Minister's son in cannabis case could get `fast-track' justice

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The Government faced criticism from its own back bench yesterday as it emerged that a cabinet minister's son arrested for allegedly supplying cannabis could be rushed through `fast-track' prosecution procedures. Fran Abrams, Political Correspondent, examines a growing controversy.

The Crown Prosecution Service could make an early decision on whether to charge the 17-year-old, it emerged yesterday. A fast-track procedure, which was meant to be for persistent offenders, might be used.

Although the minister concerned has not commented on the matter, it became clear that he persuaded his son to make a statement to the police after a newspaper investigation. The boy was said to have given information on his own supplier, and two of his friends were expected to be questioned. This swift action ensured that he could not be named under laws covering juveniles, and should also help his case for lenient treatment.

Paul Flynn, the Labour MP for Newport West, and vice-chairman of the Commons Drugs Misuse Group, said the use of fast-tracking would be wrong in this case.

"To do this to avoid embarrassment to a minister would be an abuse of the system," he said. "If the minister has got some responsibility for the law, for example if he is in the Lord Chancellor's or Attorney General's Department or the Home Office, he is going to be in a very difficult position."

The boy should be treated in exactly the same way as any other 17-year- old first-time offender, he added.

The Government has consistently taken a hard line on drugs. Earlier this week, the Home Office minister George Howarth criticised an Independent on Sunday campaign for the legalisation of cannabis, dismissing it as self-justification by middle-class journalists who took the drug themselves.

In October, Tony Blair rejected calls for a change in the law on drugs after being asked to comment on the case of a 19-year-old sent to prison for 13 months after a first offence of supplying ecstasy to friends.The Prime Minister's response was that he should be "severely punished".

It emerged yesterday that the minister contacted Downing Street and then took his son to a police station after being telephoned by the editor of the Daily Mirror, Piers Morgan. Two reporters had apparently spoken to the teenager in a London pub on Saturday night and had claimed they bought 2 grams of cannabis from him for pounds 10.

After being telephoned by Mr Morgan, the minister spoke to his son and then informed the Prime Minister's office. At 6pm on Monday he accompanied the teenager to a police station where he made a statement.

The fact that proceedings have been instituted against the boy means he cannot be named. Under the Children and Young Persons' Act of 1933, no newspaper report of proceedings in a youth court may identify the accused.

Although "fast-tracking" procedures in the Crime and Disorder Bill will not become law until the summer, a number of police forces already use them. They are designed to reduce the average time from arrest to sentence from around 140 days to 70.