Third Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Tuesday 26 November 1985



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The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Adams, Mr. Allen (Paisley, North)

Baker, Mr. Nicholas (Dorset, North)

Brinton, Mr. Tim (Gravesham)

Carlisle, Mr. Alex (Montgomery)

Clay, Mr. Bob (Sunderland, North)

Corbett, Mr. Robin (Birmingham, Erdington)

Cranborne, Viscount (Dorset, South)

Fry, Mr. Peter (Wellingborough)

Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. David (Wells)

Lyell, Mr. Nichols (Mid Bedfordshire)

Marlow, Mr. Tony (Northampton, North)

Mellor, Mr. David (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)

Neubert, Mr. Michael (Romford)

Nicholls, Mr. Patrick (Teignbridge)

Ottaway, Mr. Richard (Nottingham, North)

Patchett, Mr. Terry (Barnsley, East)

Pavitt, Mr. Laurie (Brent, South)

Young, Mr. David (Bolton, South-East)

Mr. D. G. Millar, Committee Clerk

3 Third Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Tuesday 26 November 1985

[Mr. PATRICK CORMACK in the Chair]


10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 1985. I welcome you, Mr. Cormack, to the Chair. I also welcome the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett). It is, I think, the first Committee in which he has led for the Opposition since his welcome elevation to the Labour Front Bench. I am glad that his reputation among his colleagues as a Front-Bench orator has gone before him. The purpose of the order is to add a number of substances to the list of those controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and to remove one superfluous reference to a drug which is already covered elsewhere in the Act and will, of course, remain controlled. As the Committee will know, section 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Act provides for amendments to be made in this way so that we can keep abreast of changing circumstances, and several such orders have come before the House since the passing of the Act. An explanatory memorandum has already been published describing the drugs concerned, and I know that members of the Committee have had fun with some of the tongue-twisting names. The explanatory memorandum describes how it is planned to control those substances, and I hope that it has provided helpful background information. Amendments to the list of controlled drugs come about in two ways. Firstly, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, a statutory body set up under the 1971 Act to keep under continuous review the extent of drug misuse in the United Kingdom, may advise that certain drugs should be controlled. Secondly, the Government may decide to extend the controls in the Act to particular drugs in order to meet an international obligation. It is in the second way that this order has come about. The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, on which the United Kingdom is represented, decides from time to time to control particular drugs either in accordance with the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 or the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971. We are already a party to the 1961 convention and, in line with our legal obligations, we currently control all substances covered by that convention. Those substances, of course, are most of the best known 4 drugs of abuse that cause so much concern at present. We are not, at present, a party to the 1971 convention, under which the substances listed for consideration today are controlled, but it has nevertheless been the policy of successive Governments to bring under our domestic controls the more harmful substances listed in that convention. In December 1983, the then Home Secretary announced that the United Kingdom intended to become a party to the convention and, in consequence, we have been working towards bringing the remaining 1971 convention substances within the scope of our Act and introducing new regulations under it which would provide the detailed regimes of control necessary for us to comply with the requirements of the convention. It is our intention to ratify the 1971 convention early next year and this draft order and consequential regulations, which, when made, would be subject to the negative resolution procedure, will complete the process of bringing our Misuse of Drugs Act controls into line with our new treaty obligations. Before moving on to the drugs themselves, perhaps I can refer briefly to the need to classify them when controlling them by an order of this type. I am sure that members of the Committee, many of whom have taken an active interest in drug abuse, know that the Misuse of Drugs Act separates drugs into three classes, A, B and C. Class A drugs—the 1961 convention drugs, together with some others—are the most dangerous, and class C the least, with appropriately graded penalties for offences which involve drugs belonging to a particular class. Ethchlorvynol, ethinamate, meprobamate, and methyprylone are all non-barbiturate sedatives which can cause dependence and we propose, on the recommendation of the Advisory Council, to control those as class C drugs, and to include them in schedule 3 to the new regulations. Glutethimide is also a non-barbiturate sedative which is more strictly controlled under the convention than the other four that I have just mentioned, and there has been evidence in Europe of addiction to a proprietary preparation containing this drug. We have been advised to make it a class B drug and to include it in what will be a somewhat more restrictive type of control in schedule 2 to the new regulations. Lefetamine is a stimulant similar to amphetamine, which is already a class B drug, so it would also be controlled in class B and included in schedule 2 to the new regulations. Mazindol and phentermine are both anorectic, or appetite-suppressing, drugs used in the treatment of obesity and can cause dependence. Like diethylpropion, another anorectic drug, mazindol and phentermine would go into class C and into schedule 3 to the new regulations. Pentazocine is an analgesic used for the relief of moderate to severe pain. It was controlled under the 1971 convention only last year, following reports of abuse in several countries. Such misuse as 5 there is in this country appears to be fairly limited and largely confined to members of the medical and paramedical professions. Pentazocine would become a class B drug and would be included in schedule 3 to the new regulations. Finally, in connection with new controls, there is a group of 33 minor tranquillisers belonging to the benzodiazepine family, which were also controlled under the 1971 convention only last year because of reports of misuse in a number of countries. Diazepam, under its proprietary name of Valium, is undoubtedly the best known of these, and most of them are available in the United Kingdom, where they are very widely used in the treatment of anxiety, depression or insomnia. Indeed, many millions of prescriptions for benzodiazepines are dispensed every year. Whilst there has been some concern about the extent to which those drugs are prescribed here, there is little evidence as yet of their misuse within the meaning of the Misuse of Drugs Act, but we propose to control them under the Act as class C drugs. Under a new and more logical system of numbering, the schedules to the new regulations—which would not, incidentally, affect schedules 2 and 3—the benzodiazepines would go into schedule 4. This would be a brand-new schedule, designed to cater for 1971 convention substances which are considered to need only a basic level of control. In medicinal product form, and like many less harmful preparations of 1961 convention substances in schedule 1 to the present regulations, these drugs would be exempt from the offence of personal possession. The other—very minor—effect of the draft order is to remove what has been discovered is a superfluous and potentially confusing reference to dexamphetamine in Class B in the Act. Although no longer specifically mentioned by name, it would remain controlled under the Act as a stereoisomeric form of amphetamine, another class B drug. The proposed measures I have outlined follow consultations with manufacturers and trade and professional organisations, and fully accord with the subsequent recommendations of the Advisory Council. There are statutory procedures yet to be completed but subject to these, those concerned with controlled drug manufacture, sale, prescription and dispensing will have the new controls explained to them to ensure that they are in a position to comply with them by the time of the proposed operative date of 1 April 1986. I conclude by saying the following, which I hope will be reassuring. None of the drugs named in the draft order poses a particularly grave or immediate threat in the United Kingdom, but we need to bring them within the range of our controls so that, in common with most other Western European countries and the United States of America, we may become a party to the 1971 convention and play an even fuller role in international efforts in fighting drug misuse, which I know commend themselves to right hon. and hon. Members of all parties. I therefore commend the changes proposed in the draft order.


10.39 am

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): I join in welcoming your debut in the Chair, Mr. Cormack, and I thank the Minister for his kind words about my being in this position supported by so many of my colleagues. We welcome the Government's decision to ratify the United Nations convention of 1971. In the past, successive Governments considered that it was inappropriate for various reasons, but it is a useful step, not only as part of our support for the United Nations' efforts to deal with narcotics abuse, but also as part of the United Kingdom's defences against the rising tide of drug abuse. On a visit to the United States this year—I know that the Minister trod roughly the same ground—we were constantly being told by the Americans that one lesson that they had learnt was the necessity to have their defences in place before the floodgates opened. The order will assist in that. Is this kind of order appropriate in trying to deal with the new and growing menace of what are known as designer drugs? There is evidence from the United States that illicit laboratories are making substances and getting around the controls by slightly altering the formulae. To that extent the law is always one step behind, or the evil people are one step ahead. I understand the difficulty of anticipating specifically what might be done tomorrow, when they can alter the substances with great ease. Does the Government have any evidence of the development or the manufacture of designer drugs in this country and has there been any evidence of attempts to smuggle them here? How far are the Government conscious of that problem and how do they rate it?

10.42 am

Mr. Allen Adams (Paisley, North): I agree with the Minister, but ask him to remember that drugs do not exist in a vacuum. People take drugs for the same reason that people in Glasgow in the 1920s and 1930s consumed too much alcohol—they were trying to escape harsh economic reality. Some of the drugs that the Minister mentioned this morning are used heavily in the east end of Glasgow and in the more deprived and poor areas of our inner cities. I speak only of the area which I know. It appears that the misuse of drugs, as with the misuse of alcohol in the past, is often born out of a sense of uselessness and futility. The last time that I said that someone said, "If it is born out of a sense of uselessness and futility, why don't you take them?" I think it is largely a problem that affects the poorer parts of our cities. Atlhough it transcends social class the weight seems to be on those who do not have much purpose. Glasgow airport is in my constituency, and my hon. Friend mentioned drugs being brought into this country. That problem has been expressed by some of the security people at Glasgow airport. Presumably some drugs come from the United States via the Republic of Ireland and Belfast to Glasgow. Has the Minister any thoughts on that matter?


10.44 am

Mr Tim Brinton (Gravesham): I, too, welcome the measure. However, I could not resist commenting on what the hon. Member for Paisley, North (Mr. Adams) said. I hope that the Minister will stress that misuse of drugs does not happen only among the poor and deprived; it appears to an alarming degree throughout society, so we cannot examine that aspect alone. We must consider the whole problem.

The Chairman: But not this morning. I remind hon. Members that this is not a general debate about drug misuse.

10.46 am

Mr. Mellor: I shall bear that injunction in mind, Mr. Cormack, and trip as speedily as I can over any points that do not seem to relate to the order—which means almost all the points made since I concluded my first speech. In answer to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), let me say that although the problem of the analogous of fentonyl is acute in California, there is fortunately evidence that it is being contained there. Apparently fentonyl analogues, which have an effect similar to that of heroin but up to 100 times stronger, have caused Parkinson's-like symptoms to appear in young people. We hope that the widespread publicity of the horrendous facts will mean that the problem may be nipped in the bud. There is no evidence that designer drugs are being brought into the country or manufactured here, but we are alive to the problem. As the hon. Member for Erdington is aware, the scheduling of drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act is an ex post facto business—when a drug is identified as being abused or likely to be abused it is scheduled. The trouble with analogues of fentonyl is their almost infinite variety. In the United States that has led to Congress to consider a different approach from that of ascheduling drugs by name—the introduction of a Bill to make unlawful the activity of seeking to produce drugs, whatever their chemical base or name, that induce heroin-type reactions. We are considering that matter 8 carefully. As the hon. Gentleman knows, one pleasing development is that close ties have developed between this country and the United States over the problem of drug misuse. Our two countries co-operate closely and transmit information constantly. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Paisley, North (Mr. Adams)—that people turn to drink and drugs as a result of various pressures. One such pressure is, indeed, a sense of hopelessness, but there are others. I spent yesterday launching a Charities Aid Foundation guide to voluntary sector activities relating to drugs with Pete Townshend, who has acknowledge that he was driven to drugs by the pressures of success. We know, too, that an heir to one of the premier dukedoms of England was a heroin addict for 10 years. One reason why I regard drugs as posing such an insidious threat is that they appeal across the classes and across the ages. That is why we are all so troubled about the problem. The hon. Gentleman talked about drugs at Glasgow airport. As long as demand is high and traffickers have an incentive to bring drugs into the country they will seek to evade controls. Now that it is much more difficult to bring drugs in through Heathrow and Gatwick, traffickers will try to bring them in through smaller airports and smaller ports. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with a detailed assessment of the position at Glasgow airport. All that I can say for the moment is that as recently as two weeks ago we announced that we were seeking substantially to strengthen the position of the customs officers dealing with drugs, and we intend to monitor developments closely to ensure that traffickers do not succeed in getting one jump ahead of us. Before I am pulled up, Mr. Cormack, I shall shut up.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 1985.

Committee rose at eleven minutes to Eleven o'clock.


Cormack, Mr. Patrick (Chairman)

Adams, Mr.

Baker, Mr. Nicholas

Brinton, Mr.

Corbett, Mr.

Cranborne, Viscount

Lyell, Mr.

Marlow, Mr.

Mellor, Mr.

Neubert, Mr.

Nicholls, Mr.

Ottaway, Mr.

Patchett, Mr.