Antisemitism in the UK

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Monday 19th February 2024

(1 week, 6 days ago)

Commons Chamber
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Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. The sharp rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia in the UK is extremely concerning, and the SNP extends our heartfelt sympathies to victims of antisemitism and all forms of hate crime.

In today’s statement, I see references to “funding to bolster security”, “caught and punished”, “the full force of the law”, and “a maximum of 14 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine”, none of which I disagree with in any way, shape or form. We need to implement the law robustly. However, I am a bit concerned that there is only one line in the statement that talks about education. It says that £7 million of funding will be delivered “in education”, but I would like it to say “through education”, because surely we can eradicate antisemitism through education. Through incarceration, it becomes a lot harder.

Part of Scotland’s strength is our diversity. We value Scotland’s Jewish communities and other faith and belief communities. We recognise the important role that they play in making Scotland a safer, stronger and more inclusive society in which everyone can live in peace and work to realise their potential. In June 2017, the Scottish Government formally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. Formally adopting the IHRA definition demonstrates the Scottish Government’s determination that there should be no place in Scotland for any form of antisemitism or religious hatred that makes our communities feel insecure or threatened in their daily lives.

The Scottish Government’s recently published hate crime strategy sets out their strategic priorities for tackling hate crime, including antisemitism. It was informed by the communities with lived experiences of hate crime. It makes a number of commitments, including ensuring improved support for victims, improving data and evidence, and developing effective approaches to preventing hate crime. If I have one ask of the Minister, it is to reconsider how much money we are putting into educating people, so that we can all eradicate this heinous crime.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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The hon. Gentleman asks about education. I made it clear in my earlier remarks that, in the autumn statement on 22 November, the Government announced a further £7 million of funding to help tackle antisemitism in education and ensure that support is in place for schools and colleges. In addition to that—since he asks about education—on 5 November the Department for Education announced a five-point plan to protect Jewish students on university campuses, which included a call for visas to be withdrawn from international students who incite racial hatred, asking vice-chancellors to act decisively against staff and students involved in antisemitism, and meeting the Office for Students, the independent regulator, to find out what more it can do to make it clear that antisemitism and racial hatred incited on campuses should be referred to the police, and to explore an antisemitism charter in higher education. I accept the point that education at school and universities is important, but that is an area where the Department for Education is taking a lot of action in England. I would certainly urge the devolved Administrations in Wales and Scotland to do the same.

Dangerous Drugs

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Tuesday 12th September 2023

(5 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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Yes, I can provide that assurance. I will expand on this later, but those who are using nitrous oxide for legitimate purposes, which includes the catering industry, the dental sector, research and even semiconductor manufacture, will be outside the scope of these restrictions.

The hon. Gentleman touched on the control of harmful drugs more generally. It is important to control harmful drugs, particularly where they are very addictive and cause health harms. We have seen in cities in North America that have liberalised their drug laws substantially, such as San Francisco, Portland and some Canadian cities, that it has resulted in widescale public health problems.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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I knew that the Minister was going to bring up Portland at some point. There has been a clarion call to the extreme right wing to clamp down on drug policies, but we have to look at Portland in its entirety. Yes, it decriminalised drugs, but it also cut back all its support services drastically and had a fentanyl crisis at exactly the same time. That created a perfect storm for the damage that has been done there. We would not want to undermine some of the good work that has been done there as well.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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Well, if we look at the centre of San Francisco at the moment, it is not a very happy sight. The de facto decriminalisation of drugs and, indeed, the failure to police certain criminal offences such as shoplifting has led to disastrous outcomes, and I am determined that we do not see the same in our jurisdiction. I do accept that treatment is very important, which is why we are investing all that extra money in treatment.

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Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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I was delighted to hear that there were moves afoot to change the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, because if ever a piece of legislation needed changing, it is the 1971 Act—it is followed closely by the Gambling Act 2005, but that is for another day. There are so many things wrong with the 1971 Act. It was bad legislation in its day and for more than 50 years it has ensured that people are criminalised, stigmatised and ostracised. It has created divisions in society and led to unnecessary pain and suffering. That should not be a surprise to anyone, because that is what it was designed to do. It was never intended to provide support for those harmed by drugs. It was never based on compassion. It was never meant to address the issues associated with recreational drug use. Therefore it comes as no surprise that in the past 50 years things have simply got worse.

Sadly, today, rather than righting some of the wrongs by decriminalising or legalising drugs, and rather than striving for drug consumptions rooms, safe consumption facilities, naloxone provision, medication assisted treatment, education and support, we are being asked to make matters worse. We are being asked to turn a blind eye to the evidence and learn nothing from the misclassification of cannabis; instead, we now want to persecute more people with the continued aim of arresting our way out of a drugs crisis. It is widely acknowledged that given the many legitimate uses of nitrous oxide, enforcement will be a nightmare. Currently, the Government have three licensing proposals but are still in consultation over which to adopt. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that in his response. Quite why we are pursuing the reclassification before we have sorted out the licensing is beyond me. In the meantime, we are being asked to remove this regulated substance and create a marketplace for criminals to fill with who knows what—it is absolutely bonkers. As Steve Rolles said in Conservativehome:

“Empowering”—

and enriching—

“criminal groups will fuel violence and anti-social behaviour, not reduce it.”

Jane Stevenson Portrait Jane Stevenson (Wolverhampton North East) (Con)
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I am a bit sceptical, as we are talking about nitrous oxide use as though it is a much harder drug. A lot of the kids taking it, certainly those in Wolverhampton, are not hardened drug users, but young people who do not think they are doing anything wrong. They do not hear about the medical risks, and this drug is so cheap and so widely available. Surely the Government are doing the right thing in nipping this in the bud so that these young people do not go down the road of falling in with the wrong crowd and continually moving on to harder drugs.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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My point is that the Government are not nipping this is in the bud. What will happen here is that they will hand this over to the criminal fraternity, and kids who want to take drugs will continue to take drugs, but now we will not know what they are taking and it could be doing them more harm. Meanwhile, they will be arrested and given a criminal record, which will live with them for the rest of their days. That is not helping the situation at all.

I was just going to say that this change will result in people being arrested and convicted. That conviction will lead to stigma and damage employment opportunities, housing, personal finance, travel and relationships. That is what we have been doing for 50 years, and that has been a rolling success, has it not? There is little or no evidence that says that this action will address—[Interruption.] Does the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) want to intervene?

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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indicated dissent.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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There is little or no evidence that says that this action will address the problem. Can the Minister provide me with one example—just one—over 50 years where arresting someone for personal possession and giving them a criminal record has helped reduce the misuse of drugs? As has been highlighted already in this debate, the problems of antisocial behaviour and littering can be addressed through existing legislation properly applied.

This change is driven by the Government’s desire to be seen to be coming down hard on crime and, by doing so, they are ignoring evidence from their own expert body, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, along with the Royal Society of Medicine, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations. The focus should be on education, not punishment.

This change does nothing to address the question of why people fall into addiction, or indeed why they take drugs in the first place. It does nothing to reduce criminality; it just pushes it on to the consumer. It does nothing to make people safer. It creates a vacuum for criminals to fill. It is a wolf whistle to the “hang ’em high” brigade and it is typical of the lack of long-term strategic planning that is required. There are no short-term solutions; no magic wand exists.

Finally, continuing to bolster a policy that has not worked for 50 years will only add to the misery and pain that has already been inflicted. It is time to think outside the box and radically overhaul this Act and make it fit for the 21st century, where drug harm is a health issue and not a matter for the criminal justice system.

Mark Garnier Portrait Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest) (Con)
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Having had a Westminster Hall debate on exactly this subject a few months ago, I do not propose to take up too much of the House’s time. I just want to thank the Minister for listening to that debate and actually taking action as a result.

I got involved in this matter as a result of being lobbied by BBC Hereford & Worcester and Dr David Nicholl, a Liberal Democrat councillor in Bromsgrove, who is a neurologist. He highlighted for me the damage that nitrous oxide does to kids. He likened it to an electrical appliance that has had the insulation stripped off the wiring inside it and then expecting that electrical appliance to carry on working. This is what it does to your nerves and it is a huge problem for people who take it.

There has been a lot of debate this afternoon about the fact that the measure will criminalise people and that we should be attacking the suppliers rather than the users. At the end of the day, if something is called laughing gas and is said to be a harmless drug—a harmless and safe high—that misleads people into thinking that it is perfectly safe to take. But it is not perfectly safe; it has profound implications for people’s health. It is absolutely terrible. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) made the important point that we are going to be criminalising people. Ultimately, of course, some people will be criminalised, but is it not worth a small number of people being criminalised to act as a deterrent for the majority who—

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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It has not been proven to be a deterrent. Look at the numbers that we have across the United Kingdom. Has arresting people and criminalising them ever been proven to be a deterrent?

Mark Garnier Portrait Mark Garnier
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It is always very difficult to prove a negative. I take the hon. Member’s point, but I am happy that we will be providing a deterrent for kids of the generation of my children; that is what I care about. I am incredibly grateful to the Minister for listening, incredibly grateful to Dr David Nicholl, a neurologist, for giving me scientific evidence to support his campaign, and incredibly grateful to BBC Hereford & Worcester.

As with all these issues, we are reminded of particular communications that we have from constituents. When I was preparing for my Westminster Hall debate, I received an email from somebody who wanted to talk about her brother. He was a very talented sportsman who was possibly going to play rugby for England. He was also a talented investment banker—I know we do not always like investment bankers—with a very good career ahead of him in the City of London. He found nitrous oxide, thinking it was a harmless high, but within a year he had committed suicide as a result of the damage he had done to his system. If we know that is a possible outcome, I do not think it is right to do anything other than send a very strong message that this is a dangerous drug. Criminalising it sends that message to try to put people off using it.

Oral Answers to Questions

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Monday 3rd July 2023

(8 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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Thank you, Mr Speaker. We all know that only the Conservative party and this Prime Minister have a serious plan to stop the boats and stop illegal migration, and that Labour stands for only one thing: open borders and unlimited migration. Labour Members would rather spend their time campaigning to block the deportation of foreign criminals than back our Illegal Migration Bill. They are on the side of the criminal gangs, not on the side of the British people.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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2. Whether her Department has had recent discussions with the industrial hemp industry on licensing.

Chris Philp Portrait The Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire (Chris Philp)
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The hon. Gentleman will recall that the two of us met just a few weeks ago, on 17 May, together with industry representatives, to discuss hemp licensing. I thank him for taking the time and trouble to organise that meeting. As he knows, there is a light-touch process for licensing industrial hemp. Since 2013, the number of hemp licences has increased from six to 134.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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I recollect the conversation well. We have an opportunity within the UK to grow hemp on an industrial scale and so feed many growing industries that use hemp to produce environmentally friendly products. The growth of these industries has been hampered by overly complicated regulations and a poor application process. Meanwhile, foreign companies are racing ahead in this arena. To protect UK farmers and encourage UK industry, will the Minister consider giving the licensing process over to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and making the process farmer friendly?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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It is, of course, important to make sure that UK industry can compete globally, and a light-touch regulatory framework is important in that. We should be aware that some parts of the plant contain high levels of THC—tetrahydrocannabinol—and do need regulation, which is the Home Office’s concern. I will be meeting DEFRA colleagues in the near future to make sure that our approach to regulation is as light-touch as possible, because, like him, I want to see our domestic industry flourish and I do not want any excessive regulation.

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Chris Philp Portrait The Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire (Chris Philp)
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As I said in response to an earlier question, the Government intend to consult in due course on a new police funding formula, and part of that consultation will involve looking at the factors that should be taken into account. Those might include things such as population and crime levels, but things such as rurality, sparsity and seasonality, particularly seasonal tourism, are likely to form part of the new formula. I encourage Members across the House to engage closely with that consultation when it comes forward, to ensure that those factors are properly accounted for.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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T5. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In recent weeks, the media have carried stories of patients who were receiving medical cannabis on private prescriptions, and who are now having their prescriptions paid for by the NHS. On the surface that is a great leap forward, but parents of children with intractable epilepsy who have been asking for such things for years are still being ignored. Will the Home Office consider reopening the 2018 licensing scheme to enable those children who are already being privately prescribed medical cannabis to have access to it via their NHS GP?

Psilocybin Treatments

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Thursday 18th May 2023

(9 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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It is a rare privilege for me to rise in this place and follow two such magnificent speeches from Members across these Benches, and it is a fact that when we find ourselves with cross-party support on something, we tend to be able to back off and just talk sense about things, and stop trying to score political points off each other.

Then I look at the Government Front Bench, and I understand that the Minister must be asking himself the question, “Why on earth am I here today?” The Government have a history of doing this. When we bring forward debates that are clearly issues for the Home Office, particularly about drugs, they send a Health Minister. When it is clearly something about health, they send a Home Office Minister—this is not new. Sorry, Minister: you are not the first to be put in this position, but you are here today and you will answer the speeches that have been made. I am not going to rehearse everything that has already been said so eloquently today. There is no need: if you have been listening, you have heard the points. You have heard about the number of people who suffer from mental health conditions and can benefit from psilocybin, and the lack of research—I do not have to tell you it again.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Order. It would assist me if the hon. Member would say “he” and not “you”, although we will not make a fuss about it.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, for once again correcting me.

Since announcing that I was taking part in this debate, I have been inundated with briefings from a wide range of individuals and organisations, every one of which was welcome. Not being medically trained, it took me some time to read through and absorb what I was being told. I have my own views on the issue and the path forward, but it is always worth while listening to those who agree and disagree with me—how else can I develop a well-rounded and balanced approach?

That is why it is interesting to note that the motion we are debating states that

“no review of the evidence for psilocybin’s current status under UK law has ever been conducted”.

As has been said, it currently has schedule 1 status under the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, which—in the view of the UK Government, with no review of the evidence—makes psilocybin, a drug that cannot be overdosed on and has low addictive qualities, more dangerous than heroin or cocaine. We have legislation that is based on preconceptions rather than evidence. That is nonsensical—well, I think it is, but clearly the UK Government do not. They actively support the current situation.

Psilocybin has been pushed to the back of the drugs cabinet and left there, almost—but not quite—forgotten. In the USA, especially in Oregon and Colorado, they are way ahead of us in producing medical research; I also note that Australia has taken a lead in the field. In the UK, a drug being schedule 1 does not completely prevent research, but the researchers themselves have raised the issues of increased administrative and financial costs. We should not be placing barriers in the way of research: we should be supporting and encouraging it, and using it to help us legislate properly. It is not just me saying that. This month, the Royal College of Psychiatrists wrote to the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), calling for the same change as this motion. People are suffering from mental health issues that existing evidence tells us would benefit from psilocybin administered by the right people in the right way. We should be pursuing that avenue of research and developing the support and professional skills required.

Before the Minister responds, I hope that he considers that the motion is not about recreational use. It is not about dictating the uses of psilocybin, or those who would benefit. All we are asking in the motion is that the UK Government conduct an urgent review of the evidence for psilocybin’s current status as schedule 1 under the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. That is it; that is what we are asking for. That would allow better opportunities for the required medical research to be completed. That research would help us to provide appropriate medical support for those suffering from a range of conditions. Why would the UK Government not want that? Why would they continue to obstruct the research? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

--- Later in debate ---
Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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I am by no means an expert in this field, but I think I am suggesting that were this to be a drug that is licensed, it would need to go through the MHRA process in the usual way.

I would like to come to a point made by the hon. Lady earlier around the costs involved in a first-time application for a controlled drug licence of the kind we have been discussing. She quoted a substantial figure, which would be concerning as it would be prohibitively costly for smaller manufacturers or researchers. The figures that I have been quoted are that first-time application for a licence costs £3,700 and a standard renewal costs £326. I will write to the hon. Lady with those figures and if she contests them in any way, then I or the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) will be happy to respond.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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The cost is not just about the licence. Because it is a schedule 1 drug, more dangerous than heroin, the way in which it is stored in a laboratory, so that people cannot get access to it, and the set-up needed around the laboratory has caused a lot of people to say that they simply cannot afford to make such modifications to their laboratories and start the investigation in the first place.

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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I see that point. In a moment, I will come on to the work that the Government are doing in that regard, and more broadly, to facilitate research and make it more accessible to a broader range of organisations.

To finish the point about the process involved, once granted a medicine licence by the MHRA, medicines can be assessed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which makes recommendations about routine prescribing on the NHS.

I thank the hon. Members who described the promising research emerging on the potential benefit of psilocybin. Studies in the UK include publicly funded research. For example, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is funding King’s College London to carry out a trial evaluating the feasibility, safety and efficacy of psilocybin for adults who are unresponsive to or intolerant of treatment for depression.

In January last year, King’s College London published the results of a small-scale study suggesting that psilocybin can be administered safely, under certain circumstances and to healthy individuals. That is clearly encouraging. However, the researchers acknowledge that larger and longer trials, including comparison with existing treatments, would be required to determine the efficacy and safety of psilocybin for this disorder.

Oral Answers to Questions

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Monday 20th March 2023

(11 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Chris Philp Portrait The Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire (Chris Philp)
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Police and crime commissioners, particularly the one in the west midlands, should visit all parts of their patch. I was also rather concerned to hear that the Labour PCC in the west midlands is formulating plans to close up to 20 police stations, despite having received a 10% increase in funding over recent years, which I think is pretty shocking.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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On the back of last week’s Budget, I made a speech about industrial hemp. The industry is telling me that it can create 105,000 jobs and pay £1 billion in tax if it is allowed to grow—pun intended. I will be writing to the Minister to explain this in detail, but it would be really helpful if I could sit down with the relevant Minister and industry representatives so they can make their case.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Who wants it?

Proscribed Psychedelic Drugs

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Tuesday 14th March 2023

(11 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Crispin Blunt Portrait Crispin Blunt
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The cost is enormous if one considers that there are 1.2 million people suffering with depression and the number of those people who go on to commit suicide who could be treated. Approximately one third of armed servicemen who have come back from active service in Afghanistan and Iraq are beyond treatment for the trauma they have sustained. Of all people, to whom does the state owe a debt? The cost of this issue is enormous.

How did we get into this position? There was 20 years of documented medical research prior to the scientific blackout that followed the stringent terms of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. How did this awareness of the therapeutic potential of psychedelics not weigh in the balance to avoid the situation we are in today, where they are so tightly controlled that even researchers at world-class UK universities struggle to access them for research purposes? It is an unhappy accident of history that Government regulation of controlled drugs in the 1970s has impacted the public in ways that were completely unforeseen.

These extremely safe drugs are in the most stringently controlled class and schedule, based not on any historical or contemporary assessment of their toxicity or dangers, but simply because there were no submissions made to British or American regulators of medical products containing psilocybin before the instatement of the UN single convention through the UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. They were therefore assumed to be worthless for medicine. The historical use of cocaine and heroin in medicine prior to 1971 accounts for why those drugs, with far higher dangers and awful potential for abuse, reside in a lower schedule than the much more benign psilocybin and its fellow psychedelics.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are in danger of taking psilocybin into the same arena as medical cannabis, where the medical profession blames politicians and politicians blame the medical profession, and rather than all looking for obstacles, we should be looking for constructive solutions?

Crispin Blunt Portrait Crispin Blunt
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I have learned so much with the hon. Gentleman over the last five years, as well as with the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols), who has joined this debate with personal testimony and the most enormous strength; I know that she has had conversations with the Minister, and I thank him for making time for these conversations and for learning.

It is the Minister to whom, inevitably, we now look for positive leadership in this space. That is why I do not want to push him this evening. I could have spoken for five minutes and then left him swinging on the hook, where we could beat him all around the Chamber trying to defend the indefensible of how we got into this position, but I do not want to do that. I want this debate to be a positive contribution, to lay out the challenge of why we are having to respond in this way and to give the Minister the room for manoeuvre to come forward with positive answers about all the opportunities of this policy.

Illegal Migration Bill

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Tuesday 7th March 2023

(12 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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My hon. Friend speaks a lot of sense. The British people did not vote for 40,000 people to arrive here on small boats. They did not vote for our immigration laws to be broken. They voted for representatives to serve in this place to speak up for them. That is why I urge every Member of this House to get behind this Bill and stop the boats.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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According to the statistics quoted by the Home Secretary last year, 17,000 referrals took on average 543 days to consider. Among those were the asylum seekers staying in a hotel in my constituency. I have engaged with them, along with my MSP colleague Stuart McMillan, on an ongoing basis since they arrived. The Home Office has not. It has not talked to those guys; it has not stopped the process. Would the Home Secretary consider expanding the shortage occupation list to allow them to work? Those young men want to contribute to the society in which they have been welcomed.

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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Aside from humanitarian routes into this country, we also have an extensive points-based system, which we developed post Brexit. Thanks to our freedom on migration, we have issued a record number of work and study visas in the last year alone. People who want to come here for legitimate reasons should go through our points-based system.

Asylum Seekers Accommodation and Safeguarding

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Monday 7th November 2022

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the burden of migrants in hotel and other accommodation has historically been borne by our cities, and that Stoke has disproportionately borne a significant quantity of migrants. We have now tried to disperse individuals more broadly, and some of the issues that we have heard about today are a result of migrants being placed in hotels in locations where that would not previously have happened, so it is a new issue for those local authorities to cope with. We need to ensure that we provide the right support to those local authorities. We now have a dispersal strategy to encourage individuals to be placed more fairly across the country, which we hope should in time provide a fairer settlement for places such as Stoke-on-Trent.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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If the dispersal strategy is to be successful, local authorities must be engaged in a conversation before they are told what is happening in their own local authority. That way, we can ensure that the correct support, services and funding are in place. Otherwise, does the Minister not just risk fuelling the increasing intolerance and bigotry?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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The hon. Gentleman is right. My first priority was to ensure that the Manston site was operating legally and appropriately, which meant that the Home Office had to procure accommodation at pace. We are now moving into the next phase, which will involve ensuring that we have better communication and engagement with local authorities, so that we can hear their concerns; that we provide them with the support that they might need; and that we choose locations together that meet sensible criteria in terms of safeguarding, community cohesion and the availability of public services. It is also extremely important that we work closely with local authorities on issues such as child protection and the appropriate dispersal of children and families across the country.

Drug Crime

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Wednesday 20th April 2022

(1 year, 10 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

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Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) on securing this debate and delivering a belter of an opening speech. It makes it rather difficult for those who must follow, but I thank him for that.

Mr Pritchard, indulge me, if you will. Let us think for a moment back to our childhoods, and the Sunday afternoons when we would sit down and watch the television—that thing in the corner of the room that was still quite novel then, certainly for myself. I used to watch the cowboy films with my dad, and there was something that happened in those films. I put this as a question for Members to consider while I speak; if they lose interest in what I am saying, they might try to answer this question in their minds. When the bad guys rode into town, shot it up, robbed the bank and galloped off into the sunset in a cloud of dust, carrying bags of money, what was the first thing that happened afterwards? What was the response? What did the sheriff do at that point? I will leave that thought with Members while I speak.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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As a fan of what was then acceptable to call cowboy and Indian movies—obviously they got a posse together, rode into the desert and hunted down those bad guys. Then, the following week, the bad guys came back.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar
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The hon. Member makes an interesting suggestion, which I will return to later in my speech. It would be remiss of me to give the great reveal now.

I have the very great privilege of representing a beautiful part of the world, Aberconwy in north Wales. Two thirds of the constituency lies within Snowdonia and the rest is on the coast. We have the walled, medieval town of Conwy and we have Llandudno, which many people probably know is the largest resort in Wales, and it is a beautiful place. Unfortunately, in common with many other, often very beautiful, coastal communities, it also has problems with poverty, deprivation and drug abuse. How often do we hear about poverty and drug abuse together, and about the associated crime?

We have heard about the terrible problems that come with that, and I do not want to dwell on them, except to say that the involvement of children and young people, particularly through the phenomenon of county lines gangs that has grown across the UK in the last decade, is quite awful. Things once attributed to the despicable behaviour of adults are now attributed to children. The age of children doing those things, carrying weapons, and being involved in and exposed to that deprivation, is ever lower. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley for bringing this debate forward and allowing us to address these issues.

I pay tribute to the brave police officers in north Wales who are working around the clock to disrupt and break up many county lines operations—in particular, the astonishing work of the intercept team that covers the whole region and was set up to clamp down on organised crime and drug gangs throughout north Wales. The team use innovative technology to ensure they are able to intercept and disrupt criminals, making north Wales a hostile environment for crime groups to operate in. Since their inception in February 2020, they have recovered controlled drugs, tens of thousands of pounds in cash, mobile phones and weapons such as knives, Tasers and worse, and they have made hundreds of proactive arrests.

In March this year alone, the team made 16 arrests for a range of offences and seized more than 100 wraps of class A drugs, 40 bags of class B drugs and £5,000 in cash. The officers have carried out warrants, stopped vehicles and made arrests linked to possession of controlled drugs, drink and drug driving, and other driving offences. It takes courage and dedication to deliver that kind of performance. Th team’s protection of the public is invaluable and they are a credit to the communities they serve in north Wales. I dare say other Members here can say the same of forces operating in their areas.

I turn to the importance of the community and community groups in dealing with this issue. As I and the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) suggested, the first action of the sheriff was to gather a posse; the key point was that the community did not lose ownership of the problem. In western civilisation, we live in an atomised society. We are individualist in our approach and become very transactional in our relationships, and as a result we tend to say, “That is their job.” In debates about litter, I have often heard people say, “I am not picking up that piece of litter because it would cost someone their job—someone is paid to do that.” There is a strange tension in our society that means that we start to have a dissociated view of each other and the different things that happen, and yet in that lesson of the posse, even though the town had hired and paid the sheriff and the deputies, it still had the responsibility.

I will highlight that idea in a couple of comments with respect to poverty. Poverty and drugs exist in almost a death spiral, with the two locked together. Which comes first? It is a case of cause and effect. Very often, they are a cause, but equally those who are locked into poverty are preyed upon by criminal gangs. Some years ago, the Centre for Social Justice produced some thought-provoking work about pathways to poverty, which included drug abuse, educational failure and family breakdown.

The idea of pathways is helpful because, as other hon. Members have mentioned, there are sometimes entry points to these pathways through socially acceptable behaviour. Alcohol is a socially acceptable drug, yet it can become an entry point into harder drug abuse, as can prescription medication. We should not be ignorant of that or imagine that problems with illicit drugs exist in isolation.

At one scheme—I will not mention where it is, except to say it is in north Wales—I spoke to veterans of special forces who in effect used a cocktail of alcohol, across-the-counter and prescription medicines, and illicit drugs, to manage the highs and lows, the uppers and downers, of the post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from some of their experiences in the service of this country. That is just one example of how this kind of problem can develop.

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Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar
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I take a different view. I speak as someone who is not an expert, but who has spoken to those caught in the terrible grip that drugs hold on their lives and those of their family members. Principally among such families—those experiencing a son, daughter, mother or father caught up in drugs—I never hear talk of legalising the drugs that caused their problems as a solution to the problems. My worry about decriminalisation is that it is the wrong answer to the right question. The right question is, “How can we help people?”, but I am not convinced that decriminalisation is the right way forward. I accept my hon. Friend’s suggestion that research is important, however, and that we ought to do such things not as ideas in principle, but on the basis of evidence. I certainly support that.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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Do those young men and women who served in our armed forces, came back to our country and now self-medicate their PTSD deserve a criminal record for the possession of drugs for their personal use?

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar
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The hon. Member makes an interesting point. This debate is perhaps not the one to get into that, but some of the services to veterans exclude some of those who need them the most. Some services in receipt of large amounts of public moneys, for example, will not treat those with a criminal record, who are often the ones who are furthest from help and need it the most; we must be careful about that. The hon. Member makes a worthwhile point that I am sure will be explored on another day in another debate.

On the subject of interrupting pathways, how often have we heard that young people—we have heard of at least one such example this afternoon—are attracted into a lifestyle that offers them easy money and luxury goods because they cannot see another way in their community to achieve that? I am mindful of a report published by the Centre for Social Justice about membership of gangs entitled, “Dying to Belong”. It was a brilliant title, frankly, which highlighted the problem that young people were dying and that their principal motivation for involvement with gangs was that they did not feel that they belonged to their community or their families. Those are real problems and we can interrupt those pathways.

We need to provide better jobs in those areas, better role models and the education that will help people. It is about setting out clear alternative pathways for those young people. We must not flinch from mentioning the love of family and parents. We all know what family means to each of us. I do not refer to some Victorian ideal. We all know that if I asked anyone in this room, “Who is your family?”, we would know who that was. It might look different for each one of us, but we would all know. We would also know that we bear the imprint—for good or bad—of that family for the rest of our lives. We must find a way of grappling with that and saying, “How do we help the family around those young people, to keep them off those pathways?”

Aspiration and hope are essential. I must mention briefly the work of the Government, with their levelling-up fund. The idea is that talent is spread everywhere, but opportunity is not, so if the fund can do one thing, it is to deliver opportunity in such areas. If young people see an opportunity forward to a Mercedes, a flash car, a better phone, nicer trainers or whatever, and are able to build in their mind an aspiration that is positive and constructive, and does not lead them into the embrace of the gangs, that is a good thing.

I urge the Minister to think about supply and demand, and how often our efforts in dealing with drugs are about shutting down supply, on the enforcement end. That is vital, but I remember the inspector in Suffolk who memorably told me when I lived there and we in local government were dealing with county lines: “Robin, we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. This is not a problem just for the police; it is a problem for the posse. It is a problem for the communities.”

In Newmarket in Suffolk, we recognised that communities owning the spaces that gangs would occupy, being aware of the problems, spotting the signs in young people and acting early in the pathway, were as important as CCTV and the PCSOs who were on the beat in the town. We must look at everything together. We must not delegate or just assume that the police can handle these issues, and, in working together, we must make sure that we provide the resources for community groups, which can often reach further into the communities to help those who need the most from our services.

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Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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Thank you, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) on bringing forward this debate.

I understand the frustration I have heard today. My constituency of Inverclyde is one of the most deprived in the United Kingdom, and we have a lot of drug use, abuse and criminality. I see it; I hear it; I understand it. People come to my constituency office and tell me the same stories. However, I come at this issue from a different angle.

We all despise drug gangs for what they do in our community. We despise the fact that they drag young children into their criminal world, where they are used and abused in that part of society. We all get that.

However, if we have 100 criminals each committing a crime a day in our constituency and we arrest those 100 criminals, the problem will not simply go away. Do not take my word for it. Neil Woods, who wrote the book “Good Cop, Bad War”, was at the forefront of the battle on drugs. He was an undercover cop who worked closely with drug gangs, putting his life at risk; he was responsible for the incarceration of one of the biggest drug gangs in the United Kingdom. All the gang members were locked up, from top to bottom; all their drugs and weapons were taken—there was a huge amount of publicity. Neil says that, within hours, the drugs were back on the streets and the criminals were back out there. Taking away one gang creates a vacuum that other gangs will fight over, and the criminality escalates. That is how they take control.

The current system is not working for us. We have been doing it for 50 years, and it simply does not work. I do not see any real change in attitude from the Government to say, “Let us try something different.” As the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) said, we cannot arrest our way out of a drug crisis. Ask virtually any police officer in the United Kingdom and they will say the same thing. They are living with this day in, day out. We need to address the problem, not the symptoms of the problem. It is a very complicated problem and overly simplistic solutions will not cut it. Why do people self-harm with drugs? What can we do to help them? How do we take power away from the criminal gangs that drag people into their world?

The UK Government’s new 10-year drug strategy brings much-needed money to rebuild drug treatment, but lacks real reform. Despite repeated calls from experts to adopt a new approach, the plan does not mention drug consumption rooms, overdose prevention centres—I will call them OPCs—or heroin-assisted treatment. The only reference to the decriminalisation of drug possession is an unfounded statement that it would lead to increased drug use.

OPCs are hygienic, safe spaces where people can use their own drugs under the supervision of trained staff, where overdoses can be reversed with naloxone. They are vital for engaging with people who are not in contact with local treatment services. A large percentage of those who die from drug-related deaths have not been in contact with treatment services for five years. That is in addition to shockingly high rates of drug-related deaths among the homeless population, which have more than doubled since 2013.

It is estimated that that are nearly 200 OPCs in operation across the world in 14 countries. However, there are none in the UK, as this Government continue to believe that OPCs condone the use of drugs. They prefer to continue to ostracise and marginalise drug users, and then wonder why the crime rate is increasing.

There is a wealth of evidence for the effectiveness of OPCs to engage with people who inject or smoke drugs. OPCs not only reduce the risk of overdose and bloodborne viruses among young people who use drugs, but reduce public injecting and drug-related litter. They can also provide pathways to treatment and healthcare facilities.

The Government’s strategy also fails to address the harms of current drug policy and drug law enforcement, including that police stop and search is racially disparate. Drug laws are imposed most harshly against ethnic minority communities, despite prevalence rates among those groups being no higher than among the white population.

We need to do two things. First and foremost, we must treat addiction as an illness, bearing in mind that, just as with alcohol, which is a dangerous drug, about 90% of those who use illegal drugs do not have a problem and certainly do not turn to crime. We must provide the right sort of healthcare, based on the needs of the person suffering from addiction. When we recognise drug use as a health issue, it is clear that increasing access to treatment, harm reduction and social services will lead to better outcomes than criminal justice sanctions.

Gaining or adding to a criminal record—even for those who receive non-custodial sentences, including formal cautions—can cause serious damage to life chances. Bretteville-Jensen and colleagues outline that criminal records, especially when they contain drug-related offences, present obstacles to obtaining employment, seeking rented accommodation, education attainment, international travel and maintaining interpersonal relationships. If we do not provide the right kind of support, addicts will get stuck in a downward spiral of addiction, crime and prison. Most people would probably agree with that.

When it comes to how we deal with criminality, the debate takes a whole new dimension. The criminality comes from two sources: people turning to crime to fund their addictions, and the criminal fraternity who leech off those with addictions and supply the marketplace. First, we need to identify what criminal behaviour is. Increasingly, personal possession is not something that people are prosecuted for, and I welcome that. The decriminalisation of all drug possession is backed by all 31 United Nations agencies and acknowledged by the World Health Organisation as a critical enabler of service access. Committees in this place have advocated a move away from criminalisation, including the Health and Social Care Committee and the Scottish Affairs Committee.

Release, the national centre of expertise on drugs and drug law, has explored decriminalisation over 30 jurisdictions and has found that drug decriminalisation done well can improve health outcomes, reduce drug-related deaths and reduce offending and reoffending, thereby reducing the burden of social costs on police resources and public spending, which is essentially the target of the new 10-year drugs strategy. That is in addition to evidence that, in countries that have reformed their laws policy, liberalisation is not associated with large increases in drug consumption.

Drug laws and their enforcement are used as mechanisms to punish drug use, and the threat of punishment is considered a tool of deterrence. The Black review estimates that the spend on UK drug law enforcement exceeds £1.4 billion per annum, yet the Home Office’s own 2014 analysis of drug policies in 14 countries found:

“There is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use.”

In 2017, another Home Office evaluation acknowledged the resilience of the illicit drug market and the limited impact of drug law enforcement, including significant drug seizures and the availability of drugs. It also identified “unintended consequences” associated with drug interdiction, including increased violence in the marketplace resulting from enforcement activities, criminalisation negatively impacting on employment prospects, and parental imprisonment, which can have dire consequences for children, increasing the risks of child offending, experience of mental health problems, and problematic drug use.

County lines, a lynchpin of the new 10-year drugs strategy, has been framed as an altogether new phenomenon that facilitates the supply of mostly heroin and crack cocaine into non-metropolitan areas, even though heroin and crack markets already existed in those areas. Those who have studied county lines have shown that the entry of drugs into rural areas—sometimes via the involvement of young people—is not a new feature of an unregulated drug market. Some young people choose to engage in the market because of a lack of life choices and opportunities, so focusing on social and economic policies rather than drug law enforcement would reduce their involvement.

We got it wrong 50 years ago in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and we have been getting it wrong ever since. If we want to reduce crime, we must decriminalise drugs to take the power away from criminal gangs, make consumption safer and treat addiction as a health issue.

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Kit Malthouse Portrait The Minister for Crime and Policing (Kit Malthouse)
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It is a great pleasure to appear before you, Mr Pritchard, either side of what felt like a parliamentary recess. It is good to be back.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) for securing this debate on an important area of policy. I am sure he will appreciate that the Prime Minister made it a Government priority on, in effect, the day he stood on the steps of Downing Street all those months ago. He and we accept that drug-related crime inflicts a terrible toll on our society. We have heard some horror stories this afternoon. We are determined to turn the tide.

Our unwavering commitment to addressing the problem was, as a number of Members have pointed out, set out in our drugs strategy, “From harm to hope”, published last December. That strategy is underpinned by a landmark set of investments totalling about £3 billion over the next three years. The plan comes in support of our general policy of levelling up across the whole of the UK. We want to see people living longer, healthier lives in safe and productive neighbourhoods. Our approach couples tough enforcement with renewed focus on breaking exactly that cycle of addiction mentioned by so many Members today.

We plan to achieve that difficult challenge with three simple strands of work. The first is to attack every single stage of the drug-supply chain. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) asked what is different about our approach to drugs this time. From an enforcement point of view, we have shifted the emphasis carefully away from the notion of mass arrests—which, as he and a number of Members have pointed out, simply results almost immediately in replacement—much more to attacking the mechanics of the business itself. If our job is to degrade or restrict the supply of drugs into a particular area, we have to ensure that that is done in a way that means that no one can step in to replace and repeat the operation. Attacking the business and the supply chain is critical. We also want to ramp up our investment in treatment and recovery—we have been given hundreds of millions of pounds to do that across the whole of England and Wales—and, critically, to support those people ensnared by addiction to rebuild their lives, ensuring that they get off the roundabout in and out of the prison system, once and for all.

Alongside that, we want to address wider demand and to see a generational shift in society’s attitude towards drugs. For example, we will expand and improve the use of drug testing on arrest and diversionary schemes, such as out-of-court disposals, and undertake work to understand how communications can be used to change behaviours and drive down the use of recreational drugs.

We plan to publish a White Paper proposing a new range of sanctions particularly aimed at those who still choose to take drugs on a casual, non-addicted—whatever you want to call it—recreational basis, recognising that they play a huge role in stimulating demand for drugs across the whole of England and Wales. I will host a summit next month, bringing together experts and representatives from a range of sectors, to discuss the levers and interventions needed to drive down demand across the country, reduce harms and change societal attitudes. We recognise that as we enforce against supply, we must also do something to reduce demand.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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Will the Minister give way?

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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I am quite short of time, so I will not, if the hon. Member does not mind.

Our 10-year, whole-system strategy, which we are implementing, is a fundamental reset in our approach to tackling illegal drugs, which is what a number of Members have called for. We expect to see results, as do the public, and that is why we have set out clear and ambitious metrics to drive progress. Those cover a number of areas, including closing more than 2,000 county lines over the next three years, seeing a 20% increase in organised crime disruptions and preventing and reducing drug-related deaths.

Much of this debate has been about county lines, and it is worth reflecting on the despicable way in which those criminals exploit young people—as outlined by the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Lyn Brown) and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley—recruiting them as runners to transport drugs and money around the country. We are clear that the targeting, grooming and exploitation of children for criminal purposes is deplorable, and we are committed to tackling it.

We will continue to invest in our successful county lines programme, which has resulted in more than 7,400 arrests and 1,500 line closures. Critically, more than 4,000 vulnerable people have been rescued from that horrific trade. We are also providing specialist support and funding to help young people who are subjected to, or concerned about, county lines exploitation, and to ensure that they get the protection and support they need.

We have been focused on dismantling the county lines model for well over two years and, as I have outlined, we have had real success. However, complacency is the enemy of progress, and we will continue to protect those most vulnerable and be clear to those gangs that we will keep coming at them again and again. On that note, I was pleased to hear that the Home Secretary visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley to discuss drugs and other matters.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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I will come to those in a moment. The hon. Lady will be interested to know that I had a meeting with the Children’s Society just this morning, in my capacity as a constituency MP, to discuss those issues. I am giving consideration to its proposals. We recognise that this trade particularly exploits young people. In my own constituency, we have had some appalling events—young people stabbed and, in one case, killed, where neither victim nor perpetrator was from Andover. Both, in various ways, were victimised and exploited in the drugs industry.

Many Members have mentioned that if we are to have an impact on drugs, we must have a co-ordinated set of actions. We recognise that the complexity of the drugs problem means that we absolutely must be effective in co-ordinating those other partners—local government, other treatment delivery partners, enforcement, prevention and education. They all must come together to form a coalition as a foundation of our strategy, and they are often best placed to establish the priorities and to devise ways of working to address the needs of their local communities as quickly and effectively as possible. This spring we will publish guidance for local areas in England on working in partnerships to reduce drug-related harm.

But we have not been waiting for our strategy or the guidance. I will finish by highlighting some of the work we have been doing already. Alongside the very assertive work we have been doing on county lines in Keighley and elsewhere, some 18 months ago we established a set of projects in 13 areas of the country that are most exploited by drugs gangs and that have the most appalling drug use statistics. Project ADDER, which stands for addiction, diversion, disruption, enforcement and recovery, has been running since November 2020. In effect, it brings together all those people who are focused on dealing with the drugs problem to focus in the same place, at the same time, on the same people, so that all their work can be leveraged. Those projects have had positive results. In particular, law enforcement plays a big part in restricting the amount of drugs in a particular geography, making sure that as the therapeutic treatments come alongside those individuals, they are less likely to walk out of their appointment with a drugs councillor and into the arms of a dealer. There have been big increases in disruptions and arrests in those areas, as well as a large increase in the numbers of people referred to treatment, and some heartwarming stories of people who have been rescued and brought into a better life.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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Will the Minister give way?

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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I do not have time, I am afraid.

When I visited the Blackpool project, I was very pleased to hear from a senior police officer who is helping to run it that, in her nearly 30 years of service, she had never felt more hopeful about dealing with the drugs problem in Blackpool.

In calling this important debate, I think my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley is looking for a sense of the priority that the Government assign to this problem. We are investing enormous amounts of public money and massive amounts of political leadership time, right up to the Prime Minister, who I will be meeting over the next couple of weeks to talk about our drugs strategy and where we will go next to make sure that over the next 10 years, we see a reduction in drug use, drug deaths and drug crime across all our constituencies, but most particularly in Keighley.

Oral Answers to Questions

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Monday 28th February 2022

(2 years ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel
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I commend the hon. Lady for much of the work that she has been doing. I would be very happy to meet her. All the points she raises are absolutely valid: women should be able to go about living their lives freely, safely and without harassment.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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The all-party parliamentary group on commercial sexual exploitation is conducting an inquiry into the pornography industry in response to growing concerns that online pornography is fuelling violence against women and girls. Will the Government establish the necessary legal framework to prevent and address the harm associated with the production and consumption of pornography?

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel
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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I agree with the sentiments that he echoes and would be very happy to meet him to discuss the matter. There are many, many legitimate concerns about pornography and the wider harms—age access, age verification and all sorts of issues, some of which the Government are picking up right now. The online harms Bill is one area, but there are other things that we can and should be doing.