Approved Premises (Substance Testing) Bill Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Approved Premises (Substance Testing) Bill

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Excerpts
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Sater. She is a former magisterial colleague of mine; we sat in the same youth court together for many years and we have both seen the types of cases to which she referred in the opening part of her speech. We in the Labour Party broadly support the Bill and welcome in particular the attempts to identify substance abuse in approved premises. This will allow the Government to respond effectively and flexibly to the changing patterns of drug misuse.

In my 15 years as a magistrate, I have seen the types of drugs coming to both youth courts and adult courts change multiple times. I understand that there is a constantly changing landscape and that testing regimes need to change to reflect that reality. We are happy to see that this Bill is about providing assistance with rehabilitation first, and prosecution second. Residents who test positive for drugs will be directed to appropriate substance misuse organisations first; if their behaviour continues, punitive sanctions could be implemented. However, this should not be seen as a substitute for what the Government must do: namely, invest in treatments, harm-reduction initiatives and supportive policies to reduce the prevalence of substance misuse in the community.

The noble Baroness—I might say “my noble friend” in this context—talked about urine testing. We welcome the introduction of urine testing alongside oral fluid testing. She spoke also about the greater range of substances that need to be tested. I have certainly been on a number of prison visits over the years where we have been told of the ever more imaginative ways of getting psychoactive substances into the prison. It is a constant battle for prison officers to try to reduce the number of these substances getting into the premises. She also spoke about anonymous sample testing. This is a reality of the situation, if I can put it like that. I have certainly heard the argument that, if the sample testing is anonymised, it is more likely to give a realistic reflection of the drug use in the institution being tested.

I shall say something about the background statistics, as I know the Minister is very keen on his statistics. The figures that I have are that, between September 2012 and August 2017, there were 46 deaths in approved premises and 29 of those were linked to drugs. In 2018-19, there were 20 deaths and, in 2019-20, there were 21. It is unclear how many of those are linked to drugs, but those were deaths in approved premises.

In 2017-18, the annual report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and the Probation Service said the use of synthetic drugs and psychoactive substances was getting out of control and that the problem was spreading to removal centres as well as approved premises, so it is a widespread problem. I think testing is part of the solution to that, but the real key is that the ministry has a realistic understanding of the extent of the problem. I support the noble Baroness’s Bill.