Michael Gove challenged over his cocaine use as he reveals ban on laughing gas

Michael Gove was challenged over his own history of cocaine use as he revealed plans to ban laughing gas on the streets of Britain.

The levelling up secretary said Rishi Sunak’s government would ban the sale of nitrous oxide, also known as “hippy crack”, to stop public places being turned into drug-taking “arenas”.

But Mr Gove – who has admitted taking cocaine on several occasions in the past – was challenged on his own drug use on Sky News politics show Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

Asked if he was being “hypocritical”, Mr Gove said: “No. It’s because I’ve learnt that it’s a mistake – worse than a mistake – to regard drug-taking as somehow acceptable.”

He added: “We can’t have a situation where our parks, our public spaces, become drug-taking arenas... these laughing-gas canisters are an increasing scourge.”

Mr Gove said the use of laughing gas was “despoiling public spaces” but also that the drug “can have a psychological and neurological effect, and one that contributes to antisocial behaviour overall”.

The levelling up secretary said ministers had not yet decided on the appropriate drug classification level for laughing gas. The ban comes in spite of a recommendation by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs not to make the drug illegal.

Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said the Labour Party also wants to see laughing gas banned. “I think it does cause a huge amount of littering, of disruption, and of antisocial behaviour challenges as well,” she said.

It follows Sir Keir Starmer’s attack on class-B drug-taking as part of his pledge to get tough on antisocial behaviour. The Labour leader said that the smell of cannabis coming through the windows of people’s homes in some areas is “ruining lives”.

Asked if he thought cannabis use was a low-level crime, Mr Gove said: “I don’t believe it’s a low-level crime,” saying it ruins community pride to see a “free-for-all” on casual drug use.

Michael Gove has admitted using cocaine in the past (PA Wire)
Michael Gove has admitted using cocaine in the past (PA Wire)

Drugs policy charities condemned the government’s decision to ignore advisers on the question of whether to ban laughing gas, saying there is a bigger risk associated with criminalising young people. Release, an NGO that describes itself as the national centre of expertise on drugs and drug law, said that banning the drug could have an impact on education and employment.

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of the charity, said it was “an attempt to outmanoeuvre Labour as both of the main parties try to appear tough on drugs”, adding: “This is all about winning elections and has nothing to do with preventing harms or protecting young people.”

The Drug Science Scientific Committee, part of an independent advisory group, also attacked the “same old tired drug policy”. David Badcock, the organisation’s chief executive, said a blanket ban would be “completely disproportionate to the harms that are caused by nitrous oxide and would likely deliver more harm than good”.

But the National Police Chiefs’ Council said it backed the move. Chief Constable Richard Lewis said: “Officers would welcome the ability to seize and dispose of nitrous oxide, as well as provide warnings and carry out arrests, depending on the situation.”

It comes as Mr Sunak prepares to announce that offenders blighting their communities will be put to work in jumpsuits or hi-vis jackets, cleaning up graffiti and other vandalism, within 48 hours of being handed punishments.

The prime minister said his plan, due to be announced on Monday, would “crack down” on antisocial behaviour “once and for all”. Other punishments could include picking up litter, washing police vehicles, or doing unpaid work in shops, according to No 10.

Mr Sunak will announce an approach known as “immediate justice” to be piloted in 10 areas before a rollout across England and Wales next year. The plan is set to include new funding for police and crime commissioners to ensure that offenders are punished as soon as possible.

Along with clean-up schemes, Mr Sunak’s crackdown is reportedly set to include more than doubling on-the-spot fines issued to those caught fly-tipping, from £400 to £1,000. People found littering or spraying graffiti could be hit with £500 fines, an increase from the current £150 maximum.

Asked if antisocial behaviour was the right priority for the government in the light of “terrible rates” of prosecution for rapes and violent crimes, Mr Gove told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme: “I think you have to do both, you have to walk and chew gum.”

Rishi Sunak will unveil a plan to crack down on antisocial behaviour (PA Wire)
Rishi Sunak will unveil a plan to crack down on antisocial behaviour (PA Wire)

Mr Gove also claimed that the police need to do more to “prioritise these offences” – telling Times Radio: “Some police forces have been more anxious to virtue-signal than to punish vice.”

Asked on Sky News whether the public could trust the police with more power, Mr Gove said “visible change” was needed from the police, but added that the “overwhelming majority of police officers are people with a sense of vocation”.

Labour frontbencher Ms Powell said the Tory government’s antisocial behaviour plan “amounts to nothing”.

Speaking on Sophy Ridge On Sunday, the shadow culture secretary said: “We’ve heard it all before from this government, and I think we have to judge them by their record, and community sentencing over the last 13 years is down not just by a third, but by two-thirds.”

It comes as Mr Gove said he believed Mr Johnson’s defence given at the Partygate inquiry. Asked on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg whether he accepted the former PM’s evidence, he said: “Yes, I did.”

Asked whether Mr Johnson had always told the truth, the levelling up secretary replied: “I think that all of us will, at some point, have told a white lie or an untruth.”

He continued: “But I think the fundamental thing here ... what was Boris’s argument? He was working incredibly hard [during Covid], every hour that the lord sent, in order to try and do the right thing.”

He added: “I am inclined to give him not just the benefit of the doubt, but to believe that when he places his hand on his heart and he says he did not think he was breaking the rules, I do believe him.”