PM makes war on drugs the election battleground

Drugs Bill to bring in compulsory testing. Crackdown on anti-social behaviour
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair will this week make drugs the key battleground for the general election when he launches a sweeping crackdown as the centrepiece of his new legislative programme.

The Prime Minister will use the Queen's Speech on Tuesday to highlight what aides claim will be a crusade to reduce the damaging effects on society of drug abuse.

New powers to compulsorily test those arrested for minor crimes will be balanced by enhanced treatment programmes. Police will be allowed to prosecute users for possession even if the only drugs found on them are in the bloodstream. Laws that allow the closure of crack dens will be extended to enable councils to evict tenants who allow their properties to be used for even casual drug use.

Mr Blair has identified drug abuse as the vital next stage in addressing voters' concerns over anti-social behaviour and crime. He personally intervened to ensure that a separate Drugs Bill is among five measures given priority in the coming session.

The others are Bills to establish an ID card, to set up the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), to reduce bureaucracy in schools and to create new powers to ensure cleaner neighbourhoods.

The importance Mr Blair attaches to the Drugs Bill will be underlined on Thursday, when the Prime Minister is expected to make a keynote speech on the issue. It will coincide with publication of the latest drug use figures from an EU monitoring body. The figures are expected to reveal a rise in the use of Class A drugs, especially cocaine.

Mr Blair and the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, hope that their "tough on crime" message will be an answer to those who think that Labour has lost its sense of priorities, after last week's decision to outlaw fox-hunting.

Mr Blunkett will drop a heavy hint today to the police that there are more important things to do than arrest people who are hunting with dogs. "The priority has to be to be to protect us from terrorism, serious organised crime and anti-social behaviour," Mr Blunkett said, in an interview for ITV. He added, however, that the fox-hunting ban will have to be implemented and obeyed.

The underlying message of this year's Queen's Speech will be that whether the voters' greatest fear is international terrorism or litter louts, Labour is on their side.

The Government will also seek another year's extension of the special short-term provision that allows the Home Secretary to hold foreign terrorist suspects at Belmarsh prison without charge or trial. The new terror measures, published only in draft form, will also seek to prevent so-called "rogue imams" preaching in Britain.

Labour's game plan is to outflank the Tory leader, Michael Howard - who had a reputation 10 years ago as one of the most hard-line home secretaries in living memory. Mr Howard was reduced to complaining in a newspaper interview last week that Tony Blair was stealing his ideas.

That comment was received with glee at Labour's Old Queen Street headquarters, where it was seen as an admission of defeat. Labour's election planners, who kept a careful watch on recent campaigns in the USA, Australia and Spain, have concluded that left-of-centre parties cannot win elections simply by fighting on economic issues unless they also appear strong on security-related questions.

Labour also hopes to provoke the Liberal Democrats into voting against some of the law and order legislation, so appearing soft on crime. But trade unions will be angry that there are no plans for a new offence of corporate manslaughter, as promised in Labour's 2001 manifesto.

Alan Milburn, Mr Blair's chief election strategist, wants the campaign to be fought on the dual themes of "opportunity" and "security".