The Home Office admits it: Tough enforcement does not lower drug use

It is the most significant report on drugs the British government has published for 40 years.

Today's Home Office report on international drug laws concludes that tough drug enforcement does not decrease use of illegal drugs. For the first time in nearly half a century, the report ends government insistence that the only way to crack down on drug use is to use draconian measures against personal possession. This is arguably the most important moment in British drug policy for a generation.

The evidence-based report looks at the health-led approach adopted in Portugal, which decriminalised drugs alongside public health initiatives. It resulted in reductions in all types of drug use. They compared this to countries such as Japan, which are much harsher. One of the main differences was that the health of drug users was much better in Portugal, where they were directed to health services.

It also kept an open mind about experiments in a liberal approach to cannabis in Washington, Colorado and Uruguay, where it says it is "too early to know how they will play out but we will monitor the impacts of these new policies in the years to come".

The report, which was led by Liberal Democrat Home Office minister Norman Baker, has been held up for months as the department recognised how damaging an evidence-based report would be to its long-held drug policies. It could only be published after the two coalition parties agreed to publish it alongside a tough report on legal highs. This emphatically rejected the New Zealand model of regulating new drugs and instead suggested a blanket ban.

If the Home Office thought the twin publishing plan would reduce the impact of the report, it was very much mistaken. The Home Office insists anything Baker says about the report is just a statement of his party's position. But the content of this report was written by civil servants, not Baker. This is an official Home Office report, signed off by home secretary Theresa May, putting the lie to 40 years of government policy.

The Home Office statement which followed was standard:

"This government has absolutely no intention of decriminalising drugs. Our drugs strategy is working and there is a long-term downward trend in drug misuse in the UK. It is right that we look at drugs policies in other countries and today's report summarises a number of these international approaches."

The downward trend is real, but the report puts the lie to the claim that it's due to government policy. For a start, it is international and also taking place in countries pursuing more liberal policies.

No-one is entirely sure why the decline is happening, although it is thought it could be linked to the decreasing popularity of smoking. Cannabis makes up the lion's share of illicit drug use and some experts believe the drug has declined in popularity, like tobacco, because smoking itself is increasingly seen as unfashionable. As cannabis rates fall, they drag down general drug use rates.

The report comes as the drugs debate arrives in the House of Commons for the first time in years. The Commons lags behind public debate on most issues, but in the case of the drug debate it can barely be seen in the rear-view mirror.

The debate was only triggered because of public pressure, with 135,000 people signing an online petition saying current drug laws are not working. Even so, few MPs are expected to attend.

It was called by Caroline Lucas of the Greens, who will likely be joined by Liberal Democrat MPs. The party has taken a brave stance on the issue. Labour and Tories will likely stay away.

Ahead of the vote, Anne-Marie Cockburn will be travelling to parliament to talk to MPs. Her daughter died after taking half a gram of ecstasy powder. It would have been her birthday today.

Since then Cockburn has called for drugs to be regulated by doctors and pharmacists. The ecstasy her daughter took was 91% pure, compared to an average street purity of 58%. Regulation would have made it unlikely she would have taken such a large amount.

A poll in the Sun today showed the public are way ahead of the political class on the issue. Seventy-one per cent believe the war on drugs has failed while 65% back a legal review. This tallies with an Ipsos Mori poll for the Transform Drugs Policy Foundation late last year which showed 53% of the public want cannabis legalised or decriminalised and 67% want a review of Britain's approach to drugs.

The movement of the Sun on the issue has been revealing. The paper, whose authoritarian instinct on issues of crime has long explained MPs' aversion to drug law reform, is now unashamedly liberal in its approach. Its editorial today read:

"We can't just carry on with the status quo. Something has to change."

The Sun's change on the issue hints at why Labour has not savaged the Liberal Democrats for the liberal position the party has adopted over recent months. Back in the day, attacks on 'loopy' Lib Dem policies on drugs were a cornerstone of Labour's approach to the party. Not anymore. Labour may not be willing to engage in the drug debate, but you can see that it no longer considers it a club it can beat political opponents with.

The thinking on drugs changed long ago. As the prime minister said in 2002, before becoming curiously silent on the issue:

"I mean it's like the elephant on our doorstep. It was hard to think of a more pressing subject that needed investigation. Are we not mad if we don't pursue a policy which cuts crime, saves lives and improves public health and safety?"

Now we just need the political establishment to admit what has been bubbling under the surface this entire time. The Home Office has been forced to admit it. Now MPs need to take account of the evidence and public opinion.

Grayling forces through probation sell-off despite safety fears

Nothing was ever going to stop him. This morning, with the threat of legal proceedings hanging over his head, a general election in half a year's times and serious concerns about a breakdown in public safety, Chris Grayling announced his preferred bidders for the probation service.

Despite all the usual talk of a diversity of suppliers including charities and voluntary groups, private firms were the overwhelming winners.

Sodexo picked up the largest number of contracts. One gave it a monopoly in the north east, where it also runs Northumberland prison. So it will now be paid for reducing reoffending and (rather more) for increasing the prison population. Whatever happens, Sodexo wins.

The ministerial statement, which was sneaked out with a minimum of fuss, mentions 80 bidders, but by my count there were only eight cleaning up on the 21 contracts.

  • Sodexo, in partnership with charity Nacro, won six contracts.
  • Purple Futures, a partnership which includes some charities but is led by private firm Interserve, won five.
  • Working Links, "a public, private and voluntary company", won three.
  • The Reducing Reoffending Partnership, a joint venture involving a private firm and two charities, won two.
  • MTCNovo, a joint venture involving corporations, charities and "third sector shareholders" won two.
  • Geo Mercia Willowdene, a joint venture involving a private firm, a "social enterprise" and a probation staff mutual, won one.
  • ARCC, the only joint venture which doesn't seem to involve a private firm, won one.
  • Seetec Business Technology Centre, a private company, won one contract.

To have proceeded with this sell-off amid the growing evidence of a threat to public safety from the spitting up of probation is highly irresponsible. Even worse, ministers are doing so while refusing to publish the safety tests the department has conducted.

And to top it all off, the Ministry of Justice is adding 'poison pill' clauses which will prevent a future government undoing the sell-off if it proves to be disastrous.

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said:

"There's been no testing or piloting to see if this will work and won't put the public's safety at risk, and all of the concerns of Labour, experts and probation staff have been swatted away. It's also unacceptable that ministers are going out of their way to tie the hands of future governments to multi-billion pound contracts for ten years. This government's reckless and half-baked privatisation has resulted in a meltdown in probation. Dedicated and experienced staff are demoralised or are leaving the profession, offenders are going unsupervised and this chaos is putting the safety of communities up and down the country at risk."

National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) general secretary Ian Lawrence said:

"The fact so few organisations have won contracts also suggests that this has been a flawed competition with little or no real interest from providers in taking these contracts on. Grayling has made a written statement to parliament rather than risk having to answer questions in the House. Yet again he is trying to avoid scrutiny which is in our view further evidence of a lack of transparency in the whole process."

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

"As we expected, the big winner of the probation sell-off is not the voluntary sector but large private companies run for profit. The Ministry of Justice will claim it has created a diverse market, but Sodexo and Interserve are the companies running half of all the contracts. Given we are close to a general election, it is particularly disgraceful that these contracts include 'poison pill' clauses preventing a future government from revising these untested and ill-thought-through reforms if and when they fail. That is not just reckless but fundamentally undemocratic."

None of this is surprising. We knew the announcement was coming – in fact we expected it earlier. And the dominance of private firms in supposedly diverse bidding arrangements is par for the course. Private firms typically outbid charities then hand them the unprofitable sub-contracted work. But the sheer pig-headedness with which this is being pursued is flabbergasting. And the decision to make it financially ruinous to reverse is a betrayal of the taxpayer.

Officers say public are in danger - so why won't MoJ publish its safety test?

Article updated: See below

Before the killing, he already had a history of domestic violence. Back in the day, before the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) separated out the probation service into multiple units to prepare them for privatisation, he would have been allocated to a trained officer. But under the chaotic new system, he was put under the supervision of a trainee probation officer. Home visits were supposed to have been undertaken every four months, but this didn't happen. In the end, he murdered his partner and then took his own life.

That was one of the stories told by probation staff to lawyers representing the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) after they asked for evidence of dangers in the MoJ's new system. There are many more.

People don't really have a clear idea of what probation is. They are much more worked up by the privatisation of forests or mail services than they are about the supervision of those who have committed a crime. But when forests are privatised, we lose somewhere to take a walk. When probation is privatised, people die.

The problem with Chris Grayling's probation policy is very common to privatisation, regardless of the sector. The first thing which happens is you atomise the service. What was once one organisation with clear lines of communication is sliced up into multiple bodies, where responsibility is unclear and information is not shared efficiently.
Grayling cut the probation service in two, keeping high-risk offenders with the still publicly-owned National Probation Service and handing low-and-medium-risk offenders to various 'Community Rehabilitation Companies'. These were then given a bit of time to bed-in until they are sold off to private firms to run.

The problem is people are not units in an Excel spreadsheet. They are complex beings, who migrate from low to medium to high risk and back again without regard for a probation officer's formal responsibilities or the commercial contracts handed out by the MoJ. Officers do not have easy access to information about the people under their care. 

Cases passed up to the national service from the rehabilitation companies are sometimes not taken, or left to sit there for a while. Overwork in both the companies and the service has led to dangerous cases being missed.

A legal warning sent to Treasury solicitors by lawyers acting for Napo lays out the evidence for their concerns. Lawyers had gone to Napo's annual general meeting and asked members about their personal experiences. What follows is what probation officers themselves thought the splitting-up of the service had done, in their personal experience. It's not perfect data. By virtue of being Napo members, officers are likely to be extremely critical of the privatisation plan. But we do not have any other evidence. The MoJ refuses to publish its own safety evaluations.

Staff in the rehabilitation companies say they are dangerously overworked, with their targets being significantly ratcheted up. One officer was mistakenly allocated three high risk cases. She says she was already overworked, so the arduous process of reallocating them prevented her devoting sufficient time to an offender convicted of serious assault in a pub. The offender has since been charged with murder committed while under the supervision of the rehabilitation company.

Another officer says they were so overworked they could not dedicate sufficient time to a female offender who was being bullied by her partner. She was found dead from a drugs overdose, with an investigation ongoing as to whether it was deliberate or accidental.

An offender convicted of child cruelty was assessed by staff at a rehabilitation company to be high risk, but the probation service rejected the transfer request. Rehabilitation company staff have therefore been left with it, even though the offender downplays the abuse and has now entered a relationship with a partner who has two children under the age of 16. Staff believe the children are at an unacceptable risk of harm.

Overwork at the probation service means oral reports are often given to courts instead of standard reports. Officers believe this leads to inadequate risk assessments. One offender with a history of domestic violence had threatened a 13-year-old child with a samurai sword. Following an oral report they were sentenced to a community order. Ten days later they broke into their partner's home and held her underwater with a bike chain. 

And then there are the more minor cases, stemming from lack of information about the offender. A female rehabilitation company staff member was unable to access the risk assessment of an offender she was required to interview. If she had done, she would have known it was unsafe for a single female officer to be alone with him. During the meeting he took out his penis and started masturbating in front of her.

Another delivering a cognitive-behavioural programme aimed at reducing violence also found they were unable to access offender records. They ended up with two rival gang members in the same building at the same time.

Or there are the flashes of danger and violence which come from top-down ministerial initiatives imposing themselves on delicate real world situations. One probation service officer was asked to accompany another officer to her first meeting with an offender who had been reallocated to her. The offender had made good progress, but was aggrieved at being reallocated and became very aggressive. The probation service officer, who had been in the service for six years, said it was the single most dangerous incident he had faced in that time.

Napo feels the current system is unsafe for staff, offenders and the public. Rigorous safety tests are therefore needed before the contracts are signed and it is made permanent. The MoJ says it has conducted safety tests. But it refuses to make them public.

It did not conduct a full pilot. Instead it froze the system post-break-up but pre-sell-off and treated that as a pilot. It says it has built in "a process of ongoing rigorous testing". The MoJ insisted it would not enter into a binding contract unless Grayling was "satisfied that he had sufficient evidence that it is safe to do so". But it's not prepared to release information on what basis he's making that decision. We are being asked to trust him.

The MoJ refused a freedom of information request on the safety tests, saying it would be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs.

In an act of almost Kafkaesque logical contortion, the MoJ criticised lawyers for failing to provide evidence of the deficiencies, the very nature and content of which they refuse to disclose. This is what forced lawyers to start gathering evidence from probation officers themselves. They've now sent the evidence above, together with many other cases, to Grayling. They ask that he considers it. If he thinks there are risks to be assessed, he should explain how he will do so. If not, he should say on what evidence he bases this view.

Failure to do so means Naop will pursue a judicial review, just days after the Lords prevented Grayling from effectively getting rid of the legal mechanism. One wonders why he took such dislike to it.

Lawyers are also threatening Grayling with a private law duty in his duty of care to probation staff, who they say are being put needlessly at risk by the break-up.

This is now down to the wire. The Treasury solicitors, who deal with these sorts of letters, had until 16:00 last Friday to reply to the letter. They did so at 16:05, asking for another two days. The new deadline is today at 16:00. But there are rumours that the sell-off of the companies may also be announced today. We've been expecting it since last month.

There is an easy out for Grayling here. Lawyers say they will give more time if he undertakes not to sign contracts on the rehabilitation companies until 21 days after he provides a "substantive response" to the evidence provided by Napo. As a basic standard of ensuring public safety, that should not be an arduous undertaking to give. But the suspicion remains that, as with other privatisations, it is ideology, not facts on the ground, which are driving the policy.

Update 18:03

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said:

"To paint a picture of systematic failure is scaremongering and simply not true - public protection is, and will always remain, a top priority.

"Our crucial reforms are being rolled out in a measured way, with thorough testing at every stage.

"Each year there are more than half a millions crimes committed by those who have broken the law before. Living with the status quo just means accepting more crime and more victims, and that is not acceptable."

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