Why Politicians Lie about Drugs

Phil Chan (flikr)

Politicians lie about drugs because pretty much everyone else does.

Along with a few trades union colleagues, I recently had a chat with President Santos of Colombia and the subject of you-know-what came up, as it does there.  It turns out that Scotland is the highest per capita consumer of cocaine in the world.  Scotland also happens to be the fifth highest per capita consumer of heroin with pretty much all of it coming from Afghanistan (which is also, naturally, in the top five).  Around 99% of heroin destined for Scotland actually makes it to the streets.

But hang on.  Isn’t there a war against drugs on; from Colombia to the place where there’s a regular war going on too?  And aren’t the prices of cocaine and heroin, both pretty pure markets where price is a strong indicator of availability, both stable – some say declining even?  In other words, regardless of what governments the world over say they’d like to do about drugs, the simple fact is that they flow freely to wherever the demand exists and there seems little we can do about it.

Looking at the issue from another perspective; last year over 15000 people in Scotland died directly as the result of imbibing nicotine and over 1500 died directly of alcohol poisoning.  That’s leaving aside all the ill-health caused by smoking and the fact that cops I know report that 95% of the violence they encounter at the weekend is alcohol-fuelled.  On the other hand, while around 500 people died from heroin abuse, the figure for cocaine (actually, where  cocaine was at least present in post-mortems) was 3o.  For ecstasy, a class A drug up there with heroin, it was (maybe) two – again other drugs were apparently present when those post-mortems were conducted. So  how does our treatment of the various drugs available widely for public consumption, legally and illegally, in any way reflect the risk to individuals or society at large? Of course it doesn’t.

The banning of methodrone just before the general election, agreed by all parties, was a perfect illustration of how the drugs lie operates.  Two people were found dead having consumed a bunch of substances; methodrone, legal at that point, was one of them.  But the legal high provided by ‘drone’ was always an easy target – who, after all, is anyone to have a legal high?  A legal high, put in those terms, is really a pejorative designed to strike a moral distinction between certain types of (legal) consumption by certain  types of people (mainly young) and the consumption of other options (the choices on the whole of the less-young).  It turns out that neither of the post-mortems in this case revealed a even a trace of methodrone.  The legislation was of course simply designed to make everyone feel good about fighting the scourge of drugs while actually doing nothing of any real value about it.

Doing something of value would involve ending the lie.  In the meantime, we’ll continue to allow drugs barons and terrrorists the world over to profit from the drugs trade.  We’ll criminalise some of the most needy people in society and we’ll continue to pretend to chase cocaine amongst the middle-classes.  I don’t advocate drugs legalisation; but a bit more thought and honesty from politicians and, more to the point, the public, would yield worthwhile advances – I’m addicted to that idea.


What you can (still) do about the DE Bill.

The next working day  at the House of Commons, Tuesday, will see the DE Bill passed unamended, passed amended or put off until the next parliament.  I’ve blogposted about his below, and it’s obviously the case that the Bill should ideally be fully exposed to the formal scrutiny of the Committee Stage and then a Third Reading.  Arguments that the thing has been scrutinised in the Lords and that’s enough are daft, frankly, or what would ever be the point of bills going through the  Commons (i.e. that old elected bit)?

Thanks to Sinister in flikr

As far as amendments are concerned, the disconnection clause is a no-brainer.  Yet while there seem to be good arguments about other parts, much of the stuff I see on Twitter is mainly sloganising amongst and between folk who are pretty much subject-matter experts.  I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, but it’s simply a fact that with most MP’s thinking about the election (bear in mind the Bill will be competing with a likely General Election announcement that day) and not necessarily prioritising the DE Bill anyway, sloganising will simply be ignored by most.  I’ve seen folk on Twitter complaining that they’ve had formulaic letters from some MPs, but if they’re a reply to formulaic complaints (and I’m not saying everyone has sent formulaic letters!) then you can really can’t blame the MP.  MPs get a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff and we tend to concentrate our efforts on issues where constituents have contacted us and placed their concerns into their own localised context.  I appreciate that it might seem odd to suggest that the DE Bill should be seen in a localised way, but MPs start with their constituents’ concerns then generalise out to how these concerns interact with legislation. That’s really the essence of our job.

IMHO, if people want their concerns heard properly, a petition on the Downing Street website, or formulaic tweets, really aren’t going to do it. Although reasoned tweets are certainly worthwhile and can be sent here to any MP.  People really need to contact their local MP and follow through on Tuesday morning.  Decent MP’s will realise folk deserve a fast answer to something which is imminent that day.  But more important than an answer is a chance to influence how they’re thinking.  Most MPs will be sensitive to the lack of scrutiny of such a huge bill in the Commons if constituents raise it with them.  It’s obviously also worth raising your concerns about a specific clause.  Crucially, ask them to attend and make an intervention during the Second Reading and make their concerns known in advance.

Potentially, there’s a lot of support for either a significant amendment (I’ve flagged the disconnection clause above) or for a delay altogether. But party politics will now, of course,  come into it big style.  The Lib Dems have, opportunistically at this late stage, decided to oppose the bill although it’s not clear what changes they want.  Labour and the Tories want it to pass.  In the latter case, it’s because most of the bill is necessary and fine and we all know problems can be revisited using Statutory Instruments (SIs, see my post below).  But of course for anything significant to change at all it needs MPs of all parties (most still don’t tweet, remember) to be alerted to the strength of feeling about the bill.

I’m going to send a note to all of my colleagues for Tuesday morning and follow up with as many conversations during the day as I can.  There are quite a few sympathetic MPs already.  Then there’s the Second Reading itself.  But the more folk who contact their own MP the better.  So it’s pretty much up to you all in that respect.

This is a pretty long post – better to get it out than spend more time making it shorter, I reckon.

There it is.

Thanks to Sinister  from flikr for the piccy.

One MP’s view, for what it’s worth, on the DE Bill (#debill)

The Digital Economy (DE) Bill, #debill on Twitter,  will have its second reading in the House of Commons on 6 April.  Second readings are general debates, always followed by a detailed committee stage attended by a representative sample of nominated MPs and which, in the case of the DE Bill, might reasonably be allocated 40 or more hours of debate. Bills pepper-pot between the Commons and Lords, and process depends upon whether the bill is introduced in the Commons or Lords.  But in the end, the bill gets a Third Reading (less detailed that the Committee Stage but still clause-by-clause) in the Commons then goes back to the Lords, then Queen for Royal Assent. Then it’s an Act.  The Law of the Land.

I sat on the Committee Stage of the Communications Bill a few years ago. It had the longest committee stage of any bill, ever, at the time. The DE Bill is its successor. It covers all the stuff every reader here will know about.  It’s complex and important.  It was put together by Stephen Carter, former head of OFCOM (which the Communications Act created) and a very capable businessman. Carter worked at no.10 for a short while, but it didn’t go well.  Understandably, he lacked the political antennae. He was then popped into the Lords, in theory as a minister but in reality more like an official, to put the DE Bill together.  In effect, OFCOM became part of the government for a bit. Some folk were a little uncomfortable with the idea of the immediate ex-head of OFCOM writing the law for OFCOM to implement.  But in truth, Carter was probably the best man to do it.  Not the best person, perhaps, but as far as I can see such jobs are for boys only.

The result of Carter’s labours was the DE Bill.  It’s been tweaked a little since, but not much.  On the whole, it’s a sensible and competent piece of work. Most people agree with most of what’s in it.  That’s not enough to make law, of course. That’s the point of the Committee stage and the Third Reading, and indeed the scrutiny in the Lords.  Scrutiny is partly about the opposition posturing and essentially being an opposition.  But crucially, it’s also where flaws get ironed out.  Without proper scrutiny there’s a risk, even with a small bill, that you’ll get bad law.  And the DE Bill isn’t small. It’s huge.  And it has flaws.  I won’t rehearse the flaws here; that’s a bunch of blogposts in itself.  Instead, the main flag I want to hoist here (although you need only check out #debill on Twitter for a myriad of reasons), is that it looks like the bill isn’t going to get proper scrutiny. And if it doesn’t, it will be bad law evidenced by the devil in the detail.

When we get to the end of a parliamentary term the party chief whips, business managers, get together.  They look at the unfinished business, like stuff which hasn’t had a Third Reading yet, and agree what uncontentious business can go through on the nod. This process is called the ‘wash-up’. This ensures that decent legislation on which all the parties agree (i.e. there’d have been no vote during or after scrutiny in any case) can hit the statute books in spite of running out of time.  The trouble in the case of the DE Bill, though, is twofold.  First, it has flaws that need addressing. Second, it is patently obviously contentious.

The flaws in the Bill aren’t drafting errors; they’re about business and civil liberty politics.  Ultimately, they’re about the values embedded into the clauses. And they’re where Carter, I think, misjudged the politics.  Carter appeared on Newsnight with his finished product. Because he’s a media pro he probably thought he’d be fine.  It wasn’t fine – it was a disaster.  He didn’t get Paxman and he doesn’t get politics.  His very competent piece of work should therefore have had a serious going over by an experienced politician.  Had Sion Simon, the relevant minister after Carter’s departure, been allowed to do the job I think the flaws would have been fixed.  Instead, he was pushed out of the way and the very able, and lovely, Stephen Timms was given the task part-time (in addition to being a very busy Treasury minister). So here we are.  The bill is flawed and parliament has run out of time.  What to do?

There are three options.  First, Second reading followed by wash-up.  Through it goes in its current form.  Supported by all parties.  Second, and i’m not sure if this is truly an option, the Second Reading is followed by a truncated (i.e. a couple of hours) of Committee of the Whole House (where the Speaker steps down and the main chamber in effect becomes a committee of the house), then a short Third Reading, all on 6 April. This way, some but surely not all of the trickinesses might be ironed out.  The parties could also all agree that amendments will be brought forward in the new parliament in the form of Statutory Instruments (SIs, or tiny bills in themselves).  Third, since all parties want to pass the bill, they could all agree to bring it back again in its entirety in the new parliament whoever is in power.

I don’t know if the second option above is available or would even work.  My instinct is not.  But, failing that, it should fall and be brought forward in the new parliament.

Fundamentally, I think, with most MPs understandably behind the curve on digital engagement, parliament hasn’t had a chance to truly internalise the interest-dynamics, the values, the principles behind this Bill. Most crucially, there are a lot of smart folk out there who have good reasons for objecting to it in it’s current form. Politicians spend a lot of time talking about engaging with the disengaged; of the importance of, for example, new digital media.  If we truly believe in that, then the bill won’t go through on wash-up.

Kelly and ‘DUAL MANDATE’ politicians

I wasn’t going to go all political over Christmas, but @andyreeves on Twitter has raised the fact that an SNP MSP has demanded the end of dual mandates as per the Kelly Report and I can’t resist a wee comment.

I think the most important thing about this debate is not that a couple of Labour MSPs are standing for the UK parliament, nor that Alex Salmond is presently a dual mandate MP/MSP.  I think that’s best left up to voters.  It’s that it seems horribly obvious that Kelly stepped miles outside of his mandate and competence to make the proposal in the first place yet it looks like becoming received orthodoxy.

Did he really mean to prevent movement between the parliaments?  Did he give any thought to Councillors or Peers?  Was it his place to say who people could and could’t vote for in any case?  Most crucially, is it really appropriate that a constitutional matter like this should have been approached on the basis of cost reduction?

It would be a very simple matter to say that an elected representative can only receive one salary if they are dual-mandated. So if cost-reduction was Kelly’s intent that would have been the logical recommendation.  But Kelly seems to have deliberately gone beyond this to recommend a constitutional measure which should surely be a matter of wide democratic debate.  He is, after all, demanding a pretty significant constraint on the principle of political freewill, albeit one at the margins of everyday practice.

For the record, you know how it is, I’ll never seek election to any other parliament than the one I’m a member of and I think most of Kelly’s recommendations are fairly sensible.  But I am alarmed that any single individual should claim the right to change the constitution without further discussion.