Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Before the hon. Gentleman goes back to those heady days for the history of this matter, will he confirm that the Conservative party supports the reclassification of cannabis from a class C to a class B drug?
Mr. Burrowes: I am grateful for that intervention, as it allows me to make it clear from the outset that we wholeheartedly support the reclassification of cannabis. Indeed, we have always regarded possession of the drug as a class B offence, and we welcome the Government’s U-turn in belatedly recognising the harm that it can inflict and its proper status as a class B drug.
The question at the heart of the motion is not reclassification, but how the class B offence should be enforced. Later, I shall say why the order that we are challenging will lead to a downgrading of enforcement, and explain why it will not ensure that we are tough on cannabis possession.
I do not propose to go too far into a history lesson, since we still have a globe-trotting Prime Minister, but I point out that penalty notices for disorder have changed. The notion of marching thugs to cash points was revised after only a few days to a recognition that the proper response had to be based on a fixed-penalty notice regime. Now, however, penalty notices do not apply simply to disorder. One would think that there was a clue in the title—after all, they are penalty notices for disorder—but the notices have been expanded to cover offences that go beyond what we would traditionally call disorder. They now apply to theft and other offences, including the possession of cannabis. It is the latter offence that is main focus of this debate.
The list of offences covered by notices could well have been longer than the one contained in part 1 of the schedule to the order. The Government originally intended to add 21 further offences, including making off without payment and taxi touting. Was it that the Government changed the list only after careful consideration, to leave us eventually with the revised order now before us? No, it was not: the list was revised only after an uproar from representative associations that had not been consulted properly. I understand that there was also a conversation between the Justice Secretary and the Mayor of London the weekend before the order was due to be considered in Committee. It was those steps that led the Government to think again.
A hastily redrafted statutory instrument that covered cannabis only was laid before Parliament. The statutory instrument relating to the motion before the House today was revoked and revised, and the 21-day period required for proper scrutiny was abridged. I draw the circumvention of normal process to the attention of the House to highlight the Government’s ham-fisted approach to that aspect of delegated legislation, and to expose the dangers of increasing out-of-court disposals.
The use of out-of-court penalties has grown out of all proportion, compared with the number of people coming before our courts. Across England and Wales, in the 12 months to last March, only 724,179 of the 1.4 million offenders “brought to justice”, as Government-speak would have it, actually came before the courts. This has been described in various forums as “justice in secret”, and as “duff justice” in a leader in The Times not so long ago. I would describe the practice as leading to soft justice. The House does not need to take my word for that, however. John Thornhill, chairman of the Magistrates Association, has said:
- “It is crucial for the public to have an open and transparent justice system where victims and witnesses will have confidence that offenders are being dealt with appropriately”.
To illustrate properly what is happening in our courts, and what would happen as a result of the statutory instrument that we have prayed against, I shall give the House an example of what has happened in Staffordshire. The situation came to light last August, when a letter was sent to all the magistrates in the county by the justices’ clerk. It highlights the consequences of the increasing use of on-the-spot fines. It says:
- “As a result of a reducing workload directly attributable to increased use of fixed penalties and cautions by the police and Crown Prosecution Service, a number of courts have had to be cancelled each week at each of our court houses…I am deeply concerned about the increased use by the prosecuting agencies of judicial powers but it seems that those powers are likely to be used increasingly given that they are a cheaper means of sentencing than by going through a judicial process.”