Cocaine Production in Colombia

Deep in the Colombian countryside last week we watched the Anti-Narcotics Police train new recruits for the “war against drugs” which has cost many lives as Colombia struggles to eradicate the cocaine trade.

The previous evening we met the former President whose period in office involved the battle to end the power of the Medelin Cartel and Pablo Escobar. And earlier in the day we met the current President whose administration is succeeding in cutting the production of cocaine.

What’s that got to do with Penarth? Well, as the President reminded us gently, there would be no drugs trade but for the UK demand for cocaine. Drugs destroy lives here , but the demand and the money distort lives and destroy governments across the world as a result.

That’s why the closest allies of the Colombian authorities are officers from the UK’s Serious & Organised Crime Agency.  Enormously respected, they play a key role in equipping and training the Colombian police for the immense challenge of closing down the coca-growing fields.

Colombia’s image is trapped in the time when the drug cartels seemed to be unchecked, whereas we found a country struggling to achieve stability and prosperity, with a confidence that would have been surprising even a few years ago.

We met the United Nations team – mainly funded by the Colombians themselves – who are providing alternatives like coffee and chocolate so that farmers who derive only poverty wages from coca have a real alternative in life.  Easier said than done, because the coca weed grows quickly and profusely in places where growing alternative crops can be challenging.

And while cocaine production is greatly reduced, the “balloon effect” means that much of the production squeezed out of Colombia reappears in Peru and Bolivia.  And Colombia remains the world’s biggest producer of cocaine.

This visit was one small part of the inquiry into the drugs trade by the Home Affairs Select Committee, looking at enforcement and drug treatment as well as the role of the police and other agencies. It’s a big topic and there’s growing agreement internationally that we need new and more effective policies.  That’s what our report will be about.

In the meantime it’s a reminder of the link between the streets of South Wales and the streets of South America. And a reminder that Fair Trade, which has such strong support in Penarth, isn’t  woolly liberalism – it’s about giving an alternative for the poor farmers who are driven by poverty to grow coca plants.  It’s not the growers who make the profits, it’s the traffickers.

Roots of Violent Extremism

This week we published the report of our investigation into the roots of violent extremism.  I wasn’t just interested in the subject as a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, but because recent events locally made it particularly relevant. It is important that we know what the steps are which lead to radicalisation so we take steps to intervene and put them back on the right path.

In Cardiff recently, two young men were seduced into travelling to Kenya with a view to crossing into Somalia to join the Al Shabab terrorists. Three Cardiff men were among the nine sentenced this week for terrorist related offences. And arrests were made when police and the council closed down a radical group which had been using Canton Community Centre. Should we now feel more or less safe? In my view we can feel safer because of the positive response of the leaders and Imams locally and the way the whole Muslim community has engaged.

Our report highlighted the less obvious – but very real – threat posed by right-wing terrorism linked to incidents in other parts of Europe. And we found that the internet is one of the key factors which influences behaviour rather than in public arenas. Looking at mosques and universities, we found that they are no longer places of radicalisation, which is more likely to occur in private homes and online. One Muslim leader said to me that “you should worry more about Sheikh Google than about what’s happening at the mosques”. He’s right and it fits with the evidence that we saw.

One of the most worrying aspects of potential radicalisation is the increase in self-radicalisation over the internet. Through online forums, users who feel alone and isolated – perhaps struggling with cultural identities – can become prey for those with malign intent.

The big challenge is to work with Internet Service Providers to tackle some of the issues of radicalisation and knowledge of the means of violence that come from the web. And we also need to spread the good news stories and celebrate positive role models. If it’s only those who commit acts of violence who make the front page, that doesn’t send out the right message at all.

Policing and Justice

Before my election to Parliament, I worked as youth worker as well as being a magistrate in Cardiff, and throughout my time in Parliament I have followed developments in opposition, as a Minister, and then through my work on the Justice Select Committee, and more recently the Home Affairs Select Committee. Most recently that has included the mounting interest in the forthcoming elections for Police Commissioners, issues like radicalisation and the impact of the riots last August.

This week I attended an excellent hosted by the Prison Reform Trust on the issue of young adults in the justice system. They proposed some interesting reforms to try and tackle re-offending and to both broaden existing services to better engage with case complexities, as well as introducing specialist services to reduce alcohol and drug misuse. Figures from the Howard League for Penal Reform show that prison costs the taxpayer £45,000 per prisoner per year and that 50% of those released commit more crime so we need to think seriously about intervention with young adults in the system.

The reforms I introduced in 1998 to create Youth Offending Teams and the Youth Justice Board have worked well – as has been acknowledged by Ministers in the current Government but we now need a fresh focus on offenders in the 18 – 25 age group.

We also need to ensure that our justice works fairly and transparently – justice simply doesn’t work without both of these elements. That is why I was extremely concerned about the handling of the Lynette White case and have written to both the Director for Public Prosecutions, and the Chief Inspector who will be undertaking the inquiry into what happened to express my concerns.

Of course, it is not just the consequences of crime we need to deal with, and that is why I was extremely concerned by figures released showing the severity of cuts to police forces at a time when there has been the biggest increase in personal crime… a loss of 8,000 officers since May 2010 with an 11% annual increase in personal crime – including robbery, theft and violence against other people according to the British Crime Survey. The huge leaps forward in technology in recent times means that we are carrying ever more expensive equipment on us – mp3 players and smart phones often hold access to our e-mails, social media sites, and even shopping accounts on top of their value.

Next week, Parliament will be asked to vote on policing budgets. Some cuts are inevitable but the fact remains that the cuts go too far, too fast and by being front-loaded will make forward planning ever more difficult.