Ronnie Cowan MP
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I shall keep my remarks short, out of respect to the other Members who want to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing the debate, which is of particular importance to my constituents. I have to say that I am slightly disappointed at the state of the two Scottish Conservative Members who turned up to the debate with a clear intention to disrupt the opening speaker. They have now left the Chamber and not stayed for the debate.
This is a timely debate, given the announcement that the UK Government are to review PIP claims, at a cost of £3.7 billion, by 2023. It is hardly a surprise that the High Court concluded that the Government’s changes to PIP were “blatantly discriminatory” to those with mental health conditions. That has been self-evident for some time. Of course, this disaster is of the Government’s own making: they tried to rip off the most vulnerable people in society and now we are all paying the price. The taxpayer will have to foot the bill for those mistakes. What is the human cost? Claimants pushed to the edge and living their lives on the brink. When will the Government get anything right first time?
This fiasco could have been avoided had the Government approached disability benefits with humanity and compassion, rather than—as usual—as a cost-saving exercise. By the time we get to 2023, the UK Government will have delivered the worst possible outcome: a more expensive system that delivers less for applicants. Other Members will be aware—we did not need a court case or reams of statistics to know—that the changes to PIP are having a negative impact; the many distressed constituents who have visited our constituency offices or surgeries in tears are testament to that. They have spoken of feeling humiliated and degraded. They have been made to justify their disability through an intrusive, pseudo-medical assessment conducted by officials working with ambiguous criteria.
Ultimately, we in Scotland can be relieved that PIP is one of 11 benefits being transferred to the Scottish Government. I have no doubt that that will mean a noticeable improvement in the way people are treated, as that Scottish Government seek to create a Scottish social security system that gives claimants dignity and respect. For example, they have announced that claimants in Scotland are to be given the right to have a supporter with them in meetings and assessments. That small but noteworthy change is proof that Scotland will do things differently. Perhaps this Tory Government could yet again learn from the Scottish Government’s example.
Given that the DWP will continue to manage Scottish PIP cases until 2020, will the Minister outline whether this crisis will affect the smooth transition of PIP to the Scottish Government?
Ronnie Cowan MP
I beg to move,
That this House has considered drug consumption rooms.
It is nice to see you again, Ms Ryan.
Let me start with a few undisputed facts. Drug deaths due to overdose are increasing year on year in the United Kingdom. People have been taking drugs of various types for thousands of years. In the last 100 years or so, we have run a campaign to criminalise and persecute people who take certain categories of drugs. We decide which drug belongs in which category. Some criminals have become staggeringly rich through their involvement in the production and supply of drugs. Users are stigmatised as junkies, crackheads and stoners. Society adopts this language to dehumanise and ostracise sections of a community. That facilitates their abuse and allows them to be used as scapegoats.
Where are we now? The drive to arrest and incarcerate the producers, distributors, dealers and users—often referred to as the war on drugs—has seen a massive increase in violent crime and corruption, along with hundreds of thousands of deaths and the criminalisation of some people for the most minor offences. The perceived problem that the war on drugs set out to solve has been compounded by the war. As a result, time, money and lives have been wasted. [Interruption.]
**Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House**
Ronnie Cowan MP
As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted, we created this situation and we can fix it, but doing so will take a change in attitude at governmental level. Rather than pay lip service to people with an addiction, we need to start listening to what they are asking for. We need to treat addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue, not just in part but in its entirety.
Drug consumption rooms are part of the solution. Supervised drug consumption facilities, where illicit drugs can be used under the supervision of trained staff, have operated in Europe for the past three decades. Those facilities aim primarily to reduce the acute risk of disease transmission through unhygienic injecting, prevent drug-related overdose deaths and connect high-risk drug users with addiction treatment and other health and social services.
Caroline Lucas MP [Intervention]
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the big strengths of DCRs is their ability to reach people with drug addiction problems who are not otherwise known to the services? If we build relationships and trust with such people over time, we are much more likely to get them into services that can begin to address the reason for their addiction.
Ronnie Cowan MP
I completely agree. The first step of the healing process is building a working relationship with someone and earning their trust, so that they come back and do not have the suspicions that we have built among drug users.
Drug consumption rooms also seek to contribute to reductions in drug use in public places, in discarded needles and in public order problems linked with open drug scenes. Typically, they provide drug users with: sterile injecting equipment; counselling services before, during and after drug consumption; emergency care in the event of overdose; and primary medical care and referral to appropriate social healthcare and addiction treatment services.
Currently, people are sharing needles, using a product that may kill them instantly, and living chaotic lifestyles that harm them, their friends and their families. DCRs provide needles, which instantly reduces the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, instantly improves the health of the user and instantly engages users back into society, where they can be signposted to relevant services. Needle exchanges also go some way towards doing that, but the paraphernalia leave the premises and are often discarded in public places or shared with other users. Users may choose to inject themselves in streets, doorways or gardens near to the exchange, which is unsuitable for users and local residents.
The great thing is that we have evidence from 10 other countries that DCRs work. The first supervised room was opened in Berne, Switzerland, in June 1986. Further such facilities were established in subsequent years in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark, Greece and France. Outside Europe, there are facilities in Australia and Canada. A total of 78 drug consumption facilities currently operate in seven European monitoring centre for drugs and drug addiction-reporting countries.
Grahame Morris MP [Intervention]
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on a potentially controversial subject, but perhaps one where we need to look at the evidence. Does he agree that there are not only health benefits but other benefits in terms of crime prevention and reduction? The Home Office’s figures say that 45% of crimes are caused by drug users stealing in order to feed their habits. Tackling that through the introduction of consumption rooms would bring considerable benefits.
Ronnie Cowan MP
Absolutely. To my knowledge, the closest thing we have had to that in UK was opened by John Marks in the Wirral back in the 1980s. At that time, local crime dropped by more than 90%. We have the information at our fingertips.
Most interestingly, no country that has adopted DCRs has ever regretted it and subsequently closed them. Switzerland and Spain have closed DCRs, but only because the need for them reduced significantly—they were so successful that they put themselves out of business.
Before the festive recess, I asked the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions to change the law to facilitate DCRs in the UK—or, if not, to devolve the relevant powers to the Scottish Parliament so the Scottish Government could do so. The law needs to change to protect the people who supervise the rooms and to enable the relevant police forces to take a consistent stance that does not set them apart from the rest of the judicial system.
Ian C. Lucas MP [Intervention]
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), I think the evidence is important. I am confused about the position in Scotland, where criminal justice is devolved. The hon. Gentleman referred to devolution, so will he clarify why the UK Parliament needs to take that step? I am genuinely interested.
Ronnie Cowan MP
Certain aspects of the law are not devolved to Scotland and the laws we require to allow people to work in these facilities with impunity rest here at Westminster. I want those laws to be devolved to Scotland, because we have the appetite to do the job.
The Prime Minister’s response was that she knows some people are more liberal about drugs than she is. She is not minded to do anything, which completely misses the point. It is not about having a liberal attitude but about compassion and treatment for vulnerable people.
Douglas Ross MP [Intervention]
Before we move too far away from law enforcement in Scotland, will the hon. Gentleman explain what the police’s response would be if he were to get the powers devolved? Would they be asked to ignore people in possession on their way to such venues, regardless of how far away they were?
Ronnie Cowan MP
The police would have the authority to stay within the law. We would not ask them to turn their eye from people who were breaking the law. The law would allow people to carry in their own drugs.
Douglas Ross MP
From how far?
Ronnie Cowan MP
The limit from which a drug may be carried in has not been defined. The point is that the Scottish Government and the Lord Advocate have asked for this facility to happen.
Douglas Ross MP
The Lord Advocate?
Ronnie Cowan MP
The alternative would be having people shooting up in alleys and contracting HIV and hepatitis C. That might be what the hon. Gentleman wants to see in Scotland; it is not what I want to see anywhere in the United Kingdom.
Nobody is saying that drugs are for everybody or that drugs are great. What I and many others are saying is that if we want to stop damaging society and help the many individuals who have a drug addiction problem, we need to change our approach. DCRs are not a magic wand or a silver bullet and they will not resolve every issue, but they are humane, productive and cost-effective. The total operating costs of the Glasgow safer drug consumption facility and heroin-assisted treatment facility are estimated at £2.3 million per annum. A 2009 Scottish Government research paper suggested that in 2006, the cost attributed to illegal drug use in Scotland was around £3.5 billion.
The Vancouver Insite DCR costs the Canadian taxpayers 3 million Canadian dollars per year. The facility claims that for every dollar spent, four are saved, as they are preventing expensive medical treatments for addicts further down the line. That figure is recognised in many other countries. A 2011 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that Vancouver’s Insite safe injecting room saves lives with no negative impact on public safety in the neighbourhood, and that between eight and 51 overdose deaths were averted in a four-year period. A study in Sydney showed fewer emergency call-outs related to overdoses at the time safe injecting rooms were operating. A study of Danish drug consumption found that Danish DCR clients were empowered to feel
“like citizens rather than scummy junkies”
—their words, not mine.
These findings corroborate other investigations that DCRs are an essential step towards preventing marginalisation and stigmatisation. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde estimates that the annual cost to the taxpayer of each problem drug user is £31,438. It further estimates that the introduction of a new heroin-assisted treatment service could save over £940,000 of public money by providing care for just 30 people who successfully engage with the treatment. Even if we did not give a damn about people with addictions, it would make good financial sense to provide those facilities. It is more cost-effective to provide DCRs than it is to pick up the bill after the damage has been done.
DCRs are more than just a practical solution; they are humane, compassionate and financially effective. I can think of only two reasons why the UK Government are so resistant to the proposal: either they are stuck in an ideological mindset that people with addictions are not ill but are the product of poor lifestyle choices, or they simply do not care. The UK Government have stated:
“It is for local areas in the UK to consider, with those responsible for law enforcement, how best to deliver services to meet their local population needs.
We are committed to taking action to prevent the harms caused by drug use and our approach remains clear: we must prevent drug use in our communities, help dependent individuals recover, while ensuring our drugs laws are enforced.”
That cowardly stance simply underlines the UK Government’s disengagement from the reality of the situation. It pushes responsibility on to the shoulders of local administrations and the police force, while refusing to furnish them with the legal powers to act responsibly within the law. The Home Office-led study “Drugs: International Comparators” from 2014 concluded that there was
“some evidence for the effectiveness of drug consumption rooms in addressing the problems of public nuisance associated with open drug scenes, and in reducing health risks for drug users.”
It also said that the ECMDDA report
“considers that on the basis of available evidence, DCRs can be an effective local harm reduction measure in places where there is demonstrable need”.
Despite the evidence that DCRs are financially viable, the United Kingdom Government have chosen to ignore it. Can the Minister please tell me why?
In conclusion, I once again ask: will the UK Government look at the growing body of evidence and change the law to allow DCRs to be opened in the UK without fear of prosecution? Will the UK Government devolve the relevant powers to Scotland to allow the SNP Government to pursue ambitious and innovative new measures to tackle the public health issues of unsafe drug consumption?
Ronnie Cowan MP
I shall do my best to summarise what we have heard this afternoon, and many confident and concerted voices from different political parties have described where we have been getting things wrong, and where we get them right. I thank you, Mr Rosindell, for the opportunity to speak, and the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) for securing this debate.
The hon. Gentleman identified progress that has been made since the 1970s. Attitudes have changed dramatically. He said that the Government must provide opportunities to get people back into work. He highlighted that 80% of adults without a disability are in work, but that only 49% of those with a disability who are able to work are in work. That figure drops dramatically to 36% in Northern Ireland and 42% in Scotland. He also talked about encouraging employers to sign up to the Disability Confident scheme. We would all echo that sentiment.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) reiterated the need to have debates such as this in the main Chamber. Like her, I have hosted disability conferences and events in my constituency, and I urge all Members to follow suit. She highlighted the fact that to close the current employment gap would take 50 years at its current rate, which is simply not acceptable. She also raised the importance of apprenticeships and helping people with disabilities to start their own businesses, and mentioned the facility for disabled internships here in Westminster.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) zeroed in on the practicalities of employing people with disabilities, including autism, and said that the lack of personalisation in the process only compounds the difficulties and knocks the applicant’s confidence. The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) identified some big employers as being engaged, but believes that most small and medium-sized enterprises are not as capable, or perhaps less well informed, when it comes to taking up such opportunities. He highlighted how to run a reverse jobs fair—an event I have also organised in my constituency. Such events are precious because they allow employers and employees to network with each other over the course of one working day, which can prove invaluable.
The hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) spoke about the benefit to the workplace of a diverse team and the value that that can bring. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) emphasised that this issue is perhaps more about employers than employees, and the benefits and fundamental decency of the Disability Confident scheme. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) spoke about removing barriers, including employer uncertainty. That links back to my earlier point about networking events and introducing employers that have successfully employed people with a disability with those that are hesitant and need help to bridge the gap. That confidence gap can be bridged by such events.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) spoke about how changing attitudes and cultures is crucial. The importance of the Access to Work scheme was re-emphasised, and that should be echoed by us all. The hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) said that she has visited a number of local employers that have signed up to the scheme and are already reaping its benefits. She asked the Minister to work across Departments to improve all aspects of the recruitment and retention process.
Only about 49% of working-age disabled adults are in employment compared with 80% of those with no disability. Although many disabled adults make important contributions to the economy, others face barriers to employment. Breaking down those barriers and creating inclusive workplaces is good not only for individuals who are able to get into work, but for the whole country. Disabled people have the same ambitions, aspirations and work ethic as others, but they are under-represented across a broad range of industries. We should maximise the skills and talent of everyone who can contribute to our economy.
Employers should be aware that support is available to them to help to remove the barriers that prevent disabled people from utilising their talents. I strongly encourage all employers to seek out such support. Hiring disabled people is not just a moral issue; it makes good business sense. Research highlighted by a previous Minister for Disabled People, the right hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), showed that 92% of consumers think more favourably of businesses that hire people with disabilities, and that 87% of people would prefer to give their custom to companies that recruit disabled people.
In the past, we have seen how misconceptions have prevented disabled people from taking up employment opportunities. We must challenge those misconceptions. The Scottish Government have a number of programmes to help disabled people as they seek employment, including the targeted employment recruitment incentive, which is helping young people who are disabled or who have additional support needs. The Disability Confident campaign will complement that work, but we should be clear that, although much has already been done, there is still much more to do.