[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of tackling drug crime in local communities.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am grateful to every hon. Member who has come to participate in this debate. I am well aware that the issues we are discussing affect not only my constituency in Keighley and Ilkley but constituencies across the country. I welcome the fact that Members are here from different parties, communities and areas, all coming together to share their thoughts on a real challenge in our communities and to come together to deliver progressive change.
As MPs we want to sing from the rooftops what is so great in our communities, but it is important that we also tackle the darker issues, such as drug crime, that have plagued our cities, towns and rural communities for far too long. Drug crime is a real problem across the country. Last year there were 72,024 arrests for drug offences in England and Wales—up from the previous year, and the highest total in more than five years. It is estimated that one in 11 adults—more than 3 million people—took an illicit drug last year. It is alarming that 2% of adults are classed as frequent drug users. There are more than 300,000 heroin and crack addicts in England, who between them are responsible for nearly half of all burglaries, robberies and other types of crime.
Sadly, those issues are prevalent in my constituency. There is a strong chance that someone going for a walk in some parts of my constituency will see drug crime and drug distribution taking place. Drug crime is happening in all parts of my town.
I fear that this is an issue on which my hon. Friend and I might have different views. He talks about the challenges of illicit drugs in his constituency and the impact they have, but has he assessed the impact of legal drugs, such as alcohol, by comparison?
I absolutely have. Alcohol abuse is very much an issue in my constituency and in other areas of the county, but what must be tackled—I have seen this time and again—is the misuse of illicit drugs, from cannabis to class A drugs. It is vital that we take a hard-line approach to dealing with such criminality.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this excellent debate. Does he agree that we need a twin-track approach? Those involved in dealing drugs need to be punished, but there are others whom we need to help and find a pathway for so that they do not get drawn into drug gangs.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention, and I do agree. We have to take a hard-line approach to those evil members of society who get involved in drug distribution and supply. However, we also need a twin-track approach, which is what the Government have provided through the plan they announced last year—I will come on to that—where we provide support to individuals who get trapped in the system and those who need it.
In my constituency, there have been many instances of drug crime over the past few months and incidents where the police have got involved. Just this morning Sergeant Dave Purcell from our local neighbourhood policing team, along with his colleagues, carried out an early-morning raid and seized cannabis seedlings from an address in the Highfield area of Keighley with an estimated street value of £130,000. That is not the first instance where that has happened; in one instance last year, six men from Keighley were arrested and five cars and £10,000 in cash were seized, as well as weapons such as CS spray and knuckledusters. A staggering 500 wraps of class A drugs were found on those individuals, which they wanted to sell to good people in my constituency who were getting trapped in the system of taking drugs.
Of course, we must also focus on drug distribution. Last year, I was contacted by two constituents who informed me that they had video evidence of one of our local taxi firms using its network to distribute drugs. I went to meet them after a surgery meeting and saw that video footage for myself before passing it on to West Yorkshire police. That illustrates that drug distribution is an organised crime that is happening right across my constituency and the wider country. On the point about taxi firms being used for drug distribution, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for his Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Safeguarding and Road Safety) Bill, which contains vital measures that will help restore better licensing provisions, which will operate across the country, as opposed to local authorities dealing with licensing through a siloed approach.
Those examples show that there are undeniable issues in my constituency, which are all related to drug crime. Some local factors exist, some of which are related to geographical area. Keighley is right on the periphery of West Yorkshire, bordering North Yorkshire, and on the periphery of three different local authorities. We closely border North Yorkshire, Lancashire and Calderdale, meaning that county lines drug gangs are a real challenge for my constituency. Because we border two local police areas, drug gangs can use our geographical position to get away with drug dealing undetected, or are not as easily detected, by the police. In one instance, a county lines gang was found to be using rail network links, using Keighley train station to ferry drugs across the border into Skipton.
Often, the evil leaders of supply operations exploit hapless addicts of class A drugs to ensure they have street runners to sell drugs for huge sums, in return for drugs to feed those addicts’ habits or even for a reduction in their debt for the drugs already supplied to them. Innocent people can be drawn by gangs into these bad habits from a very young age, and have their lives ruined by their involvement in this criminal activity.
Drug dealing links to other crimes: members of these gangs are often the same people who are the perpetrators of gang-related grooming and child sexual exploitation—an issue that has haunted my constituency for far too long, and one that I will continue to talk about. They blackmail their victims by exposing them to this criminal activity of drug dealing, which fuels other forms of antisocial behaviour, some of which I have already described.
Violence involving drug gangs has caused disorder and criminal damage in particular areas of Keighley, such as Westburn Avenue. We have two predominant drug gangs within Keighley, who will openly challenge and take one another on in broad daylight. Unfortunately, residents of Westburn Avenue have been exposed to that behaviour, but it is not restricted to that area: it happens in the Highfield area, the Showfield area, and the Lawkholme Lane area of Keighley as well.
That makes people afraid and puts them off coming into Keighley, which is a really good, attractive place. We want to encourage more people to come into Keighley, but we have to address some of these darker, underlying issues. In one tragic case, a man was stabbed to death after challenging a teenage drug dealer to his face about what he was trying to do—selling drugs to a 14-year-old boy. Urgent action and urgent change are needed for the sake of my town and, I am sure, the constituencies of other Members present. We need to talk about this and make sure that when announcements are made at a national level they filter down to our constituents and that our constituents then see real change being delivered at a local level.
Of course, these issues are not just restricted to urban environments; drugs are very much an issue in our rural settings as well. I represent a very urban fringe seat with some really rural parts to it, and I know that drug dealing happens in some of the remotest parts of my constituency as well.
It saddens me to say that when I was first elected to this place, one of the first constituency meetings I had was with a father who came along to tell me that his 13-year-old son had come home from school one day saying, in all innocence, “Dad, I know exactly what I want to do when I’m older,” and that was to become a drug dealer. That was not because his 13-year-old did not know the difference between right and wrong but because he thought drug dealing was something good to aspire to, because he had seen people driving around Keighley in blacked-out, fancy cars. We all know what those individuals are driving and we know where the money comes from to facilitate this activity.
That father was heartbroken that he was coming to me to raise those concerns, but that story gets to the bottom of this issue. This is about raising aspiration for communities such as the one I represent, so that we are not only taking a hard-line approach against drug dealing and providing the necessary support for those who get into the unfortunate situation of taking drugs, but ensuring, alongside all of that, that when we talk about levelling up we are raising aspirations for our constituents and their young families as well.
I was pleased to welcome the Home Secretary to Keighley only a week or so ago. I had had many conversations with her myself, and she met my local neighbourhood policing team to discuss some of the very open challenges we have on the ground. It was great for her to meet Inspector John Barker, as well as some of our police community support officers and members of the police team who are doing incredible work in Keighley.
I welcome the work the Government are doing to tackle this issue, because they want to tackle it head-on. At the end of last year, I was pleased that they unveiled a 10-year plan to clamp down completely on drug crime in our cities, towns and villages, backed by millions of pounds of investment. Of course, that involves a plan to stop the cycle of crime that is driven by addiction, to keep violence out of communities and to save lives by reducing the number of drug-related deaths and homicides.
The Government will also target the violent county lines gang-related issue, which I have already mentioned, making sure that the UK has a strategy that can be adopted by our police forces to make sure that we tackle some of the issues that exist in communities that are geographically challenged, with different police forces, different local authorities and different organisations working cross-boundary. I was also pleased to see that a new commission will be set up to rebuild drug treatment and recovery services to help those who have fallen into this dire situation.
Perhaps most importantly and most encouragingly, though, the Government will put in place a strategy that will educate children comprehensively about the dangers of getting into drugs, and that needs to happen at an early age. Interventions will happen to stop young children from getting dragged into the dangerous life of drug crime.
All the points that I have picked up on are very much to do with the Home Office, the Department for Education and, of course, the Department of Health, but what work is being done at Government level on collaboration between those three Departments, to ensure that when a national policy is announced an average constituent of mine will really feel a tangible change?
My hon. Friend is making some interesting points, and I should quickly draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a practising NHS doctor. On the issue of cross-Government working, it seems extraordinary that most drug treatment services are commissioned not by the NHS but by local authorities. That leads to fragmented care and a lack of direct health involvement in drug treatment. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should ask the Minister to look at this issue, take it to the Department of Health and bring drug treatment commissioning back to the NHS?
My hon. Friend obviously knows what the next paragraphs of my speech are. In terms of that collaborative approach, we need to give the Department of Health more freedom to instigate some of the measures needed to help those who get driven into this cycle of drug addiction, and to ensure that more support is provided in the treatment sphere as well. Coupled with that, we have to have the right strategy, which involves taking a hard-line approach with those involved in the drug distribution network and those supplying illegal drugs and bringing them into our communities.
I want to give a good example of a very local initiative that has been utilised in Keighley and that is working incredibly well. Driven by the Home Office and initially branded Operation Springhaven, it specifically targeted a small part of my community—an area in Keighley—that was known for having horrendous issues with drug distribution and dealing. Initiated by the Home Office, it took a partnership-led approach and was worked on in collaboration with West Yorkshire police. It brought the local authority, local community groups and the town council onboard. When we took a targeted approach to a specific area, it was not only about tackling drug crime but about being aware of where the drug dealing happened: low-lit back streets that often had overgrown vegetation. All those organisations could work together to try to remove the drug dealing that was taking place. It was done with the point of providing a lot more reassurance to residents living in that area, and involved a lot of door knocking and getting residents to take ownership and buy in to the strategy. It worked incredibly well. I ask the Minister whether that strategy could be adopted and rolled out beyond the initial pilot scheme we had in Keighley.
I conclude by saying that drug crime is dark and horrendous and impacts every level of society, from more affluent areas all the way down to the most deprived areas. It is a dangerous, dark crime that relies on the most evil in society exploiting the weakest. I commend the Government for the work that they are doing, but I would like to understand how we can make sure that the announcements that were made at the end of last year can be delivered as quickly as possible to communities such as those I represent across Keighley and Ilkley.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) for his speech; it resonated quite a lot with my experience in my constituency. He did a really good job of introducing the debate.
I want to raise an aspect of drug crime that I believe is still massively under-prioritised: child criminal exploitation, or CCE. The Minister knows this is a subject I have raised repeatedly over recent years. Unfortunately, while some genuine progress has been made, I still do not believe enough focus is being put on this. I gently say that I am still disappointed by that.
I have spoken many times about the damage done in my constituency as the end result of child criminal exploitation: we have seen dozens of children murdered and many more who have been stabbed, and we have seen the fear that has been created and the enormous potential that has been wasted and lost to gangs and crime. The groomers and exploiters who prey on our children seem to get off very lightly. This is about how organised criminals—mostly selling drugs—conspire to abuse, exploit, and dispose of children for profit. While constituencies such as mine have seen the biggest impact from county lines, the tentacles of those gangs extend across the country—the damage they do is widespread.
I have a few outstanding issues to raise with the Minister, and I would also like to remind him about my ten-minute rule Bill from December, as he might need some bedtime reading.
Last month we saw new guidance published for inspections of local area responses to CCE, which was very welcome. The guidance understands that CCE can be prevented, that children can be supported to break free and enabled to realise their potential, even after being exploited. Most of all, it recognises that all agencies, as we have heard, need to work together to respond together—schools, councils and police. I would be glad to hear from the Minister when there will be a concerted programme of inspections using the guidance. I would also like to understand how the Government are going to use the lessons learned to inform a strategy that will bring an end to the business model that is county lines.
Another issue that the Government need to get a handle on is the relationship between child criminal exploitation and child sexual exploitation. We know that there is an overlap. Children in the grip of drugs gangs are vulnerable to sexual abuse. Both forms of child abuse are happening to both boys and girls. Sexual abuse can and is being used as a weapon by drug gangs to deepen their control over the children they are exploiting. However, children affected by child criminal exploitation or child sexual exploitation will generally need different forms of care. Confusion can cause real damage.
The recent report by Professor Alexis Jay into child sexual exploitation had some alarming findings. Some police areas were tagging all cases of criminal exploitation as sexual exploitation. In other areas, boy victims of sexual abuse were given a generic criminal exploitation tag.
Only full data can help us understand the scale of particular problems in an area, and only then can we ensure that the right resources are directed to support all children in need. It is essential to tackle drug harms to communities, and other harms that those drug harms do. We need agencies working together, so that vital opportunities to intervene are not missed. When they are missed, there are utterly appalling consequences for children and families. In the case of child criminal exploitation, there are consequences for entire communities, because of the violence and death that the county lines drug trade has brought to my constituency and others. This situation demonstrates why we need clear statutory definitions, including for child criminal exploitation. Without them, we are not getting clear data, we do not have consistent practices across different areas and there is no strategic focus on driving down both those forms of abuse across the country.
Without clarity, transparency and accountability, some will understandably worry that one form of exploitation or another is being neglected as the media agenda shifts. We need flexible laws and recognition that different forms of abuse overlap and interact, but we need legal clarity too. I do not think that we have got it right so far; I hope the Minister might comment on that point today.
We also need to recognise that the methods used by groomers and exploiters have changed. During the lockdowns, partners identified a big increase in the use of social media to groom children into child criminal exploitation. Obviously, the more traditional method of identifying and meeting children on the street by McDonald’s and the chicken shop was now harder. The Government need to provide a better account of how the Online Safety Bill will require online platforms to identify, block and report grooming and exploitation for the drug trade of county lines.
Child criminal exploitation is not listed as a priority offence in the Bill. I genuinely believe that it needs to be, if we are to give it the focus it deserves. If we get this right, online spaces could identify children who are being groomed and exploited. We would be on to the criminal gangs much earlier, preventing enormous harm. If we get it wrong, social media will continue to give drug gangs easy access to vulnerable children. I would like the Minister to tell us how the Home Office is working with colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that the Bill will guarantee action on that.
Finally, I want to raise the importance of working with schools to prevent exclusions, which can make children so much more vulnerable to the exploitation of drug gangs. Children’s charities and experts are clear that schools need to be equipped with information about the signs of child criminal exploitation. They need to consider that risk of exploitation before they decide to exclude a child. In reality, drug groomers can, and do, actively conspire to get a child excluded by, for example, forcing them to carry drugs or weapons into school. Sometimes they spread the word, ensuring that the school knows that the child is carrying, in order to trigger an exclusion and make that child a better mule for them.
Schools need to be wise to that tactic, and provide children with real support in those situations, and not do exactly what the groomers want, which is to exclude children and send them to alternative provision, where other members of the gang often already sit. It is then impossible to get out of the grip of the groomers and make a new start in life. Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure that the statutory exclusions and behaviour guidance is revised? That would help prevent children being exploited and would, in turn, reduce the harms of drug offending that we are discussing today.
May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) on securing the debate? He has touched on a number of issues that impact a range of our constituencies. I hope there will be some solutions at the end of the debate that we can all work on, on a cross-party basis. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), who brings a huge amount of experience to the House in her shadow roles, and gives great evidence about what schools and communities can do in playing their part. I completely agree with the point made in both speeches about tackling county lines, to ensure that we can disrupt those who deal drugs across our country.
It will be no surprise that I am going to speak specifically about Devon and the south-west. I am representing other south-west colleagues who cannot be here. No Member of Parliament for the south-west would get away in such a debate without mentioning our police and crime commissioner, Alison Hernandez, and the work she is doing with us to tackle drug crime in rural and urban areas. It is a blight that we face, getting increasingly worse in a post-pandemic world. As the record of crime across the south-west decreases, crime around antisocial behaviour and drugs is on the up, which we see in the statistics reported across Devon and Cornwall. We need to see that addressed.
Our police and crime commissioner and our new South Devon sector inspector Ben Shardlow are working with Members of Parliament, parish, district and county councillors, inventing new schemes and initiatives to ensure a comprehensive level of engagement across the county, to report, identify and tackle those who seek to deal drugs, or who seek to influence people by trying to push them into the drugs trade, and seek to create antisocial behaviour.
It is particularly welcome that the Government have taken so many positive steps in the south-west. I believe that by the end of 2023, we will have more officers in south Devon alone than we did in 2010—46 new officers, 25 trainees and 21 transferee officers. However, they must be utilised in a proper and cohesive manner across the whole area, not just the urban areas with high population densities.
I am repeatedly shocked when I visit small villages—as I did over the recess—and parish councillors tell me about blacked-out Mercedes coming into their villages, blatantly dealing drugs, and about the antisocial behaviour that then follows. Just a few weeks ago, one constituent decided to video conference call me from his mobile phone. He turned his camera over and showed me two people dealing drugs on the other side of his fence, and although he reported it through the 101 system, which I will come on to in a second, there was no response from the police in that instance.
There is clearly a breakdown, because ordinary people across our constituencies are reporting these crimes but all too often they are not seeing the action taken to address them. I understand, of course, that the police have many pressures on them, but when that is not being dealt with by the police, it does not give people confidence that the issue will be addressed. We must look at ensuring that the new officers—in the instance of south Devon—are utilised and put on a strategic footing to cover every area in rural and urban settings.
Of course, I and others have mentioned county lines. We see it coming down from the midlands and coming up from Cornwall. South Devon seems to be a crossroads, where we see drugs coming in from all directions. We know where they are coming from, but we must be able to help build the system that allows us to document the evidence and information about what constituents are reporting.
That is where 101 becomes a problem. I must say, the pressure that has been placed on that system over the pandemic is clearly huge. However, it is also clear that people’s faith and confidence in it is not there. We must find a way in which the 101 system allows people to report crimes and know they are being documented, and then acted on, by the police. I hope that the Minister might spend a few seconds addressing that point in his remarks. As the hon. Member for West Ham said, local action requires comprehensive engagement from local society members, the police and the schools, working together to ensure that we can disrupt those who seek to bring harm and dangerous drugs into our areas.
I do not want to bang on for too long, but I have five suggestions, which I hope that the Minister might be able to adopt. The first is what has become known as the councillor advocate scheme, which Alison Hernandez, our police and crime commissioner, has launched in south Devon. It has proven to be a remarkably effective way in which parish councillors, district councillors and county councillors can all get involved and liaise with the police on a regular basis. A police officer might also attend their meetings to give them regular updates and briefings on measures being taken to ensure that crime is reduced in their areas, but also that there is a police presence.
I have already made the point about utilising officers, but we must think about how we do so. All over this country we have village halls that sit, not being used, from 6 o’clock in the evening to 6 o’clock in the morning. We should look to use those spaces as hubs for the police to stop by, throughout the evenings and nights, so that people know that, at any point, a police officer could be in their village or town. The parish councils that I have spoken to in my constituency are all universally behind that. If the Minister wants to use south Devon as a testing programme, I would be delighted. For just a small amount of money from his budget, I am sure I can make it work. It has had a positive response from those who think that it could allow us to address these issues.
My next point is on the substitution of officers. I am delighted that so many of our police officers want to go on training programmes, but there is great difficulty in replacing them when they are on those programmes. That is the problem. I am delighted to have a number of officers going off and doing firearms training courses, but no one can replace them while they are away. I think, although I am happy to be corrected by any hon. Member in this place, that a firearms training course takes 18 weeks. That means that one of my towns, and its surrounding area, is without one of its necessary and needed officers over that time.
From the person who deals on the street to the person who brings drugs into this country, we know that we must disrupt them at every single level. I believe that we can, and that there is a positive story about the uplift in officers, but we must go further, and must be able to ensure that we are addressing all levels of society.
It is a pleasure to serve under you this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I thank my neighbour, the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), for securing this debate. He and I share a passion for tackling all of West Yorkshire’s problems. We regularly share a space in Westminster Hall; today is no different, so I thank him again for securing this important debate.
I suspect there is not a single constituency, as we have already started to hear, that is not affected by drugs and the misery that they inflict on individuals and communities. I am afraid to say that Halifax is no different. There seems to be an increasing audacity among those involved in the supply and dealing of drugs. Our inboxes and postbags are increasingly made up of concerned residents who witness drug deals in their areas and on their streets. Even in reporting those incidents to the police, as we have already heard, they feel powerless to take a meaningful stand and see it properly gripped.
I pay tribute to my local neighbourhood policing teams, as it is those officers who are at the forefront of the work to identify and address drugs activity. The pressures on neighbourhood policing teams is enormous, as the ability to get ahead of community issues is constantly compromised by having their resources diverted into response policing and responding to 999 calls, all ultimately a consequence of having fewer officers because of austerity, as hon. Members have pointed out.
In some districts of West Yorkshire, the demands on response and safeguarding teams are such that NPTs routinely operate with around 50% vacancies and abstractions in the numbers that they need—abstractions being the back-filling of roles in predominantly response policing on an almost constant basis, which inevitably compromises their capabilities. Neighbourhood policing is specialist and vital. It is the neighbourhood policing teams who primarily do the legwork on intelligence gathering and executing warrants relating to drugs.
In Calderdale, which covers just two constituencies—my Halifax constituency and the neighbouring Calder Valley—in the last two weeks alone there have been 23 instances of offences involving the possession of drugs, as well as eight instances of drugs trafficking. In the same two weeks, officers have uncovered four cannabis farms, taking the total up to seven cannabis farms dismantled by police in the last 31 days in just those two constituencies.
I normally joke in debates like this that the situation in Calderdale is not quite as bad as Sally Wainwright’s gripping “Happy Valley” would have us believe, but, worryingly, the stats speak for themselves. Only well-resourced NPTs with officers dedicated to this work, with protected time and defined and ring-fenced roles, allow us to get ahead in communities and get a grip of drug-related crime. If the Minister tells me that the resourcing of teams is an operational decision, I will make the point once again that it is the reduction in officer numbers, which we are still a long way off restoring, that has forced these difficult compromises for chief officers, setting back community-based policing.
Another massively aggravating issue in Calderdale, as I am sure is the case elsewhere, is fly-tipping, but in the context of this debate the fly-tipping of waste from cannabis grows. The dumping of bags of soil and clay pebbles in quiet rural lanes, as has happened in Northowram recently, is infuriating. It is evidence of crime upon crime—first the illegal grow, then the reckless dumping of waste, with councils being left to sort out the mess. I urge the Minister to consider all the ways that we can properly tackle this particular issue, including any and all forensics opportunities from this type of criminality.
I had the opportunity to visit the West Yorkshire violence reduction unit’s knife crime exhibition at the Royal Armouries in Leeds at the weekend. The work of the violence reduction unit has established that illegal drugs use and supply are significantly linked to violence in West Yorkshire, with schools commenting during a VRU survey that drugs had
“become the norm in many groups of young people, appear to be easy to obtain, and users are very young, for example in Year 7 making them around 11 years old”.
The targeted initiatives undertaken by the VRU are some of the best practice in the country. The At the Sharp End exhibition at the Royal Armouries showcases the work of Operation Jemlock, who I had the opportunity to spend a night shift with, and who have made over 6,000 arrests and confiscated over 1,000 weapons over the last two and a half years. I urge anyone to go and have a look at some of the weapons they have taken off our streets in West Yorkshire. It is truly terrifying stuff, and is all too often linked to drugs crime. Figures released by West Yorkshire police regarding the number of under-25s who have been involved in possession and/or use of knives or other sharp objects in the 12 months up to February 2022 reveal that police recorded 22 incidents in Calderdale. These included two 13-year-olds and one child aged just 10 in possession of a weapon. That is why the work of the violence reduction unit is so effective and essential; long may that funding continue.
Let me turn to the scourge of drug driving. Earlier this month I wrote to the Home Secretary regarding the freedom of information request I submitted to police forces, following roads policing officers around the country raising frustrations about delays in forensics meaning that drug drivers are getting away with their crimes. As the Minister knows, when an individual is arrested on suspicion of drug driving, usually having failed a roadside drug test and tested positive for cannabis or cocaine, the law requires that the police submit a confirmatory blood test in order for a suspect to be charged. As drug driving is a summary offence, if it takes longer than six months for forensic analysis to be undertaken on that blood sample, the police are unable to charge an individual.
I sent a freedom of information request to every police force in England and Wales, and data from those FOIs showed that in the past three years, at least 62 prosecutions of suspected drug drivers have collapsed due to forensic labs failing to turn around tests in the required six-month window. What is really concerning is that 21 police forces—nearly half—either failed to respond to the FOI or gave incomplete data, so we know that this is just a snapshot of a much bigger problem. Police have caught and arrested drug drivers, but broader criminal justice failures mean that those drug drivers get away with their crimes and are free to continue putting lives at risk on our roads.
In answer to a written parliamentary question on this issue from February, the Government suggested that this relates to pressures in the system, stating:
“between January and September 2021, there were some delays in drug drive testing due to Covid related pressures on forensic services. Toxicology supply has now significantly increased, and all backlogs have been cleared. Some cases could not be charged during this period, but none of these involved serious injury or death.”
Although it is reasonable to say that the pandemic strained forensic services, it is wrong to argue that this is the sole factor behind slow drug driving test turnaround times, as our research covers the past three years and suggests that there are long-term, systemic problems in getting drug drivers off our roads. I am still waiting to a response to my letter asking how the Government plan to address these ongoing pressures, and ensure that drug drivers are not at large and able to reoffend, putting lives at risk on our highways.
I place on record my thanks to Calderdale’s outstanding neighbourhood policing team inspectors, Ben Doughty and James Graham, and the sergeants, police constables and police community support officers in their teams, as well as PC Craig Nicholls from the Police Federation for sharing his insights and those of his members in preparation for today’s very important speech.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) on securing this debate and delivering a belter of an opening speech. It makes it rather difficult for those who must follow, but I thank him for that.
Mr Pritchard, indulge me, if you will. Let us think for a moment back to our childhoods, and the Sunday afternoons when we would sit down and watch the television—that thing in the corner of the room that was still quite novel then, certainly for myself. I used to watch the cowboy films with my dad, and there was something that happened in those films. I put this as a question for Members to consider while I speak; if they lose interest in what I am saying, they might try to answer this question in their minds. When the bad guys rode into town, shot it up, robbed the bank and galloped off into the sunset in a cloud of dust, carrying bags of money, what was the first thing that happened afterwards? What was the response? What did the sheriff do at that point? I will leave that thought with Members while I speak.
The hon. Member makes an interesting suggestion, which I will return to later in my speech. It would be remiss of me to give the great reveal now.
I have the very great privilege of representing a beautiful part of the world, Aberconwy in north Wales. Two thirds of the constituency lies within Snowdonia and the rest is on the coast. We have the walled, medieval town of Conwy and we have Llandudno, which many people probably know is the largest resort in Wales, and it is a beautiful place. Unfortunately, in common with many other, often very beautiful, coastal communities, it also has problems with poverty, deprivation and drug abuse. How often do we hear about poverty and drug abuse together, and about the associated crime?
We have heard about the terrible problems that come with that, and I do not want to dwell on them, except to say that the involvement of children and young people, particularly through the phenomenon of county lines gangs that has grown across the UK in the last decade, is quite awful. Things once attributed to the despicable behaviour of adults are now attributed to children. The age of children doing those things, carrying weapons, and being involved in and exposed to that deprivation, is ever lower. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley for bringing this debate forward and allowing us to address these issues.
I pay tribute to the brave police officers in north Wales who are working around the clock to disrupt and break up many county lines operations—in particular, the astonishing work of the intercept team that covers the whole region and was set up to clamp down on organised crime and drug gangs throughout north Wales. The team use innovative technology to ensure they are able to intercept and disrupt criminals, making north Wales a hostile environment for crime groups to operate in. Since their inception in February 2020, they have recovered controlled drugs, tens of thousands of pounds in cash, mobile phones and weapons such as knives, Tasers and worse, and they have made hundreds of proactive arrests.
In March this year alone, the team made 16 arrests for a range of offences and seized more than 100 wraps of class A drugs, 40 bags of class B drugs and £5,000 in cash. The officers have carried out warrants, stopped vehicles and made arrests linked to possession of controlled drugs, drink and drug driving, and other driving offences. It takes courage and dedication to deliver that kind of performance. Th team’s protection of the public is invaluable and they are a credit to the communities they serve in north Wales. I dare say other Members here can say the same of forces operating in their areas.
I turn to the importance of the community and community groups in dealing with this issue. As I and the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) suggested, the first action of the sheriff was to gather a posse; the key point was that the community did not lose ownership of the problem. In western civilisation, we live in an atomised society. We are individualist in our approach and become very transactional in our relationships, and as a result we tend to say, “That is their job.” In debates about litter, I have often heard people say, “I am not picking up that piece of litter because it would cost someone their job—someone is paid to do that.” There is a strange tension in our society that means that we start to have a dissociated view of each other and the different things that happen, and yet in that lesson of the posse, even though the town had hired and paid the sheriff and the deputies, it still had the responsibility.
I will highlight that idea in a couple of comments with respect to poverty. Poverty and drugs exist in almost a death spiral, with the two locked together. Which comes first? It is a case of cause and effect. Very often, they are a cause, but equally those who are locked into poverty are preyed upon by criminal gangs. Some years ago, the Centre for Social Justice produced some thought-provoking work about pathways to poverty, which included drug abuse, educational failure and family breakdown.
The idea of pathways is helpful because, as other hon. Members have mentioned, there are sometimes entry points to these pathways through socially acceptable behaviour. Alcohol is a socially acceptable drug, yet it can become an entry point into harder drug abuse, as can prescription medication. We should not be ignorant of that or imagine that problems with illicit drugs exist in isolation.
At one scheme—I will not mention where it is, except to say it is in north Wales—I spoke to veterans of special forces who in effect used a cocktail of alcohol, across-the-counter and prescription medicines, and illicit drugs, to manage the highs and lows, the uppers and downers, of the post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from some of their experiences in the service of this country. That is just one example of how this kind of problem can develop.
My hon. Friend has rightly brought the debate on to people who are dependent on alcohol and street drugs. In that respect, I am sure he is aware of schemes operated in countries such as Portugal where drug possession has been decriminalised and of how that has improved access to drug services for many people, who in this country would otherwise be criminalised. It has also reduced drug-related deaths. Is it worth us at least looking into that in this country?
I take a different view. I speak as someone who is not an expert, but who has spoken to those caught in the terrible grip that drugs hold on their lives and those of their family members. Principally among such families—those experiencing a son, daughter, mother or father caught up in drugs—I never hear talk of legalising the drugs that caused their problems as a solution to the problems. My worry about decriminalisation is that it is the wrong answer to the right question. The right question is, “How can we help people?”, but I am not convinced that decriminalisation is the right way forward. I accept my hon. Friend’s suggestion that research is important, however, and that we ought to do such things not as ideas in principle, but on the basis of evidence. I certainly support that.
The hon. Member makes an interesting point. This debate is perhaps not the one to get into that, but some of the services to veterans exclude some of those who need them the most. Some services in receipt of large amounts of public moneys, for example, will not treat those with a criminal record, who are often the ones who are furthest from help and need it the most; we must be careful about that. The hon. Member makes a worthwhile point that I am sure will be explored on another day in another debate.
On the subject of interrupting pathways, how often have we heard that young people—we have heard of at least one such example this afternoon—are attracted into a lifestyle that offers them easy money and luxury goods because they cannot see another way in their community to achieve that? I am mindful of a report published by the Centre for Social Justice about membership of gangs entitled, “Dying to Belong”. It was a brilliant title, frankly, which highlighted the problem that young people were dying and that their principal motivation for involvement with gangs was that they did not feel that they belonged to their community or their families. Those are real problems and we can interrupt those pathways.
We need to provide better jobs in those areas, better role models and the education that will help people. It is about setting out clear alternative pathways for those young people. We must not flinch from mentioning the love of family and parents. We all know what family means to each of us. I do not refer to some Victorian ideal. We all know that if I asked anyone in this room, “Who is your family?”, we would know who that was. It might look different for each one of us, but we would all know. We would also know that we bear the imprint—for good or bad—of that family for the rest of our lives. We must find a way of grappling with that and saying, “How do we help the family around those young people, to keep them off those pathways?”
Aspiration and hope are essential. I must mention briefly the work of the Government, with their levelling-up fund. The idea is that talent is spread everywhere, but opportunity is not, so if the fund can do one thing, it is to deliver opportunity in such areas. If young people see an opportunity forward to a Mercedes, a flash car, a better phone, nicer trainers or whatever, and are able to build in their mind an aspiration that is positive and constructive, and does not lead them into the embrace of the gangs, that is a good thing.
I urge the Minister to think about supply and demand, and how often our efforts in dealing with drugs are about shutting down supply, on the enforcement end. That is vital, but I remember the inspector in Suffolk who memorably told me when I lived there and we in local government were dealing with county lines: “Robin, we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. This is not a problem just for the police; it is a problem for the posse. It is a problem for the communities.”
In Newmarket in Suffolk, we recognised that communities owning the spaces that gangs would occupy, being aware of the problems, spotting the signs in young people and acting early in the pathway, were as important as CCTV and the PCSOs who were on the beat in the town. We must look at everything together. We must not delegate or just assume that the police can handle these issues, and, in working together, we must make sure that we provide the resources for community groups, which can often reach further into the communities to help those who need the most from our services.
I thank the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) for setting the scene. We have been here before, discussing this issue, and have heard the stories before, but I congratulate him on his endeavours to highlight the issue. He referred to a police seizure in the past few weeks, which is some evidence of how well the police are doing.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) referred to westerns. I am a wee few years older than the hon. Gentleman. The great thing about a western on a Sunday afternoon was that the good guys were Gary Cooper and John Wayne, they always beat the baddies, they did it in an hour and a half, and they walked off with the woman at the end. It was always great, but life is not like that, as we know. In Keighley or anywhere else, we have to deal with the reality.
In Northern Ireland, we have a similar difficult problem. I have looked into the stats, and it does not matter whether it is alcohol, cocaine, cannabis, diazepines or Pregabalin, these issues affect my constituents every day. There is a drugs epidemic.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland are targeting my local area. I met the new superintendent, Johnston McDowell, just before Easter, along with some local councillors, and one of the main topics was getting the drugs out of the community. There was a successful sting operation in March, which is only the start of things to come, according to the PSNI. I am encouraged by my police and their response, by my inspector and his attitude. I welcome their commitment.
The scourge of drugs and the harm in my local area cannot be overstated. I have spoken to young mothers who are breaking their hearts as their sons are caught up owing drug money, and are then strong-armed into our version of gangs and paramilitary groups to pay off their so-called debt. It is an age-old story. They start with a bit of weed and it all progresses from there, into drug usage that they cannot sustain. That is why I am personally opposed to the reclassification of cannabis, unless it is under prescription for specific medical needs. I have seen too many promising boys and girls lose their way due to the cesspit of drugs in the community.
I am sorry—Mr Pritchard was clear on times, and I have less time than everybody else.
It is as a community that we can and must defeat the scourge. The difficulty in the community is the sense of fear about passing on information—that “the boys will find out”. Families live in fear and feel unable to stand up; they watch helplessly as their children are dragged into the darkness of gang warfare.
I get very angry, as I have had sobbing mothers in my office, telling me that their sons are being coerced into drug running. When I ask for names, they cannot give them, because they are afraid. I have given assurances that information passed on to the PSNI is strictly anonymous, but there is a lack of trust in the PSNI.
I have discussed the need for visible community policing that builds up relationships, as a key element of any war on drugs. When the community know and trust their local police, it can make all the difference. That is why we need to go back to the days of the local bobby who knows the names and is there to protect, not to prosecute. I am of that generation. Too many lives are lost, too many hearts are broken and too many fortunes are being made off the backs of drug abuse in the communities. It is past time that we took our community spirit and safety back into our own hands.
I know the Minister does not have responsibility for Northern Ireland, but my stories are similar to everybody else’s. We need the police, social workers and youth workers all to be on the same page, doing their job and giving young people options and support to resist and beat the scourge of drugs in our society—the biggest and deadliest challenge that we face today. Thank you for the time you have given me, Mr Pritchard; I have worked well within your confines.
Thank you, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) on bringing forward this debate.
I understand the frustration I have heard today. My constituency of Inverclyde is one of the most deprived in the United Kingdom, and we have a lot of drug use, abuse and criminality. I see it; I hear it; I understand it. People come to my constituency office and tell me the same stories. However, I come at this issue from a different angle.
We all despise drug gangs for what they do in our community. We despise the fact that they drag young children into their criminal world, where they are used and abused in that part of society. We all get that.
However, if we have 100 criminals each committing a crime a day in our constituency and we arrest those 100 criminals, the problem will not simply go away. Do not take my word for it. Neil Woods, who wrote the book “Good Cop, Bad War”, was at the forefront of the battle on drugs. He was an undercover cop who worked closely with drug gangs, putting his life at risk; he was responsible for the incarceration of one of the biggest drug gangs in the United Kingdom. All the gang members were locked up, from top to bottom; all their drugs and weapons were taken—there was a huge amount of publicity. Neil says that, within hours, the drugs were back on the streets and the criminals were back out there. Taking away one gang creates a vacuum that other gangs will fight over, and the criminality escalates. That is how they take control.
The current system is not working for us. We have been doing it for 50 years, and it simply does not work. I do not see any real change in attitude from the Government to say, “Let us try something different.” As the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) said, we cannot arrest our way out of a drug crisis. Ask virtually any police officer in the United Kingdom and they will say the same thing. They are living with this day in, day out. We need to address the problem, not the symptoms of the problem. It is a very complicated problem and overly simplistic solutions will not cut it. Why do people self-harm with drugs? What can we do to help them? How do we take power away from the criminal gangs that drag people into their world?
The UK Government’s new 10-year drug strategy brings much-needed money to rebuild drug treatment, but lacks real reform. Despite repeated calls from experts to adopt a new approach, the plan does not mention drug consumption rooms, overdose prevention centres—I will call them OPCs—or heroin-assisted treatment. The only reference to the decriminalisation of drug possession is an unfounded statement that it would lead to increased drug use.
OPCs are hygienic, safe spaces where people can use their own drugs under the supervision of trained staff, where overdoses can be reversed with naloxone. They are vital for engaging with people who are not in contact with local treatment services. A large percentage of those who die from drug-related deaths have not been in contact with treatment services for five years. That is in addition to shockingly high rates of drug-related deaths among the homeless population, which have more than doubled since 2013.
It is estimated that that are nearly 200 OPCs in operation across the world in 14 countries. However, there are none in the UK, as this Government continue to believe that OPCs condone the use of drugs. They prefer to continue to ostracise and marginalise drug users, and then wonder why the crime rate is increasing.
There is a wealth of evidence for the effectiveness of OPCs to engage with people who inject or smoke drugs. OPCs not only reduce the risk of overdose and bloodborne viruses among young people who use drugs, but reduce public injecting and drug-related litter. They can also provide pathways to treatment and healthcare facilities.
The Government’s strategy also fails to address the harms of current drug policy and drug law enforcement, including that police stop and search is racially disparate. Drug laws are imposed most harshly against ethnic minority communities, despite prevalence rates among those groups being no higher than among the white population.
We need to do two things. First and foremost, we must treat addiction as an illness, bearing in mind that, just as with alcohol, which is a dangerous drug, about 90% of those who use illegal drugs do not have a problem and certainly do not turn to crime. We must provide the right sort of healthcare, based on the needs of the person suffering from addiction. When we recognise drug use as a health issue, it is clear that increasing access to treatment, harm reduction and social services will lead to better outcomes than criminal justice sanctions.
Gaining or adding to a criminal record—even for those who receive non-custodial sentences, including formal cautions—can cause serious damage to life chances. Bretteville-Jensen and colleagues outline that criminal records, especially when they contain drug-related offences, present obstacles to obtaining employment, seeking rented accommodation, education attainment, international travel and maintaining interpersonal relationships. If we do not provide the right kind of support, addicts will get stuck in a downward spiral of addiction, crime and prison. Most people would probably agree with that.
When it comes to how we deal with criminality, the debate takes a whole new dimension. The criminality comes from two sources: people turning to crime to fund their addictions, and the criminal fraternity who leech off those with addictions and supply the marketplace. First, we need to identify what criminal behaviour is. Increasingly, personal possession is not something that people are prosecuted for, and I welcome that. The decriminalisation of all drug possession is backed by all 31 United Nations agencies and acknowledged by the World Health Organisation as a critical enabler of service access. Committees in this place have advocated a move away from criminalisation, including the Health and Social Care Committee and the Scottish Affairs Committee.
Release, the national centre of expertise on drugs and drug law, has explored decriminalisation over 30 jurisdictions and has found that drug decriminalisation done well can improve health outcomes, reduce drug-related deaths and reduce offending and reoffending, thereby reducing the burden of social costs on police resources and public spending, which is essentially the target of the new 10-year drugs strategy. That is in addition to evidence that, in countries that have reformed their laws policy, liberalisation is not associated with large increases in drug consumption.
Drug laws and their enforcement are used as mechanisms to punish drug use, and the threat of punishment is considered a tool of deterrence. The Black review estimates that the spend on UK drug law enforcement exceeds £1.4 billion per annum, yet the Home Office’s own 2014 analysis of drug policies in 14 countries found:
“There is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use.”
In 2017, another Home Office evaluation acknowledged the resilience of the illicit drug market and the limited impact of drug law enforcement, including significant drug seizures and the availability of drugs. It also identified “unintended consequences” associated with drug interdiction, including increased violence in the marketplace resulting from enforcement activities, criminalisation negatively impacting on employment prospects, and parental imprisonment, which can have dire consequences for children, increasing the risks of child offending, experience of mental health problems, and problematic drug use.
County lines, a lynchpin of the new 10-year drugs strategy, has been framed as an altogether new phenomenon that facilitates the supply of mostly heroin and crack cocaine into non-metropolitan areas, even though heroin and crack markets already existed in those areas. Those who have studied county lines have shown that the entry of drugs into rural areas—sometimes via the involvement of young people—is not a new feature of an unregulated drug market. Some young people choose to engage in the market because of a lack of life choices and opportunities, so focusing on social and economic policies rather than drug law enforcement would reduce their involvement.
We got it wrong 50 years ago in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and we have been getting it wrong ever since. If we want to reduce crime, we must decriminalise drugs to take the power away from criminal gangs, make consumption safer and treat addiction as a health issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. It looks as though we are going to be called for a vote imminently.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) on securing this important debate. I agree with him entirely that we all want to sing from the rooftops about our constituencies, but we have to tackle the underlying problems that we all probably face. I agree with him about a twin-track approach, with a hard-line response to those criminals who are driving the drug market and support for those who are trying to get out and those we do not want to get involved in the first place.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) talked well, as she always does, about child criminal exploitation, the need to understand and define it in law and to tackle it. She highlighted the moments of vulnerability, such as school exclusion. If a young boy loses his life to knife crime, there will be a homicide review to learn the lessons. Why do we wait that long? Why do we wait until he has died? Why did we not intervene at an earlier stage? Why is the point at which someone is excluded from school not the point that triggers involvement with the parents and the child about what those vulnerabilities might be?
The hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) talked about county lines and the drugs coming from all directions into his area. There was a drug line from my constituency of Croydon to Exeter. I have spoken to Exeter police about kids who find themselves on coaches to Exeter and how to recognise them when they get off. They do not have bags with them—only a little bag—and they know who they might be.
My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) talked about the interesting findings related to drug driving, and the delays in forensics. It is absurd and awful that people could still be on the road, potentially causing the same problems, just because of delays in forensics. She also talked about the need for core neighbourhood policing teams, which we all agree on.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said he was from the old school where people know the local bobby on the beat. I think we are all talking about a similar version, which is ensuring that the police are in our communities and areas.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) talked about his beautiful community, and the drugs associated with such places. I was in Rhyl last year, where there are similar issues. It is a lovely, beautiful town hampered by drug use. I spent some time at a youth centre, where they were doing innovative work with kids on the street who were involved with antisocial behaviour and drugs. They had pulled them in, given them support and help. They had gone up Snowdon as part of a Duke of Edinburgh course, completely out of their comfort zone, doing things they had never done before, and giving them hope for the future. That was what the hon. Gentleman said was needed.
Drug crime is a scourge across the country. It fuels exploitation, violence and antisocial behaviour, and causes misery for communities. Drug deaths are at an all-time high. We have seen the emergence of increasingly violent and exploitative gangs, which use technology that is often way ahead of the Government’s, to groom children and sell them drugs. Dame Carol Black presented damning conclusions in her review on drugs. We have gone backwards over the past 10 years. Drug abuse is up at “tragically destructive levels”, she said, and drug treatment is down, with recovery services “on their knees”.
Prosecutions for drug offences are down 36% since 2010 and convictions are down 43%. The UK has become a target for international drug-trafficking gangs. This country is Europe’s largest heroin market. Serious organised criminals have a grip. Whether people live in a town, a city or the country, they worry about their kids getting involved in drugs, even buying them online. We have already talked a lot about county lines, and I think hon. Members agree on the problem. They are based on deeply exploitative criminal practices, forcing children, through debt bondage and other techniques, to become mules to ferry hard drugs up and down the country. Those children often appear not to be vulnerable, but they are hungry, scared and sometimes squatting in cuckooed properties of other vulnerable drug users.
I saw a picture in the Oxford Mail of a young lad wearing a hoodie and holding a wad of cash. When the police caught him, they asked him about the picture. He said:
“I thought it looked cool… It wasn’t even my money. I looked like a homeless person wearing a worn-out tracksuit. I hadn’t showered for two weeks.”
The reality behind the image is often very different.
In 2021, 49% of child referrals of modern slavery were for child criminal exploitation. The national referral mechanism received nearly 13,000 referrals of potential victims, up 20% on the previous year, which is the highest number ever. The number of specific county lines flags have also increased, up 23%. The evidence suggests a nationwide increase in this grotesque practice, and subsequent misery for the individuals and the communities affected.
I want to touch briefly on the online space. Drugs can now be bought and sold online. If someone goes on to Snapchat, they can buy one, get one free, or introduce a friend. The offers are all there. [Interruption.]
Order. The sitting is suspended due to a Division. There will be 15 minutes for the first Division and 10 minutes for subsequent Divisions. I remind hon. Members that, if they have attended, it is a courtesy to the House to come back and hear the shadow Front-Bench spokesperson and the Minister of State’s response. We do not know how many Divisions there are. On the final vote, can we try to make it back a little quicker and not use the full 10 minutes? Then we can all get away a little quicker.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
I was talking about online drugs and how easy it is for kids to buy them. Fiona Spargo-Mabbs, an inspirational woman in my constituency—the Minister will share a platform with her soon—has brought together a group of mothers whose children died from taking drugs that were bought largely online. I am sure that she will talk to the Minister about the need to educate all our young people on what to do when they are confronted with drugs and on the causes and impacts of taking them. All our children come across or are invited to take drugs in some form or another.
Our police are ill-equipped to deal with the advancement of technology and its use by criminals. Sir Michael Barber spoke of a “Betamax police force” stuck in the analogue era while fighting a digital threat. A Sky News report recently found that officers are not aware of the tools they can use to investigate online crimes or gain online evidence. Crest, the crime and justice think-tank that we all use a lot, notes that there is a technological knowledge gap in police forces.
In the ’80s and ’90s, the Home Office had at its core strong teams that produced top-notch research on the state of the drugs market and its ebbs, flows and patterns, but those teams have been sadly cut under this Government. We have learned from increasing drug use over recent years that we need to understand more about where they are coming from and how to tackle them. In truth, although we welcome the 10-year plan that the Government introduced last year, it was too little and, in many cases, too late. The drug dealers have got so far ahead of us that it will take a long time for us to catch up.
Finally, I have some questions for the Minister on how we can tackle some of those issues. We have talked about the core need for neighbourhood police officers to tackle drugs and some of the impacts of drug crime, be they street begging, drug dealing on our streets or other antisocial behaviour. This week, the Labour party has produced evidence showing that the number of neighbourhood police officers per person has fallen dramatically: there is only one neighbourhood police officer per every 2,400 people in this country, whereas 10 years ago the figure was about one per 1,600. That is a very dramatic drop in neighbourhood policing, and we all think that that needs to be addressed.
I ask the Minister to look at the responses of the sectors to his 10-year drugs plan. The specialist drugs organisations remain concerned about the focus on abstinence, the adequacy of the out-of-court scheme for casual users, and whether the real victims of county lines—the young dealers—will actually be helped. What has he done in response to those responses to his strategy?
Will the Minister consider introducing more police to our neighbourhoods and ensuring that more of the new police officers are on our streets, in our neighbourhoods, as Labour has called for continually? Will he consider police hubs, which we have talked about today and Labour has called for, where we can have police in our neighbourhoods, on our streets, tackling antisocial behaviour and lower-level crime?
Is the Minister considering the number of digital and data analysts in the Home Office and our police forces, so that we can understand some of the newer challenges posed by drugs being sold online? Will the Minister look at the county lines networks? There is lots of evidence that closing a phone line does not stop the drug dealing at all, because most drug dealers will keep their phone numbers elsewhere. If the police take a phone, dealers will just get another one and that will not stop the drug dealing. What conversations is the Minister having with his colleagues in DCMS and beyond about the sale of drugs online? What will he do to tackle that?
I will. I always have so many questions for the Minister, as I am sure he appreciates. I will draw my comments to a close with the Prime Minister’s own words:
“It’s that much harder to level up a community while criminals are dragging it down.”
I agree with him, but we need more action.
It is a great pleasure to appear before you, Mr Pritchard, either side of what felt like a parliamentary recess. It is good to be back.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) for securing this debate on an important area of policy. I am sure he will appreciate that the Prime Minister made it a Government priority on, in effect, the day he stood on the steps of Downing Street all those months ago. He and we accept that drug-related crime inflicts a terrible toll on our society. We have heard some horror stories this afternoon. We are determined to turn the tide.
Our unwavering commitment to addressing the problem was, as a number of Members have pointed out, set out in our drugs strategy, “From harm to hope”, published last December. That strategy is underpinned by a landmark set of investments totalling about £3 billion over the next three years. The plan comes in support of our general policy of levelling up across the whole of the UK. We want to see people living longer, healthier lives in safe and productive neighbourhoods. Our approach couples tough enforcement with renewed focus on breaking exactly that cycle of addiction mentioned by so many Members today.
We plan to achieve that difficult challenge with three simple strands of work. The first is to attack every single stage of the drug-supply chain. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) asked what is different about our approach to drugs this time. From an enforcement point of view, we have shifted the emphasis carefully away from the notion of mass arrests—which, as he and a number of Members have pointed out, simply results almost immediately in replacement—much more to attacking the mechanics of the business itself. If our job is to degrade or restrict the supply of drugs into a particular area, we have to ensure that that is done in a way that means that no one can step in to replace and repeat the operation. Attacking the business and the supply chain is critical. We also want to ramp up our investment in treatment and recovery—we have been given hundreds of millions of pounds to do that across the whole of England and Wales—and, critically, to support those people ensnared by addiction to rebuild their lives, ensuring that they get off the roundabout in and out of the prison system, once and for all.
Alongside that, we want to address wider demand and to see a generational shift in society’s attitude towards drugs. For example, we will expand and improve the use of drug testing on arrest and diversionary schemes, such as out-of-court disposals, and undertake work to understand how communications can be used to change behaviours and drive down the use of recreational drugs.
We plan to publish a White Paper proposing a new range of sanctions particularly aimed at those who still choose to take drugs on a casual, non-addicted—whatever you want to call it—recreational basis, recognising that they play a huge role in stimulating demand for drugs across the whole of England and Wales. I will host a summit next month, bringing together experts and representatives from a range of sectors, to discuss the levers and interventions needed to drive down demand across the country, reduce harms and change societal attitudes. We recognise that as we enforce against supply, we must also do something to reduce demand.
I am quite short of time, so I will not, if the hon. Member does not mind.
Our 10-year, whole-system strategy, which we are implementing, is a fundamental reset in our approach to tackling illegal drugs, which is what a number of Members have called for. We expect to see results, as do the public, and that is why we have set out clear and ambitious metrics to drive progress. Those cover a number of areas, including closing more than 2,000 county lines over the next three years, seeing a 20% increase in organised crime disruptions and preventing and reducing drug-related deaths.
Much of this debate has been about county lines, and it is worth reflecting on the despicable way in which those criminals exploit young people—as outlined by the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Lyn Brown) and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley—recruiting them as runners to transport drugs and money around the country. We are clear that the targeting, grooming and exploitation of children for criminal purposes is deplorable, and we are committed to tackling it.
We will continue to invest in our successful county lines programme, which has resulted in more than 7,400 arrests and 1,500 line closures. Critically, more than 4,000 vulnerable people have been rescued from that horrific trade. We are also providing specialist support and funding to help young people who are subjected to, or concerned about, county lines exploitation, and to ensure that they get the protection and support they need.
We have been focused on dismantling the county lines model for well over two years and, as I have outlined, we have had real success. However, complacency is the enemy of progress, and we will continue to protect those most vulnerable and be clear to those gangs that we will keep coming at them again and again. On that note, I was pleased to hear that the Home Secretary visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley to discuss drugs and other matters.
I will come to those in a moment. The hon. Lady will be interested to know that I had a meeting with the Children’s Society just this morning, in my capacity as a constituency MP, to discuss those issues. I am giving consideration to its proposals. We recognise that this trade particularly exploits young people. In my own constituency, we have had some appalling events—young people stabbed and, in one case, killed, where neither victim nor perpetrator was from Andover. Both, in various ways, were victimised and exploited in the drugs industry.
Many Members have mentioned that if we are to have an impact on drugs, we must have a co-ordinated set of actions. We recognise that the complexity of the drugs problem means that we absolutely must be effective in co-ordinating those other partners—local government, other treatment delivery partners, enforcement, prevention and education. They all must come together to form a coalition as a foundation of our strategy, and they are often best placed to establish the priorities and to devise ways of working to address the needs of their local communities as quickly and effectively as possible. This spring we will publish guidance for local areas in England on working in partnerships to reduce drug-related harm.
But we have not been waiting for our strategy or the guidance. I will finish by highlighting some of the work we have been doing already. Alongside the very assertive work we have been doing on county lines in Keighley and elsewhere, some 18 months ago we established a set of projects in 13 areas of the country that are most exploited by drugs gangs and that have the most appalling drug use statistics. Project ADDER, which stands for addiction, diversion, disruption, enforcement and recovery, has been running since November 2020. In effect, it brings together all those people who are focused on dealing with the drugs problem to focus in the same place, at the same time, on the same people, so that all their work can be leveraged. Those projects have had positive results. In particular, law enforcement plays a big part in restricting the amount of drugs in a particular geography, making sure that as the therapeutic treatments come alongside those individuals, they are less likely to walk out of their appointment with a drugs councillor and into the arms of a dealer. There have been big increases in disruptions and arrests in those areas, as well as a large increase in the numbers of people referred to treatment, and some heartwarming stories of people who have been rescued and brought into a better life.
I do not have time, I am afraid.
When I visited the Blackpool project, I was very pleased to hear from a senior police officer who is helping to run it that, in her nearly 30 years of service, she had never felt more hopeful about dealing with the drugs problem in Blackpool.
In calling this important debate, I think my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley is looking for a sense of the priority that the Government assign to this problem. We are investing enormous amounts of public money and massive amounts of political leadership time, right up to the Prime Minister, who I will be meeting over the next couple of weeks to talk about our drugs strategy and where we will go next to make sure that over the next 10 years, we see a reduction in drug use, drug deaths and drug crime across all our constituencies, but most particularly in Keighley.
I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate. It has been heartwarming to hear their thoughtful insights into how we should solve this problem, but we have also heard about the deep, dark challenges that all our constituencies face. We heard from the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) about the challenges with county lines, which I am experiencing as well, and the issues of child sexual exploitation and child criminal exploitation. We also heard about those issues from the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), whose constituency is not too dissimilar to mine, and she also spoke of neighbourhood policing and the side issues with fly-tipping, particularly from cannabis farms, in our towns. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) eloquently illustrated the importance of partnership-led approaches, which we have seen with the Home Office’s implementation of Operation Springhaven in Keighley.
I thank the Minister, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister for showing leadership on this issue. We have to get to grips with it, and I could not agree more with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that we all need to work hard to get to the nub of this issue and ensure that the scourge of drugs is eliminated from all of our communities such that the places in which we live are the best places to work, live and thrive.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).