I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make it an offence to discard needles in public places in specified circumstances; and for connected purposes.
It is important for the House to understand why I am bringing this Bill forward, and why the existing law fails to make adequate provision for the act to which I refer. I believe that the Government should legislate for a new offence of discarding used drug needles in a way that recklessly or intentionally puts other people in danger.
In October last year, my four-year-old constituent, Riley Ashton, was playing after school in the public play area behind Tees Street in East Loftus in my constituency. One place in which Riley and his friends like to play is a sort of natural den created by bushes at the side of the park. It was here that Riley discovered an open handbag dangling from one of the branches. Inside it were 40 to 50 dirty hypodermic needles, discarded by local heroin addicts. Notwithstanding the danger, Riley seized a handful of the needles and ran to his mother shouting, “Look Mummy, stabby needles!” We can all imagine the sheer horror and panic that Paige experienced as she saw not just the contents of her son’s hand, but that it was bleeding. Needless to say, Riley was rushed to the James Cook University Hospital, where he spent the night undergoing an exhausting series of tests for HIV and hepatitis. Paige was then told she would face an agonising three-month wait before the results of those blood tests would be returned.
I pay tribute to Paige for her courage in bringing this story to my attention and for challenging the drug users and dealers in Loftus who make a misery of other people’s lives and rely on people being too scared speak out. Her dignity is hugely impressive and she deserves better protection from the state than we have been able to give her so far.
Following Paige informing me of this incident, I took a number of steps to try to prevent such a thing from happening again. I contacted the excellent chief executive of Redcar and Cleveland Council, Amanda Skelton, who committed that authority staff would conduct regular sweeps of the play area to keep it safe, as well as cutting back the shrubbery in which the incident occurred. The council already has a well-established and important commitment to responding to any reports of discarded drug paraphernalia within two hours. That is really important and I hope that it will continue.
I also contacted the then chief constable of Cleveland police to request a greater police presence in the area in an attempt to keep drug users away. The park was duly added to the patrol pattern of local police community support officers. Today is not the day for this, but I believe that Cleveland police need to allocate greater resources to rural East Cleveland, which too often feels like the forgotten area of their patch. I will raise that issue separately with our new chief constable.
Riley’s incident has subsequently, I am pleased to say, led to the establishment of a drug-related litter working group that is exploring ways in which this nuisance can be stamped out. Although that is welcome, it is local in scope. I therefore also asked the House of Commons Library to look into what criminal sanctions exist for people who put the public at risk in this way. I was shocked to discover that the only offence with which an individual who discards used needles can be charged is that of general littering under part IV of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Just consider that for a moment: an individual can inject themselves with heroin, itself a criminal offence, go on to discard their needles in a way that endangers the lives of children and others, and be given nothing more than a fine for littering. I find that pretty staggering. The moral difference, both in intention and consequence, between discarding used drug needles and, say, a sweet wrapper, is patently obvious, and yet the law as it stands fails to recognise this difference.
Let us be clear: we are never going to eradicate the scourge of hard drugs in our society. There are users in every constituency in our country and we need to help and support those people to get clean if they want to. However, most users manage to dispose of their needles in a sensible way. What happened to Riley in Loftus is different. I can see no way in which the needles were placed in a children’s play area, in their den, in a way that positively invited them to investigate without a sick intention to cause harm to a child. For that reason, I believe the Government should look seriously at creating a new criminal offence of recklessly or intentionally discarding used drug needles. This happens too often in Redcar and Cleveland, and I am certain elsewhere, for us to tolerate it any longer.
Since I became the local MP last summer, I have had reports of discarded needles from other towns in East Cleveland including Saltburn and Guisborough, as well as Middlesbrough and Redcar. Many other colleagues must be similarly affected. In 2005, a Government consultation opted against changing the law on the basis that it was unlikely that users would inject themselves or discard their needles in view of those in authority who might hold them to account. I make two points on that. First, the rise of CCTV and the growing sophistication of DNA testing means that fewer and fewer cases would be genuinely off record to authorities, if the will existed to deliver prosecutions. Secondly, in a close-knit community such as Loftus, local people and the police have a very shrewd idea of who the main offenders are. I simply do not accept that there are insuperable barriers to prosecution.
In Loftus, these people form a small minority in a town where there is a fierce desire to change things for the better. Loftus has faced really difficult times in recent years, driven both by the loss of traditional jobs and the fact that many troubled families have been placed there from elsewhere in the authority area. However, there are some amazing people in the town and great organisations, such as the Rosecroft Action Group, Loftus Accord, the Loftus co-op and the Friends of Loftus Library, who are bringing people together who want to smarten things up, attract new jobs and restore a sense of pride and purpose. I am very proud to work with them all and they would all want me to emphasise that there is much more to Loftus than a problem with drugs.
For those who love cycling, Loftus will feature in this year’s East Cleveland Klondike grand prix race, showcasing the beautiful local countryside and proving that North Yorkshire does not have a local monopoly on stunning scenery. It has a fantastic market square and a great number of small new businesses are opening up, including two that I have had the pleasure of opening recently—Mad Alice’s Micro Bar and Miss Fisher’s Emporium. I pay particular tribute to two of the local councillors, Wayne Davies and Mary Lanigan, who work tirelessly for the betterment of their community. All this hard work, investment from the Big Local and the transformative potential of the new Woodsmith mine mean that there is hope in Loftus when for too long, there has been none. To build on this, we must ensure that we have the legislative tools in place to ensure that we can crack down on the discarding of used needles.
I conclude by telling the House that I have recently been informed that Riley’s blood-test results have come back clean, and that he is safe and well. However, I am also very conscious that we might not be so lucky next time. I believe that we have it in our hands to give the police the powers to ensure that this is a tragedy averted, rather than one waiting to happen. It is therefore in hope that I recommend my Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Simon Clarke, Anna Turley, Luke Graham, Julia Lopez, Vicky Ford and Eddie Hughes present the Bill.
Mr Simon Clarke accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 191).
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)