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Prisoners: Drugs

Volume 715: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many convicted criminals they have paid compensation to in respect of the denial by prison authorities of drugs such as heroin whilst in prison.

My Lords, no prisoners have been compensated for denial of access to illegal drugs, including heroin. It is a fact that some prisoners take illegal drugs in prison. However, NOMS has introduced a range of measures to reduce the supply of drugs. Drug misuse in prisons has declined by 68 per cent since 1996-97, as evidenced by random and mandatory drug-testing results. A comprehensive programme of work is in place to build on that success.

My Lords, perhaps I may first thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for his courtesy in writing to me about another case of drugs in prison which would have fallen outside the scope of this Question. The public will understand that there is a duty on the Government to ensure that prisoners receive medical treatment for such things as drug addiction. However, despite his Answer, I find it difficult to understand how it could be reported in the press that 197 prisoners have received monetary compensation for the denial of drugs. Should not the treatment be about denying them drugs rather than compensating them for not having drugs?

My Lords, in 2002, 197 prisoners claimed that their drug detoxification treatment, which dated back to the late 1990s, had been inadequate. Regrettably, the standard of care that the claimants received fell short of minimum acceptable medical standards. First, their medication was wrong—they were given dihydrocodeine, which was not the appropriate drug. Secondly, the detoxification process was too short. It was for those reasons, and on the basis of legal advice, that it was decided to settle these cases out of court to minimise the cost to the taxpayer. It was very unfortunate indeed, but these were detoxification programmes. It is one reason why the Government have invested a large amount of money in clinical drug treatment under the integrated drug treatment system.

My Lords, can the Minister give the House some idea of the size of the problem that we are facing? Can he confirm the figures that I have, which indicate that some 35 per cent of all prisoners leaving prison have some sort of drug problem or drug addiction?

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot confirm that figure, but I can give these figures: at the latest count, 69 per cent of those who enter prison had taken drugs within the previous 12 months, which may not be an enormous surprise to the House, but 55 per cent of those entering prison have some sort of drug dependency problem. They are not necessarily on what are normally described on hard drugs, but a large number of them will be. No one is pretending that this is not a great problem.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Prison Drug Treatment Strategy Review Group that has been established to review and make clear recommendations on effective drug treatment in prisons. Let me assure noble Lords that that is not an easy task. Does my noble friend agree that it is vital that we have a range of high-quality drug treatment services in the prison system, not only to address maintenance prescribing and the prescriptions in terms of detoxification but so that we provide a wide variety of psychosocial interventions that will clearly address the many complex needs that drug-using offenders present to us?

I am very grateful to my noble friend. I congratulate him and his team and thank them very much for their work on the Prison Drug Treatment Strategy Review Group. There could hardly be more important work to do in relation to drugs in prison. We believe that this group, chaired by my noble friend, provides the right mix of knowledge, expertise and experience. I agree with him, of course, that there are problems in getting the balance right between detoxification and weaning people off drugs in other ways, as well as all of the other issues that affect prisoners who are dependent on drugs. Those issues, alas, sometimes come to the fore when prisoners are released, putting the rest of the community in some kind of danger.

The Trace charity, which helps prisoners on drugs who are in prison, has claimed that there is infighting between the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health about their treatment and that prisoners are being prescribed methadone because the DoH wants to control treatment. That means that inmates are being diverted from MoJ-funded abstinence schemes. Is it right that there is a struggle going on as to how those prisoners should be treated?

It is not right; there is no struggle going on at all. That makes extremely good copy, but it just does not happen to be right. The point is that it is important to try to get the balance right. There is certainly a place for methadone maintenance in prison; there is no doubt about that. Mr Trace himself wrote a letter to the Times yesterday rather contradicting what had been said about him in the article last week. The integrated drug treatment system being brought in across prisons provides evidence-based treatment, tailored to the needs of the prisoner.

All treatments, whatever they are, ultimately aim at getting prisoners off drugs whether that is while they are in prison or when they return to the community. The rise in prisoners getting methadone treatment means that more prisoners are getting the treatment they need at the right stage of the treatment journey. I invite the noble Lord, and the House, to look at a letter written by Professor Gerry Stimson in the Times of the day before yesterday in which he makes it clear that the provision of methadone in prison is considered best practice by the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and UNAIDS, among others.

The Minister has referred to the fall in the incidence of drugs in prison, which is very welcome. With regard to the latest available records, what was the number of convictions for persons seeking to smuggle drugs into prison, and does that represent a rising or a falling trend?

I cannot give the noble Lord those figures, but I shall of course write to him and put a copy of my letter in the Library. Preventing drugs from coming into prison is an absolute priority and a great deal more work has been put into that than was the case previously. There is a comprehensive range of security measures to reduce drug supply in prison, which the noble Lord will know about and which I will write to him about. They include the need for those who are caught bringing drugs into prison to be severely punished.