It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and I congratulate my Rt. Hon Friend, the Member for Chesham and Amersham, in her absence, for bringing this Bill here today.
The misuse of drugs is one of the biggest challenges facing the prison service. Drug misuse is rife and contributes to violence, crime and vulnerability within prisons, which threatens safety and the ability of our hard-working prison staff to deliver effective regimes.
Safety cannot be improved, and the prevention of reoffending and tackling serious and organised crime cannot be achieved without reducing the misuse of drugs in prisons.
We need to ask why the issue of drugs in prison a complex problem. We have to be tough and have zero tolerance regarding access to drugs in prison and a coordinated effort, across government and with relevant partners at a national, regional and local level, are required to limit the supply of drugs both inside and outside prisons.
We need to encourage people away from drug misuse. Once people become addicted to drugs it becomes a social and health care issue, not just a criminal one and so we also need to support those requiring rehabilitation treatment.
The scale of the problem is significant and has become more challenging in recent years. The last decade has seen a rapid growth in availability and use – but data is hard to come by due to changing chemicals and modifications to compounds. We might all have heard stories of books being brought into prisons with each page coated in spice, but members of a gang, known as the Wrexham gang, were convicted of impregnating A4 pictures of motorbikes with spice and sending them to local prisons.
Whilst evidence indicates that psychoactive substances are predominantly used outside prison by those who are already illicit drug users, inside prisons is different and may not necessarily be used by those who are not habitual drug users.
Between 2012/13 and 2017/18, the rate of positive random tests for ‘traditional’ drugs in prisons increased by 50%, from 7% to 10.6%, and drug use in prisons is now widespread, particularly in male local and category C prisons.
The emergence of psychoactive substances such as synthetic cannabinoids has exacerbated the problem, and these are often used in conjunction with other drugs. In 2019/20, 10.5% of random mandatory drug tests in prisons were positive for traditional drugs such as cannabis and opiates. When psychoactive substances are included, the rate of positive tests rises to 14.0%.
Psychoactive substances are either naturally occurring, semi-synthetic or fully synthetic. They affect thought processes or an individual’s emotional state.
Synthetic cannabinoids are most prevalent and are particularly disruptive in prisons. Spice is the most commonly used name – but there are hundreds - another used is ‘legal highs.’
These psychoactive drugs have positive effects as well as negative ones. On the positive side effects include sedation, relaxation, euphoria – often giving prisoners a sense of escape from prison.
Evidence of negative impacts include cardiac, psychiatric and neurological impacts leading to violent and combative behaviour and often self-harm. Using these substances can lead to death.
These drugs are relatively low cost and certain types of these substances have only recently become detectable via Mandatory Drug Testing (in 2018).
There are evidence-based strategies which may help reduce psychoactive substance use in prisoners such as encouraging new, improved behaviour by reward or reinforcement which is usually more effective than punishing behaviour. Cognitive behavioural therapy treatments may also help.
However, for any treatment to work, people must have the capacity, opportunity and motivation to change – this is hard to achieve in prison without the right focus on substantial rehabilitative treatment.
The use of psychoactive substances was described as a "game changer" by the former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and its prevalence contributes to violence, crime and vulnerability both within and beyond the prison walls.
As I mentioned earlier, drug use by prisoners is not only harmful to their health but can also be disruptive, having a negative impact on the ability of hard-working prison staff to deliver meaningful and rehabilitative regimes
The detection of illicit drug use through mandatory drug testing is therefore an important tool to enable Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to understand the prevalence and nature of substance abuse in prisons.
The Bill seeks to enhance this capability, to help HMPPS and other agencies understand and respond to new and emerging patterns in drug use across the prison estate in England and Wales. As such, the Bill will extend the range of substances that can be tested for to cover all forms of psychoactive substance, as well as prescription and pharmacy medicines.
This Private Members’ Bill seeks to improve the capability of prisons in England and Wales to test for the use of illicit substances by prisoners.
The Bill simplifies the current process for adding newly identified psychoactive substances to existing prison officer and prison custody officer powers to carry out mandatory tests on prisoners for drugs and creates powers for prison officers and prison custody officers in private prisons to carry out mandatory tests on prisoners for prescription only and pharmacy medicines.
This Bill supports the Government’s continued efforts to improve safety and security in our prisons, where we have previously announced £100 million investment in prison security, as well as supporting delivery of the National Prison Drugs Strategy (published April 2019).
It is for these reason that I support this Bill ,laid before this House by my Rt. Hon Friend, the Member for Chesham and Amersham.