; we just need to grasp the nettle and do it.
We desperately need to change the terms of the debate. We need more openness and honesty in discussion of drug policy, and we need to reduce the stigma around taking drugs so that families find it easier to discuss the problem and find help. We need to stop the pretence that everyone’s experience of illegal drugs is negative.
In my previous life, I worked as a DJ and an event manager in the music industry, so I spent a lot of time working and socialising in nightclubs, being around people who used recreational drugs. Many thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of ecstasy pills are taken every week in the UK, and we cannot pretend in our public discourse that people who are taking drugs do it because it is a terrible, miserable experience; people will not believe us, and it will destroy the credibility of the message. We need an honest and rational debate around drug policy if users, especially young people, are going to take us seriously.
Most of all, we need to focus on policies that minimise harm and risk to users, and that requires looking at different approaches to harm reduction. That is where this strategy is disappointing. The Government have ignored the chance to do that by looking at interventions that can save lives—at drug consumption rooms for heroin users, at heroin prescribing, at pill testing—and we need a much stronger emphasis on educational solutions if people are caught breaking what is currently the law.
If I get caught speeding in my car, I am sent on a course to teach me to drive more carefully. Those courses have a high success rate. If I am driving a speeding car, I have the potential to do much more harm to society than if I am caught in possession of cannabis or ecstasy for personal use, but the latter is a criminal offence, with the potential for a damaging criminal record, and the former a civil offence. There is no reason not to treat drug possession for personal use in the same way.
I want to say a few brief words about medicinal cannabis. Although it is not really covered in this strategy, we looked at it last year in the all-party group for drug policy reform. There is overwhelming evidence that cannabis is a useful treatment for a range of conditions. In some cases, people find relief in cannabis, having exhausted treatments that have failed. Some people may have seen an article in the Daily Mail recently that asked whether a woman should be criminalised for medicating with cannabis. When even the Daily Mail accepts that there is an argument for change, that surely illustrates how far behind public opinion the House is on the issue. We should follow many countries, as well as half the states in the USA, and legalise cannabis for medicinal use.
Finally, I want to mention resourcing. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary said earlier, passing responsibility for drug treatment to local authorities was a good idea in practice. However, there is a huge problem for local authorities that commission addiction services because of the massive cuts to local authority budgets.
Some drugs are dangerous, and we need to get drugs under control, but I do not want those words to be misinterpreted; I do not mean that we need to ban the use of drugs. The production, retail and use of some drugs needs to be controlled, so people can use drugs safely if they choose to do so. Prohibition is not working in the UK or around the world. We need a new approach. We need to treat addiction as a health issue. We need to stop criminalising people unnecessarily. We need to begin considering proper, evidence-based strategies. We certainly need to move towards legalising cannabis, and I believe that that is only a matter of time. We also need to look seriously at the decriminalisation of other drugs.
I have spoken today not because I think I am going to secure a massive change in the Government’s drug policy; indeed, I do not expect any quick progress on drug policy. I just think we need to start reframing the debate. There are a limited number of us who are prepared to speak up on this issue at present, but I hope the numbers will gradually increase, because we need a serious debate on this issue, not more of the same approach, which has failed.
I have been very pleased to listen to some excellent and well-informed speeches today, particularly the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi). It is an absolute honour to be able to make my maiden speech and to represent the people of Stoke-on-Trent South in this place. Stoke-on-Trent is the city that I grew up in and where I have lived my whole life. Nothing could make me prouder than serving the people of Stoke-on-Trent South in Parliament.
I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, Mr Rob Flello. I thank him for his commitment to Stoke-on-Trent South over the past 12 years. He will be remembered as a dedicated community activist in Stoke-on-Trent and was respected here for his campaigning on a number of national concerns, particularly those relating to the road haulage industry, in which he played an active role.
Stoke-on-Trent is a unique place with a strong cultural identity. It is a city founded on its industrial heritage, with those industries now resurgent and a hotbed of innovation. The potteries were born out of industry and our culture flows from that. Stoke-on-Trent is also known well for its unique cultural dialect. I thought about giving my maiden speech in a traditional potteries dialect, but I feared that it might prove impossibly challenging for Hansard and for hon. and right hon. Members. However, I hope that they will indulge me for just one short line. It is time that this question was asked in the House: cost kick a bow agen’ a woe, y’ed it back an bost it? I know that, in answer to that question, the players of Stoke City football club—whose home is the bet365 stadium in my constituency—would have no problem t bost a bo.
Stokies are especially known for their friendliness, and many visitors to the city remark on how welcoming the local people are. What makes us most distinctive, however, is our geographical make-up, following the coming together in 1910 of six different, individual towns to form one body. Two of those towns, Fenton and Longton, are in my constituency. However, we did not gain city status until 1925, in what was a rare modern occurrence of royal intervention in which the monarch countermanded the Government. Having initially been refused city status by the Home Office, Stoke-on-Trent made a direct approach to His Majesty King George V and became a city on 4 June 1925.
Surrounding the pottery towns of Fenton and Longton, my Stoke-on-Trent South constituency includes a diverse slice of north Staffordshire. We have the only grade 1 listed building in Stoke-on-Trent, the Trentham Mausoleum, which is the final resting place of the Dukes of Sutherland. They were significant philanthropists in the area, particularly in Longton, Normacot and Dresden, giving land and paying for many of the important public buildings and facilities that we see today. They include the fantastic Queen’s Park, the first public pleasure park in the potteries, which was opened to commemorate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. It was once a lone oasis in an otherwise smog-filled urban area, but today we are one of the greenest cities in the country, with more than 1,380 hectares of parks and open space. One of the most important natural sites, Park Hall country park, is in Weston Coyney in my constituency. It is a site of special scientific interest and the only national nature reserve in Stoke-on-Trent.
Where once stood thousands of bottle ovens in Stoke-on-Trent, only 47 now remain. They are protected, of course, and I am pleased to say that half of those iconic structures are in my constituency, with the largest number in Longton. My constituency has no shortage of first-rate architectural gems, both old and new. Many of these important historical sites have now been converted, with a number becoming enterprise centres to host thriving small businesses. They include the Sutherland Institute, St James’s House, CoRE and now also Fenton Town Hall, which has been reborn as a centre for business and industry by the grandson of the original builder and benefactor, William Meath Baker. There is a tremendous spirit of resourcefulness and renewal in my constituency, and it gives me great optimism that so many of our heritage landmarks will continue to find new uses in a new age.
My constituency is well connected by road and rail, as well as being within an hour’s drive of four international airports. Sadly, the Meir aerodrome is no longer in operation. It opened in 1934 as Staffordshire’s first municipal airport and closed in the 1970s. It has now been redeveloped to form the Meir Park residential estate. When the aerodrome was still in use, people might have seen my constituency from above, stretching from the regenerated industrial heartlands of Longton and Fenton, right across to the surrounding suburban communities of Trentham, Blurton, Weston Coyney and Meir—a mixture of different communities that I am so proud to represent.
Stoke-on-Trent has been a global city, designing wares and products to fit every taste and market. We have been exporting and trading products around the world for centuries, and that has never been more true and important than it is today. We have some of the most advanced steel manufacturing in the world. Just like pottery, steel manufacturing has strong roots in Stoke-on-Trent. Goodwin International, which is based in my constituency, is a world leader in mechanical engineering, producing some of the most intricate steel components, both large and small. It works in partnership with Goodwin Steel Castings in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent Central, which has been producing machined castings since 1883—one of the 10 oldest companies listed on the stock exchange. Goodwin’s products are of the highest standard and are used right around the world in energy production, bridge construction and armed forces equipment.
Today in Stoke-on-Trent our industries are becoming more diverse and more innovative than ever before. Rated nationally as the second-best place to start a new business, it is the No. 1 city for business survival and the ninth-fastest growing economy in the UK. Productivity has increased by over 25% since 2010. It is ranked fourth for employment growth and has one of the fastest-growing housing markets, and our big ceramics businesses have increased production by over 50%.
People are waking up to what Stoke-on-Trent has to offer as one of the best connected places. We have kept ahead of the digital curve with some of the best broadband connectivity, and we are rated as having the best 4G download speeds in the country, not only making Stoke-on-Trent a key hub for some of the leading brands in distribution and logistics, but putting the city at the forefront of a revolution in digital and advanced manufacturing.
Our clay-based industries in particular have become more diverse and are expanding into new sectors. Whether healthcare, tourism, high-tech materials or construction, ceramic products are becoming ever more essential in the modern world. That has been exemplified by recent investment in the Wedgwood factory and visitor centre in my constituency. The fully refurbished factory site manufactures some of the finest wares in the world, and the World of Wedgwood visitor centre is a must see for any tourist. Most recently, we have seen the opening of the brand-new Valentine Clays facility in Fenton, which is continuing the growth of the industry and supplying clay and raw materials to potters around the country.
Our growing economy and industry are supported by strong academic institutions. Staffordshire University is now rated one of the best nationally for some of its digital courses, such as gaming. We also have Keele University—I should declare an interest in that my wife and I are both Keele graduates—which is renowned nationally for its academic strength and has won numerous awards for the quality of its academia, including being ranked top nationally for student experience and student satisfaction and most recently being awarded gold in the teaching excellence framework. Importantly, the universities play an active part in the community and economy of north Staffordshire and have a critical role in the innovation and development of our local industries.
The businesses and people who have invested in Stoke-on-Trent South are rightly proud of what we have achieved. As their strong voice in Parliament, I am determined to work to create better jobs that will spread the net of opportunity wider. Critical to that will be securing the best possible deal from leaving the European Union, guaranteeing trade and ensuring ease of access to markets throughout the world. That is what people in Stoke-on-Trent South overwhelmingly voted for in the referendum and what people were saying to me on the doorstep during the general election campaign. I will be calling on the Government to advance trade agreements around the world as part of a more global Britain that supports businesses in Stoke-on-Trent South to sell their products abroad. This is about creating prosperity for every household in Stoke-on-Trent South, driving up skills and increasing local people’s wages. We need to see not just more jobs in Stoke-on-Trent South but better jobs that pay higher wages and take full advantage of the talent that Stokies have.
In my time in the House I will be a strong advocate for measures that support industry and fulfil the promise of the Government’s industrial strategy to rebalance the national economy. This includes the development of a place-based industrial strategy that works for the potteries. We need to see investment in our infrastructure that ensures businesses in Stoke-on-Trent can continue to thrive and local people are not blighted by sitting in daily traffic jams. It will mean improving our transport network to be fit for the future, improving rail and road connections to my constituency to help address congestion and ensuring that we see better local rail services to Longton station and improved connectivity to Stoke-on-Trent from across the country.
For our industries to grow and create the jobs we need locally, we must also ensure greater energy security, with infrastructure that matches the needs of our manufacturing sectors. As a city made up of towns, we need to ensure that our town centres are healthy and that our high streets remain relevant to the local communities they serve. I want to see Longton and Fenton town centres become stronger, with new housing and businesses moving in. Those are my priorities as Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent South.
I began by speaking of our heritage and culture in Stoke-on-Trent. I could not be more delighted that our city has been shortlisted for UK city of culture 2021. Stoke-on-Trent is the world capital of ceramics, which is an industry and art that has not only shaped my constituency but has left its stamp on our national culture. Many Stokies, like me, are proud of the products we see around the world that are back-stamped “Made in Stoke-on-Trent” and “Made in Britain.” A Stokie can often be spotted apart turning over a plate or a mug to check where it was made.
The Palace of Westminster, like many of the greatest buildings across the country, is filled with products manufactured in Stoke-on-Trent. From the tableware to the Minton tile floors, each piece is an ambassador for Stoke-on-Trent. I was a little disappointed to find that the ongoing floor restoration works in Central Lobby are using tiles manufactured in Jackfield, Shropshire. However, I was reassured to discover that the powder used to produce these fantastic tiles is sourced from Stoke-on-Trent.
I can think of no city that better celebrates its culture and heritage, or whose cultural identity and ambition are so closely bound up with its industry and commerce. I think of the multitudes who flock to the many museums and factory shops to learn about our industries and buy Stoke-on-Trent products. Gladstone Pottery Museum in my constituency gives the true experience of a Victorian pottery factory.
I think of the unparalleled collection housed at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, including one of only four surviving vases thrown by Josiah Wedgwood in 1769 on the first day of opening his factory, which started the industrial revolution in the potteries. Recently rescued from private sale and export, the vase will now be on display again for people to visit and enjoy.
I think of our several locally and nationally important theatres; I think of our music venues, our restaurants, our parks, canals and open spaces; I think of a city of culture and picture Stoke-on-Trent, where creativity and culture have always been critical to our economic and social progress; and, of course, I think of the famous Staffordshire oatcakes, which I encourage all hon. and right hon. Members to try from one of the many local oatcake shops when they get the chance to visit.
There is so much that is culturally unique about Stoke-on-Trent, and winning this bid would help continue the revival of Stoke-on-Trent as a vibrant and innovative core of the UK economy. It will be an absolute pleasure to back the city of culture bid as Stoke-on-Trent South’s MP and to campaign for my constituents to win that recognition in 2021.
This debate is about drugs policy. The use of psychoactive substances in particular is increasing, which is ruining lives and is a significant cause of crime on our streets. That not only affects police services but puts pressure on our national health service, which has to deal with much of the human cost of drug abuse.
Far too many ordinary people in my constituency have felt the impacts of drug use and told me they do not feel safe in our communities. I will be working with Staffordshire police and Matthew Ellis, our police and crime commissioner, to ensure that we continue to see drug use decline and we act against the associated crimes. Much progress is being made by local partners and communities; putting in place a public space protection order in Longton has made a big difference. I have particularly seen the fantastic work put in by volunteers such as Street Chaplains locally in my constituency. Significant work has been done to help ensure people feel safe and welcome when visiting the town centre, and in directing people who need help to get the right support.
Often the misuse of drugs can be linked to mental health problems, and I have been pleased to see Staffordshire leading the way to ensure that people with mental health problems get better support. Local services, the police and the voluntary sector continue to work more closely in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire to help people get better support to tackle addictions and change their lifestyles. I want to play my part in ensuring that we continue to tackle these issues in our communities, so we continue to see drug-related crimes reduced and people with addictions get the right support.
I congratulate the new hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on his excellent maiden speech. He told of the multitude travelling to Stoke. The last multitude to travel to Stoke from Wrexham was for the FA cup match a few years ago. Wrexham led for a glorious five minutes, but unfortunately it did not end well. His was a wonderful speech that did end well, and I wish him the best for his future in the House.
This debate is about the Government’s new drugs policy. I have considered in detail the drugs strategy that was published last week. I found it rather disappointing. I was pleased that it was produced and I am glad the Government are looking at the issue seriously, but we face a real crisis in our drugs strategy. Interestingly, we heard from the hon. Gentleman about new psychoactive substances, which are a major issue in my constituency. The shadow Home Secretary made an apposite point earlier, because it is clear that the decline in resources available for both our police service and our local authorities has had a major impact on the problem of drugs in our communities. In 2010, I saw a police service working with local authorities to provide an excellent law and order policy—one that the Labour party had built up in the 13 years from 1997 to create true community policing. It created a safety valve so that when issues arose they were identified early and we began to address them. In the past seven years, there has been a real decline in the quality of our criminal justice system and in drugs policy on the streets.
I do not have the certainties on decriminalisation of many speakers in this debate, and in many respects I envy them. Before I was a Member of Parliament, I was a solicitor and in the 1980s I worked in Birkenhead. As a defence solicitor, I represented many young heroin addicts. That convinced me profoundly of the danger of drugs and the horrific impact they can have on not only the individuals concerned, but their families. I tread very warily indeed if any sort of message is presented that it is okay to take drugs, because I have seen the very negative impact.
I understand what the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) said in his very eloquent speech. I also listened carefully to the many interventions that have been made and to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), but I am struggling to know the right way ahead. I would not be resistant to a royal commission because NPS is out of control in my community. It affects not just Wrexham, but Manchester and many towns up and down the country. The legislation is not working properly.
In discussions with police officers, I have been told: that it is not possible effectively to arrest people for taking NPS because it is not clear what substance they have taken; that it is too expensive to have the substances tested; and that people are receiving penalties for possession of a class B drug that have no effective outcome and no impact on preventing reoffending. That is creating a major public order problem in our constituencies. It is currently not being addressed, and I cannot see how this document and this strategy will either solve the problem or stop it getting worse.
Does my hon. Friend recall the passage of the Psychoactive Substances Bill last year? It was said to be modelled on similar Bills that had been passed in Ireland and in Poland? In both countries, prohibition of psychoactive substances increased use— in Ireland from 16% to 22%—and increased harm. Is it not true that, in this country, it is very easy to close the headshops, but that we increase the problem, increase the number of users and increase the number of deaths?
Yes, it is a continuing and increasing problem, but it was a problem before the Act was passed. This is a difficult issue with no easy solution. The Act has already had to be amended to reclassify the drug, and to make possession an offence. Initially, that was not the case, and there were problems with effective enforcement. People who had clearly taken these substances and were in a poor condition as a result could not be arrested because they had not committed an offence; they were simply in possession of the drug in question. The law has already had to be amended. I believe a review is due under the Act at the beginning of 2018, but it should be done immediately. I raised this with the Minister at questions a couple of weeks ago, and she said that the measure was working well, when clearly it is not. I was really worried by that response.
On Sunday, I was contacted by a constituent who had been terrified in the centre of the town because of the conduct of some people affected by the drug. It is an urgent issue that must be addressed now. As it stands, the drugs strategy is not addressing the matter properly. Part of the reason is that local authorities and the police do not have the capacity and understanding to deal with it. I am not sure that they are really clear about the correct approach. We need an intelligent conversation about the nature of the problem.
We also need to find out about the individuals who are taking these substances, because each one has their own story and their own life. It is clear that they have chosen to take these substances, but that choice is having a massive impact on other people and other communities because of the way that they behave. I would like to know how they pay for these items, and to understand the role of the Department for Work and Pensions, because some people are using their benefits to buy these substances. I see a lot of people in my constituency office who are having their benefits taken away from them, but who cannot walk into the surgery. A sanction seems to be applied to them, but not to people who choose to take substances in the centre of my community. The Department for Work and Pensions—the largest-spending Department—has not been mentioned so far, but it needs to be involved, so that we can find out what role it plays when individuals to whom it pays benefits take these substances.
I wanted to restrict my observations to new psychoactive substances, but before I stop I should like to mention the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), which I found deeply moving. The first Sikh I remember as a child was Bishan Bedi, who had even better turbans than my hon. Friend, but my hon. Friend can try harder. I was touched by his reference to his parents; I do not know whether they are still with us, but they will be very proud of his achievements. In my maiden speech, I talked about a boy of 14 who was in court with 24 burglaries against his name because he was a heroin addict. I represented him in 1988.
My speech has a lot more questions than answers, but I do not think that we have made much progress on drugs policy since I came to the House in 2001. We have had an interesting debate today. We very much needed to look at the issue again, but there is a real, immediate problem with NPS that the Government need to address urgently, and I implore them to take it more seriously.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech during this important debate.
Since arriving in Parliament, I have spent the past few weeks being greeted with the now familiar phrase, “Ah, so you’re the new Alan Johnson, are you?” Despite the obvious and not quite so obvious differences between us, that is something that I am very proud to be. Alan Johnson was the MP for Hull West and Hessle for over 20 years, and he built a formidable and proud reputation as a national political figure, but, most importantly for the people of Hull West and Hessle, Alan was a well-respected local MP who worked hard to represent the people who elected him to this House. Notably, Alan worked tirelessly to rectify the appalling injustice and hardships suffered by the trawlermen of Hull and their families. This righting of wrongs earned him the ever-lasting respect and admiration of the city.
Alan’s life story is a journey from absolute poverty to high office. It is a story of triumph over adversity. This is all well documented in his autobiographies. He would not want me to miss an opportunity to mention that if hon. Members are interested in reading more about his life, his three autobiographies are available in all good bookshops.
My path has been different from Alan’s, but I am incredibly proud to have also come from a strong trade unionist background. I am proud to have been a primary teacher. I have never worked for an MP and I have not come from a family of politicians. My journey has been paved by my desire to right wrongs. Every one of us has made sacrifices to be here, and so have all our families—particularly my two wonderful daughters, Olivia and Isabelle. But it is a sacrifice that must be made because politics cannot be the preserve of the rich, powerful and privileged.
Back in 2011, when I first started campaigning against the changes to education, I was told that my opinion was unimportant because I was only a part-time infant school teacher, but in the words of the Dalai Lama,
“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”
I am honoured to be a patron of The Warren in Hull, which gives support to marginalised and vulnerable young people. I would love it if my legacy was to have encouraged and inspired many other people who had also been told that their opinion did not matter to get involved in politics, because everybody matters equally.
I have heard many maiden speeches in which people have talked of the beauty of their constituency, but what makes a place is not the rolling hills, the lakes or the skyscrapers. What makes a place beautiful is the people who live there, and that is why Hull West and Hessle is the best place to live, and why I am so honoured to be their Member of Parliament and represent them.
It is not a stereotype to say that people from the north are friendly and compassionate; it is quite simply a statement of fact. But never mistake friendliness and compassion for weakness. Charles I learned not to underestimate the people of Hull when he was turned away from the city in 1642, leading to the siege of Hull, which was a major step on the road to the English civil war. Nor did anyone underestimate one of Hull’s other famous sons, William Wilberforce, in his tireless fight to end slavery; or, more recently, the “headscarf revolutionaries,” a group of women from Hull who took on the establishment in the 1960s to improve safety in the trawler industry.
This is an incredible year for Hull, because we are the city of culture. Let me take this opportunity to extend a welcome to everybody to come back to ours and experience it for themselves. As an infant teacher, I used to give my pupils an historical tour of the city, pointing out the evidence of our fishing heritage, our magnificent 13th century minster and our beautiful architecture, so if Members come up I’ll even throw in a free tour. This weekend Hull is hosting the national UK Pride event, and I am delighted to be involved. Good luck to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) in his task of trying to get Stoke-on-Trent the city of culture.
I am also incredibly proud to represent Hessle, which is the town where I live and where my girls attend school. It is most famously known for the Humber bridge, which just this week has been given grade I listed status, but I also highly recommend the Hessle feast.
Since it was as an infant teacher that I became politicised, it will come as no surprise to anyone that I want to focus the House’s attention on education and speak during this important debate on drugs. There must be a drugs education programme as part of a wider personal, social and health education to keep our children safe. But PSHE, like so many arts subjects, is being pushed out because of the high-stakes accountability in our schools. There is no point having a drugs education programme if there is no time to teach it. Some parents can compensate for the narrowing of the curriculum by paying for music, dance, art, drama or sports clubs, but many cannot. We are wasting the talents and abilities of so many of our children because of the failed way we judge schools.
That pressure that schools face is manifesting itself as pressure on our children. Now, the Prime Minister thinks that schools can solve the mental health crisis facing our children, but it has been contributed to by her Government’s system of educational assessment. We should not be making our schools into learning factories that churn out compliant, unquestioning units for work. We want our children to be creative, to question, to inquire, to explore and to think independently, especially in this era of fake news. We are discussing the reform of drugs law without asking ourselves: if we only ever teach our children to obey adults unquestioningly, how can they ever understand when they should not?
Education provided my father with his route out of poverty, and it was the route for his three brothers too. My dad left education with next to nothing in the way of qualifications, and it was through evening classes and further education that he went on to become a local primary headteacher. The under-investment in FE is denying people that second chance. Some 31% of children in Hull live in poverty, and I do not think that it is right for any child’s life story to be determined by birth. But with the cuts facing Hull College, Sure Start and all of education, how can we say that we are giving our young people today those same opportunities and second chances?
It is not just the FE sector that is suffering; it is all of education. While I welcome the recent announcement of extra funding, it is not enough. Inflation and other factors mean that schools still face real-terms cuts to their budgets, and those cuts are driving up class sizes, reducing the number of teaching assistants, increasing the number of unqualified teachers and reducing the curriculum options available.
One of the crucial lessons in life, which everyone across all these Benches has learnt, is that when you fall down, you have to pick yourself back up again. But I know that I can do that because I am lucky: I have two brilliant parents who are always there for me. But we are selling a lie if we do not acknowledge how much harder it is for some people. It is like telling them that it is a fair fight, when they start with both hands tied behind their backs and already on the ground.
That is why I am fighting for fairer funding for Hull City Council, which has seen its core spending power cut by 32% since 2010. It cannot invest in those services to really help people have that fair start and equal chance, when all it is doing is managing year-on-year cuts. All these drugs education programmes need proper funding too, if we want them to be successful.
This Government’s political choices to cut benefits—especially to disabled people—to under-invest in education and our NHS and to deny our public sector workers a pay rise are making people in Hull West and Hessle suffer. I am here to represent everyone in Hull West and Hessle: not just those who voted for me and not just those on the electoral roll. I want to be the voice for everyone, and I will hold the Government to account for their decisions. I stand here with my colleagues on the Opposition Benches to say that there is an alternative. Austerity is a political choice—one that I will always choose to oppose.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) on an immensely impressive maiden speech. I confess that I am quite a fan of her predecessor’s—I have not said that until now—but I am now also clearly a fan of the hon. Lady, who, like the other two Members who have made maiden speeches today, spoke incredibly powerfully. The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) gave a powerful and moving speech, and I am just glad I was here to witness it. I thank him.
This has been a fascinating debate, in which there have been more voices for reform than I have heard before; I am particularly encouraged by what the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) said. I will come to my thoughts on reform in a moment, but I want to start by acknowledging that there are important things in the Government’s drugs strategy.
I welcome the shift away from an over-emphasis on abstinence, which in many respects was damaging. I also welcome a focus on evidence-based drug treatment programmes and on addressing the underlying causes of addiction, whether poor housing or mental health issues. I acknowledge those good things. I also welcome the references to drug rehabilitation requirements as a sentencing option along with alcohol rehabilitation requirements and mental health treatment requirements. That is a sensible innovation. I note the preparation of a protocol to ensure good access to treatment and the potential for a maximum waiting time, which all make sense.
However, although the mental health treatment requirements, introduced by the last Labour Government, were a very good policy response, they were virtually never used across the country. Organising mental health treatment services alongside the criminal justice system has proved to be beyond most parts of the country, and I do not want the same to happen with drug and alcohol orders. It is really important that the Government focus on making sure that all three of those sentencing options are available everywhere to ensure that when it comes to offences of which the underlying cause is an addiction or mental health problem, the person gets access to treatment and not just punishment. That is incredibly important.
I want to focus on two key objections. The first has been mentioned by other hon. Members: the cut in public health funding. Frankly, that makes no sense at all. If we are to ensure that the NHS as a whole is more sustainable, we have to shift resources to prevention, not cut the funding available, which is completely counter-productive. In a report published just last week, the King’s Fund highlighted the fact that across the country councils have planned expenditure cuts to really important public health programmes: sexual health clinics as well as programmes reducing harm from smoking, alcohol and drugs. A total of £85 million is involved. The spend on tackling drug misuse for adults involves a planned cut of £22 million, or 5.5%. It totally undermines the Government’s strategy, which, in any case, I disagree with, to be cutting funding from the treatment programmes that can help people to recover. Unless the Government seek to address that, they will fail in their objective.
My second objection is far more fundamental: it relates to the philosophy behind the Government’s approach to drug use. Instinctively, I am hostile to drugs. As the father of two boys, now in their 20s, I get really anxious at the thought of my children—our children—taking drugs, or, indeed, engaging in excessive use of alcohol or smoking. Let us remember, in all the talk about harm from drugs, that smoking, which involves a legal product, kills 100,000 people in our country every year. There is no consistency in Government policy at all, and that is simply not good enough. My starting point is not to advocate a free-for-all but to find an effective approach to the use of drugs that seeks to reduce harm. Surely that is what we should all be searching for. However, the Government’s approach and that of successive Governments—indeed, that of much of the western world—amounts to a monumental failure of public policy. We need a fundamentally new approach.
The Royal Society for Public Health, in its response to the Government’s strategy, says that it
“falls far short of the fundamental reorientation of policy towards public health and away from criminal justice needed to tackle rising drug harm. Decriminalisation of drug possession and use is a critical enabler that would enable drug treatment services to reach as many people as possible as effectively as possible. Instead, the Government still continues to lead with unhelpful rhetoric about ‘tough law enforcement’ that contributes to the marginalisation and stigmatisation of vulnerable drug users”.
If the Government are interested in ensuring that they follow the right approach, surely they should be listening very carefully to those experts in public health.
The British Medical Journal editorial from November last year makes an incredibly important point, saying that
“the effectiveness of prohibition laws, colloquially known as the ‘war on drugs’, must be judged on outcomes”—
what is actually achieved. It continues:
“And too often the war on drugs plays out as a war on the millions of people who use drugs, and disproportionately”—
this is a really important point—
“on people who are poor or from ethnic minorities and on women.”
If the effect of the Government’s policy is as it says in the British Medical Journal, then surely the Government need to think again. The editorial also says:
“All wars cause human rights violations, and the war on drugs is no different. Criminally controlled drug supply markets lead to appalling violence—causing an estimated 65 000-80 000 deaths in Mexico in the past decade”.
That is an extraordinary death toll that surely we should not ignore.
I want to focus on the number of people who die through drug misuse. We heard earlier that a third of such deaths in Europe are in the UK. Ten families are bereaved every single day as a result of drug use. That could be a loved one of any of us in this Chamber. If we think that official Government policy is perhaps contributing to that—and I argue that it is—we need to think again. In 2015, the number of deaths was up by more than 10%. The previous year it had risen by more than 14%, and the year before that by nearly 20%. That is a shocking failure of official policy. Deaths from heroin doubled between 2012 and 2015.
One interesting way of reducing harm from intravenous drug use—particularly heroin, which the right hon. Gentleman just mentioned—is the use of safe and hygienic facilities for intravenous drug users in a non-stigmatic environment. Glasgow is piloting that solution in the city, and perhaps it is worth noting as an option that we should look at and consider the results of with interest.
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I was going to mention that solution in a moment. Let me quote Anne-Marie Cockburn—she has been mentioned in the debate—from the Anyone’s Child project:
“I invite the Prime Minister to come and stand by my daughter’s grave, and tell me her approach to drugs is working.”
That is a parent who lost their daughter as a result of the current approach to drug policy.
The claim in the strategy that the increase in the number of deaths relates to a problem of ageing drug users simply will not wash. The same demographic is replicated across Europe, including in Portugal, but the increase in deaths is not, and we have to ask why. The number of deaths per 100,000 of population in the UK is 10 times that in Portugal. I appreciated the Minister’s statement that she would listen carefully to what I said, and I hold her in high regard as well, but when our death rate is 10 times that of Portugal, which has chosen, incidentally, an approach that commands cross-party support in the country, from left to right, surely she should stop and listen. Surely she should investigate further Portugal’s approach, which has resulted in such a reduction in the number of deaths from drug use.
In 2015, 1,573 people died of a heroin overdose in this country. That is shameful. In the past, those people might have been dismissed as victims of their own stupidity, but we can no longer accept such thinking. These are people. They are citizens of our country, and they are losing their lives. They would not have died if they had had access to the treatment rooms that the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) referred to. So why are the UK Government resistant, as I understand they are, to the project proposed in Glasgow, which has the potential to save lives? Surely that should be part of the strategy, but it does not even mention drug use rooms of that sort. Why on earth not, given that all the evidence points towards significant reductions in the number of deaths? No one dies of an overdose when they take their drugs in such safe rooms. Why are we not moving towards that? It is a disgrace, frankly, that we are not.
Is not the right hon. Gentleman overstating his case? I have visited quite a number of safe rooms across the world and studied the academic research into them. Is it not an overstatement to suggest that nobody dies there? The question of safe injecting is one of the aspects of death, but, as all the Dutch surveys demonstrate, the fundamental determinant of how long someone with an opiate addiction will live is whether they come off heroin and stop injecting.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he is making such a powerful case about the importance of evidence-based policy. Is it not the case that drug consumption rooms allow us to reach people who would otherwise be very hard to reach and, over time, build up trust and bring them into recovery? The purpose of drug consumption rooms is not simply to go on handing out drugs to people, day after day. It is to reach those hard-to-reach people and bring them into recovery, over time.
I totally agree, and I applaud the hon. Lady for the work she has done in arguing the case for reform. Trials of this type of approach have shown huge reductions in acquisitive crime resulting from illegal drug use and in the small-time dealing indulged in to pay for the habit, but the Government withdrew the funding for these trials in April 2016. How short-sighted! The strategy stresses the importance of listening to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but it recommends the use of rooms where drugs can be taken safely, heroin prescribing and, in effect, the decriminalisation of the use of drugs, and the Government are doing none of those things. If the Government say they should listen to the council, they should please listen to what it is arguing for.
It seems to me there is a dishonesty to this debate. In the foreword to the strategy, the Home Secretary says:
“By working together, we can achieve a society that works for everyone and in which every individual is supported to live a life free from drugs”.
Incidentally, does that mean “free from drugs” other than the most dangerous drug, alcohol, which we of course allow to be sold and take the tax from? The objective or ambition of a world free from drugs is unachievable, as other hon. Members have pointed out, so let us just get rid of this fantasy at the heart of the so-called war on drugs, which has been a stupid and catastrophic failure. Such an international policy approach has had extra- ordinary consequences. It has massively enriched organised crime, to the tune of billions of pounds every year. It has also criminalised young people in particular, and it has had a disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities.
Illegal drug use is actually lower among black and minority ethnic groups than in the white population in this country, but black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people. Our son, who is in the music business, was driving in London in the middle of the night, on his way back from a recording at the BBC, when he was stopped in his car. He happened to have a black artist with him, who said, “This is just a fact of life in London for us. This is what happens to us.” They were all pinned up against a wall as they were searched for illegal drugs. There were no illegal drugs in the car, but this is too often what black people in our inner cities have to cope with week in, week out, and it is not acceptable. Black people in London are five times more likely to be charged for the possession of cannabis than white people. This is extraordinary discrimination.
We criminalise people with mental health problems. We know that there is massive comorbidity: if people are suffering from mental ill health—depression, anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder—they may well end up taking drugs as an escape from the pain that they are suffering, and then we prosecute them and give them a criminal record. How cruel and stupid! There is hypocrisy in that the former Prime Minister famously took cannabis when he was at Eton and many members of this Government have probably taken drugs in their time, yet they are happy to see the careers of other citizens blighted by criminal convictions for what they did in their younger years. Surely that is intolerable.
The strategy addresses the issue of decriminalisation and refers to the evidence of harm, yet we know that the most dangerous drug for causing harm is alcohol, as I have already said, to which the Government take a completely different approach. They still use the language of having a tough approach to enforcement, yet the Home Office’s own report from a couple of years ago showed that there is no link between the toughness of a regime and the level of drug use in society. The illegal market also causes extreme violence in our communities. To control the market in a particular community, all people can do is resort to extreme violence to protect it; they cannot have resort to the courts, as other capitalists do. It has always been disadvantaged communities that suffer the most.
I recommend to anyone here who is interested in this subject the book by Johann Hari, “Chasing the Scream”, which refers to the extraordinary spikes in violence—particularly in America, where there is ever a legal clampdown on the suppliers of drugs to communities—when new suppliers come into a community and seek to gain control of the market. The only way they do that is by using extreme violence.
As I have said, in Portugal, after initial resistance, there is political unity across the spectrum. In the United States, more and more states are moving towards regulated markets for cannabis. In Canada, a Liberal Government are legislating to introduce a legal regulated market. In the UK, I commissioned an expert panel that included a serving chief constable, Michael Barton from Durham. Its recommendation was that in the interests of public health—not despite public health, which is an important point for the Minister—we should move towards a regulated market where we control potency, who grows it and who sells it. That protects those at risk of psychosis and memory impairment because potency is controlled. If people buy from a criminal, they have no idea what they are buying. The criminal has no interest in people’s welfare; they simply want to make a fast buck from them. If people buy from a regulated seller, there is a chance to avoid the sort of harm that we see so often at the moment.
I make this plea: do not claim that the case for change is irresponsible, but bring about change because it will save lives, it will reduce HIV and hepatitis C infection, it will protect people better, it will end the ludicrous enriching of criminals, it will cut violence in our poorest communities, it will end the self-defeating criminalisation of people who have done exactly the same thing as successful people in government, in business and in all sorts of walks of life, and it will raise vital tax revenues. Follow the evidence. Do not perpetuate the stigma and the fear. End this catastrophic approach to drugs policy.
It has been a splendid afternoon. May I offer my congratulations to all those who have made maiden speeches? How refreshing it is and how grateful we all are to the Prime Minister for organising this fresh injection of new Members into the House—and so many of them are women. Goodness, there has been a great change in this place since I came in with my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who is on the Front Bench. It was thought remarkable then that there were four Members from ethnic minorities here. It was a place that was crude and macho because it was dominated by males. We have seen it civilised and become more sensible and more representative of society.
We heard the passion and sincerity of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), who is depriving education but enriching us. I am sure she will go far. What a joy it is to see a member of the Sikh community here, with their great history and their marvellous contribution to this country. Are we not coming to a stage where Parliament represents the nation more fully than it ever has before? Many congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi).
I also congratulate the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). The Liberal Democrats have done so much to introduce sanity into the drugs debate. I will not say too much about the Minister, who has the misfortune of presenting the nonsense that civil servants have been writing, in my experience, for the past 30 years on this subject. I remember two people who have had that job with great affection. Mo Mowlam would send me letters with a little handwritten note on the bottom saying, “See you in the Strangers tonight to tell you what I really think.” When we got together after she stood down, she intended to write a book urging the end of drug prohibition. She could not do it in office and, sadly, she died before the time came. Bob Ainsworth was another person who had the hideous job of trying to defend the failing policy that is the prohibition of drugs. As soon as he stood down, he was campaigning on the other side.
The House has been marred by culpable cowardice for the last 46 years on this subject and countless people have died or suffered as a result. I had an email last night to tell me about a drama documentary to be based on the life of Elizabeth Brice. I gave a little whoop of joy at the news. Elizabeth campaigned under the name of Clare Hodges. She was a wonderful, vibrant woman, a television producer who translated the “Noddy” tales into Latin, among her many achievements. She suffered severely from multiple sclerosis, and she came to the House and collaborated with me in a terrible crime on the Terrace. I supplied her with a cup of hot water, with which she made and drank cannabis tea. According to the rules of the House, and the policy approved by the Government—and, sadly, the Opposition too—she would have been liable to go to prison for seven years, and I would probably have been accompanying her.
We have to call on those who put up with the barbaric stupidity and cruelty of a Government policy that denies seriously ill people their medicine of choice to perform acts of civil disobedience. Elizabeth Brice spoke to the Parliament in Belgium and within months it changed its policy. Most other countries allow the use of this most ancient of medicines—it has been used for 5,000 years on every continent—for medicinal purposes. I know that Members are not supposed to do this, but I call on people to break the law, to come here and use cannabis and see what happens—to challenge the authorities to arrest them. That is the only way to get through to the Government’s mind, which is set in concrete. The law is evidence free and prejudice rich.
In another example of the fact that the Government are in denial, I tabled a simple question to ask how many prisons were free of drug use last year. The answer came back that 83 were free of drug use for one month. That was not the question. I asked again how many were free for a whole year, and the answer came back, “One”. Which one? It was Blantyre House. How many prisoners were in that prison? None—it was closed. The Government have cracked the problem—the answer to drug use in prison is to get rid of the prisoners, not the drugs!
If anything mocks the stupidity and futility of our drugs policy, it is the fact that there are more drugs in prison than outside. There is not a drug-free prison in the whole of the United Kingdom. We also fool ourselves about how the drugs get in—it is not through the visitors or drones. If we look at discipline in prisons and the poor wages paid to many staff, we can quickly work out how drugs get in. There is conspiracy and corruption there.
We need to learn the mountainous lessons of prohibition, which only happened in 1971, with Jim Callaghan following what the United Nations had done under the influence of President Nixon. The world said it would get rid of all illegal use of drugs, but they were not a problem here. There was virtually no use of marijuana/cannabis in this country. Some people had become addicted through morphine to heroin, but there were no deaths. We had fewer than 1,000 users. Every year since then, under harsh prohibition, we have created an empire of crime and ended up with 320,000 addicts in this country. That is an enormous burden.
We cannot ignore what has happened in the rest of the world. I despair of any change in Government policy, because the Government are stuck in the foolish idea that prohibition works, as was clear when we debated what is now the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. The thinking is that psychoactive substances are a hideous problem, and anyone is very foolish to put anything in their body that has never been ingested by a human being before. The nearest to an intelligent policy came from New Zealand, which said that it would license psychoactive substances if the producers could establish that they were safe. Otherwise, it is just a jungle out there.
Last year, when we debated the Psychoactive Substances Bill, the Government fell into the old trap of saying that “something must be done”, which is the greatest error in politics. Governments cannot think of anything that is going to work, but they have to seem to do something. That was the argument then, and that is where we have ended up with this damaging Act. It was said that Poland and Ireland had virtually the same Bill. Those countries closed the headshops, and the result was not a decrease but an increase in drug use. When the drug trade is on the streets, people have a vested interest and can get more money out of it. In Ireland the use of what were then called legal highs among young people rose from 16% to 22%, and the same thing is happening here. Why on earth do the Government not recognise that prohibition does not work? In America, 13 years of alcohol prohibition did not work for the same reasons.
I have never taken an illegal drug in my life, but I consider the medical use of cannabis to be of immense benefit, and that should be our first step. I believe that the rest of the world will leave us behind; they are laughing at us now. Canada is leading the way, but there is no doubt that the system works in Portugal. The people in Portugal to whom I have spoken did not have the support of any great number of Members of their Parliament, and they did not have the support of the press, but they charged ahead, in a very courageous way, and said, “This is going to work.” That was 16 years ago, and there is every indication, given the number of deaths and the incidence of disease since then, that it has been successful in every respect.
I think that we will follow—as, indeed, we must—the example of half the states in America, and of Uruguay and other countries in South America, and legalise drugs, because that is the only way in which to reduce harm and reduce the number of deaths.
I am proud to address the Chamber as the newly elected representative of the people of Wolverhampton South West. Whether they voted for me or for the Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Green party representative, I will endeavour to represent them in the House to the best of my ability. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Rob Marris, who stood down when the general election was called. He was a conscientious and much-liked Member of Parliament.
Wolverhampton, in common with other cities throughout the United Kingdom, has a drug problem. Drug use brings with it a set of associated problems: crime, antisocial behaviour, and other social problems associated with addiction such as broken homes and damaged people, all of whom are in need of support from our increasingly underfunded and overworked social services. A recent BBC report highlighted the use of so-called legal highs in the city, and in that context I welcome the latest legislation reclassifying those substances.
However, what most addicts need is help. They need rehabilitation programmes to help them to come off drugs, because substance abuse and addiction are problems that do not go away on their own. We need a properly funded system to help those people because, if more people can access drug rehabilitation services providing education and employment opportunities, addicts can more easily find a way out of addiction and abuse. The scourge of drug use is associated with an underlying lack of opportunities for young people in Wolverhampton. We should look to European models of how best to do this, rather than reach for American-style punitive solutions, which only drive the problem into our prisons, where it becomes endemic, with hardened drug users returning to our streets to become another thing our hard-pressed NHS staff and police officers have to deal with.
I will now talk about Wolverhampton itself. The Wolverhampton South West constituency was created in 1950. It is repeatedly a marginal and one of three constituencies covering the city of Wolverhampton. Within its boundary is the retail and business core of the city centre, Bank’s brewery, universities, schools and Molineux stadium, home of Wolverhampton Wanderers—and please God, may I say that right. The largest employer in Wolverhampton is local government. The constituency fans out from the city centre to include the western and south-western parts of the city.
Wolverhampton South West is a microcosm of modern Britain, a jigsaw of places, names and postcodes. It is a bellwether constituency, moving from Tory to Labour, with shifts in the economic and political moods. There are huge inequalities of income. There are rich, poor, privileged and under-privileged, living only a few miles apart. There is a diversity of culture: white British, Asian British, West Indian, Africans, eastern Europeans and Kurdish, each with their own faith—Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and Christian, which is my strong faith.
Although Wolverhampton South West has existed for only 67 years, it has a surprisingly rich political history, one which is relevant today. It is associated by some with Enoch Powell, its first MP, from 1950 until 1974. His inflammatory rivers of blood speech in 1968, warning of civil unrest if immigration went unchecked, was set there. Its second MP was Nicholas Budgen, known as one of the Maastricht rebels, who first mooted the idea of a referendum on the European single currency and who opposed all further integration in Europe.
In 1997, Labour won the seat for the first time and it continued to hold the seat until 2010, when Paul Uppal, a prominent Sikh businessman, won it back for the Conservatives. It is a testament to the people of Wolverhampton South West that their actions at the ballot box demonstrated how far they had come from the racial legacy of Enoch Powell in electing a Sikh MP, and now they have taken another historical step forward by electing the first black woman to represent a west midlands constituency in Parliament.
In electing me, a nurse from a working-class background, a trade unionist and a first-generation immigrant, the people of Wolverhampton South West are saying that they want change. They are saying that they liked the Labour manifesto and that they have had enough of austerity. They do not want any more cuts to public services. They want properly funded education and social services protecting the old and caring for the weakest in our society. They said, “Give us a Brexit that works for all.” The young people said, “Give us something so we can improve our lives and give us hope”—and they all said, “Save our NHS.”
I hope that I will be able to play my part in the coming years in making a difference to youth unemployment and homelessness in my constituency. They are a blight on our society. Wolverhampton has one of the highest jobless rates for 16 to 24-year-olds: according to studies published in 2016, youth unemployment in Wolverhampton was 27%, among the highest in the country. I pledge to work with all those in Wolverhampton who want to help and care for those who have dropped through the increasingly threadbare safety net this country offers.
The other issue that I will be involved with I have been working on for my entire working life of 40 years in the NHS: the conditions of the low-paid workers. The one-line Government statement on the NHS in Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech was short on detail with no real ideas on how to improve the NHS and rescue it from the position they have put it in. It would be bad enough if that had resulted merely from ignorance and mismanagement, but that is not the case; these are the results of the policies they have been pursuing for the last seven years. This Government should read the recent Labour party manifestos to learn what the NHS urgently needs. It is all in there: investment, planning, education and training, and much more.
I also need to make a statement about a row that has broken out concerning my comments about a Black country flag created in 2012 after a competition organised by the Black Country Living Museum. This flag has a link of chains as its primary image. I have had two concerns about the connotations of this image; its historical association with the slave trade, and whether it should be the only brand image for the Black country. An article appeared in the local press saying that I thought that the flag was racist and should be scrapped. My comments had been misrepresented. I believe in a free press, but its reporting must be done responsibly, in a fair and honest way. I have received many abusive messages, and I am on the receiving end of the kind of threatening behaviour that many of my colleagues in this House have also received and have recently discussed, and I have learned the hard way how difficult being an MP is.
But, on a much happier note, I am proud of the social culture and industrial and economic heritage of Wolverhampton and the wider Black country. I am proud of the contribution made by the Black country’s industry to begin the industrial revolution, which revolutionised the lives of people all around our planet. Above all, I am proud of the tolerance, equality and social cohesion that the people in the Black country and Wolverhampton South West, and in the wider UK, enjoy.
As a Member of Parliament, I will endeavour to work to promote and elevate these great aspects of the people of Wolverhampton South West and the Black country. I stand by them and for them. Thank you for allowing me to speak today, Madam Deputy Speaker.
May I add my congratulations to the hon. Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi), for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy)—which apparently is one constituency—and for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) on their maiden speeches? I am sure they are already aware that the next time they speak they will not be listened to with such reverence. [Interruption.] I will do my best.
On drug policy reform, there are two problems we are trying to address: first, the crime surrounding illegal drugs, and, secondly, the harm done by addiction to drugs. The first technically looks quite easy. We could look to decriminalise and legislate for drugs; overnight we would take away all the power from the criminals. The second problem is harder, but would be easier when the victims are not being stigmatised and driven into the arms of criminals.
The Government report launched last Friday failed to address those core issues. Despite the few nods in the direction of healthcare, the UK Government have fundamentally missed the point again. The Home Secretary says she wants a strategy to deliver a drug-free society, and that, in a nutshell, is why it is seriously flawed, because the drugs are not the problem. We should be asking: why do people take drugs and why do some 10% of users develop an addiction? What leads people to abuse drugs? That is the issue. If Ministers think that coming down hard on criminals will remove drugs from society and therefore end the need for them, they are delusional. We have been trying that for years, and the situation has only got worse.
The latest figures show the highest number of fatalities since comparable records began 24 years ago, with 50 a week across the UK and deaths from heroin doubling in three years, yet the Government have brushed aside the testimonies from the Anyone’s Child campaign. Anyone’s Child represents people who have lost relatives to drugs, and they now bravely argue for legalisation and regulation to prevent others from having to share their agony.
I welcome the talk about a renewed focus on the importance of evidence-based drug treatment services, and moves to address underlying factors such as inadequate housing, unemployment and mental health problems, but the Government’s big message is still about tough law enforcement. When are they going to comprehend that drug reform is a health issue, and that the war on drugs that has been waged for the past 100 years has failed? They will never bring it to an end when their primary focus is on stamping down on dealers and users. In continuing to do that, we marginalise the very people we should be seeking to help. It is a cowardly report and an opportunity lost.
We could be learning from certain events in history, but we seem to be ignoring them. We have already mentioned the fact that the USA banned alcohol, but the people there still wanted alcohol. The US Government could have licensed alcohol manufacturers, established a state-enforced quality control system with a recognised distribution network, and licensed premises in which to sell alcohol, all of which would have paid taxes to the Government. Instead, they introduced prohibition. That encouraged criminals to produce substances of dubious integrity that they sold at whatever price they liked in establishments that were unfit for purpose. Those activities were all fiercely protected by unrestrained violence. Crime rates soared, people died from consuming the product, addiction increased and rivals died in violent turf wars. Corruption was rampant and communities lived in fear. Does that sound familiar? Today’s war on drugs mirrors those processes, except that they are now being carried out on a far larger scale because we have encouraged them to grow over a far longer period of time. Stamping down hard on the criminals who control the growth, harvesting and distribution of drugs has only increased the levels of violence, fear and corruption that they use to hold on to and grow their marketplace.
Once we have started a war that we were never going to win, ending it becomes increasingly difficult. The onus is on us to justify the time, the cost in human lives, the misery and the taxpayers’ money involved, and to justify why we started the war in the first place. If we cannot do that, the only option seems to be to plough on, doggedly proclaiming that we were right all along and steadfastly refusing to listen to alternative strategies aimed at resolving the issue. That is where we are now in the war on drugs. Rather like the generals in the first world war ordering tens of thousands of conscripts over the top in a futile show of strength, we cannot see a way out that would justify the losses and sacrifices that have been made. We therefore continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. We should note that when prohibition ended in 1933, the crime rate and the addiction rate plummeted.
Transform has published a report in response to the latest offering from the UK Government in which it points out that, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime,
“taking a criminal justice-led approach to drugs creates a vast criminal market, siphons resources away from health, shifts drug dealing and trafficking around, switches users between drugs, and stigmatises and drives people who use drugs from seeking help.”
In other words, prohibition is a discredited and deadly way of making drugs stronger and more dangerous while funding organised crime.
The National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse estimates that the combined cost to society of substance abuse is £15.4 billion a year. The cost in human lives and the suffering of addicts, their friends and families can never be quantified. As the war continues, we are seeing more addicts, more cost, more pain and no sign that things will improve. The current approach is not working, and we need a fundamental change of philosophy.
A growing body of well-informed people say that it is time to decriminalise and legalise drugs. These people are not lily-livered do-gooders or hippies left over from the ’60s; they are ex and current law enforcement officers. They have seen the problems up close and personal. They have spent decades locking people up, but they have come to the conclusion that their actions did not make a blind bit of difference. It is a tough call to recognise that they had it wrong, so the people from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition—LEAP—should be listened to.
A week ago, I hosted a dinner in the House of Commons with 24 people around the table from the Royal Society for Public Health, the British Medical Association, The British Medical Journal, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, the Faculty of Public Health, the University of Cambridge, Transform, the Buchanan Institute, the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the House of Lords. Most of us self-administered psychoactive substances while we were there. All representatives spoke openly and honestly and the general consensus was that the current drugs policy is not working and that the war on drugs should be led by health, not criminal justice. Why is self-administrating a drug illegal? Technically, the answer is because we made that particular drug illegal and put it on a list. As I said, most of us self-administered psychoactive substances, but alcohol is not on the list. We have created a problem and now we cannot fix it—unless, of course, we decriminalised and controlled the production, quality and distribution of drugs. We could then tax them and use the money to provide better treatment, rehabilitation and harm reduction services—rather like we do with alcohol, but hopefully much more effectively.
We have not always had our current attitudes towards drugs, and we have not always seen the violence and crime that surrounds drugs. A good few years ago, there was a regular annual festival of music and arts, and drug taking was a big part of the festival—it was acknowledged and accepted. The festival was frequented by many people, including a few celebrities. We probably know a few of their names: Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero—those kind of dudes. A hundred years ago, UK pharmacies would sell many products made from derivatives of heroin or cocaine. Cough mixtures contained opiates, and department stores sold heroin tins. In 1971, when the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed, 13,000 people had a problem with drugs. After 46 years of the war on drugs, we now have 380,000, and yet the Government still want to pursue that policy.
If we decriminalised or legalised drugs, the one issue we would be left with is the one that we should be addressing right now: why do some people become addicts? If we can solve that, we will go a long way to winning the war on drugs. So what do we know? Professor Bruce Alexander was used to performing experiments on rats and was familiar with the Skinner box, which was seen as a good place to study drug addiction. Scientists had perfected techniques to allow rats to inject small doses of a drug into themselves by pressing a lever. That required tethering the rat to the ceiling of the box and implanting a needle into their jugular veins. The drug passed through the tube and the needle into the rats’ bloodstreams almost instantaneously when they pushed the lever. Under appropriate conditions, rats would press the lever often enough to consume large amounts of heroin, morphine, amphetamine, cocaine and other drugs. Then, along with his colleagues Robert Coambs, Patricia Hadaway and Barry Beyerstein, he created “Rat Park”. It was heaven for rats, with areas to move freely, dig, socialise and breed. He gave those rats two water bottles, one of which was laced with morphine. None of the rats developed an addiction. The environment that the rats lived in was clearly a factor—not the only factor, but a major one.
The obvious question is whether we have tried this experiment on humans, and the answer, unfortunately, is yes. We gave it a name: the Vietnam war. Hundreds of thousands of young men were shipped thousands of miles from home and dropped into a hell hole. The US military quickly realised that a large percentage of them were smoking pot, so they clamped down. The men turned to heroin, as it was harder for the authorities to find and confiscate. At the end of the Vietnam war, with a large number of heroin addicts about to be repatriated to their home towns and cities, the authorities expected a massive problem, but it did not happen. Once back home among their family and friends, the vast majority kicked their habit within a year. Those who did not were among those living in the poorest conditions or who had other issues that had led to their addiction in the first place.
We see the same behaviour of increased addiction where indigenous people were forced off their land and into reservations and camps by white settlers in the USA, Canada and Australia, so what can we do? As we talked about earlier, some countries have recently pursued alternative policies involving the decriminalisation of drug possession. Argentina, Estonia, Australia and Portugal have all taken a health-centred approach to the issue. Portugal decriminalised drug use, and drug addiction declined when the penalties for personal possession were removed. Rather than being criminalised, people are passed on to a “dissuasion committee”—I am not fond of the term, which sounds a bit Orwellian—consisting of members of the health, social work and law professions. Those considered to be addicts or problematic users are forwarded to treatment and rehabilitation programmes. According to the Royal Society for Public Health, within 10 years of implementing those policies the number of drug addicts in Portugal has halved. If the UK achieved the same success, the Buchanan Institute estimates that the financial saving would be around £7.7 billion a year.
For the record, I do not take illegal drugs—that is my choice—but if I chose to take them within the privacy of my home, I honestly do not see what harm it would do to society at large. How would arresting me improve anything? Yet we regularly prosecute people and, it has to be said, primarily poor people.
We seem to have one approach to law enforcement for rich city slickers sniffing a line of cocaine in their penthouse suite, and quite another for a kid smoking a joint on a council estate. It is no coincidence that the areas of the UK with the highest levels of social deprivation are the areas with the highest numbers of drug-related deaths. According to the Prison Reform Trust, one in 10 people in custody today is there because of a drugs-related offence. Some of our prisons have had serious problems with synthetic drugs, or Spice, in recent years. Those with the least access to money and lawyers, those who are less socially mobile, will always be more vulnerable.
Our attitude to drug consumption has to change. Only then can we see that the issue is addiction, and addiction is a health issue, not a criminal one. We must look to decriminalise and legislate. By doing so, we will take the power away from criminals and put the money into education, rehabilitation and reducing drug harm.
I declare an interest as a Suffolk county councillor.
Like many towns of its size, Ipswich would be seriously improved by society dealing more effectively with the scourge of hard drugs. Ipswich has a low level of crime for its size, but there is too much violent crime, and that crime is rising. Much of the violence in our town has been carried out by drug dealers, targeted against drug dealers, motivated by arguments over drugs, fuelled by drugs or, in the murders of the women on London Road in 2006, targeted against young people whose lives have been dominated by their need to get money to pay for drugs.
One of my most passionate ambitions is to find ways to bring the marginalised in our town back into some sort of social life, to help them end their addictions, to support them to find housing and employment, and ultimately to give them the greatest gift of all—self-respect—so that they no longer need to feel dependent but can hold their head up and say proudly that they are contributing to our town.
I am immensely proud to have been chosen by the people of Ipswich to represent them in the House and, at the same time, humbled by the responsibility that places upon me. Ipswich is an exciting, vibrant yet unpretentious town. Although there was a pre-Roman settlement on the site and it became a substantial town during the Saxon period, winning its royal charter in 1200, we do not dwell on our history.
Ipswich is what it is and where it is because it was the borough that served the rural county around it. It started as a port, exporting agricultural produce. It grew rapidly in the 19th century, building the ploughs, seed drills, reapers and other modern agricultural machinery of the time that transformed the productivity of our farms, not just in Suffolk, but throughout the UK and indeed the empire. We developed artificial fertiliser on the back of our initial base as the centre of the coprolite industry, making a good living out of a load of old squit!
In the late 19th industry, Ipswich’s heavy engineering grew, almost all of which is now gone. The world’s first lawnmower was built in Ipswich in 1832, and Ransomes Jacobsen still builds lawnmowers in Ipswich today, but we have not hung around or tried to revive dead businesses.
In the 1960s and 1970s, roads were reconfigured and areas cleared to enable the building of large office blocks to house the insurance industry, which is still one of the major employers in our town. The BT research and development headquarters just down the road is one of the most important local employers, and the East of England Development Agency invested significant sums in the first decade of this century in providing the accommodation needed for the IT spin-off companies that have grown out of BT.
Ipswich has immense potential. To his credit, I believe my predecessor, Ben Gummer, could see that. We have higher unemployment than the rest of Suffolk but many people with skills just waiting to be called upon. We have the space to expand and adapt, even in the very heart of the town. We have a beautiful and sophisticated focus on the waterfront, and the affordable housing and commercial space for new people and businesses to move in. We are only just over an hour from the City of London by train, but very much not just simply a commuter town. Ben Gummer put a lot of effort into trying to improve the rail link with London and into the regeneration of the waterfront, and I certainly intend to continue that work.
I also want to give credit to the previous MP for Ipswich, Chris Mole, and all that he achieved for Ipswich. Chris has been a good friend of mine for more than 20 years, and I was delighted when he was elected to represent Ipswich in a by-election in 2001. Much was built or started in Ipswich during his time as MP, and I know that a lot of that was due to his championing of our town: a new accident and emergency department at the hospital; a new sixth-form college on the outskirts of the town; a completely new set of buildings for the further education college; and a commitment from the Government to build a complete flood defence system, including a tidal barrier to protect the town from sea level rise—I am glad to say that that commitment is now reaching fulfilment. When he was leader of the county council, he told me that his No. 1 ambition was to achieve a university for Suffolk, and he had already put in place the commitment from the pre-existing further education college, the county council and the borough council necessary to achieve a united bid for a new university. As MP for Ipswich, he was able to steer that to completion, and I do not believe he has ever had the full credit he deserves for that achievement. As a town with a brand new university, as the fulcrum around which our waterfront turns, Ipswich is undergoing a change every bit as radical as occurred in the 19th century when we started building machinery. We are entering a new and exciting phase of our development, where the imagination and intellectual skills of our young people will be the building blocks of our prosperity. Thank you, Chris.
Ipswich is, of course, a unique town, but many of the problems our residents face are national ones, shared with citizens across the UK. I have contributed in my own small way to helping with the governance and funding of voluntary organisations in Ipswich that work with people to help them to avoid marginalisation. I refer to organisations such as the citizens advice bureau; the Ipswich Disabled Advice Bureau; the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality, which is now also bidding to set up a law centre; and, recently, The Oak, an independent drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, which is taking people on that final step between renouncing an addiction and actually gaining the personal self-confidence and self-worth needed to want not to relapse. All those organisations are struggling financially because of reductions in local authority funding.
We need to decide what sort of society we want to live in. What possible sense can it make to increase the availability of prison places at enormous cost but not to reduce re-offending rates, not to support preventive measures such as personalised job seeking for people at risk, and not to fully fund drug rehabilitation programmes, alcohol dependency programmes and hospital provision? How can we expect people to take care of what they are doing to themselves if they are unable to get a job, feed themselves properly, get the psychiatric help or counselling they need or even have somewhere safe and private to sleep the night? It is shocking to see increasing numbers of people—women as well as men, young as well as old—sleeping in shop doorways, in underpasses or in cemeteries in what is still the fifth largest economy in the world. How can we as a society say to those people with a straight face, “You must not take hard drugs?” when we are not offering them any way to escape from the half-life that they are leading?
We do need to clamp down on drug deals and to ensure that the supply of hard drugs is curtailed, but, ultimately, we will not build a better society, free from the scourge of hard drugs, unless we can build a society where everyone feels valued and able to contribute. Let us make sure that all our citizens can have the education that they deserve, the counselling and the psychiatric help that they need, when they need it, the employment that makes the best use of their talents, access to a full and vibrant social life, safe, adequate and affordable housing and a healthy environment. People will then have lives that they value, and that they know others value, and will not want to turn to hard drugs to escape from their lives.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) on a brilliant maiden speech? It was one of five exquisite, eloquent, factual and well-informed maiden speeches that we have heard today. I have visited all those towns other than Ipswich, although I do hope that, at some stage, I will visit his football club and make it five out of five. I congratulate all five new Members on those speeches.
Interestingly, the facts provided by each one so eloquently are not matched—as is ever the case in a debate on drugs —by the so-called facts provided in many contributions. It always saddens me that, when it comes to debates on drugs, people quote from other people’s briefings rather than do their own empirical research. I could give very many examples of that, but I will confine myself to just one—safe injecting rooms.
I have been to safe injecting rooms in many places across the world. I have been to them in this country. Yes, they do exist in this country—not officially—and they can be effective in some situations for some people. They also have many downsides. The debate about the downsides and the upsides among the very people who run them are part of the larger debate. One of the problems is that they tend to be most effective in the heart of big cities, normally in so-called red light areas with significant amounts of street prostitution. That is where they tend to be most effective for some of the most vulnerable in society. Safe injecting in those places certainly saves lives, but what is found every time is that the majority of clientele who come in are passing tourists. That is because these places are known, they are visible and they are in the middle of big cities—of course those kind of zones are in the middle of big cities.
Sydney provides us with a good example, but there are many others places where that debate on their effectiveness has been a big problem. The ones in the Netherlands, which are not called safe injecting rooms, are not officially designated and are not public, are actually very effective. I call them retirement homes, because that is what they are. Cups of tea are available and the people there are very much of the same age profile—slightly younger—as those in retirement residences or social projects in this country. Clean needles, cups of tea, biscuits and advice are provided if required. The spaces are safe, they work and they save lives.
If we want, when it comes to injection, to save lives in this country, introducing Naloxone for paramedics would, overnight, have far bigger consequences, as has been demonstrated; there are thousands of medical tracts on drugs. The Australians have used Naloxone in dealing with overdoses for the past 15 years; that is why they have far fewer deaths from overdoses. Its introduction in this country would be a major step forward in dealing with deaths.
I came to this subject in 2002, when 13 of my constituents died from heroin overdoses in one year. After a year of research, in which I went around the world with GPs to see what worked and what did not, I overwhelmingly came to the conclusion that what works is not politicians telling each other whether cannabis is good, bad, strong or weak, or what to do with this or that drug; it is trusting the experts—the medical experts.
All the debate today has been about illegal drugs, but probably the biggest single problem in this country, in terms of addiction and the number of people misusing drugs, is legal drugs—prescription and over-the-counter drugs; volume-wise and, I suspect, death-wise, that is a bigger problem. I could not have disagreed more with the Minister when she said that her test for her children—I am trying to quote her exactly—was whether the drug was available at Boots. No; what is available over the counter at Boots or any other chemists is a problem in the war on drugs. The over-prescription of drugs, and the illegal sale of prescription drugs in our communities, is a massive problem that, volume-wise, far outweighs the other problems.
When we talk about drugs, we are not talking about one thing. It is like talking about food; I suspect that a vegetarian would not want to be provided simply with “food” for a meal, if they visited one of us; they would probably want a certain type of food. We should trust medical expertise. In my area, after a battle, I got a system set up whereby if someone had a substance misuse problem—heroin being the biggest one—they went in through the front door of their GP’s practice. It took me six months of battling to make sure that every GP’s practice took part in that, and six months to ensure that it was the front door, not the back door. It took me three months to make sure that it was a GP, rather than a drug worker. Anyone can be a drug worker —there is no qualification for being one—but not anyone can be a GP; the standard, in my view, is satisfactorily high in this country.
Guess what we found? There has been a lot of talk of rehabilitation, but I will tell hon. Members the biggest rehabilitation that someone on heroin can get: it is going through the front door of their GP’s practice, like everybody else in the community—like their mother, father, brother, sister, and sometimes their kids. It is going through the same door and seeing the same GP. Strangely, that is rehabilitating and normalising. It takes people back into society—and it is dirt cheap: the biggest single cost of this in my area is from the dental treatment, because those with a significant substance misuse problem do not tend to go to dentists. They go into treatment; I do not know what the treatment is, though I know some of the modalities, but the treatment is not my decision, or the decision of a politician, a councillor, the police, the criminal justice system, or a drug worker; the GP decides on the treatment. Strangely, these people wanted dental treatment; that was the highest single cost. Strangely, people who have had dental treatment have a far better chance of getting through a job interview than those who have had no treatment for five or 10 years. A job means a bit more rehabilitation, and if the local council has its act together it can provide proper housing.
What happens when people have better teeth, the ability to go to their GP through the front door, a job and secure housing? What we found was that people stopped dying. There were 13 deaths in 2002, and over the next 11 years there were two. Vast numbers of people got back into work; they paid taxes—they were in rehabilitation. Forget the statistics that the Government give out about who is in treatment and who is not—I will talk in a moment about how the system has fiddled the figures since 2010—because a good statistic is the number of people paying taxes.
What is the saving? It is hard to quantify, but I can certainly quantify one thing. In 2002 the yearly average for the number of overdose admissions to Bassetlaw hospital was 170, each of which cost £4,000. That yearly average was immediately reduced to under 40, and it stayed like that for the next 11 years. That meant a saving of £500,000 a year for a small hospital. Some people were worried that the hospital would need security staff and cameras, to guard against all the drug addicts coming in, but there were far fewer drug addicts, far fewer overdoses and far fewer hospital admissions. That meant a direct saving. Remind me, Mr Deputy Speaker, which constituency had the biggest fall in acquisitive crime in the whole of the United Kingdom?
Mr Deputy Speaker, you are ever wise, ever accurate and ever factual. Bassetlaw saw a 400% reduction in acquisitive crime. Why? Because it was the drug addicts committing most of the crime.
For 11 years people could go through the front door of their GP’s surgery. Not everyone was happy. I have read the medical advice—not all of it, but hundreds and thousands of papers—and basically there is a two-thirds success rate for chronic relapsing illness, meaning that two thirds will be sorted, wherever the illness is, and a third never will be. There is a cohort of people who will always have problems, and they tend to go in and out of prison regardless, but there are far fewer of them because we have reduced the number by two thirds, leading to huge savings.
That does not totally solve the problem, but it allows the rest of the community to get on with their lives without being plagued. Pensioners were not having their windows smashed every five minutes by people who stole a fiver—the normal heroin theft is to break a pensioner’s window and grab the first thing in sight. The fear and the cost of repairing the window is far bigger. Frankly, I think that if most pensioners knew they would just leave the fiver outside. That is what life was like.
What do the Government do? Two things. First—this is a big improvement in this new drugs strategy—they say, “Recovery, recovery, recovery. We are not going to bother maintaining anybody.” That change is vital. That is what they did in the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand—in fact, in every country I went to. They all left it to the doctors.
In 2002 only three countries did not have health authorities in charge of drugs policy: the United States—obviously—us and Iran. When I went to Iran to talk about drugs policy, I found that they had just changed it. They had done that—this is my assessment, not what people there said—because, basically, all the drug addicts had been sent to be looked after by the religious leaders, who would put them in recovery. But it did not work, which was undermining the religious leaders. So those at the top in Iran sent people over to Australia to study the medical system there, and they came back and introduced it in Iran, which therefore now has a medicalised system—and there are big improvements. You see, doctors are rather good at treating people because they know what they are doing. Yes, they sometimes use methadone or buprenorphine treatments, and sometimes they bring in mental health therapies, but the system worked well through the NHS.
What have we done? In 2010, we threw all that out the window and gave it to the local councils, and all of them—including Labour councils—in their great stupidity privatised it. What do those Labour councillors say? “We know better than the GPs and the NHS. It’s got to be joined up. It’s got to be more than the NHS.” So they took it away from the NHS and, since 2013 in my constituency, people have not been able to walk through the front door of their GP practices.
Guess what has happened? I had a meeting on Saturday, in Retford. There have been hardly any burglaries in Retford in the last 100 years, but there are record numbers this year. Who is committing them? The druggies—people who are drug addicted but cannot go through the front door of their GP practice as they could before. I cannot get them in. I used to guarantee to every family: “I’ll get you an appointment within a couple of days.” And I did, and it was easy. They went in and saw their GP. They engaged with their GP, and it was hugely successful.
My recommendation to the Government and to my own party—perhaps my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) will pass this on to my leader—is to put this portfolio in health. That is what the Labour party policy review that I chaired in 2009 recommended, and it had 4,000 submissions. The leader at the time and the one after him ignored it. Third time lucky. Put the portfolio in health and say that a critical part of the policy is that the NHS—primary care GPs—will manage the patients. Say that people in this country have the right to be treated by their GP. Yes, more is needed from other services—absolutely: getting people into jobs, keeping control of crime and getting people into stable housing, but the NHS is at the heart of the issue.
By the way, why on earth have the Scottish Government moved away from their successes a few years ago in places like Glasgow towards this nonsense of people coming out of the recovery system after six months? The Government said, “Six months and that’s it—out you come.” That appears to have changed.
If it has, that is brilliant, but we should never have gone back to that nonsense in the first place; I am sure the Minister will blame the Liberals. That is what we had in 2002: the revolving door. “Oh, you’re out—you’re clean.” “Who says I’m clean?” “Well it’s six months. You have to be.” It was a bit like how it is in the prisons: strangely, someone has some Naltrexone and “Oops! You’re clean!” That is the stats fiddled. Frankly, I could fiddle those stats. It is the system that does it. Totally meaningless.
Let us have a bit of honesty. We would still have a problem. We would not get rid of it all. Dealing with Spice is not as straightforward as dealing with heroin, and the GPs do not have all the answers. But if someone with an addiction goes to a GP, the GP pulls in mental health services, and that does work. Across the world, people have found that. So let us not misquote what happened in Portugal, where I have been, because what I am talking about is the key to that system. Let us not misquote what happens in the Netherlands, where they have kicked out most of the coffee houses and they specifically demonise heroin—very sensibly at the time, in my view. The position for quite a while was, “Our problem is heroin. Do what you want, but you’re not doing heroin”, and they got on top of it. We are not in that situation, so we do not need that kind of overly crude approach. We can look at what the Swedes do and what the French do. In France, the GPs will not do it. With single-practice GPs working from their own home, it is easy—go to the local chemist and get the prescription, and do not even bother supervising it. Do not complicate it, that is my advice, and then we will get better results.
I can only give it as I see it. I have got the documents—the research is there. To new colleagues in all parts of the House, I say, “Read the assessments of what has happened, because there is a plethora of materials that demonstrate this.” We will not get rid of the problem, but we can significantly be on top of the problem. There are some improvements, but frankly not enough. Yet again, the Home Office is the wrong Department. Of course the police advisers all want to decriminalise drugs, because it gets crime down. I have heard this for 15 years: “If we decriminalised and didn’t arrest, crime would come down and the problem would be solved.” No, that is not the answer. Lots of good stuff could be done in terms of how we police and do not police. There are lessons we could learn from abroad.
The starting point is to shift the portfolio to health. We should be bold enough to say, “It doesn’t fit in with how this place works, but we’re doing it anyway. When we’re in power the portfolio will be in health.” That in itself would transform the situation in this country because then we would have to make sure that primary care is funded and would be able to stop wasting money elsewhere. Local councils: love them or loathe them, they haven’t got a clue—big error. We should tell our Labour councils, “Stop privatising and give it back to the NHS.”
What a pleasure it is to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). I agree with him on doing one’s own research and reading the papers, but also on respecting professional expertise. Although I am afraid I come to slightly different conclusions on some aspects, there is a lot of agreement between us, particularly on locating the problem in the Department of Health.
I pay particular tribute to the hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), and my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) and for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) all made wonderful, inspiring and rousing speeches. They set a very high bar for themselves, as well as their colleagues, over the coming years.
I thank the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) for his suggestion that there should be a royal commission on drugs that looks carefully, thoroughly and objectively at the evidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) provided very moving examples of how our legal structure is currently failing people. The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) also gave inspiring and helpful speeches.
Over the past six months, following the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw, I have had the great privilege of being exposed to a range of different experts, specialists, academics and interventions in my own constituency and beyond as I have been part of the process of making a BBC documentary on the use of drugs. I have been involved as an MP and as a citizen of a city with above-average rates of drug use and drug misuse, and with exceptionally forward-thinking, effective drug misuse services, including, but not only, GPs. The makers of the documentary have followed me around—veritably stalked me at times. They assessed the impact of the abuse and misuse of alcohol and other drugs—I am going to keep using that phrase—on my constituents and facilitated meetings between me and people with specialist knowledge and skills. The results will be broadcast in three parts this autumn. I have not seen it. Other documentaries may well be available, but I urge hon. Members to see what they made.
As part of that process, I have met local organisations commissioning or providing services to people with drug problems. I particularly pay tribute to the Bristol Drugs Project and DHI—Developing Health and Independence—along with commissioners in Bristol City Council. They have been extremely generous and patient with their time to educate and inform me, and also in being willing to listen to questions and ideas with which they did not necessarily agree, and vice versa—that is, ideas that I did not initially agree with but have been able to see the point of.
I have met people in support groups and programmes who are in the process of desisting from alcohol and other drug misuse. I have visited Horfield prison, which is in my constituency. I have been briefed on the nature of drug use—particularly the use of Spice—and its impact on the prison, the staff and the prisoners. I have met specialists including Sir David Nutt, the leading psychologist, pharmacologist and psychiatrist, who formerly chaired the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs, and Dr Ben Sessa, consultant child and adolescent and addiction psychiatrist at Imperial College, to discuss the research and evidence base for and against our current drugs policy.
I met a specialist drug safety tester from the Loop project, which provides free and confidential drug counselling and testing of substances—without, hon. Members may be pleased to hear, returning those substances. I was puzzled to hear that, but the testers cannot return substances to the people who have asked to have them tested, because that would be classed as drug dealing. I do not think that that is helpful, but it does at least provide people with information about the quality of what they might be about to take.
I was told by the Loop project that, as a result of its work, not only are people better informed about what they might be taking—whether or not it has been cut with impurities, including concrete—but if they discover that a substance is unsafe to take, they hand in quantities of drugs voluntarily. It is a way of cleaning up the supply of very unsafe drugs, as well as giving people the information they need to make a well-informed choice about whether, when and how to consume drugs. I discussed with Loop the purpose and function of drug consumption rooms. I take on board what my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw has said, because he has far more experience in this matter than I have, but I am interested to know more about the various pilots and the research that he mentioned.
I met homelessness organisations and homeless people who have compounding problems on top of drug and alcohol problems. I discussed with my campaign volunteers, staff and local residents their concerns about drug misuse, which are many and varied. I did various drug impact walks through my own constituency, looking around me, talking to people and identifying the problems that have both a visible and an invisible impact on local people.
I have analysed my own experience, as a long-term resident of the area, of how the use and misuse of drugs has affected the local area over the years, and how and why it has changed. I have, as a consequence, made many reports to the local drugs litter cleaning services. That is one of the consequences of the current regime that we would do well to address, and we should at least consider the use of drug consumption rooms because it would reduce nuisance to other people. I have also had to respond to extremely unpleasant side effects of alcohol and drug misuse on my own doorstep, both at home and in the entrance to my constituency office.
I have done a great deal of reading of the research on the impact of our current legal system and support services on the use and misuse of alcohol and other drugs. I thank everybody who has given me their time and attention during this process, which has been hugely educational, influenced my thinking and informed my beliefs. I particularly thank the BBC team, Bart, Ae, Poppy and Hugo, for making me part of such an interesting process.
To inform my response to the drug strategy, I contacted many of the people I have mentioned, and I analysed the findings of various papers by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and other evidence against the scope and detail of the strategy. As a result of that review, although I applaud aspects of the strategy—I will mention them shortly—I have the following criticisms. The strategy does not include an explicit aim of reducing or, ideally, eliminating premature deaths caused by drug use. I would really like to see that front and centre. The strategy virtually, although not completely, ignores the most harmful drug. I say respectfully to the Minister that alcohol is a drug, and one that is entirely legal; I will come back to that shortly. The Government’s welcome acceptance of evidence-based treatments for drug misuse and mental health problems is a step forward, but it is undermined, as colleagues have said, by the lack of a funding strategy to support it. The strategy fails to take on key recommendations from the report published last year by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on preventing opiate-related deaths.
Finally, I must add my voice to those of others who have said that the strategy represents a wasted opportunity, when the Government could have reviewed the entire legislative framework surrounding alcohol and other drugs and made it consistent, evidence-based and focused on harm reduction for all drug use. I echo the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Reigate that a commission should do what I believe the Government could have done over the last two years.
The strategy opens with the ambition
“for fewer people to use drugs in the first place”,
and for those who do, to
“help them to stop and to live a life free from dependence.”
However, that ignores the fact that many people take drugs recreationally, free from dependence and free from the harm caused to other people that results from some drug use. They are at risk of causing some harm to themselves, and such harms tend to arise from the criminal justice framework that we wrap around them. We should have the ambitions to reduce harm and prevent deaths—I support the aim to reduce harm, and I want to increase recovery from dependence—but I also want to take us as a country towards a fully evidence-based, open-minded approach to both.
Most of the means of preventing death in the “Reducing Opioid-Related Deaths in the UK” report by the ACMD last year, which I mentioned earlier, have been ignored in the strategy. For instance, drug testing—I mean not testing of people to see if they have taken drugs, but of drugs to see what they have in them—as well as the provision of drug consumption rooms and a wider examination of forms of treatment have all been ignored either partially or wholly. The strategy ducks the fact that much of the use of alcohol and other drugs takes place with comparatively little or no harm identified by the user, and frequently with great pleasure, which therefore undermines some of the messages given in the strategy. If users do not themselves experience their drug taking in a way described by the strategy, they are likely to dismiss all of the good stuff in it. Harms arise from the unregulated nature of the market. The organisation Loop has shown me one of the huge life-saving benefits of being able to test drugs such as ecstasy in clubs and festivals. I want the full protection of regulation, education, testing and a licensing regime to be given to all my constituents, not just those whose drug of choice is the legally available one of alcohol.
I must say that there are some aspects of the strategy that I very much welcome, such as the emphasis on prevention and the use of compulsory personal, social and health and economic education, which is now part of the curriculum, to increase the awareness and understanding of young people. By the way, I say to the Government, “You’re welcome”. It took us a while to convince the Government that this needed to happen, but Opposition Members are always pleased when the Government realise we have got something right. I am also very pleased that the drug strategy recognises the limitations of some educational approaches, such as the format of lectures by the police or reformed addicts. Such approaches tend not to have a good evidence base, and I am glad the Government have recognised that.
I also want to say that the two drugs that have arguably caused me the greatest personal harm are two legal drugs—alcohol and tobacco. I am sure everybody in the House knows about the link between tobacco consumption and lung cancer and many may also know about the link between alcohol consumption and liver cancer, but it was not until I was diagnosed with breast cancer that I learned about the causal links between alcohol consumption and other cancers. While I was being treated, I was contacted by a publican about the new NICE guidelines on alcohol consumption. He claimed that they were biased and in favour of teetotalism, and he was very angry about what he said was an unnecessary and unwelcome bias, given that the guidelines say that there is no “safe” level of alcohol consumption. I therefore read the guidelines and all the research review papers informing the guidelines—I was on sick leave, so I had time to do so—and I came to the carefully considered conclusion that the guidelines were both accurate and helpful.
It was helpful to me to know that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, and reading the research papers helped to convince me that the abstemiousness, as far as I could possibly manage it, that I had fallen into during chemotherapy was something I wished to keep to for the sake of my own health after the treatment ended. This was all news to me: I did not know until I had breast cancer that alcohol was so closely linked to it. Since then, I have realised how many other people are not aware of the wide, many and varied risks associated with alcohol, which is a completely legal drug. Alcohol is available on these very premises, and no doubt somebody somewhere is in the process of consuming that legal drug right now. At the risk of sounding like Nana from “The Royle Family”, I have—with the exception of a very small glass of bubbly at weddings and perhaps a sweet sherry at Christmas—stuck to my non-consumption of alcohol, and I have to say that I feel all the better for it. That is a good example of how providing accurate information about a drug can inform someone’s decision making.
Alcohol is at the top end of the most harmful substances both to the user and to others—it is more harmful than heroin, in fact—but if I fall off the alcohol-free wagon by going into a shop or a pub and buying some alcohol, I at least know that it will not have been cut with something much more poisonous. I know that I am not risking my job by breaking the law and I know that I will be picked up afterwards if dropping off the wagon causes me problems. I believe that the regulatory, information and licensing systems for alcohol provide a great template for reforming the law on other drugs. I am not knocking anybody else’s right to choose to drink alcohol; I just want parity for my constituents who use other drugs.
I want to say quickly that I am not sure where the money will come from for everything, because money was conspicuously absent from the strategy. Other Members have drawn attention to that and perhaps others who are still to come will do too. That is a big omission. Whether it is in interventions purely in the health service, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw referred to, or in drug treatment programmes, specialist programmes or mental health services, the cuts by this Government in local government, the health service and elsewhere have been felt across the board. There is no good way to carry out any of the very good proposals in the strategy without adequate funding. Mental health services and drug and alcohol services all need to be properly funded. As I am sure the Government are aware, there is a 2.5 return on investment. I hope that the Minister will address that point in her closing remarks.
Something that is very personal to me is the prevention of drug-related deaths, particularly those from heroin. People in my life have lost theirs to drug addiction, including addiction to heroin and alcohol. That is why I want to be clear that when I talk about reforming our laws, I am not saying that these drugs are good to take; I am just saying that if we are clear that alcohol is not good for us and yet it is legal, well-regulated and licensed, we at least ought to look at why we are failing people with a heroin addiction, people who use drugs recreationally and do not have an addiction problem, and the people around drug users. The hearts that are broken through heroin-related deaths go much wider than the people who use the drug.
The number of opioid-related deaths has gone up year on year since 2010. I thoroughly applaud the Minister for saying that she wants an evidence-based approach, but she appears to have ignored the conclusions and findings of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that came out just last year. It reminded us that there were 2,479 drug-related deaths in 2015 alone, so keeping drugs illegal is clearly not preventing death.
Among the report’s findings was this:
“That the UK has high-quality systems for the recording of opioid-related deaths,”—
which is good—
“but that more could be done to improve national information, especially on toxicology and prescribing, as well as on the contribution of opioid use to levels of mortality from other causes.”
Data collection is partially addressed by the Minister in the strategy, but I would like further information, if possible.
The report also states that
“a probable cause of the recent increases in drug-related deaths…is the existence of a prematurely ageing cohort of people who have been using heroin since the 1980s and 1990s.”
It states that other contributory causes of those recent increases are
“multiple health risks…among an ageing cohort of heroin or opioid users, deepening of socio-economic deprivation since the financial crisis of 2008, and changes to drug treatment and commissioning practices.”
The paper goes on to make some very sensible suggestions, which I urge the Minister to remind herself of. I will remind her of some of them now. It states:
“There are a number of evidence-based approaches that can be used to reduce the risk of death among people who use opioids. The strongest evidence supports the provision of opioid substitution treatment (OST) of optimal quality, dosage and duration.”
I know that the Minister is aware of that. However, the report goes on to say:
“Other substance misuse treatment options could be further developed in order to reduce the risk of death including broader provision of naloxone,”—
for hon. Members who do not know, that is a substance that can be used to halt and then reverse the effects of overdoses, thus saving lives—
“heroin-assisted treatment for those for whom other forms of OST are not effective, medically-supervised drug consumption clinics, treatment for alcohol problems, and assertive outreach to engage heroin users who are not in treatment into OST (especially for those who are homeless and/or have mental health problems).”
We are all harmed by a failure to address those issues. We are harmed when we are troubled by the homeless person on the street who is clearly suffering; by the relative or friend of a friend who goes without the treatment that they need; or by someone who dies needlessly of an overdose when it could have been prevented by safe use in a drug consumption clinic, accompanied by counselling to try to engage that person in drug cessation. I want us to notice that we are all harmed by that, not just those who are using drugs.
The strategy recognises the record high levels of deaths and drug misuse and it makes some recommendations, such as that all local areas should have appropriate naloxone provision in place, but the Bristol Drugs Project, which has such a distribution system, tells me that it is unable to get to everyone who is at risk of heroin overdose. I would like it to have the funding it needs to reach more people and prevent more deaths. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs also recommended the drug consumption clinics that I have mentioned, and discussions with people in the sector and with other specialists lead me to believe that investing in drug consumption spaces, where drug users can have their drugs tested, receive counselling and, above all, consume drugs safely and with no associated harms to the rest of us, would be money well invested or at least worth exploring further. We would gain in the reduced cost to emergency services, local council cleaning services and the prevention of drug-related deaths.
I turn to the obvious contradictions in our laws on alcohol and other drugs. On criminalisation, the ACMD has mixed views, but the Government are unequivocal—they are opposed to reforming the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The strategy states:
“We have no intention of decriminalising drugs. Drugs are illegal because scientific and medical analysis has shown they are harmful to human health”—
I do not disagree. It continues:
“Drug misuse is also associated with much wider societal harms including family breakdown, poverty, crime and anti-social behaviour.”
Those I would qualify. As others have said, and I reiterate, that argument simply does not hold water. The research review carried out by Professor David Nutt for The Lancet shows that alcohol is by far the most dangerous drug in the UK for harms to others and harms to the user. It is far more harmful to other people than any other drug, including heroin, crack, methamphetamine, cocaine, cannabis and tobacco, but it is regulated, with licensing conditions and ways to protect users if it is their drug of choice.
The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) mentioned the awful people who deal in drugs and use violence. I agree: I want to protect my constituents from falling prey to that violence and abuse. She also mentions the harms that vulnerable people suffer when they are forced to traffic drugs. I agree, and I want to avoid those harms, but I respectfully disagree with her —it is the criminal nature of the drugs trade that causes those harms. That is my interpretation of the evidence, and I urge hon. Members to consider the suggestion by the hon. Member for Reigate of a royal commission to examine that further.
If we are to take an approach of making a substance illegal because scientific and medical analysis has shown it is harmful to human health, we need to make alcohol and tobacco illegal. Are the Government proposing that? No, they are not, and I do not want them to. I would simply invite them to consider that their entire rationale for maintaining the legal status quo is undermined by that. It would be far more effective to tackle the harms done to others and to the user to review the entire criminal law associated with alcohol and other drugs, and to consider reforming it to make it truly evidence based.
Before I conclude, I want to add some comments and caveats on the wider social rationale. Some people think—and some hon. Members have implied it today—that drug harms are the responsibility of the individual and, if people choose to use drugs, they should be left to take the consequences without the taxpayer having to pick up the tab. I know that the Minister does not agree with that approach and I am glad about that. To those people, I say that we are all picking up the tab anyway—in the huge costs of policing drug use, accidental overdose and so on. We are also picking up the tab when people in our own lives are harmed by drugs. It is no use saying that it is always someone else’s child, parent or sibling. Many sober people who have never taken any drugs are affected by a relative or friend’s drug use, whether cash is stolen from them to pay for drug use or in having to deal with the impact of overdoses or the health consequences of substances added to drugs.
The social and economic cost of drug supply in England and Wales is estimated to be £10.7 billion a year, just over half of which—£6 billion—is attributed to drug-related acquisitive crime. Would that we could reform that—and I think the Minister should take this opportunity to consider that there are ways of reforming it.
I want all Members to take a moment to be quite imaginative. I want them to imagine the nature of the shops that currently exist for people to buy drugs if they wish to. Those drug shops are already all around us, but they are dangerous, they are illegal, they are unregulated, they are untaxed and they are unlicensed, unless your drug of choice is alcohol.
Why do we not decide to do something different with that £10.7 billion a year? Why do we not decide that we will treat drug misuse as a health and social problem rather than a criminal problem, and direct the funds towards treatment and recovery for those who need it? Why do we not also recognise that the harms done by legal drugs are in excess of those done by illegal drugs, and decide to reduce or even end the harms caused by the illegal nature of some of those drugs? I want Members to focus their minds on the harms done by the drugs rather than by a legal situation which could be reformed.
Why do we not acknowledge that some people are consuming both harmful illegal drugs and legal drugs right now, but at least those consuming legal drugs will be doing so in the knowledge that the strength and purity of the substance that they are consuming is regulated, so they can make informed choices? Why do we not become really brave, and decide that if we are going to treat alcohol and tobacco in a certain way—and yes, rightly provide education and information to help people to make those informed choices, and treatment for those whose consumption has started to harm them or others—we should provide parity of protection, information and education in relation to other drugs?
Let me very clear about this. There is no safe level of consumption of any drug, be it legal or otherwise. The only way to be completely safe from the harms of consumption of any drug, including alcohol, is not to consume it at all. Having access to good-quality information gives people the opportunity to make evidence-informed decisions for themselves about whether and how to consume alcohol or other drugs. Relying on the law to inform decision-making is not working, It skews the decision entirely in favour of the most dangerous drug. I am sure that many people have no idea of the links between alcohol consumption and cancer, for example.
I am not suggesting that we should jump straight to full legalisation of all drugs. I am simply raising the importance of considering whether and how to revise the legal framework for all drugs. If we are to have an evidence-based system of response to the consumption of alcohol and other drugs, it must focus on harm reduction. It must treat the harms as social and health harms when they are social and health harms, and as criminal only when it is necessary to treat them as such.
We urgently need the royal commission referred to by the hon. Member for Reigate, and we need to be able to have a well-informed, honest and open debate about the regulation of alcohol and other drugs in order to reduce avoidable harm, increase informed decision-making, and end the deaths caused by alcohol and all other drugs.
One of the joys of being called so late in the debate is being able to hear the arguments on both sides. I have found it genuinely informative, and I thank everyone for their contributions, especially those who made maiden speeches today. As a newbie myself, I can only tell them that it does get easier.
We have a very special person in the room with us today—so special, indeed, that she and her campaign have been mentioned at several points during the debate. She is a constituent of mine called Anne-Marie Cockburn, and she is the mother of a child whose name may also be familiar to Members, because she too has been mentioned today. The story is so poignant, and so relevant to everything that we are talking about, that I hope the House will indulge me and allow me to tell it more fully so that everyone can understand why so many Members included it in their speeches, albeit in passing. It is the story of Martha Fernback.
Martha died four years ago this week, on 20 July 2013, from an accidental drug overdose. She was 15. That fateful day, she was out with her friends on a Saturday morning to go to a kayaking club; she was too young for the other sort. She took—because it was so readily available—half a gram of Ecstasy powder, and almost immediately started to react. At first, her friends did not know what to do. They were worried that they would get into trouble, so they hesitated in ringing the ambulance when it was clear that Martha was struggling. But they did. Then Anne-Marie got the call that every parent dreads. An unrecognised number came up on her mobile phone screen; she was called to go to the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford. Just two hours after first taking the drug, Martha, her beautiful baby girl, died.
What is most extraordinary about this story is that the drug was 91% pure—way above the national average at the time. Martha thought that she was being safe. She tried to protect herself. After her death, Anne-Marie looked at her online history. Martha knew that she wanted to experiment and she knew that there were risks, so she did her research. She had some of the information, which said beware of impurities, but that was not the whole story, as the information was not out there about safe dosage. Besides, she had no idea what she was taking. In a sense, the drug was almost too pure. So she accidentally took too much.
Anne-Marie was a wonderful mother. Martha was her only child—her world. They were close. In fact, Martha confided to her mum that she wanted to experiment—as a teacher, I can tell Members that that is very rare—and Anne-Marie did exactly what we all tell parents to do. She told Martha to “Just say no”. With hindsight, Anne-Marie is clear, and she argues, as part of the Anyone’s Child campaign, that, had Martha taken something legally regulated, with labelled dosage and clear safety information, she could have made a fully informed choice—not a partially informed choice—and, who knows, may even have decided not to do it.
Martha wanted to get high. She did not want to die. Perhaps if she had had all the information, she could have done for herself what her mother could not, and still be with us today.
The story is heart-breaking—I am sure that is why so many Members have referred to it today—but it makes an important point. Ecstasy is already banned, yet such stories still happen. The blanket ban approach is just doing more of the same. It fixes nothing of the core issue and is the wrong approach. Rather than banning and punishing, we should be regulating and educating. Taking drugs should be a public health issue, not a criminal offence, and I am so happy to hear so many Members make that point in the House today. Stories such as Martha’s happen because we refuse to accept that teenagers will always want to take risks. We talk about sending a clear message. How do we best get a teenager to do something? It is by telling them not to do it. I am a teacher and I have educated more than a thousand teenagers. Believe me, if I could wrap every one of them in a protective blanket and shield them from the harm of this world, I would, but if they will not do as you say—and they frequently do not—at least let them be safe in what they do.
Martha’s story is terrifying. It is natural to want to clamp down and stop it happening to anyone at all ever. I have immense sympathy for those who believe that that is the right approach. To hear the Home Secretary say that she wants a drug-free world is laudable, but I am afraid that I believe it is naive and it fundamentally fails to understand how teenagers really think and behave.
One of the reasons the Liberal Democrats argue for decriminalising drugs for personal use is that we want to encourage a proper debate and to encourage users to seek help. Our priority should not be to punish people caught with drugs—perhaps Martha’s friends would have called the ambulance earlier had they not felt that that was a problem. Our priority should be to increase access to treatment for anyone who is suffering from drug dependency.
It is time for us to recognise that our old approaches have not worked and to stop repeating the same mistakes of the so-called “war on drugs” time and again. We need a more constructive and evidence-based approach: one that focuses on education and, when it is needed, on rehabilitation and treatment; and one that will finally take meaningful steps to reduce the harms that drugs have done to too many families across the country.
I urge the Government: let us be brave and open up this debate. We need to wake up and face the facts. Prohibition does not work; all it does is make a natural instinct taboo. It puts up barriers between children and their parents, and it drives the problems underground, and into the hands of drug dealers and gangs who, frankly, could not care less about children like Martha—their customers.
I urge the Government to think again. This is the wrong approach. It did not help Martha then and it will not help others like her now, or in the future.
This has been a powerful and moving debate, and I am proud to be a part of it. I congratulate all my fellow new Members who have made their maiden speeches today. We are fresh-faced people from the outside coming into this place, bringing our experience as part of our communities, and, I am afraid, that experience will always include drugs.
My initial interest in drugs policy came about from my work over 18 years for the shop workers’ union USDAW. That was not because shop workers are selling drugs, but because they are suffering from them. Our drugs policy is failing, and it is not just drug users and their families who suffer from our failure.
Behind the statistic of £6 billion of losses from crime and antisocial behaviour due to drugs, there are thousands of innocent people working on the frontline who suffer far worse than economic loss. I welcome the fact that we now have a drugs strategy, and the commitment to better drugs education in our schools. I say that as a parent of four children.
I live in the beautiful rural constituency of High Peak: small market towns and villages, lovely houses, picturesque countryside. But even in beautiful High Peak, we have a problem with drugs. We see it when we are out in the evening, in our parks, on street corners, or even in the mornings when our children are on their way to school. I was even approached when out canvassing last month.
It is such a widespread problem that we do not have the police to deal with it, even before the huge cuts to our police numbers, let alone the necessary number of courts or prison places. That way of proceeding is not only impractical, however; it is also expensive and ineffective, and creates criminals out of people who need help, not harm.
The associated antisocial behaviour from drug and alcohol abuse in our towns and cities is affecting the quality of life of all our residents, shoppers and retailers. No one agency is able to tackle this problem alone, so they feel they have nowhere to turn. Derbyshire police and crime commissioner is leading multi-agency working of enforcement agencies, local authorities, businesses and voluntary organisations, so they are working in partnership. There have been positive outcomes already, and all sectors will benefit from the work they do. Drug services have joined up with those delivering alcohol, mental health and homelessness services, and have welcomed the intervention by the PCC, who has helped to set up specialist drugs workers in a local charity, with financial contributions from partner agencies, and soon from local businesses as well.
So many of us are affected, and that means that there is support from all quarters—from communities, parents, young people, shop workers, emergency service workers and businesses—for effectively tackling our drugs problems. Like other Members, I urge the Minister to be bold, and not to be tied to the policies of the past or to think that there is not support for funding drug policies. When there is £2.50 of benefit for every pound of spending on tackling our drug problem, people see the need, as well as the sense and the benefits, of an effective policy. The cuts to drug treatment budgets of up to 50% in some areas are a false economy. Drug policy needs ring-fenced funding and we need policies that work. This is too urgent and widespread a problem for us to tiptoe around it any longer.
I urge the Government to be bold in accepting the well-researched scientific evidence from their own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Its evidence shows that many drug users need to be persuaded to accept treatment. Most drug users do not see their using as a problem, and do not see the need for treatment. I am afraid that treatment is not everything, however. Independent research from the University of Manchester shows that those who leave treatment drug-free are just as likely to die of an overdose as those who do not. Risk of fatal overdose is at its highest in the four weeks after leaving opiate substitute treatment—almost four times the risk while in treatment. Treatment does not work for everyone, and it is sometimes more damaging than no treatment. Although there are tragedies, many people manage to get by while using drugs, and they often get by quite well, especially if they are supported. I therefore very much welcome the Government’s support through housing policy in the drug strategy.
There was not much that I supported in the last Conservative manifesto, and I was not alone in that. However, I do support the proposal for national insurance holidays to support small and medium-sized businesses in taking on people in hard-to-reach groups, especially those who are users or ex-users of drugs. People who are in employment are twice as likely to manage their drug use as those who are not. I applaud this forward-thinking policy, which has the support of the Federation of Small Businesses, and I will support the Government in bringing it forward.
Drug taking is a serious problem in every corner of our land, from the picturesque rural villages of High Peak to our city centres, and we need to work together to maximise our effectiveness and the funding available. I hope that there will be a representative of the Treasury on the new drugs council that the Minister mentioned, and that the council can persuade the Treasury of the cost-effectiveness of ring-fenced funding. We can afford to adopt a decent, far-thinking, science-based policy for harm reduction from drugs. We cannot afford not to.
I would like to thank hon. and right hon. Members for this incredibly wide-ranging, well-informed and thoughtful debate on this important issue. The Government’s strategy was so packed with Home Office jargon and an avoidance of any real commitment that the debate has been helpful in determining what exactly they intend to do. I will come back to that point shortly, but first I want to congratulate those hon. Members who have spoken out so bravely today on an issue that is often toxic and difficult to debate honestly. The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) made that point eloquently, and that is why his idea for a royal commission has been seized on so fervently by Members on both sides of the House. That would allow us the space to develop a truly evidence-based policy and to take the heat out of the debate and shed some light on it instead.
I particularly want to congratulate the five Members who have made their maiden speeches today. It has been an honour and a privilege to sit and listen to them. I cringe when I compare my maiden speech two years ago with those of the warriors for their constituencies who have spoken today. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) made a particularly inspiring maiden speech as the first turbaned Sikh to represent any constituency in this Parliament. He will be a beacon of hope not only for those who look like him but for all the others who do not see faces that represent them in Parliament at this time. He talked about the glass ceiling that has been shattered by his election, and I look forward to many more glass ceilings being shattered in the months and years to come.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy)—who is not yet back in her place—made an inspiring, witty and entertaining speech. I am confident that she will have no less an impact on her city than did any of her predecessors. As a former primary school teacher, she spoke with a passionate voice about the education system, which is so important and welcome in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) gave a compassionate speech about the victims of the drug policies of successive Governments and spoke bravely about her experience as an MP. It is so important that others join her in calling out the kind of abuse that she talked about today. I welcome the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) from the Government Benches. He gave us an enjoyable history and, indeed, language lesson, but I am afraid to say that I had absolutely no idea what he was saying when he spoke in his local potteries dialect. Finally, the mark of my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) has clearly already been felt in his constituency, and I am confident that it will continue to be felt. He made a thoughtful and thorough contribution, which I am sure will be the first of many.
There were too many speeches for me to summarise them all, but I want to touch on the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). Both of them spoke about the case of Martha Fernback and the bravery of her parents—I believe that they are with us today—who came forward after the tragic death of their daughter. They referred to the importance of education about safe dosage and purity levels, issues which we come back to time and time again, and to the case for legal regulations and clear safety information, which would enable full informed choices that could save lives.
I hope that today’s important debate is the start of a wider debate around drugs policy because, as has been said, very little progress has been made under successive Governments over the past few years. Unfortunately, however, the drug strategy that was announced last week does not advance us any further. We should not forget that the Government’s 2010 drug strategy was essentially ripped up in 2013 when they ended the ring-fencing of drug rehabilitation and treatment services and passed the responsibility to local authorities, which were already facing deep cuts. I regret to say that the strategy does not appear to even recognise, let alone respond to, a climate that has utterly changed since the previous publication.
Despite the strategy being so long overdue, the Government undertook no formal consultation in its development. Where are the voices of drug users, law enforcement officers and treatment professionals? Their voices must be heard, and each and every one of them will tell us that the status quo is not working. It is not working for the desperately vulnerable cohort of heroin and opioid users with increasingly complex health needs who are falling between the gaps of reduced drug rehabilitation services and a social care service in crisis. It is not working for the homeless community, where 95% of the population are said to be drug users and who are given scant support. It is not working for the victims of drug-related crime. It is certainly not working for our public services, particularly our police and emergency services, which are being left to pick up the pieces as services of last resort as the substance use that demands their attention soars.
Since the publication of the last strategy, drug-related deaths have risen and the number of drug users has not fallen. In addition, drug-related crime has placed increased pressure on all public services, including the NHS and the police. The figures for drug-related deaths should shame us all. In 2013, there were 2,955 drug- related deaths. In 2015, there were 3,674 deaths—a new record. That is a record of failure from this Government and their immediate predecessor. Worse still, the recommendations of the Government’s own advisory council are being ignored. The report by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs stated that factors such as
“socio-economic changes (including cuts to health and social care, welfare benefits and local authority services) and changes in treatment services and commissioning practices may also have contributed to these increases.”
It suggested that deaths could be reduced by protecting
“investment in evidence-based drug treatment to promote recovery”,
investing in the
“provision of medically supervised drug consumption clinics in localities with a high concentration of injecting drug use”
and through the roll-out of heroin-assisted treatment for addicts. Finally, it raised concerns that
“drug treatment and prevention services in England are planned to be among those public health services that receive the most substantial funding cuts as a consequence of the government’s decision to cut the public health grant”.
Those warnings and recommendations were completely and utterly ignored in this week’s drugs strategy, which offers no new investment and few new ideas. It is a grim feature of this Government that the experts are ignored when they raise the alarm.
Where do we stand on the Government’s current drugs strategy? Is it evidence-based, bringing in the widest possible array of expert opinion in formulating policy? Is it logical, identifying the necessary steps to achieve the optimal possible outcome? Is it achievable, and have the resources been provided that can make a significant difference? I am afraid it is none of those things.
It is not clear that there has been any meaningful wide-ranging consultation process, or that experts across the field have been heeded. It is not clear, either, that policy has been formulated based on evidence, given the deteriorating drug-related mortality rate and the UK’s uniquely poor performance in that regard. Crucially, have any new resources been provided, or is there any intention to develop new ideas that would make a significant difference to outcomes? It appears not.
To take just one example, the Government’s drugs strategy document blithely states that
“local authority public health teams should take an integrated approach to reducing a range of alcohol related harm, through a combination of universal population level interventions and interventions targeting at risk groups.”
Alcohol is the biggest single killer when it comes to drugs. Alcohol abuse ruins lives, leads to crime, especially violent crime, and is a prevalent factor in domestic abuse. Its treatment is a huge drain on the NHS, but any local councillor or mayor, from whatever party, will be amazed at the Government’s sheer brass neck in demanding that they do more to tackle alcohol and drug abuse when their budgets have been cut to the bone. This is not localism; it is the devolution of austerity and the shifting of responsibility and blame.
Lancashire constabulary, because of budget cuts, has had to remove the mental health workers who were embedded in its police response unit. Is that not an example of the Government asking for something to be done while undermining local authorities, which are unable to deliver these services?
The vast majority of the drugs strategy is simply about shifting blame on to authorities and agencies that have seen their budgets fall and squeezed over the last seven years.
Although we welcome the creation of the national recovery champion, what good is a national recovery champion while the Government are cutting local authority budgets, ending the ring fence on public health, slashing police resources, cutting back on school funding and reducing the resources available to prevention campaigns, while mental health waiting lists are through the roof? Help is increasingly inaccessible.
It is not even clear that Ministers have a clear picture of the drugs problem overall. Complacently, they point to survey evidence that suggests drug misuse is not increasing, yet both drug-related hospital admissions and deaths are on the increase. Has the Minister considered that the survey evidence may not be fully accurate, especially given that it is confined to 16 to 59-year-olds but drug deaths among 50 to 69-year-olds have risen sharply? Drug deaths in the latter group have doubled in the last eight years in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics. We respectfully suggest that the age categories in the survey should be broadened. Will the Minister today commit to the continuation of the British crime survey, which measures these statistics, so that these data continue to be collected?
There are several other important evidence gaps in the drugs strategy. The Government clearly do not have a firm grip on what is happening to the supply of drugs, on how much and what types of drugs are being imported, on how much and what types of drugs are being produced domestically or on the distribution chains. That important data mapping might be easier if the Government had not cut 1,000 Border Force guards and more than 20,000 police officers over the past seven years. Nevertheless, this remains an important task in the fight against illicit drugs and organised crime. The National Crime Agency should be tasked with providing the data on supply—of course, it also needs to be given the resources to do so.
Here we come to the nub of the entire problem with the Government’s drugs strategy. They have provided no new resources to meet the rising problems related to drugs and drug addiction. As a result, all that is left are warm words about the need for treatment and rehabilitation, and, in some instances, outright contradiction. One such example is the Government pledging to develop Jobcentre Plus offices in communities to support people with drug dependencies, but at the exact same time the Department for Work and Pensions is cutting hundreds of jobcentres across the country. Unfortunately, this adds up to a recipe for failure. It means that addicts will not receive the treatment they need; that we are likely to remain the overdose capital of Europe; that we will have a continuing problem of drug-related crime and drug-related hospital admissions; and that greater numbers of people will drift through the criminal justice system who should not be treated as criminals at all. Without the space for innovative ideas, debate and practices to thrive, we will continue to exacerbate all these issues, and we all will have failed.
Before I respond to the substantial questions and items in today’s debate, I wish to pay tribute to the excellent maiden speeches we have heard. I shall start with the excellent speech from the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) about Slough’s bright future as the silicon valley of the UK. I am sure he also has a very bright future in this House, and not just because of the bright colours of his turbans. This is a very proud day for our democracy as a glass ceiling has been shattered. He spoke so powerfully about belonging, and everyone, from all parts of the House, wants to welcome him so that he feels that he truly belongs in this mother of all Parliaments.
It was also a great pleasure to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), whose great maiden speech described the history and the potential of Stoke, and the role it is playing in global Britain. I am sure he will represent Stoke-on-Trent as a powerful advocate for innovation and all those growing businesses there that he so well described. I am also sure we are all going to be lifting up mugs, plates and any other items we buy to look for the words “Made in Stoke-on-Trent” on them. I share with him a strong link to his constituency, because the china clay that is mined in Cornwall is taken to the potteries and has helped to create those iconic brands such as Wedgwood that he mentions. I am very much looking forward to working with him in the weeks, months and years ahead.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), who spoke so powerfully about the importance of making a sacrifice so that we can make the powerful difference we want to see in our country and the sacrifice that our families make to enable us to do that. I am sure her daughters will be so proud of her. Having heard her speech today, I am sure nobody will ever underestimate her or Hull again.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) also spoke powerfully about the scourge of drug use, and the need to look at the root cause of why people take drugs and then to support them on the road to recovery. She is obviously very proud of her constituency, its history, its people and its culture. My sister is a nurse, and I know what powerful advocates nurses are for their patients. I am sure she will be a great advocate for all her constituents.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), who spoke of his passion to help marginalised people in Ipswich choose a life free of drugs, and I look forward to working with him in that vital task. It is good to hear that he wants to build on the work of Ben Gummer, his predecessor, in improving the local economy and the opportunities there, particularly the rail links, and I wish him well during his time in Parliament.
I will try to cover in as much detail as I can in the remaining time the issues, questions and challenges that have been posed about the strategy. I welcome the fact that the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) welcomed the strategy and recognised some of the achievements of the 2010 strategy. In doing that, she rightly wanted to know what more we are doing in prisons and rightly pointed out the real problem we have with drug use in prisons. I want to reassure her about the actions that are going on now to support prison officers in tackling this dreadful problem. We are enhancing the drug-testing regime, supporting governors by recruiting new officers to our prison estate, looking at how prisons can co-commission drug services with the NHS locally, ensuring that the parameters of prisons are more secure and maintained and improving the searching capability of dedicated teams. It is really important that I have this chance to point out that we are taking a comprehensive series of actions to prevent prisons from being a place where people can readily access drugs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) made a really important contribution to this debate. The fact that we have allowed this debate in Government time—we have had a really good debate with a wide-ranging discussion—demonstrates our commitment to getting this policy area right. We have published a lot of data, which my hon. Friend mentioned. We have worked with a wide range of stakeholders to inform our evidence-based strategy, and we will continue to do so.
My hon. Friend and others have asked whether we will be evaluating the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. We are already doing so. We have published the framework for that evaluation so people can contribute, and we will be publishing the findings in 2018. We are determined to be an open, evidence-based policy team. We do look very closely at the work of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, as it is the key Government adviser. It is simply not true to say that we have not taken on board all the recommendations that it has made. It has made a really important contribution to this strategy, and will continue to do so going forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate also talked very movingly—as did a number of hon. Friends—about the stigma around this issue. He was absolutely right. I have met many parents of families myself. I went along to a very moving service in Westminster Abbey only a month or so ago organised by Adfam. I encourage everyone who has a family member struggling with substance misuse to seek that help, to go to their GP, and to pick up the phone to the helplines that are available because they will receive support on how to manage their issues and their substance abuse problems.
Does the Minister agree that effective treatment means helping those who are suffering addiction to come off the substance to which they are addicted? It is not just about managing their situation, which might mean being dependent on a different substance.
We have a broad range of strategies, and I will come on to talk about harm reduction, because, clearly, it has a role to play. The ultimate goal is to enable people to have a drug-free life in which they have a job and are playing a full part in society, but there is a role for harm reduction.
I am sorry, but I have very little time. If I can make some progress, I will give way.
Many Members talked about how concerned they were that the police and the criminal justice system were criminalising a whole generation of young people. I can absolutely assure Members that, having spent a lot of time with police officers, that is simply not the case. The police are very, very sensitive to the need not to do that. We have a wide range of options available to police officers and the courts, so that young people in the criminal justice system can be referred straight to health solutions, diversion services and treatment. It is only as a last resort, often with persistent offending, that the criminal justice solution is sought.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) talked about the need for class A drugs, such as heroin, to be used in treatment and recovery programmes. I can assure him that that is absolutely what happens. That was the recommendation that ACMD made and the drugs are available. However, that is quite different from just making a space available for people to take drugs. Having heard the evidence of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), it is really important that if people are to be taking heroin it must be part of a treatment programme with recovery as the end point. I have been to the facilities and seen for myself how people are given clean needles and support and advice, but it is medically led by a doctor. That was a point that the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) made, and it was reflected in the advice that we took from the ACMD.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) talked powerfully about the issue being a matter of social justice, and she is absolutely right. The strategy addresses the problems that she articulated so well of children living in homes with parents who have substance abuse problems, whether we are talking about alcohol or drugs. It is important that we take a joined-up approach to make sure that those families are really supported. She also mentioned the important issue of cheap alcohol and white cider. I very much supported the action that the Treasury is taking in consulting on increasing taxation; that consultation is under way, and I am sure that we will hear the results in due course.
My hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) spoke powerfully, drawing on her experience of the serious organised criminals who bring the most harmful drugs into our country. She is absolutely right to highlight the human trafficking and appalling abuse of children that happens in bringing the drugs into our country. The same gangs exploit vulnerable people in our country in order to traffic these drugs around the country. She is right to draw on her experience, and on the view shared by many in the criminal justice system that we need to work globally, through the United Nations and our partners, and share data to prevent these drugs from arriving on our shores.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) spoke about the difficulties of families. I really hope that Martha’s mum, who is here, sees how seriously we take the loss of any child. As a mother of three children, I just cannot imagine the horror of getting that phone call to say that I had lost one of my children. I want to reassure her; I hope that she sees, from the nature of this debate, how seriously the Government and everyone in the House take the issue. We want to work against the stigma that families face, so that they can speak out and get the help that they need. I hope that she is somewhat reassured by the strategy’s emphasis on the good advice and information that should be readily available to young people, so that they understand the risks of all drugs, including alcohol, tobacco, and other substances that they might be tempted to take. A lot of progress has been made in the four years since Martha’s tragic death.
The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) made a point that he also raised at Home Office questions last week. Winging its way to him is a detailed written response to that question. I recognise the picture that he describes in his community. It is something that I faced in Truro last year. What I saw there is that, as he has discovered, not everybody—not all police officers or people in local authorities—has all the information about the powers that they have to work as a team to tackle these issues. In my letter to him, I describe what I think he can do, and the advocacy and agency that he can bring to bear in getting all the partners together in Wrexham to work on the issue.
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on the funding for the testing that police officers need to do of substances that they find on people in order to get convictions. That testing regime is well supported by and funded by the Home Office, but as I say, I will write to him in a lot more detail.
The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) spoke passionately about the work of Elizabeth Brice and her campaign for the medicinal use of cannabis. I want to assure him and all Members in the House that there is access to medicinal cannabis. It can be used for a wide range of ailments and can be very beneficial. Sativex, for example, is licensed for use. It has been raised with me before that our regime for enabling pharmaceutical companies or medical researchers to use licensed drugs is letting people down, so I have asked the Department of Health and the ACMD to look at this. We have not seen any evidence that the current regime is a barrier to people using banned drugs in medical research, but if the hon. Gentleman has that evidence and wants to send it to me, of course we will review that.
The term “war on drugs” was used repeatedly in the debate, most passionately by the right hon. Member for North Norfolk, who spoke with customary eloquence, but also by the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan). I just want to say that I have never used that term, and it appears nowhere in the strategy. It is simply not the Government’s policy to have a “war on drugs,” so I hope that we can sort that out once and for all. We have a far-reaching, cross-Government policy focused on the health harms of drugs, the underlying social reasons why people take drugs, and trying to prevent them, right through to the criminal justice system. We are taking a balanced, full-Government, integrated approach. I can assure hon. Members that we always look at evidence from around the world, so the evidence from Portugal has been considered.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw quite rightly said that if we are absolutely serious about reducing the number of deaths from heroin, especially among those who have been taking it for some time—and we certainly are; no Minister wants the number of deaths to increase on their watch—we must have an evidence-based approach. I honestly think that the strategy will tackle that. We do recognise that naloxone can play a vital role in saving lives, as he said, and that there is a good evidence base for that. The strategy that was published commits us to the wider use of that in saving lives.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw also described the excellent work that was done in Bassetlaw up until 2013. That is just the sort of local response that we want to see, with all the agencies working together. The drug champion will of course have a vital role, travelling across the country, finding best practice and sharing it with those communities that perhaps do not have as good an understanding of how to tackle the issue. The strategy board, which will be chaired by the Home Secretary, will include representation from NHS England, Public Health England and the police—a whole range of expertise. They will work together to develop measurable outcome frameworks, which of course we will share over time as they are developed, and we can hold each other to account for their delivery.
The hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) claimed that the Government are ignoring the recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs with regard to deaths from heroin. That is simply not the case. We have taken all of its recommendations into consideration in forming the strategy. We have a good, constructive, ongoing relationship —I meet the chairman regularly. I am sure that the work of the board, led by the Home Secretary, will be informed by the ACMD’s really excellent work.
The Home Office and Public Health England jointly set up some heroin and crack cocaine action areas. The piloting we did in Middlesbrough gave some good ideas about how to move in the right direction, and that is referenced in the strategy. Despite the claims made by some colleagues on the Opposition Benches, there has been a lot of innovation in recent years, and we very much want to build on that. We need only look at the excellent clinical advice that has been developed by Public Health England to help clinicians have a much more nuanced and effective approach to understanding the different types of people who suffer from drug misuse and the different types of drugs they use, and therefore to have a more tailored approach to helping them on the road to recovery.
I am grateful to the Minister, who has responded to all the challenges in a tolerant and civilised way. The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) proposed that we have a royal commission in order to take the heat and the politics out of this matter and look dispassionately at all the arguments. Will the Minister at least consider that?
I just do not agree that politics is driving the issue. Our approach is totally evidence-based. If we were worried and felt unable to talk about the problem, as some have characterised us this afternoon, the Government would not have given a whole afternoon of debate to it. I accept the sincerely held views of hon. Members who do not agree with the Government, but that does not mean that our policy is not based on evidence. We are happy to debate the issue; there will be other opportunities and I will welcome those.
The pivotal role of Parliament is to scrutinise the work of the Executive and take on some of the difficult issues in our society. I am proud of our work together in the last Parliament on destigmatising mental health issues. A lot of people in this place were prepared to talk about those issues from personal experience and also with a huge amount of evidence. It is fair to say that there has been a huge culture change in our country. By talking about drug addiction and substance abuse problems, as we have today, we will contribute to a destigmatisation. As a result, more people will come forward. Families will be saved appalling loss and communities will be saved the blight of the criminal activity that goes along with this issue.
If a royal commission looked into this matter, I hope that it would consider not only what is happening in the United Kingdom. This is a global problem that needs a global policy to address it. The sand is shifting under our feet as other nations begin to change their policies. If there were a royal commission, the United Kingdom could do some thought leadership about what is happening around the world.
I thoroughly agree that we must approach this matter from a global point of view. That is the fourth strand of the policy—the global strand. It is about working thoroughly and consistently with colleagues at the United Nations and globally, and looking at the evidence base. Actually, some other countries look to us as leaders in this area, especially on psychoactive substances. We are global Britain. We are always out looking and working in partnership with other countries and we will look at the evidence base from them.
I am going to make a little more progress if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
The hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) touched on the issue of resources. Having a good, well implemented strategy requires resources, of course. There was a lot of misunderstanding about funding this afternoon. The Public Health England budget is ring-fenced. Yes, it is given to local authorities, which need to make decisions, based on consultation with and the health needs of their communities, about the allocation of resources. If some local authorities are disinvesting, that is sad to hear, because we put the evidence out there and the benefits of investment in good recovery services are clear—not just to the individuals concerned, but to the whole community.
I expect local authorities to use their ring-fenced budgets for public health for those services. But there is not just that budget. The Government have made record sums available for mental health services, and the national health budget is growing. The homelessness prevention funding has been ring-fenced and there is investment in innovative ways of working on homelessness prevention. There has also been the troubled families funding. The issue is about joining up those funds so that we can use the money in a smart way and tailor it to the needs of each family and person—they are all different—so that we can be really effective.
All the funds that the Minister mentioned are stretched beyond compare, especially the mental health funding. Yes, public health funding is ring-fenced, but it has been cut by £85 million. Drug treatment services are being cut, I am afraid, even though there is increased need.
What I see when I go around the country is a great deal of innovation where people are learning to use their resources more effectively.
One of the very important jobs of the champion is to look at what is happening well in parts of the country where people are not disinvesting in services and have excellent examples of partnership working. I praise the work that the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) is doing in really getting into the weeds in her community and understanding this issue. In doing so, she knows that it is only by joining up all the services in the community and involving employers that we are going to make the step change that we need to see. I am very clear—
I only have a few minutes left.
I am very clear that this is a very ambitious policy. It has been based on evidence. It has been some time in the coming because we have looked at reports and research that has been done, particularly by the ACMD, to inform what we are doing. I absolutely want to put it beyond doubt that we see this strategy as joining up health, social and crime areas. It is a completely joined-up approach to government. We are trying to help people into recovery. The health interventions that people have so rightly spoken about are absolutely critical to the success of this strategy.
The strategy board will meet when we get back in the autumn. I am sure that Members will see that we have many opportunities to debate the outcomes framework that we will be putting forward, and we will hear about the really good work that the recovery champion is going to do. I hope that Members in all parts of the House will engage with the recovery champion, share the good work that is going on in their constituencies, and share their concern where things are not working, because let us be in no doubt—this is a complex issue that is going to require a huge amount of effort in every community in every part of our country. Despite our views on whether we should criminalise or not criminalise, we are all united in wanting to end the pain and suffering that is caused to too many people and too many communities by the use of drugs.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will have heard the Minister say that she could not take a brief intervention from me because of lack of time. Could I just make the point that the Government’s policy is not evidence-based, because otherwise they would be taking clear cognisance of the evidence from Portugal and from Uruguay—