Moves to help addicts kick their habit have been thwarted by senior Conservatives “playing politics” with the lives of vulnerable people ahead of the general election, the drugs minister has claimed.
Norman Baker opened a new Coalition rift after he condemned the Tories for “suppressing” two Home Office reports which set out plans to tackle addiction and combat the popularity of “legal highs”.
His attack came on the eve of the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow which will lay bare the differences between the Coalition partners on human rights, anti-terror legislation, health spending and welfare cuts. Simon Hughes, the justice minister, will also today condemn his Tory boss, Chris Grayling, for banning prisoners from receiving books.
In an interview with the Independent, Mr Baker disclosed the drugs reports were still gathering dust, with no date for publication, despite being ready since July. He blamed the Conservatives for blocking them for “political reasons”.
He said: “We have wasted three months when we could be taking action to save lives. It is irresponsible to play politics with these sort of issues.”
One report analysed approaches around the world to tackling drug use, including Portugal, where possession has been decriminalised, and Switzerland, where heroin addicts are given controlled doses to wean them off the drug.
Mr Baker said the report, written by Home Office officials, had examined the evidence from abroad and made recommendations on the lessons for Britain.
“The idea we can bang up prison sentences and that will cure the drug problem is ludicrous. We need to learn from this and adopt best practice,” he said.
“But perhaps our Conservative colleagues in government find some of the conclusions and observations inconvenient because they don’t fit with their prejudices.”
A parallel report examined the worldwide popularity of so-called “legal highs”, chemicals designed to replicate the effects of illegal substances, which have been linked to dozens of recent deaths in Britain.
It backed action against “head shops” which sell the substances and against the suppliers behind the booming trade, as well as better education of the dangers of legal highs.
“I want to get on with tackling these substances. In the meantime, because the Tories are blocking these papers, the recommendations in them have not been acted upon,” he said.
The initial decision over whether to publish the reports would have been taken by the Home Secretary Theresa May, although final approval on such a sensitive subject would rest with Downing Street.
Under Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ election strategist, the party has been attempting to narrow its focus to core issues such as the economy, immigration and welfare cuts, a strategy that may have had a part to play in the delay.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has called for the end of imprisonment for possessing drugs for personal use. The party also backs a commission to examine current drugs legislation, which the Lib Dem leader has denounced as “utterly senseless”.
In contrast Ms May has said there is no case for “fundamentally rethinking the UK’s approach to drugs” and argued the Government’s strategy was working.
The Conservatives were yet to respond to Mr Baker’s comments last night.
Mr Baker also signalled his alarm over the Home Secretary’s latest proposals for anti-terror legislation. While acknowledging the dangers of radicalisation of young Britons, he warned of the peril of “antagonising the vast majority of Muslims in this country who are law-abiding, who are British and feel themselves British”.
Condemning moves to outlaw interviews with extremists, he said the 1988-1994 broadcast ban on senior Sinn Fein figures had proved the “greatest recruitment agent for the IRA”.
He added: “I fear this isn’t about closing a loophole, it’s about making political statements. We should be very careful about political statements which are incendiary in nature”.
Mr Baker said he had been “very dismayed” by the tone of last week’s Tory conference, accusing the party of moving to the right because of Ukip’s popularity.
“The consequence is that the Nasty Party is back,” he said. “We are back to where we were with Norman Tebbit and Margaret Thatcher.”
He denounced Tory promises to cut welfare, including a £23,000 cap on a household’s total benefit entitlement and a two-year freeze on most working age benefits, as “really unpleasant”.
He said: “We have had to deal with the deficit we have inherited from Labour, which was a genuine problem, and by working together in the Coalition we have made really good progress on that and it’s been a success story.
“But if you are going to make difficult decisions which affect people’s lives there is an even greater need to be caring and compassionate than you would otherwise be. You can’t afford to be careless.
“Unfortunately what we’re seeing coming out of the Conservatives now is not care and compassion but something close to vindictiveness.”
He added: “Where were the announcements on dealing with those people who are very well off who can afford to take some of the strain? We didn’t hear anything, for example, about very rich pensioners.”
The MP for Lewes said his party’s conference would focus on sound economics and social justice and insisted he was “more optimistic than some people” over its election prospects despite polls showing it languishing on six or seven per cent support.
“We have been written off more times than a dodgy second-hand car, but we are still here because liberalism doesn’t die,” he said.
“The Tories are moving off to the right – that’s going to alienate a lot of decent people who might regard themselves as on the cusp between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
“Ed Miliband may be a nice guy, but is not cutting it with the public.
“The other two parties are not in a fit state. I still think it’s possible for us to come through and present ourselves as a sensible, moderate alternative.”