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House of Commons Hansard

Psychoactive Substances

23 May 2018
Volume 641

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered Government policy on new psychoactive substances.

    Thank you for chairing this afternoon’s sitting, Sir Christopher. I hope that we will have an interesting discussion on a topic that is live and interesting for many people. I declare an interest, as I chair the all-party parliamentary group for new psychoactive substances and volatile substance abuse, ably supported by the charities Mentor and Re-Solv, which give advice and support to the group free of charge to help address some of the challenges in this area.

    Today’s debate is timely, because the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 came into force on 26 May 2016 to combat the sale and supply of new psychoactive substances, which were formerly known as legal highs. Members may be aware that some of those products were known under street names, such as spice or MCAT. There was also the use of nitrous oxide as laughing gas. It is a serious matter, because more than 100 people died in the year before the 2016 Act came into effect. It has had a good success rate, which I want to talk about, but I also want to put some questions to the Minister.

    The Act includes a statutory provision to review the legislation 30 months following its commencement, and that time is approaching. I want to hear what the Minister’s initial thoughts are and what the pathway is to ensuring that that review takes place. There are a number of views about the operation of the Act to date, and I want to raise a number of questions with him. I will give him advance notice of those questions and then discuss them in more detail.

    First, what is the Minister’s assessment of the operation of the 2016 Act to date? There was some concern at the time about its methodology and what it would achieve and how, so I would welcome his assessment. When does he intend to publish the review of the Act? That has been looked at for some time, and I will return to that issue later. As the Minister for Policing, what is his assessment of the impact of the Act on police forces to date? What has it meant for police forces, and what is their understanding of the Act? What use have they made of the Act to date?

    The charities I am involved in are interested in harm reduction and supporting the community in prevention. What steps are local authorities taking to understand the new challenges of psychoactive substances, given their responsibilities? What knowledge and understanding has the health service gained? What partnerships are in place or being developed to understand this new emerging trend, and how has the Minister dealt with that? I will return to that in due course.

    I want to get the Minister—if not today, then at some point—to publish some data about the 2016 Act. Section 4 of the Act relates to an offence of producing a psychoactive substance. How many convictions have there been? In section 5 there is the offence of supplying or offering to supply a psychoactive substance. How many convictions have there been? Section 6 is about aggravation of offences. How many convictions have there been? Section 7 relates to possession of a psychoactive substance. How many convictions have there been? Section 8 relates to importing and exporting. How many convictions have there been? Section 9 relates to possession of a new psychoactive substance in a custodial institution. I will return to that matter shortly, but how many convictions have there been?

    Convictions are one part of a metric on reducing usage, and I will return to other areas that are critical in prevention, understanding and harm reduction, but what assessment have the Government made of the impact of NPS on communities? I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) here. He had a particular challenge this time last year with a flood of NPS coming into the community in Wrexham. There was a need for a challenge, involving local authorities, the police and the health service together. Are the Government monitoring the impact of such things? The same thing happened in Manchester. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell)—she cannot be here today—has played an active role in the group looking at such matters: why are communities being impacted? What is the mix that has led to NPS being used in Wrexham, Manchester or other areas? What steps are the Government taking on NPS in prisons?

    What assessment has been made of the key issues discussed during the passage of the Act: education and understanding for young people; the resilience to refuse; and help and support for those who are potentially the most vulnerable—the homeless, who have been targeted with NPS in many areas? We need to know what figures the Minister is collating on the number of deaths, given what happened before, and on hospital admissions and the support that is given to people when incidents occur.

    That is the framework of the questions that I want the Minister to address. I will now touch briefly on some specific issues. Spice and other new psychoactive substances have been manufactured in China and India and shipped to Europe by people who wish to make a profit out of them. Before the Act, online retailers, high street shops and non-retail sources, such as friends of drug dealers, were used for that.

    The Act had support from all parties in the House, and there has been some success. There has been a marked reduction in the public availability of NPS through high street shops, because they have gone as a result of the Act. However, anecdotal evidence shows that there is still online access to NPS—I would like to know what the Minister thinks about that—and that the illicit drug market is now playing a more important role than it did in the past. Because it is illicit, it is even more dangerous. I would like the Minister to comment on those issues.

    The European body monitoring this issue, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, has indicated that there are now some 620 types of NPS on the market. We need not only a criminal justice response but an education and health response on the various aspects of NPS, how parents, teachers, youth workers and individuals themselves understand them, and how we have support interventions from a range of bodies to warn people and to prevent use in the first place.

    The Home Office’s latest figures showed that 332 retailers were no longer selling psychoactive substances, and that the police had made 186 arrests around the time of the Act coming into force, which is good. The Home Office outline in the framework document detailing the review of the Act said that there had been a reduction in the use of NPS. Figures from the crime survey for England and Wales show that, among 16 to 24-year-olds, NPS use has fallen from 2.6% to 1.2%. Among the older cohort, overall use has reduced by about 50%—a statistically significant change. However, the survey does not include student residence halls, NHS nurses’ accommodation, prisons or homeless people, so I would welcome the Minister’s assessment of the full picture in due course. I have said that I want the review, and I think I have said enough on that—we need to know when the 30-month review is happening, because it seems to be drifting. I would welcome the Minister’s confirmation that it is not.

    Prisons are a No. 1 concern. There have been efforts on the streets to remove NPS, but there has been a 2,625% increase in use in prisons since 2010. Spice cases have shot through the roof in prisons, and methadone cases are still important. Attacks on prison officers have increased—largely, in many cases, as a result of the use of spice. We have a lot of anecdotal evidence of NPS being smuggled into prisons on plain A4 paper, impregnated as a narcotic. Prison officers are concerned about the lack of sniffer dogs in prisons, and about secondary consumption of NPS in prison cells. People in prison who use NPS go into health centres. We know anecdotally that nurses are concerned about spice use in prisons continuing to worsen and, because healthcare professionals go into cells, about being exposed to it themselves.

    I have looked at this month’s papers through a quick google this morning. I saw a prison inspector reporting on HMP Nottingham, where NPS was leading to a “dangerous, disrespectful, drug-ridden jail”. At Holme House Prison, frequent and alarming medical emergencies are contributing to high levels of staff sickness, and the safety and stability of the prison is being affected by NPS use. A report from an independent monitoring board noted:

    “Like most prisons, HMP Northumberland faces a rise in the use of illegal substances and the consequent potential for violence.”

    Those are just examples from one Google search this morning of what has happened this month with NPS in prisons. I would like to know from the Minister, although I know he does not have direct responsibility for prisons as a whole, what the strategy is, what action there is against criminal gangs, what the health implications of NPS in prisons are, and what action he is taking.

    My constituency is in Wales. In November 2017, Public Health Wales produced a report that highlighted some important facts. It showed that the use and number of such substances has decreased, and that is attributable to the Act, which is good. However, those that have been identified are more toxic and more potent, and represent a greater harm to users than other drugs. People are using NPS in that way now because of the Act. I would welcome the Minister’s assessment of that trend. Is there a more dangerous drug out there now because of the changes, which have driven NPS underground? If so, what is the Government’s strategy? That is not a criticism—I am just asking what the Government’s strategy is on harm reduction, advice and information. I am not just talking about advice for people who end up using NPS. Because NPS means new psychoactive substances—I emphasise the word “new”—youth workers, health professionals, police officers, local government staff and housing officials who deal with homeless people need to be kept up to date with the impact of that information.

    The leader of the substance misuse programme in Wales has said:

    “New psychoactive substances coming onto the market in Wales and across Europe pose a number of threats, with users at risk of acute harms which are well evidenced in this report. The long-term risks associated with these drugs are currently unknown.”

    I would like to know from the Minister what research is being done into the long-term effects, and how the Government will work with agencies to reduce harm.

    Policing is one thing—I have touched on the fact that we need to look at that in detail—but education and prevention are also important. What are we doing about educating young people, educating teachers and raising awareness of all these issues? That takes effort, money and time, but it is important.

    I will make a further point, given that the Minister here today is the Policing Minister. The all-party group that I chair has been looking at volatile substance abuse and new psychoactive substances, and has held regular meetings with a number of interested bodies. Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham, we met with Wrexham Council. We have also met with Greater Manchester police, who had an effective operation targeting cannabinoids with a street value of £6.6 million. Two important issues arose out of the police and community response. The first is the need for a multi-agency approach. Wrexham Council triaged all services in one room, but with NPS it remains difficult to get that engagement, because the health service, the local council and the police need to be around the same table to deal with an extreme spike such as my hon. Friend had in his constituency this time last year.

    One of the things that I took from the police in Manchester was that they were having difficulty in knowing what the pathway is to treatment after identifying somebody who has been using NPS in the community. If someone was out of their head, very often in Manchester they were a homeless person. Once the police had identified that person and lifted them from the street, without necessarily taking the criminalisation route but just to try to find them a place of safety, the path to treatment was particularly difficult. I would welcome the Minister focusing on what the triaging path is.

    I would also welcome some information about the Minister’s understanding of whether the law is clear. I say that not because I believe it is not, but because I still receive representations from Release, the drugs, law and human rights charity. I quote from its letter to me today, which is worth placing on the record:

    “The confusion created by the Act is apparent in enforcement mistakes made by police on the street, and the fact that of those arrested since the Act came into force only one third were actually cautioned or charged.”

    Release also provided some freedom of information figures —they may or may not be accurate, I do not know—from a survey of 41 police forces: 805 arrests were made under the Psychoactive Substances Act between May 2016 and September 2017, with 274 cases proceeding to caution; and in London 68 charges arose from 313 arrests. I do not comment on the figures, but will the Minister give some information on what the police know about the Act, how they are using it, and how the Act is taking people from arrest to potential conviction? Whether today or tomorrow, or in a parliamentary answer if need be, I ask him for the figures on the operation of the Act as part of the final review.

    I wanted to hold the debate today so that we could air these issues. There are four main questions for the Minister to absorb. When will the review happen? What impact has the Act had on the reduction of NPS? What actions is he taking on hotspots and to raise awareness of the Act among important agencies such as housing, local councils and the police? What steps is he taking to intervene in education and health to ensure that when people are found to be using NPS, whether by the police or another agency, some mechanism triages them on to a pathway that stops them offending, facing difficult challenges and using, and that leads them to a positive future life?

    The use of NPS is a small part of a much wider drug problem, but it is important. I wanted to bring air the matter in the House not to be critical of the Government but to raise an issue that I hope they will look at today or after the debate.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.

    I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on securing the debate, which is a welcome opportunity to review a piece of legislation that was not uncontroversial when it passed through the House a couple of years ago. I shall touch briefly on a couple of points that he made and pick up on the issue of research, in particular, which was something that I raised during the passage of the Bill.

    The then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), recognised some of the challenges and barriers to effective research that might arise from the Bill—research not only into psychoactive substances and their effects, but into finding effective treatment for people who become physiologically addicted to such substances or dependent on them in other ways.

    I shall press the Minister on research, because it is important for us to facilitate research and treatment in this area and to have a joined-up approach. It is no good just having punitive regulations and laws unless we also find a way to help people who are in need of help because they are using these substances. I am sure that everyone in the Chamber agrees on that.

    I shall also touch a little more on the need for more joined-up working and on the focus on prevention, which was another issue raised during the passage of the Bill that led to the Psychoactive Substances Act. Too often after criminal justice legislation has been passed, we forget that we want to avoid the need to enforce these laws and that we want to help people to make informed and better choices in the first place. The right hon. Member for Delyn was right about the challenges to having a joined-up and effective approach across local authorities, the NHS and the police in many areas of drugs policy.

    The changes introduced by the Health and Social Care Act 2012 fragmented healthcare provision in substance-abuse services, making local authorities the primary commissioners. That has not helped the police or others much in the task of providing effective and joined-up preventive care or in improving education for people about the choices that they make when they take psychoactive substances or other drugs.

    On research, a number of researchers and research institutions are clearly somewhat confused by some aspects of the law. The way in which the legislation is drafted means that we are potentially criminalising what would otherwise be legitimate research. That was my reading of the legislation as it passed through the House, and there are still concerns in the research community. As drafted, the law makes it difficult to perform legitimate research on, for example, methods of treating people who develop a physiological dependence on spice, which is a topical new psychoactive substance and cannabinoid on which an estimated 15% of users develop a physiological dependence—a higher figure than for those smoking skunk, because of the nature of the substance and its ingredients.

    To help people with a physiological dependence—for example, people with an opioid dependence—we have drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine. Over time, those drugs have been put through clinical trials, and they have been used to support people who are addicts—who need, for example, to be treated to come off heroin. The concern is that, while we recognise that some of the new psychoactive substances have the potential to cause higher levels of physiological dependence than some other drugs that we recognise from the past—I used the example of spice compared with cannabis that is smoked—it is difficult under the 2016 Act for researchers necessarily to research effective ways of dealing with that physiological dependence.

    Drugs that can be used include the benzodiazepines, but it is difficult to research such use. The barriers to research put in place by the Act, and indeed the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, have not helped. Those barriers make it difficult for researchers to research effective medications to help people who are addicted. The Government need to look at that, not only because reducing addiction and dependency is important, but because the then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, said during the passage of the Bill that he would take the issue away and look at it. I would be grateful for an update on what the Department has done during the intervening time to look at this.

    I took Professor Sir Robin Murray to meet the Minister to discuss more broadly some of the barriers to research on cannabis, such as the need for a Home Office licence. We were not talking about therapeutic treatment for people with physiological dependence, but the principle is the same, and it is one I hope the Department is able to look at, because it is about improving the health and wellbeing of people who often have a multitude of health and complex social issues to deal with. That is something we need to address if we want to deal with addiction and help researchers develop effective treatments for people who have addiction to new psychoactive substances.

    The second point I wanted to raise briefly, which picks up on a point raised by the right hon. Member for Delyn, is the need for a broader focus on prevention and, more generally, for more effective joined-up working between the police, health services and the Prison Service. We know about the problems that many prisoners face and about the high number of deaths there are among prisoners with heroin addiction on leaving prison, due to their reduced tolerance, and there is a spike in the first two weeks after they leave prison. More broadly, we know that new psychoactive substances such as spice are widely used in prison. It has been made an offence to use new psychoactive substances in prison, but that does not deal with the fundamental issue of how we help people to make better choices and how we help those with addiction to engage more effectively with the NHS and healthcare services.

    Whatever treatment may be available in prison, the problem is that there is not joined-up working when people leave prison, partially because NHS care for addiction is now commissioned by local authorities. That care is incredibly fragmented, and there is not the national focus that the NHS could bring to the issue. I urge the Minister to have further discussions with the Department of Health and Social Care. We have to revisit the 2012 Act, which has done a great disservice to substance misuse services. It has resulted in fragmentation, which we see very vividly in the context of prisoners leaving prison and more broadly in the variability in commissioning. In tightened economic times, the variability of resources means that different local authorities commission in incredibly different ways—some more effectively than others.

    The lack of joined-up working I have outlined between local authorities and prisons, and between the NHS and local authorities in engaging wider mental health services with substance abuse services, is a real issue. I hope the Minister will take that away from the debate and discuss it with the Department of Health and Social Care. It would be a disservice to some very vulnerable people if he did not do so, and I am sure he will look into this.

    With those two points—on the potential barriers to research into therapeutic treatment and the need for a more collaborative and joined-up approach between prisons and the criminal justice system and, more generally, in the health service—I will bring my remarks to a close. I hope that the Minister will take those points in the constructive tone that has been set in the debate, look at them and recognise that improvements are needed if we are to make the Government’s policy on dealing with new psychoactive substances more effective.

  • Order. Before calling Ian Lucas, I would just say that Front-Bench winding-up speeches will start at 25 past 5. There are three people seeking to catch my eye, so I hope they will be able to divide the time between them reasonably fairly. I call Ian Lucas.

  • Thank you, Sir Christopher. I will be brief. I thought it might be helpful to recount the situation we had in Wrexham last year and the steps that we have taken. That may assist the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson). I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for arranging this debate.

    About a year ago, we had an extremely disturbing situation develop very quickly in Wrexham. It was a manifestation of new psychoactive substance use on the streets. It presents with individuals in a very disturbed state, and it hugely upsets people who see them. It has an enormous and immediate impact as far as the town is concerned, not only for those who are taking the substances, but for the community as a whole. There was a great deal of reaction in my constituency office to what was an extremely serious, fast-moving and worrying situation.

    I am pleased to say that, a year on, some progress has been made, and I want to assist by describing how that has been achieved. However, I want to make it clear that this is a continuing issue, and I am sure that such incidents are not just occurring in Wrexham. I want to recount what we had to do to address the issue.

    We hear the phrase “joined-up working” regularly; it trips off the tongue, but it is much more difficult to achieve than to talk about. After my re-election in the general election, the first thing I did was to bang extremely hard on the desk of the local authority and refuse to move until action was taken on this issue. That involved working with the police and the local health board to bring everyone together to try to find a way ahead. It was a new situation for virtually everyone concerned.

    The civic community of Wrexham has come together in an inspiring way to address what was a new situation for everyone, but we have had to rely on voluntary action. For example, we have a general practitioner who gives her morning as a volunteer to hold an event to support individuals with substance misuse issues. As I speak, we still do not have a real structure in place to support the work we are doing. We have a lot of voluntary organisations that seek to engage with affected individuals and that work with them to try to address their difficulties, but that is in the context of great financial pressures on local authorities, health boards and the police. It is very, very difficult.

    We sought assistance, and I met a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State from the Home Office for funding, but I was referred to the police and crime commissioner, who I am afraid has not been involved and has not provided funding to support the work we are doing. We are determined to continue this work, but unfortunately we are not getting support from the statutory services, and the structures do not appear to be in place to support our work. We have created relationships and a structure that has begun to address the issue. However, there needs to be a much more co-ordinated structure. We need financial commitment and support from all the agencies involved.

    For anywhere else that encounters this issue in the future, my advice is that it must be approached quickly, seriously and with a correct time allocation for the professionals concerned to address it. It is very important that action is taken in a co-ordinated manner.

    We have begun to take steps forward. I am really grateful for the support and assistance from my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn and the all-party parliamentary group, and for the work that we have been doing together in Parliament on the issue, but we all need to be doing a lot better—the Government, local authorities, health boards and all individuals concerned.

    I would value more engagement from the national Government on the issue. It is one that will keep arising, particularly in market towns such as Wrexham, which I represent; it is not going to go away, and it feeds the general perception that towns are not getting the attention they deserve from the Government. The Government need to take the issue extremely seriously.

  • I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on bringing this issue to this Chamber, and commend him for his hard work. He described the scourge of these so-called legal highs on our streets. He is not alone: we all have constituents who are massively affected.

    Back in 2015, a constituent of mine tragically lost his life due to a legal high. I can well remember the meeting we had with the local police, whose hands were tied when it came to addressing the issue. The concern that my constituents raised rose to such a pitch that there was a successful and respectful silent protest, during which hundreds of local people stood outside the shop in the town that was selling the legal highs. The shop closed down very soon afterwards. The end in Newtownards of a young life with so much potential was heartbreaking and effected a sea change in the way that adolescents and parents alike viewed and discussed the highs. It was very important.

    The Police Service of Northern Ireland were the first to bemoan the lack of legal ability to make arrests, and to stop the scourge on the streets. Steps were taken in the form of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which made it possible for officers to react in a small way to legal highs. However, the scourge has not ended. As recently as Christmas, there was one of the largest ever discoveries of legal high substances in Northern Ireland. Officers found some £800,000-worth of the drugs at a house in Portadown and a business premises in Lurgan over the course of two days. That as much as much as anything underlines the fact that although legislation may be in place, the threat is simply evolving. I support the right hon. Gentleman in his quest to see whether we can tweak and change the law to ensure that police and others have the tools to do their job.

    I am aware of the calls by charities for greater support and guidance in dealing with this matter. I have spoken to the PSNI in my area; it says that although it can make arrests, the system could be better. We must listen to those on the ground who are using this legislation, and who believe that it could be better, and be used to better effect. Detective Inspector Pete Mullan, as reported on the BBC after the seizures at Christmas, really got to the crux of the matter:

    “We want to ensure that we are doing everything possible to prevent the supply of drugs and arrest those involved while at the same time making people aware of the real dangers they pose to their health”.

    It is not enough to seize drugs; we must be proactive to prevent their supply, allow the judicial system to intervene, and deal with those who are spreading or preparing to spread these drugs. We must also ensure publicity and awareness about the real dangers that they pose. Not many people knew the young man in my constituency, but there is a message to send.

    I will conclude, because I want to give the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) the opportunity to speak. We must send the message that we should fund local community groups that focus on legal high awareness; schools and the police, so that they can co-operate on programmes; and a media campaign to remind parents to have that talk with their children. I agree with the right hon. Member for Delyn that more can be done. We look to the Minister to do just that.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on securing this important debate.

    In the short time that I have, I want to make a particular appeal to the Minister. The approach to these new psychoactive substances unfortunately is repeating the same failed drugs policy that we generally apply. I am quite saddened, having taken part in a number of these debates, and having served on the Psychoactive Substances Bill Committee, that the Government seem to ignore pleas to pilot evidence-based harm reduction treatment programmes, which I believe have been advocated by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House. We need to look at this issue. If we continue to criminalise users, rather than treating addicts and referring them to a public health programme dealing with a public health issue, we risk repeating the same mistakes over and over.

    I thank Chris Hicks and the eight leading UK drugs policy organisations for kindly including me in their correspondence to Amanda Healy, who is the director of public health for Durham. I share their concerns about the alarmingly high rate of drug-related deaths in my area, and the increased use of psychoactive substances, particularly spice.

    The debate focuses on psychoactive substances, but it is important to recognise that in 2016, there were 3,744 drug-related deaths in the United Kingdom. That is the highest number since records began in 1993. The national drug death average is 44 deaths per million. In the north-east, that figure is 77 deaths per million. We have a large and growing problem that we need to address as a public health crisis. We need to ensure that we have the correct investment in education, health, and health interventions. We need to try to ensure a co-ordinated approach.

    The figures stack up. The cost to the public purse through the involvement of the police and social services and other costs is £65,000; by comparison, a treatment programme is about £15,000. Those figures were given to me by my local police and crime commissioner. I appeal to the Minister to look at the evidence on public health interventions, and at running a pilot scheme somewhere in the country where there is support for such an initiative. I am sure he would have tremendous support for such an approach.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on bringing forward the debate, and on the very valuable work that he and his colleagues are doing in the all-party parliamentary group. I had not been aware of its existence until this week, but if he has an application form handy, I would be very happy to join.

    My Scottish National party colleagues and I supported the Government’s Psychoactive Substances Act, which quite rightly introduced a broad prohibition on the manufacture and supply of these substances, essentially in order to stop dealers circumventing the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 by endlessly modifying products to create new substances.

    In 2014 alone, there were more than 100 new substances identified in the EU. That highlights the need for a new approach. We raised concerns about some aspects of the Bill; a number of them were based on a report published by the Home Affairs Committee at the time. We welcome this opportunity to revisit how the 2016 Act is operating, and to express our view on exactly what the Government’s review should look at and on how we go about measuring whether the Act has been successful.

    Importantly, the right hon. Member for Delyn made the subject of the debate policy overall, not just the Act. That reminds us that the Act was never going to be a silver bullet; it was to be just one of several policy levers designed to combat new psychoactive substance use. One of the principal aims of the legislation was to close so-called head shops—indeed, that seems to have happened —in order to remove these substances from the high street. That raises questions about displacement. As the right hon. Gentleman said, we need to know whether people are instead buying these substances from dealers in controlled drugs. That was expected to an extent, and it appears to have happened—but to what extent? Has there been displacement in the sense that former psychoactive substance users have switched to controlled drugs? Has there been displacement through sales moving to the internet, including the dark web? What steps are the Government taking to close down the sites involved?

    Concerns were expressed during debates on the Bill about enforcement and prosecution. How would prosecutors prove potential psychoactive effect? Would that require expert evidence? What would the costs be? The evidence at the time showed that Irish legislation had led to very few prosecutions, so it will be important to know what has happened in this country. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s comments on the figures that the right hon. Member for Delyn gave.

    Hon. Members have highlighted, as the Home Affairs Committee did at the time, that non-legislative measures need to accompany the Act. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted education; we need to know about the progress made in ensuring that information about psychoactive substances reaches all pupils, and whether we are measuring awareness among our young people. More generally, we need to know what can be done to ensure that all people have access to the information and advice that they require.

    The right hon. Member for Delyn and the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) spoke in detail about the chronic problem in the prison system. There also seems to be a growing problem in the immigration detention estate. In the NHS, have we made sufficient progress in ensuring that frontline staff are fully informed about substances, and that appropriate treatment and harm reduction options are available? The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) made a powerful argument for a proper public health approach. The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich made a thoughtful contribution on the importance of research and making sure that that is not caught up in the legislation.

    Given that we have heard that new psychoactive substance use seems more significant among vulnerable populations, particularly homeless people, what steps have can we take to focus efforts there? It was very interesting to hear about the joint working approach in Wrexham.

    Ultimately, this is about people. The hon. Member for Strangford did us the service of highlighting the tragic case of his young constituent. We want fewer people to be harmed by new psychoactive substances. We need evidence that the passing of the legislation has resulted in fewer people being affected. The statistics seem encouraging, but as the right hon. Member for Delyn said, it is not quite as simple as that. Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do to tackle the scourge of new psychoactive substances, and we look forward to engaging with the Gopvernment again on this issue.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on securing the debate, and I wish Hansard the best of luck with deciphering what is left of my speech from the crossings-out.

    Before the Psychoactive Substances Act came into force two years ago—I sat on the Bill Committee with my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) —our high streets up and down the country were awash with shops selling what were termed legal highs. Those substances were unpredictable and dangerous, and in far too many devastating cases they destroyed lives. A statutory provision was built in for the Home Secretary to review the Act and report the results of that review to the House within 30 months of the Act’s commencement. We are now 24 months in and the Government have not yet announced what we can expect from their report.

    The Act had fast and encouraging results. High street retail sales almost entirely ceased in a very short time, and the fact that the market for the products did not merely shift underground is positive. Figures released in July last year from the crime survey for England and Wales indicate strongly that the reduced availability of psychoactive substances resulted in a reduction in exposure and related harm.

    However, we need transparency from the Government about conviction data. The Act clearly details all the offences and penalties, including producing psychoactive substances; supplying, or offering to supply, psychoactive substances; aggravated offences; possession with intent to supply; importing and exporting substances; and, probably most importantly, possession in a custodial institution. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn eloquently described that problem, and I have witnessed it all too often on my visits to prisons. We now need the stats about how many convictions there have been for each of those offences.

    Will the Minister commit to providing us with an impact assessment of how the police and local authorities have handled new psychoactive substances in the two years since the Act was introduced? Although we know that it greatly diminished the supply of psychoactive substances, we would be naive to think that we were anywhere near solving the problem. The Government need to give us guarantees that they are reviewing legislation, monitoring current crime statistics and protecting our vulnerable communities from the dangers of these addictive substances.

  • It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Christopher. I join others in congratulating the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) not just on securing the debate but on the genuinely valuable work of the all-party group for new psychoactive substances and volatile substance abuse. I also join him in congratulating Mentor and Re-Solv on the support they give that group.

    This is a very important issue. As the right hon. Gentleman said, we are talking about more than 100 deaths a year, which in itself should focus minds, but I have heard the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) speak before about the unsettling impact on communities, too. Although my constituency is not directly affected, I have been on patrol with the police in Newcastle, where I saw for myself the impact of spice on individuals. This does matter, and the right hon. Member for Delyn is quite right to hold the Government’s feet to the fire. He asked a long list of questions. As a courtesy, he did so up front so that civil servants had plenty of time to fill in some gaps in ministerial knowledge—in theory. I will do my best to answer them in the short time I have.

    The right hon. Gentleman’s main question, and that of the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), was about the status of the review. It is due to be out in November. It is quite right to have the review, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) pointed out. Many Members served on the Psychoactive Substances Bill Committee. It was a controversial piece of legislation, so a review is the right thing to do, and it will be out in November.

    I think there has been an omission in engagement with the review. I asked officials to what degree the all-party group had been engaged in it, and I was told that it had not been. I would like to correct that, and I hope that the right hon. Member for Delyn will accept my invitation to engage with officials on the review so that we get the view of the House. I imagine that the Members in that group self-define as those whose communities are most affected by this issue. Their voice, and their evidence, needs to be brought into the process.

    Fundamentally, the right hon. Gentleman asked for my assessment. I share his overall view, which was reflected in the hon. Member for Swansea East’s comments, that some of the results are encouraging. The prevalence data suggest that less than one in 200 adults aged 16 to 59 used a new psychoactive substance in 2016-17. That is about 147,000 adults, which is significantly lower than the figure in the 2015-16 crime survey, which suggested that around 244,000 adults used new psychoactive substances. The percentages are higher among young adults, but there still seems to be a downward trend, and I am sure the House welcomes that. The number of young people in treatment for problems with new psychoactive substances fell by 45% between 2015-16 and 2016-17—the first year in which that number has decreased since data on NPS treatment have been reported.

    The right hon. Member for Delyn asked about deaths. There were 2,593 drug misuse deaths in England and Wales in 2016, a 5% increase on 2015 and the highest number since comparable records began in 1993. There were 123 deaths related to new psychoactive substances, an increase of 8% on the 114 deaths in 2015. So there is some encouraging news on prevalence and some continuingly depressing news on deaths.

    The right hon. Gentleman cited figures on the disruption of supply. Since the Act came into force, more than 300 retailers across the United Kingdom have closed down or are no longer selling psychoactive substances. Police have arrested suppliers, and action by the National Crime Agency has resulted in the removal of psychoactive substances from sale on UK-based websites.

    The right hon. Gentleman asked about convictions. In 2016, there were 28 convictions in England and Wales, and seven people were jailed under the new powers. Understandably, he pressed for more detail and asked for a breakdown by offence. I am assured that those data will be available for scrutiny by the House before the publication of the review. I think it is fair to say that the Act has had some good impacts, but it is clear—and the mood of the debate was clear—that we all agree that there is some way to go and that we cannot rely on legislation alone, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich said.

    Perhaps I can give Members some reassurance about our work with partners to address misuse and build recovery. Public Health England is piloting a new system, “Report Illicit Drug Reactions”—RIDR—to collect information about adverse reactions and harms caused by NPS. A clinical network of leading clinicians has been established to analyse the data that comes out of RIDR, identify patterns and harms, and agree appropriate clinical responses. In addition, we have the evidence-based clinical guidelines produced by the Novel Psychoactive Treatment: UK Network—NEPTUNE—project, which is funded by the Health Foundation. The intention is to support and promote NEPTUNE II, a national online learning programme for frontline workers designed to improve the detection, assessment and management of the acute and chronic harms associated with NPS.

    I was asked about education, which is clearly hugely important. I am satisfied from the evidence that a lot of education, prevention, treatment and recovery action is going on. We have an online resilience-building resource called “Rise Above”. FRANK, the Government’s drugs information and advice service, continues to be updated to reflect new and emerging patterns of drug use—obviously, the context here is a cat-and-mouse game between the Government, enforcement agencies and legislators, and the manufacturers of these products. Public Health England has developed its role in supporting local areas. There are toolkits to help local areas prevent and respond to the use of psychoactive substances, and clinical guidelines to aid with that. There is a lot going on.

    I was pressed on whether there is evidence that the police understand the issue and the degree to which there is effective partnership working. I think the hon. Member for Wrexham expressed frustration about what is happening in his area. I have not yet received firm evidence of systemic failure in the approach by the police or at local level, but I am more than happy to work with the all-party and use any powers I have to ask questions of people in authority and responsibility in hotspots where Members feel that local partnership is underpowered. If that means writing to PCCs, I am more than able to do that.

    In the short time I have left, I would like to talk a little about prisons, which the right hon. Member for Delyn quite rightly focused on and where there is a problem. The former prisons and probation ombudsman said:

    “I am clear that NPS have been a game-changer in terms of reducing safety in prison, with troubling links to our rising numbers of suicides, as well as to other types of death”.

    The Government have invested in improving security in prisons to respond to the criminal gangs who have capitalised on the money they can make from the sale of spice. For example, more than 300 sniffer dogs have been trained, and of course it is a criminal offence to possess these drugs in prison.

    We became the first prison service in the world to introduce mandatory drug tests for psychoactive substances, which is a significant step. In addition, in April 2018 NHS England published a new service specification that instructs the commissioning of recovery-oriented and integrated substance misuse services in prisons in England. I will certainly ensure that the Prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), is well aware of the concern of the all-party group and the House about the management and handling of psychoactive substances in prisons. It is clearly a major issue, which is part of the reason why it is addressed in law.

    Finally, I will pick up on a couple of individual points. I was asked about the degree to which the Government know why certain communities are affected more than others. That is really important in trying to understand the root of the problem. We need to understand the risk factors that make people such as those in the homeless community vulnerable to drugs misuse. The Home Secretary has commissioned the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to understand those factors and what can be done to address them, and we expect it to report on that within 12 months.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich rightly reminded us of the debate about barriers to legitimate research. There are substantive concerns on that. I reassure him that I am in correspondence with the ACMD on some of its suggestions and that a further meeting is planned for next month to work through some of those issues and legitimate concerns.

    On balance, in the time I have had, I hope I have reassured the right hon. Member for Delyn on his central point. The review is not drifting; it is on track. I would like his all-party group’s engagement with that process, but it is on track to be published and scrutinised in November. On the basis of what I see and—he asked me for this—my assessment of the results that flow from the Act, I take some encouragement, but there is clearly no room for complacency. The House is quite right to remind us that this cannot be about legislation alone; a huge amount has to be fixed and worked on around that. Whether that is a more joined-up approach on commissioning, effective partnership working on the ground or clear understanding by the police, all of those things in the round underpin effective legislation, which is what we want to counter a serious problem that blights far too many communities and towns across the country.

    I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman again on securing the debate, and I give him a minute to reply.

  • I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) and for Easington (Grahame Morris) and the hon. Members for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for contributing. I am grateful for the comments from colleagues on the Front Benches, particularly the Minister. I want to leave him with this point: the review of the 2016 Act, which he has indicated is serious and will take place, must look at all the issues I have tried to put on the table. It must also look at issues pertinent not to the Act but to solving the challenge, such as health, prevention, education and awareness, and help and support when people have been using new psychoactive substances. There is a real opportunity to make a positive impact.

    The debate was not meant to the critical; it was meant to raise the issue, shine a light on it and show the Minister that, as well as him and his officials, other people in the House take an interest in this topic. I thank him for his contribution, and I thank you once again for your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Resolved,

    That this House has considered Government policy on new psychoactive substances.

  • Sitting adjourned.