Baroness Zahida Manzoor’s maiden speech

It is a tradition for LDV to bring its readers copies of our new MPs’ and Peers’ first words in Parliament, so that we can read what is being said and respond. You can find all of the speeches in this category with this link. Today, Baroness Manzoor made her maiden speech in the House of Lords during a debate on drugs policy. Her words are reproduced below.

My Lords, it is a real honour and a privilege to take my place on these distinguished red Benches. I have been overwhelmed by the sincerity of the welcome and the warmth and generosity of spirit shown to me by noble Lords from all sides of your Lordships’ House. I thank you.

I also want to thank all the staff here for their dedicated service, and friendly and much valued support. My thanks go also to my two supporters, my noble friends Lord Lester and Lady Jolly, for all their help, encouragement and wise words. They have attempted to ensure that I have at least a basic grasp of the workings of your Lordships’ House—no mean feat.

I understand that a maiden speech should not be controversial, so you can imagine the look on the faces in my Whips’ office when told them that I intended to speak in this debate—start as you mean to go on, I say. I shall be brief, as I have only five minutes, but I hope that I can make further contributions at another time.

Today’s topic is of immense importance and presents our society and institutions with huge challenges, so I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for tabling this debate and thus enabling me to make my first contribution in your Lordships’ House.

Through my working life, and in particular nearly 20 years of work experience in the NHS, I have gained some knowledge of the impact and effects of illegal drug abuse on health services and witnessed the horrific cost, despair and misery that drugs can bring to the lives of individuals and their families.

The link between drug abuse or misuse and the negative impact on individuals and communities is clear. Also well documented are the links between illicit drug use and crime. The Government’s Drug Strategy 2010: Reducing Demand, Restricting Supply, Building Recovery was important and I welcome it.

However, despite the fact that the usage of illegal drugs in the UK is falling, it is clear that in some areas, such as cannabis, the rates of use among young people in the UK are, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, stated, among the highest in Europe. I am pleased to note, however, that greater clarity appears to be emerging on how we tackle this in the UK. I am particularly pleased by the recent comments of the leader of my party, the Liberal Democrats, that we need a more imaginative, open and, crucially, evidence-based approach to drug policy.

For my part, I wish to make three points in this debate: first, the importance of prevention and education; secondly, the issue of decriminalisation of drugs; and, thirdly, the importance of helping families and individuals. First, education is key, particularly education of the young. As a mother of two daughters, I understand the importance of that. Having a clear drugs strategy which is effectively monitored and evaluated is fundamental in all our schools, including fee-paying schools and academies. Early intervention is key, as is a cohesive implementation programme and a co-ordinated strategy between the new body, Public Health England, and the Department for Education. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that PHE must be the lead body in monitoring and evaluating the success of the education programme, and not merely a provider of centralised funds, if we are to make real progress on drugs education in our schools and in higher education. As a former governor of a number of higher education institutions, I know the importance of that.

Secondly, if the case for the decriminalisation of drugs or the retention of effective legislation to control their use was clear, there would be no merit in my address today. There is no such clarity, and the scourge of our times remains hotly disputed by those on both sides of the argument. Decriminalisation, when viewed against the vagueness of alcohol control on our streets, is not an obvious solution to the problem. Since the problem was recognised, we have appealed for a policy that is both firm and resolute. We have sought to use legislation to control and suppress those who use and abuse drugs, without much success. We have attacked the supply of drugs and the associated organised crime that supports it—again, without definable progress. That is not a condemnation of the paths that we have taken but recognition of the enormity of the problem.

Will decriminalisation solve anything? It seems that one effect would be to produce cheaper drugs with wider availability. That deregulation would introduce a massive problem of control of the drugs themselves. That would make them more accessible to criminals in countries with equally enthusiastic criminal resources, leaving the problem immune and further away from proper control.

I offer no clear solution, although I have drawn the view that continued control allows us to focus on related crime and criminals. Money laundering, illegal alcohol, prostitution, gang warfare and even armaments are intrinsically linked to and caught up with the use and marketing of drugs. To remove the drug issue would in no way reduce the horrifying effects of serious crime, but would have the effect of drawing our attention, even partially, away from those involved in such crime. I cannot find it in my heart to support such a step.

However, there are other things that we can do here and now. This brings me to my third point: how we support those whose lives are affected by drugs. I believe that we must direct resources to help those suffering the consequences of the use of drugs and build a stronger, more cohesive society: one that helps the sick and disadvantaged and which values the importance of prevention and education in this complex and challenging area. That is why I support the view that responsibility for drugs policy should be moved from the Home Office, which rightly focuses on policing and law enforcement, to the Department of Health. That would allow a greater focus on the care and support we need to give people for them to get off drugs, into treatment and back into society.

I thank your Lordships for your patience during my first contribution to your Lordships’ House.

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