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Psychoactive Substances Bill [HL]

Volume 762: debated on Tuesday 23 June 2015

Committee (1st Day) (Continued)

Relevant documents: 1st Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

Amendment 11

Moved by

11: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—


The Secretary of State must issue guidance, before this Act comes into force and regularly updated thereafter, as to how users, enforcement authorities and others can identify individual psychoactive substances, the degree of the psychoactivity, their safe uses and their relative harms.”

My Lords, the new clause proposed in Amendment 11 follows very closely on the debate which we held just before the dinner break. In their proposals in this Bill the Government are setting a very complex and difficult task for police officers, customs officers and others. The definition of a psychoactive substance is quite deliberately broad and, some would say, vague. Powders and pills look much alike and the question is, how is an officer to know, first, if a substance is indeed a psychoactive one and, secondly, what is in the mind of the person in possession of that substance? How are they to determine the intention? That is essential in the establishment of whether or not a criminal offence is being committed. I would also be grateful if the Minister told us whether he envisages that there will be a de minimis level of psychoactivity and below that level, enforcement officers will not be worrying and will not seek to enforce the regime that the Bill creates. Or, are the Government saying that any substance which is at any level psychoactive is to be controlled, in the sense that this particular legislation will control it?

As we have also acknowledged in earlier debates, there is a shortage of forensic facilities in this country. That is why the Home Secretary belatedly, just before the Bill was tabled in Parliament, wrote to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to ask,

“how best we can establish a comprehensive scientific approach for determining psychoactivity for evidential purposes”.

That suggests that the Home Secretary is rushing into enacting legislation before she has any clear idea as to how it would work. What we know is that significant additional burdens will be laid upon police whose numbers and resources have been diminishing and may well continue to do so. These measures, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has already put to the House, may further inhibit research in important respects and create multiple new possibilities for the criminalisation of people who are in some way involved with new psychoactive substances.

I propose that the Government owe it to consumers, businesses, research institutions and those responsible for enforcement to explain exactly what they intend, and to advise them all on how this legislation would work. The Minister kindly undertook to write to us, the Peers who have been involved in consideration of this Bill, between Committee and Report. I suggest that in due course the Government should write to a much wider range of readers—people who will have responsibilities created under this legislation, who will need to understand the definition of and the practicalities of identifying a psychoactive substance, and what is in the minds of people they apprehend who may be contemplating purposes that the Government wish to discourage and would make a criminal offence. That is the burden of the new clause proposed in Amendment 11. The Secretary of State must issue guidance before this Bill comes into force and keep it regularly updated thereafter as to how users, enforcement authorities and others can identify individual psychoactive substances, the degree of their psychoactivity, their safe uses and their relative harms.

I now move to the new clause proposed in Amendment 12, in the same group. If people are to look after themselves and others—their children, friends and people whose interests they care about—they are going to need full and reliable information about psychoactive substances. We have heard much about how the internet can be a force for bad, but it can also be a force for good in its ability to disseminate information that may be extremely valuable and helpful in enabling people’s safety to be preserved. It is the Government’s responsibility to use the means at their disposal to provide the fullest information they can. The previous Government, I think, relaunched the FRANK website, the earlier version of which was considerably criticised, but I praise them for doing this because it is a genuine effort to provide fairly full and certainly honest information about psychoactive substances.

The difficulty about the Talk to FRANK website is that its official provenance and rather starchy tone mean that it will not be the go-to website for young people who want to find out about drugs. While it is important that the Government maintain a website of this kind and amplify the information that it provides, they should recognise that the work they do in preparing and maintaining such a website is complementary to other, unofficial sites that are created and maintained by experienced people, whose motive is good, because they want to share information about the realities of psychoactive substances and protect people from coming to harm by their use of such substances. I have in mind websites created by organisations such as DrugScope, Bluelight, Urban75, SafeOrScam and PillReports, which are examples of some of the websites to which people can go to learn about psychoactive substances. Those websites are maintained with very good intentions with regard to the public good—public safety and health—and I therefore hope that the Government see their work as complementary.

At all events, we need to capture as much evidence as we can about the substances, so that we better understand the harms we are trying to prevent, the ills we need to cure and the effectiveness of the measures taken to prevent people coming to harm, and to remedy— so far as is possible—the harms that people experience. We should learn as much as we can from collaboration with other countries; the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction is an excellent model of international information sharing and co-operation. However, we cannot expect the people of this country habitually to turn to the website of the EMCDDA; they need to have something that is designed for them, and more appropriate and accessible for them.

My second proposal, in subsection (b) of the proposed new clause in Amendment 12, is that the Secretary of State should provide,

“a network of testing centres, readily accessible at no charge to users and others, at which they can be informed about the identity, composition, toxicity and potential harms to human health of any substances brought in by them which there is reason to think may be psychoactive”.

As I understand it, that service is available in the Netherlands. It appears that they have a fuller range of forensic resources and facilities for the identification and testing of substances, and that access to those facilities is freely available to the public at large as well as to officials and enforcement authorities. We should seek to construct such a model in this country, not least because an early alert to a bad consignment of drugs, which is very dangerous, could save lives. I beg to move.

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, on both those amendments. We talked a lot about legislation earlier on today, but we know, both internationally and from the Home Affairs Select Committee and others, that legislation does not make very much difference at all to the key issues relating to drugs, whether traditional drugs or new psychoactive substances. The important job the Government have concerns information. I have said it before and will say it again: young people do not want to kill themselves, believe it or not, and they do not even want to harm themselves and finish up in hospital. Why do they kill themselves and finish up in hospital? Because they do not have the information they need to keep themselves safe. Why do they not have the information? Because far too many substances are banned in a rather simplistic way. Countries such as the Netherlands, which have coffee shops where people can get cannabis, have very little problem with heroin, for example. There are other ways of keeping people safe. But the most important way, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, says, is information. I agree with his ideas about how this should be done—it cannot be typical government information. It really is important. If we stopped focusing on legislation quite so much and focused on some of these other issues, we might actually make some progress.

I want also to support the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, in relation to the testing centres. Testing centres would be a very important adjunct if we were to have a more proportionate system where low-harm substances would be regulated, labelled and so on, as recommended by the European Commission and approved by the European Parliament. If we had a proportionate system like that, and had testing centres, a young person could go into a testing centre and ask whether a substance was low harm and okay to take. With a combination of a proportionate legal system, testing centres and really good information, we would begin to have a really good drugs policy. Would that not be wonderful? We could lead the world with such a policy.

Many Latin American countries talk about these things. They know just how bad the war on drugs can be. They know just how important it is for the demand end of the drugs market to be managed effectively in order to save them from tens of thousands of deaths a year, corruption, government failure and all the rest of it. It is absolutely disastrous across the Atlantic. In my view, we have a responsibility to ourselves and our young people but also to Latin America and central American countries.

I very strongly support what the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said. I really hope that Ministers will take it very seriously and somehow link it with a proportionate, rational system of drug control.

My Lords, I support these amendments. However, I have some concerns. The first is, as has been previously mentioned, the limited forensic capacity that the Government and police have. Already the police service has to make rationing decisions as to which cases it refers to forensic laboratories. This Bill could create a massive increase in the amount of work that forensic laboratories would have to do.

Before we had new psychoactive substances and this Bill, the idea of websites that advised what was a safe dose of an illegal drug seemed somewhat contradictory, and there would have been some fairly stiff arguments against providing testing stations for drugs that are illegal to possess. However, as noble Lords will know, this Bill does not criminalise possession, and therefore does not make it illegal to take these substances. Therefore, the case for public information about safe dosage and having testing centres appears absolutely necessary if the Government are to continue to pursue this idea that simple possession for personal consumption of new psychoactive substances should remain legal.

My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and to reinforce the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, looking particularly at information—in this instance, under Amendment 11, information directed at users. That struck me as the key point in the amendment because the Bill is concerned primarily—necessarily so—with those who produce the substances. The danger is leaving out those who might then consume them. They are not doing anything illegal, but we should not leave them out of the discussion about them being better informed about the effects of the substances.

We will come on to education in Amendment 13. That might be useful in deterring people who want to take substances in the first place. It might be a bit optimistic, but I think that is eminently sensible. But what about those who are users and making sure they are at least informed as a consequence of what we are talking about? I am a little concerned if we focus solely on production and what we do about that, without thinking about those who are still prone to consume these substances. I am not particularly wedded to the particular amendments the noble Lord proposes, but I am very much at one with him in the intent and in what he is calling attention to: making sure we do not lose sight of that dimension. I will be very keen to hear the Minister’s response. If we are not deterring them—my hope would be that we would—I cannot see what the difficulty would be in having some regime for providing that sort of information.

My Lords, there are effectively three amendments here. One is Amendment 11, whose essence is guidance. All three may have some merit and we would be very interested in the Minister’s reply. The first one on guidance would seem to be very important for potential users. Also, of course, it would meet a concern which we were lobbied about regarding the retail sector, which clearly is going to have problems given this Bill. It is going to need some guidance and it may have to try and generate its own if the Government do not help. I would be very interested about what the Government have to say on that.

Proposed new paragraph (a) in Amendment 12 and the availability of information on the internet also seems sensible to me. It does not mean we are softening our general position on the Bill. Good information provided by government has to be a good thing. I would be very interested in the Government’s response to the proposal relating to testing centres. At first sight, it looks rather over the top, but on the other hand the Government are committed I believe—and it is very important how carefully this response comes across—to a much more comprehensive approach to testing, to support the Bill. That will give us some tangible evidence that the Bill will work. I hope the Government will take these three areas seriously and, depending on their response, we may take this further with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, on Report.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, for his explanation on these amendments. Before I start, I was very rude earlier when I did not thank him for the kind words he said at the beginning of this debate and I feel very honoured to be taking part. I agree that a joined-up approach in departments is a very useful point. Also, I feel extremely privileged to be able to learn from my noble friend Lord Bates about how these things are conducted. The noble Lord has asked that, before this Act comes into force, the Home Secretary must issue guidance on how users, enforcement authorities and others can identify individual psychoactive substances, the degree of the psychoactivity, their safe uses and their relative harms.

I can certainly understand the sentiment underpinning at least part of Amendment 11. I acknowledge the importance of the effective implementation of the provisions in the Bill by enforcement agencies and the crucial role played by the Home Secretary in ensuring that this takes place.

I emphasise that we are working closely with enforcement agencies—the police, the Border Force, the National Crime Agency and the Local Government Association—to ensure the successful implementation of the Bill. All the agencies, supported by the Home Office, will produce guidance for their own officers that will address issues such as those raised by the noble Lord. For example, it seems sensible that the College of Policing, with the national policing lead on drugs policy, is best placed to produce the guidance for police officers, along with our input, as I have said. Similarly, the Local Government Association is well placed to produce tailored guidance for local authorities.

We are also working with other bodies, including the British Retail Consortium and the Association of Convenience Stores, to produce targeted guidance for their members. It is also important to discuss with the Welsh and Scottish Governments and with Northern Ireland’s Department of Justice what guidance is needed to address their national needs. Any guidance for prosecutors in England and Wales is a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions.

However, I have grave concerns about issuing guidance to users of psychoactive substances on how they might identify such substances, along with their degree of psychoactivity, their safe uses and their relative harms. I have the same concerns about Amendment 12, which states that the Government must establish a network of centres where drug users can get their illegal drugs tested. Although this is doubtless well intentioned, I fear that such approaches could have the opposite effect to that intended. Such initiatives could actually serve to promote the availability of psychoactive substances and encourage their use, which is clearly contrary to the purpose of the Bill. A better approach is to highlight the harms of such substances, alongside wider efforts at prevention.

The Minister referred to testing centres possibly having the opposite effect to that intended. In the Netherlands, where such centres have been in operation for some time, they are actually rather successful. For example, there have been, I believe, no deaths resulting from psychoactive substances. Rather than worry about whether they might have the opposite effect to that intended, I suggest that the Government check with the Netherlands how those centres are working, because they would find that they were working well.

I will certainly take that forward. However, with regard to testing centres, the Dutch model sits within a more tolerant drugs policy that the Netherlands has. Our key message is that there is no safe dose of these drugs, and they should not be taken. Any move towards such a scheme would undermine that message and could encourage drug use, contrary to government policy. This proposal would also cover drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, not just those covered by this Bill. That would undermine our intentional obligations as a signatory to the UN conventions, and no clear public protection case has yet emerged for such a testing centre.

There is a well-established system for issuing a national alert. Any intelligence that Public Health England receives alerting it to identifiable problems, such as a batch of drugs likely to cause significant risk in England, is acted on.

There is more common ground than the Minister allows. I can see her aversion to saying that there are safe levels and safe doses, and I am quite sympathetic to this. But there can always be the inverse—there can be “dangerous”, “very dangerous” and “fatal”, which is the reciprocal way of putting it. I ask the Government to look into whether there is some common ground in this area because the provision of information and alerting people to the dangers of these substances—we share the Government’s enthusiasm for banning them—by these various amendments must have a generally benign effect.

I thank the noble Lord for that, but there is a well-established system for issuing a national alert. Any intelligence that Public Health England receives alerting it to the identifiable problem of a batch of drugs likely to cause a significant risk in England is acted on. There was an example earlier this year. There was a warning from Madrid that Superman pills sold as ecstasy containing PMMA were found in Spain. This followed the tragic deaths in England over the Christmas period caused by similar Superman pills. PHE took immediate action and issued a warning that these highly dangerous drugs may still be in circulation. Public Health England is working with partners to accelerate the review already under way on how drug alert systems in the UK can be improved, including how they join up with intelligence from Europe.

I agree with what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe—you start from the basis that it is harmful and ascend in order of degree of harm. I take what my noble friend said about there being a mechanism for identifying them already and for disseminating that, but could she say a little more about the dissemination? How far does it go? The concern is whether it actually reaches the users or stops at an earlier point in trying to prevent the dissemination of the drugs. How much is there a greater awareness of and sensitivity to those who are in danger of consuming these substances?

I thank my noble friend Lord Norton for that. That is probably covered by FRANK, which is an element of our broad approach to prevention. We are investing in a range of programmes that have a positive impact on young people and adults, giving them the confidence, resilience and risk-management skills to resist drug use. It has been a valuable resource for young people, parents and teachers, especially when used for wider resilience-building and behaviour change. It continues to be updated to reflect new and emerging patterns of drug use and to evolve to remain in line with young people’s media habits and to strengthen advice and support. Since its launch it has been visited by more than 35 million people, and millions have called the helpline to speak to specially trained advisers.

I hope that explanation has gone at least some way to satisfying the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and that on that basis he will be content to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, the noble Lords, Lord Paddick and Lord Norton, and particularly my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe on the Front Bench. He saw some merit in what I said. This illustrates the virtue of the Committee process. The dialectic helps us all to learn. My noble friend Lady Meacher was right to say that information is at the very least as important as legislation, because we have all this evidence that prohibition has not worked. In that case, it is much better that people should be helped to understand what they do.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, was concerned that my recommendation of a network of testing centres would lay impossible demands on the existing resources of laboratories and forensic facilities. Of course, he is right: with our existing resources we could not possibly construct such a network that would be accessible in all regions of the country. My proposition is that we should aim to achieve that. We know that this legislation will in any case require an expansion of forensic facilities. It seems to me that you can achieve both purposes simultaneously: to enable those whose responsibility it is to enforce the law to have speedy access to the information they need, but to also assist vulnerable consumers. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for his endorsement of the value and importance of providing reliable, trustworthy and up-to-date information to all concerned.

I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, for the kind words that she spoke. She had absolutely no reason to apologise to me. I particularly appreciated the kind words, however, that she spoke about her noble friend the Minister. Every member of the Committee greatly appreciates the thoroughness and care with which he—and I add my thanks to the officials—seeks to assist the Committee in our inquiries and in our concerns. The noble Baroness did not answer my question about whether there would be a de minimis threshold—such a low level of psychoactivity that in practice people would be advised that they do not need to concern themselves about it, whatever the technical letter of the law might say. I think that is quite an important practical consideration. Perhaps in due course we could have a response on that.

I was encouraged, of course, to hear how the Government are working closely with a whole range of agencies. I recognise that they have to work with devolved institutions across the UK as a whole, and also that the guidance that the DPP issues needs to be independent of government. All those points I take. I was a little confused—my fault, no doubt—by what she had to say about guidance to consumers. She rather deprecated the provision of guidance to consumers; on the other hand, a little later on, she became quite lyrical about Talk to FRANK, and explained what a marvellous thing it had been and what large numbers of people it had helped. So I am left a little uncertain about the Government’s view on that particular point.

The noble Baroness raised a very serious objection to my amendment in that establishing a network of testing centres might be seen as sending the signal that the Government approve of the taking of drugs. I do not think it would. It is a very sad and worrying reality, but the reality is that people are going to use these substances. The task then is to recognise that and see how we can best protect them. I also acknowledge the valid point she made that provision in Holland is in the context of a rather different regime. But perhaps she will go on a fact-finding mission to Holland and she will investigate the testing centres and form her own view as to whether they are a good thing or not and whether we ought to do something similar—

I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord when he is in full flow, but I think he might be coming to the end. If he is considering bringing this back, I wonder if I could raise one thing that has been troubling me during this debate, concerning the advice as to harm or danger. If it is advice as to whether something is or is or not harmful, perhaps before the next stage, he might think about duties of care and liability and all those things. If it is advice as to whether a substance is dangerous, very dangerous or fatal, does he share my concern? I am not seeking to pick holes; I genuinely want to explore the subject. My concern is that if there are those categories, the lowest category would be interpreted as meaning “not harmful”; in other words, it would be reduced to people thinking, “Well, it’s not fatal and it’s not very dangerous, so it must be okay”. I do not know if there is a way through all this.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, makes a very important point, and I think that it was strongly suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, as well. We have to convey that there is no such thing as a safe dose. We are dealing with relative harms. We are helping individuals who are possibly ignorant, gullible and vulnerable—they may be very knowledgeable—to navigate their way through what is very treacherous territory indeed. The Government, in partnership with other well-intended agencies, NGOs and the voluntary sector, should be quite systematic about trying to ensure that the best information is available to people who are going to take risks and may come to appalling harm. In this policy-making process, we are looking for the least bad solution. We are not dealing with an ideal world—there is not going to be a drugs-free world; some would contend that that is not even an ideal. At any rate, the practical reality is that people will always use drugs, so our responsibility as good citizens and the responsibility of the Front Bench opposite on behalf of the Government is to minimise harm and danger.

Finally, the Minister talked about the value of the European early warning system, which is an important component of the array of policies to try to protect people from harm. But as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, inquired, we need to know how the Government intend to make sure that those early warnings are widely circulated and reach the people who are perhaps most in need of them. Earlier this year there was a spate of stories about people being killed by taking new psychoactive substances, which seem to have arrived somewhere in East Anglia and were spreading quite rapidly across the country. Whether or not there had been an early warning from an official European system, the fact is that people did not get the advice they needed in time. We have to think of all the best practical ways we can in order to help spare people that kind of fate. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 11 withdrawn.

Amendment 12 not moved.

Amendment 13

Moved by

13: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—


(1) The Secretary of State shall require that all children of secondary school age receive education designed to teach them about the realities of psychoactive substances (whether controlled or otherwise) and develop them as persons who are informed, risk-aware, resilient and responsible in relation to psychoactive substances.

(2) Ofsted and equivalent agencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland shall, in the course of their normal inspections of secondary schools of all kinds, inspect the performance of individual schools in drug education and include their findings on this in the reports which they issue on those schools.

(3) Ofsted and equivalent agencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland shall publish an annual report on the state of drug education in schools in each nation of the UK, together with recommendations.

(4) The Secretary of State shall monitor the programmes and resources available to schools to support their teaching about psychoactive substances of all sorts (including both controlled and exempted substances).”

I apologise that the Committee has to put up with an inordinate amount of talk from me, but I will be as brief as I can on what is a subject of major importance: how we strengthen education in relation to drugs. In introducing this proposed new clause, I congratulate my noble friends on the Front Bench on their excellent new clause set out in Amendment 104, which is grouped with this one.

The coalition’s strategy as enunciated in 2010 included reducing demand, and in that, education is or should be key. I would like to see the Secretaries of State for the Home Office, for Education, for BIS and for Health jointly reporting as proposed in the new clause set out in Amendment 104. My noble friends have called for an annual report on the subject of education, but it should be one that emanates from the Government as a whole, and particularly those departments.

The situation as it stands is that schools are required to provide drug education programmes and information about drugs in the science national curriculum. But not all schools, indeed a diminishing number, are required to deliver the national curriculum, and even in those that are, the evidence is that this fairly minimal requirement does not prove to be particularly effective in educating people about the realities of drugs. After much anguished debate, the last Government decided that PSHE should be a non-statutory subject in the national curriculum. It is fair to say that the last Government provided funding for early intervention to support children at risk, and I assume that the troubled families programme has something to offer in this connection.

I have read that the Government are spending some £7 million annually on drug education as a whole. On the other hand, the Minister of State at the Home Office, Mike Penning, told the House of Commons in a Written Answer on 2 June that the total spend on education and prevention campaigns in relation to new psychoactive substances from 2013 to 2015 had been only £180,556. That seems extraordinarily little. It would be helpful if the Minister provided the House with correct figures so that we know what the Government are spending on various aspects of drug education. Whatever it is, however, I would contend that it is inadequate.

The Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons, in its 2012 report Breaking the Cycle, was scathing about the efforts being made at that time by the Government to promote education about drugs. It quoted the charity Mentor, which complained angrily:

“We are spending the vast majority of the money we do spend on drug education on programmes that don’t work”.

The committee found that most schools provide drug education once a year or less. I have no doubt that there are schools that do very well, but the Home Affairs Select Committee was talking about the generality of schools. It reported that the Department for Education, with, one might say, a shrug of its institutional shoulders, had said that it does not monitor the programmes and resources that schools use to support their teaching. That is why, in subsection (4) of new Clause 13, I have proposed that the Secretary of State,

“shall monitor the programmes and resources available to schools to support their teaching”.

It seems to me a dreadful dereliction of responsibility if that is not happening.

Education strategy in the fight against drugs must be transformed. When the public health campaign about tobacco got serious, it worked. The Secretary of State must insist that all secondary schools take seriously their responsibility to educate children about drugs. It may well be argued—and it may well be right—that education should start before children reach the secondary level; certainly it should apply in every secondary school.

Effective techniques exist to teach young people resilience and the capacity to make their own considered decisions. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, we must act on the demand at that point—legislation is not going to do it on its own. We must bring about a society in which fewer people want to use these substances. The way to make a very good start on that is to get serious about education.

I have made specific proposals about the role of Ofsted and the equivalent agencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. School inspections should routinely examine what is happening with drug education in schools, and Ofsted’s findings should go into its reports on each school. Ofsted should also publish an annual report on the state of drug education in schools in each nation of the United Kingdom and make recommendations about necessary improvements. That way, not only would the message get out to all schools but all schools would be invigilated and monitored on the way they acquit themselves of this responsibility.

More broadly, it is not just specific drug education that matters: it is the quality of education overall. The propensity to use drugs correlates with poor educational standards and is found more widely in communities where, as things stand, the standard of education offered in local schools is not what we would wish. Deficient education is among the pathologies that incubate drug abuse. It is a broader question.

The same vigour needs to be brought to the approach in further and higher education. The funding councils should make it a condition of publicly provided support for the universities that they demonstrate that they have programmes to help people understand the realities of drugs and that they report on what they are doing every year. Universities UK ought to promote best practice, not only in relation to new psychoactive substances but to prescription drugs that are being widely misused by students in universities, as I have mentioned before.

Drug users of all ages need help to become properly informed, properly risk aware and properly capable of taking their own sensible, responsible decisions. I hope that the Minister, in responding, will also tell us how his department, which has lead responsibility in government, plans to work with other government departments, particularly with the Department for Education, and to ensure that we have a coherent strategy that tackles this problem at the roots and does not simply try to patch things up when they have gone wrong. I beg to move.

I am not deliberately trying to oppose every amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, has proposed in Committee tonight. Indeed, if his amendment had simply said that all head teachers shall once per annum bring in an appropriate person to talk about the dangers of drugs, I would have supported it. Indeed, I wish I had thought of it myself.

The point that I am seeking to make is: who is an appropriate person? I discovered in the 1990s in the Home Office that there is not a single Member of your Lordships’ House, not a single Member of the other place, not a single policeman—no matter how young or old—and not a single teacher who would be regarded by young people and children as a legitimate person to preach about the dangers of drugs. I discovered rather late on in my term of office at the Home Office—I wish I had had more time or thought of it earlier, before the 1997 election—that the things that seemed to work were when a school got another teenager who would come in and say, “I am a drug addict, or I used to be a drug addict and look at me now. I can’t pick up boys or girls; half my nose has rotted off. I’m as skinny as a rat. I’ve been thrown out of my house by my parents and I have all these problems”. It was only with other teenagers who looked and sounded like them and came from the same area, rather than men or women in suits, that they believed in the dangers of drugs.

I worry that the noble Lord’s amendment is too state-oriented. It is maybe too bureaucratic. I am certain that if it were carried we would be spending more than £7 million on drug education. I am afraid that it would be snapped up by the Ofsteds, quangos and education bureaucrats who have wonderful programmes that sound good. They would be like the adverts that I thought we had prepared at the Home Office, with men in suits lecturing about the evils of drugs. Like those adverts, they will be completely ineffective. I say to the noble Lord and to my noble friend the Minister that I am very sympathetic to education in schools but it has to be kept simple and appropriate. If kids were cynical at my time in the Home Office in 1994 to 1996 they are a dashed sight more cynical now about being lectured by anyone who is older or outside their own cultural circle. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that if he cannot accept the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth.

My Lords, I support very strongly the idea behind the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and the importance of education. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, that the type of education is absolutely all-important. He said that teenagers do not want someone coming in preaching about drugs. Absolutely—we know from all the research, most of which has been carried out in the US, that lecturing and didactic teaching does not work in the sphere of drugs. We know that. I was going to suggest that we need the words “evidence-based” in the amendment. We know from the evidence that peer involvement—certainly group work with youngsters who have already had or are now having terrible problems with drugs—is the method of education that works. Whether one wants to call it education or whatever, it ideally needs to go on in schools. It does not seem inappropriate therefore to use the word “education”. We all have to be clear what we mean by education but, as for the term “evidence-based”, the evidence points exactly in that direction.

Before you get to that sort of education and imparting —or whatever you call it—of information, there is work already being done in a number of schools up and down the country to improve the resilience of youngsters who are particularly vulnerable to drug addiction. An example is children who are not functioning well at school or have very difficult home lives. There are all sorts of reasons why those children lack resilience. There are very good programmes of resilience-building in schools and for me they are utterly central to the whole business of prevention of drug addiction. This sort of work is far more important even than all the stuff we were talking about earlier about legislation, passionate though I feel about having the right framework in which all these things occur. I would support at least some variant of the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, because it is fundamentally important, but let us see if we can come up with something really good for Report. Even better, the Minister could take this away and bring back a well-framed amendment to cover this vital issue.

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, I have added my name to the amendment because I think the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, is spot on in terms of the principle of the amendment, which is about education, because it completely shifts the focus. This Bill is essentially reactive. It is getting at what it wants to ban. The great thing about the amendment is that it is proactive. It explains to people why they should not take drugs in the first place. The route is education because we want to ensure that people are aware of the risks so they do not wish to take them in the first place. Otherwise, what we are doing is downstream once they have started taking the substances.

How then do you deliver the education? I take the point that my noble friend Lord Blencathra made about those who should be informing others, because young people listen to other young people and those who have had the experiences. It is absolutely right. They would be the most appropriate people. If somehow one could link a reduction in drug use to school league tables I can assure you that head teachers would be bringing in those appropriate people like a shot to affect outcomes. However, the crucial point here is that what the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, is getting at with this amendment is worth while in its own right and would be worth pursuing anyway even if the rest of the Bill were not there.

I think we are all agreed that it does not actually have to be precisely in the form in which the noble Lord has brought it forward but there is a general welcome for the principle involved. I regard it as extraordinarily important because if we can stop people wanting to take synthetic substances in the first place then a lot of what we are discussing becomes unnecessary. We really ought to be thinking in those terms and the noble Lord has done a fantastic service by bringing forward this amendment. I hope it will engage my noble friend’s attention to thinking how we educate people about this in the first place. It might be difficult. We might not achieve it, but it is inherently a desirable goal. It is, if you like, a public good.

Can I make a short intervention to support Amendment 13 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport? I agree absolutely with the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, that you need reformed addicts and the like to be effective in these circumstances. I have some experience working with the Wise Group in Glasgow, where Routes out of Prison takes reformed prisoners—people who have been on the inside—and meets prisoners coming out. There is no doubt that the vital connection between those who have been in that bad place and traded themselves out of it, and the totality of both phases, is very compelling and captivates young people of secondary school age in particular in a way that nothing else can, so education of that kind is essential in my view. However, there are not enough people with sufficient experience to do it. The voluntary sector is very good in some parts of the country but in others it is patchy. Further, if this is a good idea and there are workable ways of delivering it without men in suits being involved, we need a quantum of money to make it work sensibly. It is astonishing that the last Government fessed up to spending only £180,000 in this area. I think that figure applies only to England. I must check with my Scottish contacts to find out whether they spent a tenth of that, or whatever it was. That really is a de minimis amount of money. Indeed, I think that even £7 million is a de minimis amount of money.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton, is absolutely right to say that this proposed new clause stands on its own but if the Government are really taking a blanket-ban approach—I agree with my noble friends on the Front Bench that that is not the appropriate way to go—I would be consoled if there was an important, big, well-funded and properly constructed education package that went with this approach, because I think it would have an impact. However, you cannot do it for £180,000 a year. As we all know and expect, the impact assessment talks about effects on business, and all these things are important. However, if we are going to make this a reality and make it work, we need to be thinking over the period of the rest of the Parliament of seriously increasing the resources devoted to the measures proposed in this amendment.

My final point concerns the troubled families programme—it is a horrible name—about which I know a little and which was mentioned in passing by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport. It is also another way into this issue because a lot of the trouble in troubled families comes from youngsters who are out of control. These families contain a lot of single mothers in difficult circumstances and low-income households. These people struggle to access help. They will be the first to identify the problem with their teenage children and will be the first to seek help. Therefore, I think the troubled families programme would be another avenue through which to release resources effectively to confront some of these dangerous substances. If we are thinking about introducing a provision something like what is proposed in the new clause in Amendment 13 at later stages of the Bill, we need to think seriously about how to resource it adequately without being stupid about it. I am not daft; there is obviously an austerity constraint on everyone but we should all think about what constitutes a meaningful annual spend before the later stages of the Bill are completed.

My noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe and I have tabled the second amendment in this group. The first amendment, which we have been discussing, relates to education in secondary schools. Our amendment provides for the Secretary of State to,

“establish a scheme to promote public awareness of new psychoactive substances, including the dangers these substances may pose”,

and to provide an annual report to Parliament. The amendment lists some of the issues that must be included in the report.

The expert panel report included recommendations on education and awareness. What is needed is a targeted public awareness campaign for young people and one specifically for parents, an evaluation of current education programmes, investment more generally in drugs education in schools and new psychoactive substances training for front-line staff. A comprehensive prevention campaign should include Public Health England, which should run a targeted campaign to alert people to the dangers of these drugs and to counter the myth that “legal” means “safe”. That campaign needs also to include the targeting of young people through social media.

As has been said, we need proper drugs education in schools. At present 60% of schools spend less than an hour a term on drugs and alcohol education. We need informative education and awareness campaigns that include a harm-reduction message. For example, it needs to be got across that drugs can take hours to take effect, in order to help reduce the incidence of people taking more and then overdosing. People need to know the dangers of these drugs, such as overheating, anxiety and paranoia, and what to do if they encounter such problems. Without programmes of this kind, legislation can never be effective on its own. Yet as my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport said, a recent Parliamentary Question revealed that between 2013 and 2015 only £180,000 was spent on new psychoactive-substance campaigns.

Accepting the amendments in this group, or similar amendments, and having them in the Bill helps to get across the key message about the importance of education, prevention and public awareness programmes. The requirement for an annual report from the Secretary of State also provides a check that proper and effective programmes are being developed and implemented and, equally importantly, their effectiveness reviewed. This would also provide an opportunity for Parliament to discuss the issue, based on the content of such a report.

I hope that the Minister will recognise the importance of the point being made by the amendments in this group and give a favourable response.

My Lords, I agree with so much of what has been said and will endeavour not to repeat it, other than just a little.

The point made about the appropriateness and therefore the credibility of the person undertaking the education, as I shall call it for want of a better word, is something about which I feel very strongly. When I was about to leave school—they left it until after our A-levels to give us anything that might now come under the heading of PHSE—there was a short, embarrassed and embarrassing discussion, which was not a discussion because we were talked at, by the member of staff least likely to be identified with by any of the 18 year-old girls present. The talk was about the white slave trade, and none of us could identify with her or with it because it was so unrelated to real life. Therefore, the term in subsection (1) of the amendment referring to “the realities” struck a chord with me. This work has to be trusted and be undertaken by somebody who is saying things that seem sensible to the people listening to them. That may include variations in harm and degrees of harm. If some substances are not harmful, one needs to say so. In subsection (1), I also liked the words,

“informed, risk-aware, resilient and responsible”,

which cover an awful lot of important ground.

I would want to see this work done in a wider context. Alcohol, tobacco, coffee and chocolate are I suppose referred to here. I wonder whether one can divorce this kind of education from sex education, for instance, because it is all about recklessness and about kids getting themselves into situations that are difficult and hard to get out of. What is in here is hugely important but it is part of a wider picture and needs to be presented as such.

With regard to Amendment 104, my noble friend and I refer to similar measures as part of our amendment about decriminalisation for possession—in other words, what can be done if someone is found to be in possession but it is not an offence. We have linked drug treatment and awareness. In that context, I should confess to the House, because there are all sorts of awareness courses, that I once had to go on a speed awareness course. Your Lordships can interpret that how you like.

My Lords, I am grateful as these are important amendments and I pay tribute to the noble Lord for introducing them. When we had our meeting of all interested Peers, he said that it was vital that we spaced our time in Committee to allow in-depth debates on the key themes which run through drug policy. To me one of the key themes, along with enforcement, must be the value and importance of education. The noble Lord has afforded us that opportunity, along with the Official Opposition, and I am grateful for that.

I want to address some specific concerns, but a number of the points that I will raise were touched upon by my noble friend Lady Chisholm. She was good enough to say something about me but, behind the scenes, the great joy which your Lordships cannot see is that when we are having our briefings, because of her distinguished background in nursing and her volunteering within a drug rehabilitation unit, she brings great sensitivity and understanding to this issue. I have drawn on that many times myself and I am grateful for it.

I want to start with the big picture on education. The more that I have looked into it, the more I think that the most difficult thing in winning the battle in education has been the term “legal highs”. The fact that we have seen this sort of heading everywhere—it is pervasive, even on the high streets—saying there is somehow a high which is not age restricted, and which you can walk into a shop to get without being prosecuted for it, has been one of the most dangerous things for the policy of education. One of the groups which came to see me and officials at the Home Office in support of the Bill said that, above all, they wished that we could get the message out to young people that these are often not legal highs but lethal highs. Because of the point that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, made at Second Reading about the pharmacology of these drugs, the term used was that people are often playing Russian roulette as to which part of the batch they receive. Added to the fact of their being able to get these substances on the high street through a store, without producing any ID or proof of age whatever, it does immense damage to the education cause to which we are all committed.

As in other parts of the legislation, we have sought to draw upon expert opinion where we can. A number of recommendations were made in the report by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Prevention of Drug and Alcohol Dependence. It highlighted the importance of embedding universal drug prevention actions in wider strategies to support healthy development and well-being in general. It also recognised that targeted, drug-specific prevention interventions remain a valid approach to those individuals considered to be at risk of harm. That came on board along with the expert panel’s report. When the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, spoke at Second Reading, he really tried to put me on the spot by saying that there was a substantial section in the expert panel’s report about education. While that was published under the coalition Government, he wanted to know whether it would remain government policy. I made the point that that was absolutely the case and that we remain committed to it.

I am pretty sure—and I will write on this if I am wrong—that the relatively small amount of £180,000, which was quoted in the Written Answer, will be part of a breakdown of the £7 million. The majority of that is a health lead and we were talking about what the Home Office spends, not on overall drug prevention, but specifically on new psychoactive substances. That is a key element.

I know this may sound strange but the legislative programme has a place in provoking awareness. I know this from my own Twitter account, where I now have a large number of new followers who do not necessarily agree with the policies of HMG in respect of new psychoactive substances. I am also realising that saying that might also get me trending on social media. I welcome this, because it is part of people engaging with the debate and the legislative process. People are asking, “Should they be banned?”, “Should there be a universal ban?”, “Should we be having partial bans or temporary banning orders?” and “Should we be widening the debate?”. The more young people who engage with the type of debate we have in this House the better.

In a similar vein, my noble friend Lord Blencathra talked about people in suits not being taken seriously when they talk in schools about drug prevention. I must be careful what I say here, given her presence in the Chamber, but the Lord Speaker’s schools outreach programme is very effective and I had the privilege to take part in it. People engage with it and talk about legislation and about the fact that legislating is not easy.

My Lords, when the Minister takes part in the Lord Speaker’s outreach programme, does he wear a suit?

That is mandatory, is it not, at least for the male Members? I would certainly not dream of turning up in our ceremonial gowns. They would probably think it was Christmas and misunderstand what was coming.

Education is not just for teachers and it is for all of us, including the media, to ensure positive role models. As a parent and grandparent, I think children often respond best to very clear messages. Ambiguous messages which say, “This might be okay or it might not—take it along to a testing station”, or “This might be against the law or it could be legal”, spread confusion which is unhelpful to pupils and teachers.

Drug education is part of the national curriculum for science at key stages 2 and 3. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth said that if we made this a key performance indicator then schools would start taking in seriously. It is already, in a way, because to be judged outstanding by Ofsted you must be able to demonstrate with great clarity that pupils are safe and feel safe at all times and that they understand how to keep themselves and others safe in different situations and settings. We need to explore further whether inspectors follow that in every school but the bones of what is necessary are there.

We have had some excellent contributions and discussions. As I flagged up earlier, we have a further meeting on 7 July. We have invited Public Health England to be represented at that, as well as the Department for Education. That will be a useful opportunity to explore these issues.

The Minister is very solicitous of the questions thrown at him. I understand that there is a difficult Budget coming, and that Ministers are in purdah before that, but what expectation would he have of getting a realistic increase, in the course of the next spending review, in the money available for this important educational work in this public policy field?

The noble Lord is a very experienced parliamentarian, and tempts me to speak about matters of finance, which is a big challenge. I do not want to dodge the question, but will just put it this way: some clear commitments have been made about what we are doing in the Bill and what we want to achieve through it, and we see education as being a key part of that. Therefore, resources will have to be allocated to ensure that those things happen, and that will be reviewed. That is probably about as far as I can go at present on education, but I am sure we will return to it at later stages of the Bill as it goes through your Lordships’ House and following the meeting I referred to. I certainly undertake to communicate the content of this debate to my colleagues in the Department for Education and the Department of Health.

In that response, is the Minister ruling out any reference in the Bill to education, training and prevention and a report on what is actually happening in that field in relation to new psychoactive substances? The Minister has accepted—or rather, I am sure it has always been his view—that legislation alone is not enough and that education, training and prevention are vital too. It would seem quite appropriate to have some reference to that in the Bill.

I understand where the noble Lord is coming from, and we will look at this. The Bill is primarily a law enforcement measure, setting out definitions et cetera, although it is part of a wider context that includes education. As to whether we should have references to education or treatment programmes in the Bill, I personally favour things that are very clear and focused about what they want to do. What we hope to achieve through education is a very important part of the context. I undertake to reflect on that between now and Report.

My Lords, the debate produced a very beautiful meeting of minds between the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, which once again demonstrates the supreme value of Committee proceedings in your Lordships’ House. I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, all of whom have emphasised the fundamental importance of education and the critical need to get it right.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, that children do not take kindly to being preached at. I was suggesting not that they should be preached at but that they should be taught, with real professional skill. I would certainly envisage that appropriate role models—the kind of people who can talk to young people in their own language and whom young people will be able to identify imaginatively with—are of course the sorts of people who will be able to play a very valuable part, if schools have the imagination and skill to find them and bring them into the schools programme.

However, there have to be more systematic pressures on schools. I very much agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, when he said that having performance in respect of drug education forming part of the data that go to establish league tables will give a salutary shock to quite a number of schools. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, suggested that that is almost the case, and I drew some encouragement from the quotation that he gave us about the requirements of Ofsted. Yet I have a sense that the prevailing culture in our schools is such that they are not taking that point from Ofsted sufficiently seriously, and if they fail to perform in this regard they may not be able to qualify to be rated “outstanding”. I am not sure that enough of them know about it or that enough of them are being seen to act on it.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, made the point with which I so much agree: that the funding so far provided for the system is—I do not think this was his word—derisory. That is sending a signal from government that this is a second or third-order issue. I know that the Minister does not think it is at all but I hope he will reflect on how he can, tactfully as always, bring more effective pressure to bear on his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Education. He undertook that he would talk to them. I also understand that it is very difficult for them to persuade the system as a whole that it has got to take on yet another task in a new way. There are endless pressures on schools. New Ministers and officials are for ever coming up with new policies and asking the people on the front line to implement their bright ideas. I understand all those difficulties, but having acknowledged that, we have all recognised and are all fully persuaded that we have got to do better on education and that that is going to be fundamental to the success of the overall strategy.

I am glad that my noble friend Lord Rosser drew attention to a significant section in the report of the expert panel which should give strength to the Minister’s elbow. I was grateful for the remarks from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who survived her education, which is something that everybody has to do. I was grateful to the Minister for a series of thoughtful and helpful points. Of course he is right that the term “legal highs” has been profoundly unhelpful, and I have every sympathy with the Government in their creation of an aggravated offence of supplying psychoactive substances in proximity to schools. I think there is an amendment which adds other institutions where children may be present.

If the Minister would be kind enough to write to us clarifying the figures—what is being spent on what, on public account in this field—that would be very helpful. I was also much encouraged by what he said about wanting young people themselves to be involved in the debate, as it were owning the issue and the problem and to help us all to find better ways to deal with it. I look forward to returning to this broad issue at Report and in the mean time beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 13 withdrawn.

Clause 3: Exempted substances

Amendment 14

Moved by

14: Clause 3, page 2, line 8, at end insert—

“( ) add any substance;”

My noble friend and I also have in this group Amendments 19 and 22. This takes us to the exemptions from the substances which may be the subject of the commission of an offence, and the other provisions in the Bill.

Our first amendment would allow the Secretary of State, by regulation, to add other substances to the list in Schedule 1. I wondered whether that point was covered by,

“add … any description of substance”,

but I do not think that normal language would mean that, and the Constitution Committee—I suspect the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, is going to mention this—did not think so either. If it is not going to be possible in the Bill as drafted for other substances to be added, then why not? That seems to fly in the face of the respect that we all pay to the scientific process.

Dealing with certainty of provision and ministerial authority in respect of exempted substances, the Constitution Committee commented—I will mention just this one paragraph—on the powers of the Secretary of State being,

“unconstrained by any explicit statement of the purpose or purposes for which that power may be exercised”,

and suggested that:

“The House may wish to consider whether it is appropriate to confer upon the Secretary of State a power … unconstrained by any textual indication as to the purpose”.

That is part of the theme of certainty, which we touched on earlier. Amendment 19 would require the Secretary of State to exercise that power to add any substance—my addition—or to add or vary any description, or remove any substance, on the basis of recommendations of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency; in other words, to implement its recommendations. The Secretary of State must also use the power to include a substance where that body or the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs,

“determines that the substance poses a low overall risk”.

As regards the bodies which would make recommendations or a determination under this amendment, more than respect has been paid to both those bodies during this debate. The ACMD should be at the front and centre of this debate; it seems to have been somewhat sidelined in some of the consideration of the Bill. Our amendment in the next group, which we will look at next week, addresses that point.

In proposed new subsection (2B) in Amendment 19, we refer to the determination of a substance which poses a low overall risk. I can see that phrase might be thought to be rather woolly and insufficiently tough on drugs. However, it comes straight from Section 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, which sets out the role and responsibilities of the ACMD, whose duty is to keep under review drugs, the misuse of which,

“is having or appears to them”—

the ACMD—

“capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem”.

It goes on to talk about,

“preventing the misuse of … drugs or dealing with social problems connected with their misuse”.

I take that to be very wide indeed, and to include health. We think that that phrase would properly link assessments as to what should be exempted with terminology which must now be understood in this field. I beg to move.

My Lords, in speaking to Amendment 16 I will also support Amendments 14, 17, 18 and 19. Amendment 19, on low-harm substances, links very closely with Amendment 16, and I will concentrate on Amendment 16 because of that particular focus.

Amendment 16 seeks to exempt from the scope of the Bill substances deemed to pose low health, social and safety risks. One of the objectives is to take a small step towards harmonising the Bill with the EU regulation. The Government have every right to opt out of the EU regulation, and of course they did so. However, there are very good reasons for attempting to move towards a degree of harmonisation. Paragraph 1.1 of the EU regulation says that,

“national restriction measures, which may differ depending on the Member State and on the substance, can hamper trade in the internal market and hinder the development of future industrial or commercial uses”.

So there are free market issues where the UK may cause problems for our own industries, and indeed trade, if the Bill goes ahead unamended. Amendment 16 goes some way towards reducing those obstacles to trade. Does the Minister know how significant the commercial and trade implications of the Bill will be for the UK if it is not amended in the way that Amendment 16 suggests and, if not, will he have these barriers assessed before introducing the Bill?

The focus of the EU regulation, which this country should follow, in my view, is to treat very differently those psychoactive substances that pose severe risks, as distinct from medium and low risks. As we were arguing earlier in relation to Amendment 12, one of the really useful roles for any Government is to provide clear information about the level of risk of any particular substance. Of course, another is to provide effective treatment for those in trouble with drugs, but we will come to that later. The first role—the provision of information—is very badly served by this Bill. By banning all psychoactive substances—except, of course, a few really dangerous ones, such as alcohol and nicotine—the Government are giving out the most extraordinary message. What the legislation is actually saying to young people is, “Carry on drinking and smoking, even though these things actually kill you, but don’t, for goodness’ sake, take herbal cannabis”—which of course has never killed anybody and, if it is the right consistency, can actually be helpful for people. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said that all these things are a bit dangerous. However, Professor Curran has said very clearly that, if the CBD and THC balance is right, cannabis does not have to harm anybody at all. And of course the CBD itself will be of tremendous benefit to psychotic patients. What sort of Alice in Wonderland world are we living in where we are giving out these strange and contrary messages?

A second very important aspect of informing young people is that, if low-risk substances were controlled through regulations and properly labelled, young people would have, for the very first time, real information on the label about the risk levels, side-effects, maximum dose and so on, as I think I mentioned in an earlier debate. This would be an infinitely safer environment for young people. The illegal drug dealer, on the other hand, gives no information at all. They cut these substances with all sorts of poisons and goodness knows what else. The young person has no idea what is in the substance that they are buying or how strong it is—one week it is one strength and another week it might be something completely different. No wonder young people are dying. This really is a very serious problem.

The EU regulation provides free movement of new psychoactive substances—this is a completely different point now—for commercial and industrial use and for scientific research and development, which we will come on to on the next Committee day. It also provides for a graduated set of restriction measures for substances posing risks, proportionate to their level of risk. Do we not need such a system here? I really would be grateful if the Minister could tell me whether he will take this issue away—the issue of proportionality as related to information. Will he talk to his EU counterparts and find out why they came up with this structure and system, and consider whether, even at this late stage, it may be wise to introduce the principle of proportionality of response into the Bill? The manifesto commitment to ban psychoactive substances would remain. It would simply be adjusted to improve the health and safety of young people. I very much recognise that we are not here to wreck or demolish the Bill but to improve it.

The EU policy follows the idea of the Government’s temporary class drug orders, which resulted in a substance apparently posing severe risks being immediately banned from the market as fast as it could be done pending its risk assessment. The EU plans exactly that sort of response, except that it wants to speed up the process—which of course we could do equally well here. The big difference is that TCDOs make no provision for a proportionate response at the end of the assessment period.

Following an impact assessment of policy alternatives, the EU regulation refers in paragraph 2.1 to experts and practitioners, pointing out that,

“new legislation on new psychoactive substances should be calibrated to the different levels of risks posed by these substances”.

Does the Minister have any problem with that idea? If so, perhaps he could explain what his problem is with a proportionate system of this kind.

Finally, the amendment proposes that an independent committee should be responsible for determining whether a substance represents a low risk. We suggest that the independent committee—when I say “we”, I mean the experts, not me—should be nominated by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the British Pharmacological Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences. I understand that the European Council has not yet sorted out how to determine what is and what is not a low-risk substance. Perhaps Britain could take the lead by putting forward this proposal.

My Lords, I want to speak to Amendments 17 and 18, which I have tabled rather impertinently as amendments to Amendment 16 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. Here I think that the substantial measure of agreement and meeting of minds that we had in the previous debate on education will rapidly dissipate.

I remind the Committee that it is my belief that prohibition has broadly failed and that it is because of that failure that we have the problem of new psychoactive substances. I believe that our objectives should be to protect people, particularly young people but people of all ages, from the dangers of drugs and to minimise the harms that they may cause. In nothing I say do I mean to imply that I would encourage the consumption of drugs—we are looking for the least bad solution to a very intractable and very important problem. My proposal is therefore pragmatic, but I believe that the least bad way to go is selectively and cautiously to legalise certain drugs and very strictly to regulate their availability.

The purveyors of psychoactive substances, after all, seek to create and distribute substances that mimic the effect of controlled drugs, and they do so quite unscrupulously. They do not mind how corrupt, how adulterated, how toxic and how dangerous those substances are, and that is the problem that we are up against. It seems to me therefore that it would be more prudent and more responsible, rather than to have a blanket prohibition or ban, to make legally available one substance in each of the three principal classes of drugs. The first would be a stimulant—it might be MDMA, better known as ecstasy. The second would be a depressant, which might be cannabis—the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, spoke of the significance of the ratio of THC to CBD within any individual variety of cannabis. If you have no THC, you have no “high”, as I understand it, so I guess that there would have to be some element of THC if people were to use the drug. We would seek to provide a version of cannabis that was the safest kind—that does the trick in the sense of making people feel that this is the substance that gives them the experience that they are looking for. Thirdly, there should be a hallucinogen: perhaps magic mushrooms or mescaline. In all those cases, I propose that we legalise and regulate drugs that are of relatively low risk, of which society has long experience, and which in many societies have become socialised and in their use normalised.

The Minister was quite quickly dismissive of the experiment that has been initiated in New Zealand. It is perfectly true that the expert committee, having carefully considered the policy adopted in New Zealand, decided it could not recommend it, and that the policy has run into a number of practical difficulties there. But essentially the New Zealand approach was to find a way, very carefully and selectively, to legalise the use of drugs that have been demonstrated to be of low risk, and I do not actually think that the story of the New Zealand experiment has yet reached an end.

At all events, I emphasise that there would have to be strict regulation and quality control and that these drugs should be introduced only in circumstances of the best security that we can provide to their users. There should be regulation of their composition and their strength; there should be control over how they are transported; manufacturing should be licensed and strictly regulated, as should retailing; there should be no sales to children; I believe that no advertising should be permitted; marketing would certainly have to be very strictly regulated; and so forth. That is the type of regime that we already operate in our society. That is how we deal with alcohol and tobacco—two drugs, as the noble Baroness said, which are, by any reasonable standard of judgment, more dangerous than cannabis—and with medicines. So there are already models. There is already a basis of selective legalisation and regulation on which we can build—and, no doubt, which needs to be improved.

The availability of these drugs should be accompanied by advice as to their safe use, exactly as happens when you collect a prescription for medicine; there should be full information. Of course, as we have already argued, this all needs to be set in a context of education, to help people to make mature and wise decisions.

I just wanted some clarification. One thing that worries me is whether, in the end, the direction of Amendment 18 will not prove to be a bit confusing. I think it was John Maxwell who said that when people say, “Yes, but”, nobody ever hears the “Yes”. If you say, “No, but”, does anybody hear the “No”?

I hope that I can offer some reassurance to the right reverend Prelate, if he will follow me in the argument that I want briefly to unfold. Let me continue by noting that there would be the advantage, as with alcohol and tobacco, that the Government could tax these substances and use the lever of taxation to influence the preferences of consumers and their behaviour. Of course, the Exchequer would benefit, and I know the great importance that the Minister and, indeed, all of us attach to the reduction of the deficit. A new source of taxation would be not unwelcome, I think, to the Exchequer. What I am recommending is, in effect, a market solution, a kind of reverse Gresham’s law. I believe that relatively good drugs would drive out bad drugs. It works in the Netherlands, where safer varieties of cannabis are made available in licensed shops and there is no demand in that country for the synthetic cannabinoids that are so fashionable and so popular in this country—and so very dangerous to their users.

Of course, there will always be people who are inveterate and irremediable risk-takers, and young people will always be tempted to challenge authority. But I suspect that most consumers would be very happy if they knew that they could obtain legally a psychoactive substance that they could be assured was relatively safe. After all, that has been the attraction—albeit the illusory and deceptive attraction—of so-called legal highs. Why would people go to dodgy dealers to buy white powders about which they knew nothing if they had a safer and legal alternative available to them? There may be a fear that the legal availability of certain drugs would lead to an increase in consumption; but I mentioned in an earlier debate the report by Dr Deborah Hasin of the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University in New York, in which she found that there is no correlation between the availability of medicinal cannabis and increased consumption by teenagers. Public opinion has allowed the state governments of Colorado, Washington, Oregon and the District of Columbia to legalise and regulate cannabis. The same process has happened although with a very different model in Uruguay. This is a less dangerous approach than the prohibitionist approach, which we have had nearly 50 years of experience to demonstrate does not work. What I am putting forward is by no means perfect, but I believe it would be safer and better than the kind of anarchy that, paradoxically, prohibition creates. I would be grateful if the Minister would, if he does not agree with me, explain why he does not agree with me.

At the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, I will tell him why we disagree with him. He is right to say that in the previous groups we explored certain elements of common ground and were willing to look at them. But here, in essence, we go to the heart of the difference—a philosophical difference—between the two sides. On the one hand, does one go down the line of leaving the door open—in the right reverend Prelate’s helpful phrase, the “yes, but” approach? Or, do you say, “No. We have tried that. It is a blanket ban. We have been very clear about that”. Do you go down that route?

The expert panel wrestled with this. It was not an easy call. It set out opportunities for creating a regulatory model and looked at the New Zealand model very carefully indeed. The panel saw that there were some opportunities and good standards could be achieved—all of the points the noble Lord mentioned. But the panel said that the problem with creating a regulatory model is that it does nothing about the availability of new psychoactive substances, and use of “approved” NPS may increase, with “low risk” considered “safe” by the public. There could be the possibility that approved NPS may act as a gateway to illicit drugs. There may be a risk that unregulated drugs could be passed off as being regulated. The model could be costly and timely to implement, including establishing a regulatory body. It would not be a simple system to enforce, including the need for substance testing and test purchases. It could be difficult to prove the long-term safety of a product before it is authorised. It would be a challenge to define “low risk” and it could be a legal risk if “low-risk” products actually caused long-term harms.

Having weighed up all those points, the panel came down on the side of a blanket ban, saying that a regulatory model would not provide a proportionate response, as the infrastructure required to support the approach following primary legislation would take 12 to 18 months to develop, based on New Zealand estimates, and a mechanism for controlling NPS that were not “low risk” would still be needed, which could lead to confusing messages about NPS overall.

The regulatory power in Clause 3 has been designed to provide clarity so that there is no doubt as to our position on new psychoactive substances—they are banned—and to future-proof the list of exempted substances and ensure that substances such as medicinal products are not inadvertently caught by a blanket ban provided for in the Bill.

Schedule 1 contains broad categories of established substances and products that we want to exclude from this regime—mostly because they are already regulated by other legislation, not because the Government consider them harm free, as is the case with smoking and alcohol. Certainly the Government do not go around with a cavalier attitude. They spend a great deal of time and employ various taxation and duty regimes to dissuade people from consuming either in excess. The Home Office expert panel considered the merits of a regulatory regime as part of their examination of how best to enhance our legislative response to new psychoactive substances. In looking at the opportunities and risks presented by such an approach, the panel considered the regulatory regime adopted in New Zealand. I will not deny that the expert panel identified some opportunities inherent in such an approach. I have touched on some of those.

Effectively, these amendments challenge what I would call an essential principle of the Bill before us and undermine the essence of the Government’s approach, which has been to listen to the views of the expert panel, consider the evidence and come forward with legislation. That is what we have done. These amendments would challenge the very heart of that principle. For that reason, I am afraid, the Government cannot support them. I ask the noble Lord to consider withdrawing them.

My Lords, I do not know whether I missed it, but the response seemed to be almost entirely to the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. I clearly need to go back and read what the answer was to the first of the amendments and my other amendments in the group. Given the time—

I feel awful intervening at this time of night. We all need to go home. I just want to raise the point that the expert panel was established, as I understood it, rather than referring to the ACMD for its advice on some of these issues. I do not want the Minister to reply right now—perhaps he can do so when we next meet—on the question of how the expert panel was selected. It seems extraordinary to me that any set of experts would advise against having a calibrated system of low, medium and high risk and risk-associated penalties and responses to drugs. At this late hour I do not wish to say more, but I would be grateful if the Minister thought about this before we meet.

I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. She drew attention to Clause 3(3) which states:

“Before making any regulations under this section the Secretary of State must consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate”,

and asked for further clarification. We have not specified in the Bill who such persons should be, as the appropriate consultees would need to be tailored to the substance under consideration. That said, and reflecting the terms of Amendments 16 and 19, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the British Pharmacological Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences could well be part of the consultation process. I will leave to one side the matters relating to the role of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs because they will be raised in subsequent amendments. Again, I apologise to the noble Baroness for not covering that, but I got a little carried away in responding to the challenge of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth.

Amendment 14 withdrawn.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 10.24 pm.