Bishop of St Albans speaks in support of stronger measures to protect children from drug dealers

On 30th June 2015 the House of Lords considered amendments to the Government’s Psychoactive Substances Bill. The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith,  spoke in support of an amendment from Lord Kirkwood, co-sponsored by the Bishop of Bristol. The amendment sought to make the supply of psychoactive substances to children under the age of 18, or in the vicinity of premises where vulnerable children reside, an aggravating factor of an offence. The amendment was withdrawn after the debate, with the Minister, Lord Bates, promising to meet with the Bishop to discuss it further.

Bishop St Albans June 2015The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol is very sorry that he cannot be here, but I have spoken to him and am keen to add a few words of support for these amendments.

Those who work with children, young people and vulnerable adults know only too well the risks associated with residential care. In 2012, of the 16,500 children who were found to be at high risk of sexual exploitation, more than a third—35%—were children living in residential care. It seems to me that these amendments would add additional strength to the general direction of the Bill, which we on these Benches happily support. We also draw on the research and briefing of the Children’s Society.

Places which care for children, young people and vulnerable adults in either residential or supported care facilities can easily become targeted by people who, via grooming and addiction to psychoactive drugs, use control to lead children and vulnerable adults into other very serious kinds of abuse. I note the point that the noble Lord made that accepting the amendment would put this offence on the same footing as that of supplying drugs outside a school, which the Bill already makes an aggravating factor.

My colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol told me that last year, in his own city of Bristol, 13 men were convicted of a string of sexual offences involving sexual abuse, trafficking, rape and prostitution of teenage girls as young as 13 years old. Their tactics were clear: in return for drugs and alcohol, young girls were forced to perform sexual acts with older men. Much more could be said but I want to support these amendments because, as I say, they would help this vulnerable group to receive additional protection.

Lord Bates: [extract] … I will put some remarks on the record but, given the views that have been expressed around the Chamber regarding children, I will undertake between Committee and Report, if the Children’s Society and noble Lords were interested and the right reverend Prelate was minded to join us, to arrange for us to meet the Children’s Society, with officials, and really examine this part of the Bill to see whether this is something that we need to look at in more detail. I will put some general remarks on the record but that is a commitment that I am happy to give in this important area….

Clause 6 replicates an equivalent provision in Section 4A of the Misuse of Drugs Act, which seeks to provide additional protections to children from the dangers of controlled drugs. In its current form, this clause provides similar protections with regard to new psychoactive substances by creating an aggravated offence which would apply in two circumstances. The first is when someone supplies, or offers to supply, a psychoactive substance,

“in the vicinity of a school premises”,

one hour before or after they are used by a person under the age of 18. The second is when a person causes or permits a child or young person under 18,

“to deliver a psychoactive substance to a third person, or … to deliver a drug-related consideration”—

that is, some form of payment—to himself or herself, or to a third person.

It is right that the courts should look particularly seriously upon an offence under Clause 5 committed in these circumstances and take this into account when sentencing the offender. This is not to say that the court would not also take a dim view of other circumstances where a Clause 5 offence is being committed. The noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Kirkwood, are right to highlight other scenarios where a person convicted of the supply offence ought to be treated more severely compared with other cases.

That said, one challenge presented by the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is that while an offender supplying drugs would be in no doubt that he or she was operating near a school, the same could not necessarily be said of a residential children’s home or other premises to which Amendment 42 would apply. Such premises may not be clearly identified as a children’s home and could look like any other house in a residential street. Where that is the case, it would arguably be unjust to impose a higher sentence in circumstances where the offender could have no knowledge that the aggravating factor was engaged.

Lord Blencathra: The bad guys know where the children’s homes are, even though they may not be marked on the map or have a sign up. The people we are dealing with are clever drug dealers and if they wish to make drugs available to children in a children’s home, they will be able to do so. I suggest to my noble friend that the lack of knowledge of where the home is is not relevant.

Lord Bates: Of course, and I remind my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern that, within the sentencing guidelines, there would be the ability for some of these factors to be spelled out. The awareness would be there and I am very sensitive to that. Having used the case of Canterbury, where one of these head shops was within 100 yards of the King’s School—just across the road from it—that is precisely the type of circumstance we are trying to get to. But in the normal way it would be open to the sentencing court, having regard to the relevant sentencing guidelines, to take any other aggravating factors into consideration. In updating its guidelines, the Sentencing Council in England and Wales may wish to reflect on the points raised in this debate. I might add that any prisoner who commits any offence under the Bill could be subject to additional punishments and restrictions through existing prison disciplinary procedures. For the purpose of the Bill we should be guided by the equivalent provision in the Misuse of Drugs Act, notwithstanding Amendment 108, which seeks to bring the 1971 Act into line with Amendment 42….

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: I hope I can say on behalf of the Bishops’ Bench that the offer of a meeting is welcome. If we can do that in association with the Children’s Society, that meets our immediate request and I would be happy to operate on that basis.