by Stephen Tall on December 14, 2012
Welcome to the 24th in our series, Liberal Hero of the Week, chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. ’Liberal Heroes’ showcases those who promote the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — highlighting individuals regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism then they’re in contention.
Home Affairs Select Committee
5 Conservative MPs, 4 Labour MPs and 1 Lib Dem
Reason: For proposing a more evidence-based and harm-reducing approach to drugs.
Drugs: it’s the third rail of British politics. Dare to take a serious look and come up with thoughtful recommendations for reforms which might actually work, and chances are an opponent will fling at you the allegation you’re “soft on drugs”. Kudos is due, therefore, to the cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee for its 3-volume report this week entitled, Drugs: Breaking the Cycle, a brave attempt to inject some semblance of realism into this hoary debate.
Their proposals are not actually that radical. The Committee has not called for the immediate and wholesale legalisation of all drugs. Rather, they’ve proposed an incremental approach, each stage underpinned by a careful assessment of the evidence both at home and overseas. Proposals include:
- setting up a Royal Commission (which will have to report by 2015),
- allocating ring-fenced funding to drugs policy research to ensure there’s better collection of sound data of the impact of different approaches to reduction,
- careful assessment of the impact in Portugal and the US states of Colorado and Washington of their experiences of decriminalisation, and
- for the UK to play its full part in the international debate about how to tackle the global drugs problem, including the possibility of legalisation and regulation.
Nothing to get too exercised about there, you’d have thought. But the Prime Minister and the Home Office immediately attempted to shut down discussion, ruling there was no reason to have further discussion, that government policies (the ‘war on drugs’) are working. This in spite of David Cameron’s earlier incarnation as a pro-drugs reform MP — indeed when, as a member of the same Home Affairs select committee, he looked at British drugs policy in 2002, Mr Cameron declared:
“Drugs policy in this country has been failing for decades. Drug abuse has increased massively, the number of drug-related deaths has risen substantially and drug-related crime accounts for up to half of all acquisitive crime. I hope that our report will encourage fresh thinking and a new approach. We need to get away from entrenched positions and try to reduce the harm that drugs do both to users and society at large.”
It’s not a view which survived being elected as Conservative leader.
In some ways, the drugs problem is alleviating. As the committee reports, drug use is falling — for example, in 2010, 18% of pupils reported that they had ever taken drugs and 12% said they had taken drugs in the last year, compared with 29% and 20% in 2001. Similarly, there has been a large decline in consumption of legal drugs, such as alcohol, suggesting a societal shift rather than the success of the Government’s war on drugs.
And there are signs that this ‘shut our ears to the evidence’ approach to policy-making is falling out of step with public opinion. The Sun newspaper — which has shown itself to be more even-handed than the Home Office in its response to the Home Affairs select committee this week — reports today a YouGov poll showing 60% of the public backs a Royal Commission, and 49% support either decriminalisation or legalisation of some drugs. Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, has also thrown his weight behind the report:
“If you were waging any other war where you have 2,000 fatalities a year, your enemies are making billions in profits, constantly throwing new weapons at you and targeting more young people — you’d have to say you are losing and it’s time to do something different. I’m anti-drugs — it’s for that reason I’m pro reform.”
Even Conservative MP Michael Fabricant, by no means a liberal softie, has shown himself to be more interested in evidence than rhetoric:
If we spent the money on educating ppl on what drugs are dangerous instead of attempting & failing to ban them, I suspect more effective.
— Michael Fabricant (@Mike_Fabricant) December 9, 2012
So perhaps the tide is turning, and we can now have a mature debate, both in Parliament and in public, that looks properly at the range of tricky issues involved. If so, the Home Affairs select committee will have played a valuable part.
Honourable mention: Julian Huppert
Lib Dem MP for Cambridge
Reason: For helping strike down the Draft Communications Data Bill (aka Internet Snoopers’ Charter)
Julian Huppert has had a pretty good week. He’s a member of the Home Affairs select committee — see above — and also a member of the Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Data Bill, which this week torpedoed the Coalition’s illiberal Draft Communications Data Bill (aka Internet Snoopers’ Charter). Dr Huppert noted in The Independent the dramatic extension of state powers without any adequate justification:
… the Home Office proposals go way beyond the current rules with virtually no safeguards, asking for powers for the Home Secretary to insist on any information about any communications being kept, via secret notices. Our committee has looked into this, and concludes ‘the draft Bill pays insufficient attention to the duty to respect the right to privacy, and goes much further than it need or should’.
And he pointed out on Lib Dem Voice the need for the Government to begin again:
Our lives are moving online. It would be ridiculous for the Government to be given a blanket power to watch over us, just as it would be ridiculous for us to stop the Government from ever accessing any communications data. The proposals got the balance between liberty and security utterly wrong.
For helping stop these badly conceived and illiberal proposals in their track, Julian Huppert is an undoubted Liberal Hero this week.