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Armchair Governance

21 June 2007

In a debate in Westminster Hall last Thursday (14 June) I warmly welcomed the Report of the Select Committee for Science and Technology on drug policy. The Committee is carrying out a study into the use of Scientific advice and evidence through three case studies, the latest being the classification of illegal drugs. The finished study is an indictment of policies based on prejudice and popularist poll ratings rather than evidence, and of the legacy of death and crime that this has created. Indeed government in this area has never moved from its comfortable armchair of traditional policy.

The Government promised a “plethora of other policies and a welter of other initiatives” alongside classification in response to this debate. Despite this the Minister also highlighted the consultation on a new drugs strategy which will begin soon.

Below are some extracts from the debate. The full text is available on Parliaments’ website.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): I congratulate the Select Committee on its splendid report, which I am afraid will, along with the Wootton report, the Runciman report, the Police Foundation report and the RSA report, be totally ignored by the Government. It is a document of intelligence and is based on genuine research and evidence. However, such reports have been being produced for 40 years now and none of them has influenced Government opinion in any way.

The final report having been produced, the Government produced their response. It is a remarkable document, in which they try to justify their response to the Committee. On reading it, the document inspired a powerful memory in me; I had read something like it before. I was thinking of the trial of Galileo, when he was arraigned by the Church. On one side were all the forces of prejudice, superstition and ignorance, set against a man of science who was making arguments based on rationality and evidence.

I do not want to embarrass the Minister or the others who gave evidence too much, but I will make one point. I thought that when the Committee discussed the Government’s basis for the classification system, it was commendably patient. It asked again and again on what basis the Government reached their decisions. On page 7 of the follow-up document containing oral and written evidence, we read that the Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), said "you have not commissioned any research and nor have the ACMD.”

The Minister answered:

“No, but what we have said in response to where the Committee challenged us and said, ‘Where is your evidence base for that?’, as we have done with a number of other things, we said that we understand that point, we accept that point and we need to look at establishing a better evidence base for that”

and so on.Thirty-five years after this country passed the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which established the classifications, we are about to consider searching for evidence on which the system was based. We know that the system was based on the prejudice of the time. A good guide to the value of Government policy is that when there is a policy before the House on which every party agrees—that happened in 1971 and, and in 1998 there was only one voice in the Chamber opposing the policy—the policy will not work.

This is not an issue on which any of us can relax or feel that it is trivial. As recently as five hours ago, I was approached by a parent who lost a child as a result of drugs. Two people have died because of drugs in my constituency in the past eight months. I believe that in all three of those cases, the people would not have died if they had been living in Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland or Belgium. They were killed not only by the drugs, but by the drug laws. They were killed by the stupidity and cowardice of politicians.

We have had not policy that is based on sense; we have had policy that has been influenced by the media and the tabloid writers.Some evidence given to the Select Committee was very compelling. The Transform Drug Policy Foundation argued very persuasively in its evidence that the present policy is based on false assumptions and the underlying historical prohibition—we are talking about an act of prohibition of drugs, which has never been effective; the problems are the same as those associated with the prohibition of alcohol—rather than evidence of the efficacy of the classification system at reducing drug harm.

Can the Minister tell us of any major reduction in drug harm? Let us think back to before 1971, when the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed. The number of cocaine and heroin addicts—it was mostly heroin in this country—was fewer than 1,000. After 35 years of the harshest drug laws and penalties in Europe, we now have not 1,000 addicts, but 280,000 addicts. Holland, after 25 years of regulated, policed decriminalisation has a fraction of the drug use that takes place in this country. Probably the most spectacular evidence of all comes from Portugal, where, in 2005, a courageous Government took on the prejudice of the time, without the support of the press or even many of their parliamentary colleagues, and depenalised drug use. As a result, Portugal has halved the number of drug deaths in that country. The evidence has been independently verified by people from another state.

Can the UK Government not get it through their head that what they have been doing, sitting in their comfortable armchair of traditional policy—so that they do not have to think about anything; they just make the same mistakes as their predecessors—is killing people? This is our responsibility, because it is not people outside who are causing these deaths. We are causing them through our failure to examine rationally policies that work.

The policies that work are those that involve health outcomes—for example, needle exchanges. The Conservatives, to their credit, introduced one pragmatic policy on needle exchanges, but why not have the shooting-up galleries as well? We know that they have been effective when they have been tried in Europe and elsewhere. They keep people away from street heroin, allowing them to use heroin of known purity and quality in controlled conditions, and help is available afterwards. In our country, addicts take heroin of unknown quality using dirty needles in foul surroundings—no wonder they have a short life expectancy. In contrast, countries such as the Netherlands have homes for geriatric addicts who have become addicted for life.

In a fortnight’s time, I shall be before the Council of Europe as rapporteur on a report that seeks a new convention on drugs. The report says that relying on the criminal justice system does not work, is hugely expensive, causes a great number of deaths and increases the amount of drug crime. We need to heed the health outcomes of needle exchanges and treatment. I should give the Government some credit because they have done something on treatment. Progress has been made in that regard but not in any other area, because the mindset remains the same.

Where are the politicians? In 40 years, not a single politician has stood up and agreed with all these reports—as I have said, this is the latest of many. We have been shown the rational argument and the way to reduce the number of deaths and drug crime. No rational argument is presented by the Government response, and that is a disgrace. The Ministers who continue in this job are not ones who deserve the respect of this House.

This House has not behaved in a reasonable way for many years. We have let down the families of the tens of thousands of people who have died as a result of drug use since 1971. When I have put that argument before the present Minister and many other Ministers in the past, it has never been heeded. There is a way of reducing the harm of drugs, but that way is not MPs, politicians and parties behaving in a way that ignores rationality, ignores the evidence and ignores the truth.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow. I also welcome other hon. Members who have contributed to the debate.This is an extremely important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), the Chairman of the Committee, on the tone of his remarks. It augurs well for progress when a debate can be held in which passionate views are expressed and there are serious disagreements between people. Let it never be said, however, that there is any disagreement about the policy outcome that every hon. Member wants. There is real credibility among hon. Members who have turned up this afternoon, when there are many other things happening, to discuss one of the most important social policy issues that confronts our country and many of our communities.

The Committee said that it wanted greater emphasis on harm reduction, treatment and other alternatives. We agree with that absolutely. We are trying to increase the number of people receiving treatment and to ensure that that treatment is more effective. However, alongside that, we want a strong law enforcement and criminal justice approach. For want of repeating myself, in my view—I say this as Minister with responsibility for drugs as well as an individual—the debate is plagued by the “either/or” argument. Of course, we need a criminal justice approach.

We know that if we want a successful drugs policy, the classification system must be robust—we have tried to start to take account of the points made by the Select Committee——but alongside that must be a plethora of other policies and a welter of other initiatives. We need not only a criminal justice system that is based on the classification system, but a treatment system whereby people go into treatment and are kept in treatment, and in which there are wraparound services to improve people’s chances of success with that treatment. This is about not only treatment, but all the other measures, such as employment, benefits, housing, confidence and self-esteem.

There is no evidence to show that a change in the way in which we classify drugs would contribute to that aim. Indeed, the evidence supports the position that we set out in our response: the drugs strategy as a whole is having the real impact on the harm caused by drug misuse to individuals, their families and communities.

I can say for the benefit of everyone that we will consult shortly on a new drugs strategy. We expect the consultation document to be published in the next few weeks and that will lead to a revised drugs strategy to commence in April 2008. We know that all hon. Members in the Chamber will participate in the development of the new drugs strategy.

May I say to my hon. Friends the Members for Newport, West and for Bolton, South-East that although I do not agree with some of the points that they made, I do not dismiss them? Just because someone says something with which we do not agree, it does not mean that we should not let them challenge our views. If we allow them to challenge our views, we move further along the road of having the public policy that we all want: one that reduces the harm in our communities caused by the use of illegal and legal drugs.