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Prisons (Substance Testing)

Volume 639: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2018

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about substance testing in prisons and similar institutions.

Drugs in our prisons are a major problem, which we need to do more to tackle. A recent review by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons in 2015 showed that 52% of prisoners had used drugs in the two months before they went to prison. A survey from 2016-17 showed that 31% of female prisoners and 47% of male prisoners found it easy or very easy to get drugs in prisons. In 2016, there were almost 11,000 incidents of drug finds in prisons in England and Wales alone, with 225 kg of illicit drugs recovered.

Psychoactive drugs are a newer problem for our prisons system and for our society, but they are a growing and dangerous problem, and further action is needed. These drugs are often incorrectly termed “legal highs”. Not only do they alter the mind in broadly similar ways to class A drugs, but they have particularly pernicious and damaging effects on mental health—on issues such as anxiety and depression. A recent Centre for Social Justice report in 2015 suggested that a majority of prisoners had tried Spice, a particularly famous psychoactive drug. Last July, the former prisons and probation ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, said that 79 deaths were directly linked to psychoactive substances between June 2013 and September 2016.

So what does this Bill actually do? Currently, the Prison Service can test for prohibited drugs specified under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. In order to add a newly formed and manufactured psychoactive drug to this list of prohibited drugs, the Government need to manually add each and every psychoactive drug to it. As Members will fully appreciate, that can be cumbersome and time-consuming. It is relatively easy for drug manufacturers and chemical experts to get around the law. They do that by producing slightly different versions of these psychoactive drugs, which means that our Government and Prison Service are entirely reactive and slow. As a result of our legislative process, the Government can get a psychoactive drug added to the banned list only after it is already doing a huge amount of damage to our system.

The Bill is straightforward and simple. It allows a generalised definition of “psychoactive drugs”, one provided by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, to be added to the statute book, which will allow the Prison Service to test prisoners for any and all psychoactive substances, now and in the future. This allows our Prison Service to be proactive, not reactive. As we go through the legislative process, I would hope to get cross-party and Government support—I can see the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) in his place—to expand the powers of the Prison Service to test for the misuse of pharmaceutical drugs and to provide for generalised prevalence testing. That would allow prisons to have a better understanding of the drugs that are running through the system.

We spend lots of time in this House debating how to cut the reoffending rates of prisoners. I believe, as I suspect do many Members, that excising the cancer of drugs from our prisons would be one of the most significant things we could do to cut reoffending rates. We know that drugs are a problem, but the Government and the Prison Service are fighting this with one hand tied behind their backs. Let us untie that hand, and untie the hands of prisoners who become addicted to or stay addicted to drugs throughout their time in prison because there are, sadly, too many drugs in our prisons.

If hon. Members are serious about prisons being drug-free, they should support this Bill. If they are serious about rehabilitation of offenders, they should support this Bill. If they are serious about social mobility, by which I mean the ability of men and women to leave prison without the burden of drug addiction, so that they can get on and make the most of their lives, they should support this Bill. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Bim Afolami, Gareth Snell, Nicky Morgan, Ben Bradley, Priti Patel, Gillian Keegan, Mr Simon Clarke, Vicky Ford, Sir Henry Bellingham, Lee Rowley, Alex Burghart and Leo Docherty present the Bill.

Bim Afolami accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the first time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 July, and to be printed (Bill 195).