Scotland on Sunday
DRUGS are the biggest problem facing Scotland today. Still reading? There are two reasons why it is tempting to turn away when you encounter a sentence such as the above: first, it has been uttered so many times, by so many experts (both genuine and self-appointed) that it seems trite to the point of meaninglessness; and, secondly, for many of us there is a tendency to shrug the shoulders and say: "Not my problem."
But it is our problem. Yes, the worst results of drug-taking are found among the hopeless in our housing schemes, although the evidence suggests consumption is rising among middle-class professionals too. Moreover, drugs affect us all through crime and the cost of dealing with the problem: the Home Office estimates the average heroin or crack user earns £20,000 through crime every year; the Scots NHS spends some £115m treating addicts annually, while the cost to industry of drug misuse is put at £800m a year across the UK.
And then there are the children. Again, it borders on cliché to say that "drugs are every parent's worst nightmare", but it is true that the threat looms large, from the playground peddler to celebrities such as Kate Moss who give drug-taking a glamorous allure that may tempt the young. Yesterday, Scotland's newest pop star, Paolo Nutini, was quoted extolling the pleasures of getting stoned and insisting there was no danger in doing so. It would be foolish to think that we can ever stop young people experimenting with drugs, but through education we can at least warn them of the very real risks of such behaviour.
The educational approach will not help save some of our youngest victims of drugs, however: the likes of Alexandra King, the three-month-old from Larkhall who died of blood poisoning from a rash because her heroin-addict mother didn't change her nappy; or Scott Saunders, also two, of Rutherglen, who was locked naked in an unheated room by his drug-addict mother's partner, beaten and bitten, and left to die alone weighing less than two stone. The parents of Derek Alexander Doran, aged two, from Elphinstone, East Lothian, have been charged with murdering him by giving him the heroin substitute methadone.
Tragic stories such as those of Alexandra, Derek and Scott understandably grab the headlines, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. A consultation document for the Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation (Scotland) Bill published in April estimated that there are 60,000 children in Scotland living with drug-dependent parents, and the numbers keep growing. More than 300 babies are born addicted to heroin and other illegal drugs every year in Scotland.
Many parents who are struggling with their own drug problems do make heroic efforts to provide a caring family home, but there can be no denying that thousands of these children are at genuine risk, either from simple neglect or through direct exposure to drugs. It is such risks, especially the fear that drug-taking can be passed on from one generation to the next, that has prompted some radical thinking about how we should deal with drug addicts and their children.
As we reveal today, Scottish ministers are considering having addicts sign contracts in which, in return for benefits and addiction treatment, they agree to bring their drug use under control and also agree to be randomly drug-tested. Other action could include more social work intervention, tutors to teach at-risk children in the home, and a drastic reduction in the time it takes to get a child into foster care. The suggestion, made by some Labour backbenchers, that we go even further and try to prevent addicts having children at all takes the debate to its logical limit, but in the final analysis it would be impossible to enforce such a plan.
They are correct, however, to conclude that much tougher action is needed if we are ever to break the miserable cycle of drug-taking, and that we must focus less on the human rights of addicts and more on those of the children they bring into the world, often unwittingly as a result of their chaotic lifestyles. The only question is how far we want to go. Still reading?
Beyond a joke
THE point is fast approaching at which Tony Blair will head off on his prolonged summer break in sunny climes, leaving Britain in the hands of that beacon of virtue, John Prescott... such is the contempt with which this government now treats the governed.
Of course, Prescott has occupied a similarly lofty position in each of the past nine summers. We would, however, make the point that it was one thing to be under the control of a benign buffoon who was not in a position to do any real harm - a quirk which possibly appealed to the British sense of humour; it is quite another to be ruled over, however nominally, by a man who has in the last six months been exposed as both a cad and a bounder. That is most un-British.
In an attempt to mitigate the resultant PR damage, Labour is said to have arranged on this occasion for two senior government figures - Hazel Blears, the party chairman, and Jacqui Smith, the Chief Whip - to hold Prescott's hand. For those ladies' sakes, we trust this instruction is not to be taken literally.
There is one ray of hope. It is said that if the investigation into his links with the American billionaire Philip Anschutz goes against Prescott he could be forced out of office in the next few weeks - no doubt in a way designed to protect his "dignity". Downing Street sources suggest his replacement would be the fresh-faced, squeaky clean David Miliband.
In short - to adapt a recent World Cup phrase - Anyone But Prescott will do. This blight on Britain's public life should be told, without delay, that he is now free to spend some quality time with his cowboy films.