§ Order for Second Reading read.9.38 am
§ Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am of course delighted to have come first of the 346 hon. Members who took part in the ballot. Of the 20 who were successful this year, three were accountants. Perhaps accountants are particlarly good at choosing numbers.
This is the fourth time that I have been successful in the ballot during the past eight years, and I look forward to being successful a further four times during the next eight years. One cannot expect to come top each time, so I must seek to use this unique opportunity to close what I believe to be a glaring loophole in the law. Those who deliberately supply toxic substances to young people for inhalation presently commit no offence. That loophole needs to be closed during this Session of Parliament.
I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the great assistance that he and his Department have given in the technical drafting of the Bill. Its title might suggest that it deals with the subject of drink. I wish to make it absolutely clear that we are, in fact, talking about what is generally known as glue sniffing, but more accurately as solvent abuse. Three-quarters of the tragic deaths that are known to be due to solvent abuse are caused by solvents other than glue.
I shall refer to the practice simply as sniffing. It is a widespread problem among children that is causing great concern throughout the country. The fact that it is an international problem, to be found throughout western Europe, north America, south America, Africa and in the East, is no consolation to Britain. For a time, it was hoped that it would be a passing phase but, sadly, there is no sign that that will happen.
It is appropriate to reflect on why children take part in such a dangerous and unpleasant practice. I am sure that in most cases the adolescent urge to experiment is the main reason. There is a great deal of evidence to show that there is pressure on school children from their peers to take part in the activity.
I suspect that many more children sniff on an infrequent basis than is sometimes supposed. Fortunately, in most cases they soon stop and they may sniff on only one occasion. One imagines that boredom and the lack of opportunities for worthwhile activities are factors that can lead a child to try sniffing. There is also no doubt that problems within families or at school lead to many of the most serious cases of abuse — either as a form of escapism or as a revolt against authority. It is these young people with other problems who most often become hardened sniffers. A small number of cases involve people who suffer from psychological disorders.
We can distinguish between the much more numerous experimenters and the relatively few, but tragic, chronic cases of people who are dependent or compulsory sniffers. The danger of sniffing obviously increases with the frequency, but so powerful are some of the substances that one short sniffing session can, and sometimes does, kill. That applies especially to the highly dangerous use of aerosols.
644 There are various reasons why sniffing can be lethal. First, there is the direct action of a substance that is a poison. This can cause an immediate heart attack or choking because the airways and lungs have been blocked by the effects of an aerosol spray on tissues. I understand that there have even been cases of children setting off fire extinguishers into their throats. The use of aerosols has become a distressingly frequent practice that can cause death very quickly — it takes seconds rather than minutes.
Secondly, there is consequential death caused either by choking on vomit caused by fumes or from suffocating when a large plastic bag has been placed over the head.
Thirdly, fatal accidents occur because the faculties of the child have been impaired by sniffing. That can take the form of hallucinations. I understand that people sniffing certain types of solvent believe that they can fly and have attempted to do so by stepping off high places. Of course, there is also the simple effect of intoxication as though the person were drunk. It is often when suffering from hallucinations or intoxication that tragic accidents have led to death.
Unfortunately, a feature of solvents is the speed with which they act, which is much faster than drink. That makes them potentially very deadly. With drink, it takes 20 to 30 minutes for the intoxicant to be absorbed in the digestive system, but solvents inhaled through the lungs go straight to the heart and on to the brain and can act in seconds so that the sniffer can be unconscious within two minutes.
There have been numerous tragic deaths in my area. A young girl in my constituency suffering from either hallucinations or intoxication fell to her death off the cliffs at Tynemouth. Shortly afterwards, a boy in Newcastle was killed when he fell off a high wall. The local media on Tyneside often give examples of the tragic deaths of sniffers and no doubt this applies equally in other parts of the country. I know of a case of a boy who jumped into the river Tyne at Hexham although he could not swim, and he simply vanished under the water. There are many cases of children being found unconscious or dead in hiding places in the woods or semi-derelict buildings. One particularly horrendous case on Tyneside last year resulted in one teenager being killed and six others being badly burned when the car in which they were sniffing butane gas blew up.
I wish to pay tribute to the campaign which the Evening Chronicle on Tyneside has been running for some considerable time in an attempt to draw the attention of parents and children to the dangers of sniffing. The more attention that can be givn to the danger, the better.
A few weeks ago there was another death on Tyneside involving a 15-year-old girl. In the words of the boy she was with at the time, "She had not sniffed very much, she just began to stagger, put her hands to her head, fell over and then she was dead." That is an example of how speedily disaster can strike.
There is a tragic loss of young life at the rate of one or more a week, and that must cause us great concern. However, another factor is not just the harm that the sniffer does to himself, but the way in which they can become public menaces. We constantly hear of examples of young people who have become violent after sniffing. They start fires, they terrorise passers-by, and they attack people. Unfortunately, stabbing has become one of the features of 645 many attacks. A boy in the north-east who was train-spotting was stabbed by somebody who had been sniffing. Fortunately, he was not killed. A recent tragedy in the south involved the stabbing to death of two people by someone who had apparently been sniffing.
Of course, if a crime of violence is committed as a result of sniffing, the normal criminal law would apply. However, there is no Act of Parliament that covers a crime directly connected with sniffing. It is sometimes suggested that sniffing itself should be made a crime. The unanimous opinion of all those involved in handling the problem day by day to whom I have talked is that that would be a mistake. It would make sniffing more secretive, it would be harder to trace the sniffers and harder to treat them. There would be a risk that young people would be led into criminal associations and that they would be alienated over what is basically foolish behaviour—something out of which they grow in most in cases. It could create a disincentive to parents to seek help when it is most needed.
Education and counselling are generally agreed to be the right measures rather than seeking to make sniffers into criminals. There is no doubt that the education of young people about the dangers of sniffing is the best prevention possible. I believe that education on the subject should be a matter of concern in every school. I do not believe that that is necessarily the case now. There are schools and teachers who take the line that sniffing cannot happen in their schools or in their class. They are unwise to make that assumption. The presentation of the danger to children needs to be very carefully handled. I praise the BBC schools service which has made an excellent film called "Not to be sniffed at." It was shown in November 1984. I would suggest to headmasters that they should obtain a copy of the film in video form. It ought, I believe, to be shown to the pupils in every school.
Parents have a very important role to play in educating their children. Parents themselves also need to be educated about the problem. They have to be told how to recognise the signs of sniffing. They have to realise that far more than glue is involved in sniffing and that many household commodities can be used. In particular, there is great danger from aerosols, and this problem ought to be brought home to parents. They should make sure that their children are advised of the dangers of this dreadful practice. It is most important that parents he told where to go for counselling when they realise that their child has a problem. I repeat that to make sniffing a crime would very much complicate the handling of the problem.
Much has been done recently in local communities to tackle the problem. Tyneside is a good example. There has been complete recognition of the serious nature of the problem and co-ordination of action between all those involved—social services, the educaion service, health education, nursing, psychologists, the university and the police force. I should like to deal with the role of the police.
In 1984 I was fortunate in the ballot but unfortunate in that my Bill made no progress. The Bill sought to give clear power, by statute, to the police to take sniffers into custody for their own safety—not to charge them with a crime but to ensure that appropriate help was given to them. The Home Office felt that adequate power already existed, although doubts were expressed to me by the Justices Clerks Society. The discussion which followed led to an advisory circular being sent out by the Home Office to all chief constables. I have seen the force 646 instructions issued by the Northumbria police in the light of that circular. Those instructions are clear, sensible and, most important, seem to work well in practice, although the Justices Clerks Society still has some doubts about the basis of the system. The bobby on the beat has an important role to play in identifying sniffers and seeing that action is taken to help them. The police are, in fact, quietly coping with the problem.
Earlier this week I visited a clinic at Newcastle university which has been run for some years by Mr. Dennis O'Connor who is doing sterling work on Tyneside with those who are suffering from the severe problems caused by sniffing. I was very pleased to hear from Mr. O'Connor that, in his view, the police go out of their way to help and are most caring.
I am pleased to be able to tell the House of a happier story that I heard while at Mr. O'Connor's clinic. A young man, whom I call George for the purpose of today's debate, told me that he had been sniffing a litre of glue a day. I find it hard to comprehend how people car, sniff that quantity of glue, but he told me that he had been sniffing for 13 hours a day and that it was a full-time occupation for him.
The way that he started to sniff was partiularly tragic. Although he had been sniffing for years, he had not always sniffed. But he has a young friend who sniffed and one day George said to him, "You ought to stop that; it is a silly practice." George's friend said, "Have you tried it?" George said, "No, I have not." His friend said, "You try it, if you have three sniffs and can stop I shall stop, too." The result was that George became a regular sniffer and went on eventually to sniff a litre a day. I am happy to say that after seven weeks of counselling at Mr. O'Connor's clinic he has stopped the habit and has been saved. There are happy stories to be told, but only as the result of a very great deal of skilled counselling of these young people.
Another suggestion is that the law should require an additive to be put into solvents to prevent sniffing. However, there is an enormous number of substances and products which can be and which are sniffed. It is probably not in the public interest to list all of them. However, it is well known that all aerosols can be dangerous. I believe that the use of aerosols is known as "gassing". It is a particularly dangerous form of sniffing. Sniffing is not necessarily done through the nose. It is done by inhaling though the throat and this can be particulaly dangerous. As I mentioned earlier, fire extinguishers are sometimes used. Polish is used, as are marker pens and petrol. The latest craze in some parts of the country is the use of cycle repair outfit glue. In Newcastle I am told that paint is chipped off wood, heated and sniffed. Therefore, the problem of trying to control the supply or to add substances which would make the solvent repellent is very great. The products are generally cheap and readily available. They are not expensive or obvious, like alcohol or tobacco. They are to be found around the home. It is not possible to add an unpleasant additive to all of those substances. It would be impracticable, for example, to give an evil smell to ladies' hair spray.
§ Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)
Would not my hon. Friend agree that additives were tried in the United States but that they have now been dropped because they cause cancer?
§ Mr. Trotter
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. They proved to be more dangerous to those who used the product for its original purpose.
§ Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)
Would not my hon. Friend accept that the additives used in the United States were noxious but that additives do not need to be noxious? More research could produce a suitable additive.
§ Mr. Trotter
I understand that to be effective the additive has to be repellent. It would have to repel the person who wanted to sniff the substance. If it repelled the person who wanted to sniff it, the additive would also repel the normal user of the product. I have already quoted the example of ladies' hair sprays. It is therefore a very difficult problem to deal with. The problems are increased by the fact that the substances involved are not expensive. They are everyday articles which have quite proper uses in the home.
It has also been suggested that the law should be changed to ban the sale of all solvents to young people. However, there are far too many items for this to be practicable. In general, I believe that it is right to seek the informed co-operation of retailers and to help them to use their own judgment in order to prevent sniffers getting at their addiction. I stress the word "informed". Even more could be done to make shopkeepers aware that it is not just glue which can be used for this practice. So many other substances can be used—in particular, aerosols. A very great deal is being done in order to inform shopkeepers but we must not let up on the efforts that are being made.
It is, however, clear that a loophole exists in the law in that the blatant supply for gain of glue or other substances to young sniffers is not a crime. This is a shocking activity, which society absolutely abhors. I believe that it should clearly be treated as a crime. I mention glue here specifically because it seems that those who deliberately seek to profit from this evil traffic have the habit of selling glue sniffing kits in what are cruelly described as "happy bags". I stress, however, that the Bill applies to all sniffable substances and not just to glue. Again I stress that it applies to those substances that are being supplied for gain.
Substances are supplied not just for money; it is conceivable that they are supplied for considerations other than money. An example is the exchange of substances for stolen goods. It seems that Fagins could be operating in that area.
The Bill provides for prison sentences of up to six months and/or fines of up to £2,000. Such punishment enables cases to be brought in the local magistrates' courts. The House might feel that the prison sentence available to the courts should be longer. I put it at what I thought was the minimum initial sentence. It can be considered further in Committee, and the House might want to debate it today.
In Scotland, as the House will be aware, there is a separate common law with no English equivalent. There was much publicity about a case two years ago when under Scots common law two brothers in Glasgow were sent to gaol for two years for this infamous activity. They sold crisp packets containing glue for 30p a time to casual sniffers and they sold chronic sniffers two pints at a time for a fiver. The police found gallons of glue in their shop. I stress that we are not talking about normal, responsible 648 shopkeepers. We are talking about a relatively small number of men, but each of them is capable of doing a great deal of harm to young people.
Normal shopkeepers are horrified at any suggestion that sniffers are obtaining supplies from them, but deliberate suppliers are without conscience. Until that case was brought under the peculiar Scots common law, it was generally thought that no crime was being committed in Scotland either. On that basis the police had previously been to see the people running the shop concerned and suggested that while glue sniffing might not be illegal, the shopkeepers should co-operate with the authorities because of the harm being done to children. However, the response was that the law was not being broken, and they would not co-operate. We cannot assume that people engaged in this disgraceful activity will behave reasonably.
A clear statement of the offence in the Act when, as I hope, it is passed, will I believe serve as an effective deterrent. The police know the culprits in the corner shops where that trade is being done. A reminder of the new law by the police and the fear of gaol should stop them. Some people may seek to continue to trade. We are talking of evil men selling poison, cynically trading in the suicidal weakness of children. The law of England should provide that those people go to gaol. The Bill seeks to close a glaring loophole in our current law and to enable justice to be done. I commend it to the House.
§ 10.2 am
§ Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) on his initiative in introducing the Bill, because he was the first out of the hat. In the early 1970s, I was sixth in the ballot. At that time, as now, several outside organisations wrote to Members of Parliament who were successful in ballots asking them to sponsor certain Bills. I can understand the hon. Gentleman's desire to try to do something about the problem with which he is confronted in his constituency. It also affects the north-east, and spreads right across the country to the far north-west, one of the areas of which I have the privilege to represent. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing what I would call a modest measure in an attempt to help to solve a problem which confronts the whole country.
I hope that the House will forgive me if I am parochial in considering the problem in my part of the country. A few years ago, I tabled several questions to the Home Office concerning glue sniffing, because the problem was on the increase in my area, and two or three people there lost their lives as a result of glue sniffing. The problem became so serious that the Cumbria evening newspapers carried out an excellent campaign in an attempt to focus attention on it, and they asked that tangible help should be given by parliament. Radio Carlisle, now Radio Cumbria, also gave great publicity to the problem.
At that time, I met the leaders of the Carlisle chamber of trade. I did not want to take any action that would jeopardise or harm its business. We decided to have a publicity campaign, paid for partly by the chamber of trade and partly by myself because I felt so strongly about the matter. As young people were being lured into glue sniffing and were dying, I felt that some action should be taken, if possible, to try to draw their attention to the dangers. We produced a small poster, about 12 in by 12 in, which was put up in almost every shop and large store 649 throughout Carlisle, to draw attention to the problem. It was a modest attempt, but it had some effect. Some people may have gone under cover as a result of the campaign—I do not know—but at least it had some effect. One also discussed the matter with members of the health authority and the Cumbria police.
The problem in the area has eased, but it is still there. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that more action could be taken in educating young people in schools by drawing attention to the dangers of drugs in general and glue sniffing in particular. The Cumbria police have been most helpful. From time to time members of the police force have gone to some of the schools, but their movements have been somewhat limited because of the strain on the force from other aspects of policing. Therefore, I still believe that the Department of Education and Science should examine the matter, see whether something can be done within the curriculum, and suggest that the education authorities also consider it.
As everyone in the House knows, drug taking in general is on the increase. At the time of our campaign, many people became impatient because no one in Parliament seemed to be taking any initiative to deal with the problem. At that time, my then parliamentary neighbour was the Home Secretary, and we discussed the issue in private conversations that we held at some of the social functions that we attended. However, I cannot disclose what he said, as he told me one or two things in confidence. Nevertheless, the then Home Secretary, and I believe every Home Office Minister, was anxious to ensure that something was done. But nothing was apparently done, so I am glad that the hon. Member for Tynemouth has taken the initiative by introducing a Bill.
This is far from being a party political matter, and I know that many hon. Members wish to take part in the debate. Therefore, I shall be brief. Nevertheless, I am worried about the increase in drug taking. I hope that the Government will at some point be able to improve upon this measure and give it a wider scope. When there was rampant glue sniffing in my constituency, the television and other media very fairly tried to draw the attention of young people to the problem.
Just before Christmas last year, Border Television put out two broadcasts on the whole question of drugs. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), the shadow spokesman on health, was in the audience, with me. The video was down here for at least two weeks. In its two programmes, Border Television drew attention to the general increase in drug taking. The interviewer, who was a member of Border Television's staff, was a man of great courage, as he interviewed his daughter, who was a drug addict. It takes guts to go before such a vast audience and do that. At the time, she was in the one and only home that we have in the north-west, trying to rehabilitate herself. I congratulate the interviewer, in particular, on his courageous stand in interviewing his daughter. If that interview saved one young person from calamity, it was worth it.
I commend the Bill to the House. It is not a perfect Bill, but it is a modest little measure that is designed to try to help. As far as I know, it is the first of its kind that has attempted to deal with the problem. I hope that, as a result, we may save many of our young people from falling into the depths of despair or from losing their lives.
§ Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)
The problems of solvent abuse have been more than amply outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), so I do not propose to take up the time of the House by further going over those problems, especially as I am more than well aware that many other hon. Members wish to speak.
Solvent abuse is a serious matter in certain areas, and unfortunately one of those areas is my constituency, where a brave campaign has been waged by local people to combat the problem. I therefore wholeheartedly welcome this measure as a valuable, if only a first, step in the right direction. It will also bring the law in England, Northern Ireland and Wales into line with the law in Scotland, where, I understand, prosecutions of some shopkeepers have already had some effect in alleviating the problem.
I stress that the Bill is not an attack on shopkeepers. It is, however, a definite attack on the irresponsible minority of traders who try to make a profit out of this disgusting habit. However, I feel very strongly that there is still more room for action by the Department, and I am only sorry that my remarks seem to have driven my hon. Friend the Minister away from the Front Bench.
The video that has been issued is not nearly strong enough to frighten children away from the dangers of solvent abuse. I make no apology for saying that hon. Members should make no mistake about the fact that children have to be frightened away from this problem, as that is the only way of having any effect. I sincerely hope that serious consideration will be given to producing and distributing to schools a far stronger effort in art attempt to deter youngsters from solvent abuse.
I pay tribute to the British Adhesives and Sealants Association, which has made some effort to produce and distribute a quite reasonable anti-solvent abuse kit to shopkeepers. That has had some effect in my constituency. Above all, I pay tribute to the people and shopkeepers of Ripley in my constituency. who have made great efforts to fight solvent abuse. I refer, in particular, to two mothers, Myra Tagg and Susan Beastall, who have been tireless in their efforts to get local shopkeepers to display warning notices. As a result, no fewer than 100 shops in Ripley now display warning notices about solvent abuse. Furthermore, they were tireless in their efforts to collect no less than 5,000 signatures, which were presented late last year to No. 10 Downing street.
We all know that solvent abuse can cause serious physical and mental problems. More seriously, deaths have also been known to occur as a result of solvent abuse. In addition, the effects of solvent abuse are not confined to the glue sniffer. Violence is all too often the result of intoxication, and hence the problem goes far wider than the youngsters who indulge in this evil.
Therefore, the Bill is a strong weapon, if only perhaps a first step, in combating the problem. I wholeheartedly welcome it and support my hon. Friend in commending this measure to the House.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)
I hope to be brief, but the Bill is important, and I should like to join those who have congratulated the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) on presenting it to the House. It is very rare that a Bill can achieve so much and at the same time be so 651 short. The measure is short but effective and is designed to hit at the nub of the problem, which is the supply as much as the use of glue and other solvents. Perhaps the same approach should be applied more effectively than it is to hit harder at the supply rather than at the use of the less harmful drugs. The abuse of solvents has led to considerable behavioural problems. I should like to concentrate on just one aspect of that—sniffing leading to youngsters under 18 appearing before the courts.
There is a good deal of evidence that people who have been sniffing have appeared before the courts for many minor offences, but the problem goes further than that. I should like to pass on part of my observations over the past couple of years during which I have been present at a Crown court in the north-west where two youngsters under 18 appeared on the same day, charged with sexual offences. One was charged with indecent assault on a young woman. That certainly arose a short time after he had sniffed glue. The other was an extremely alarming offence. A youngster of 17 went to a shop where he was sold a packet of crisps and a tube of glue. It must have been obvious to the shopkeeper, for sniffing was already rife, that he did not intend to eat the crisps and then make a model aeroplane. It must have been obvious that he would go sniffing. He went into a wood, emptied the crisps on the ground and sniffed glue from the empty bag. An, innocent young girl was taking her daily short cut through the wood, on her way to work. She was raped. The sniffing of glue had caused him to believe that he was sexually irresistible. He overcame her resistance and used considerable violence towards her.
The abuse of solvents can lead to tragic cases of that type. They can destroy the life of the sniffer, and affect the life of the victim very badly. Because of such cases I wholeheartedly support the Bill. The answer is perfectly simple for shopkeepers. If a youngster goes into a shop and wants to buy a packet of crisps and a tube of glue, or otherwise raises the suspicions of the shopkeeper, the shopkeeper has only to sell him the crisps and tell him that he can have the glue if his mum or dad buys it for him. It is a simple answer which puts the burden where it should lie—on the shopkeeper before the sale takes place. It does not stop shopkeepers making legitimate sales when they are satisfied on reasonable grounds, that the circumstances are appropriate.
The hon. Member for Tynemouth rightly mentioned the question of court sentences. I believe that he has drawn the Bill correctly. The type of person who might be tempted to commit this type of offence is the type who will be greatly affected by what has often been called "the clang of the prison gates". I do not believe that we should achieve anything more if we put draconian potential sentences in the statute. We should not forget that the maximum prison sentence is not six but 12 months, because if a shopkeeper commits more than one offence, the court is perfectly entitled—and in most cases would be right—to pass consecutive sentences, which could amount to 12 months. The magistrates court could also impose fines amounting to several thousands of pounds.
In the very modesty of the penalties that it sets, the Bill has a realism that will be very much a part of its deterrent effect. The Bill, which it is important that we all support, will go a long way to mitigating one of the most alarming social problems of recent years. That social problem is not 652 confined to London or the metropolitan counties. It has even penetrated to the quiet reaches of the small towns and villages of mid-Wales which I represent, and to other rural areas. I believe most earnestly that the enactment of this Bill could lead to the problem being brought closer to an end.
§ Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)
I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) on his Bill. He is fortunate to have my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department as the Minister who will help to get the Bill through. I had the pleasure of being a sponsor of the "video nasties" Bill, which was improved out of all recognition in Committee by the constructive efforts of my hon. Friend the Minister. I am also a sponsor of this Bill and am sure that it will have a clear passage. I hope that what appears to be unanimity in support of the Bill now does not, as happened occasionally with the video nasties Bill, disintegrate in Committee. This Bill ought not to run into the same choppy waters.
When I was a Minister in the Department of Health and Social Security I considered the problems of solvent abuse. I hated the term "glue sniffing" because it is far too narrow and emotive. It gives the sensational media an opportunity to do harm. Some of the media have a grave responsibility for some of the deaths that have occurred. Newspapers such as that in Newcastle to which my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth referred treated the problem most responsibly, however. The phrase "solvent abuse" was an improvement in terminology, but we have now come up with "intoxicating substances", which is probably even better as it is not so easy for a tabloid newspaper to include it in a headline.
My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim), who is not here at the moment, referred to the film that has been produced and, while my hon. Friend the Minister was consulting his advisers, blamed the Home Office for that product. I have to take responsibility for the film, if we are talking about the same one, because it was a DHSS production, if I might put it in those Hollywood terms. I thought that it was a bit too lurid but that the message would get over. We have to steer a middle course between something that is so sensational that it might encourage people to experiment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth said in regard to the chap who was sniffing for 13 hours a day, and something which is too much of a bromide and would pass by unnoticed.
We examined a variety of measures. In the 18 months during which I had those ministerial responsibilities, this was one of the most difficult subjects as we did not know how to tackle it without producing even more loopholes. I concluded that the law had only a small part to play and that the solution lay principally through education. That education has to be on more than one front. It should try to assist people who are likely to come into contact with people who sniff substances and make it easier for them to recognise the problem. Many of us know how difficult it is suddenly to be confronted with the knowledge that someone we have known for years is an alcoholic. One cannot always recognise it. In a previous incarnation I was for many years the personnel controller in a large multinational company. A colleague, who had been around for some years, was suddenly discovered to be an 653 alcoholic. I confess that I had not recognised the symptoms. Even a person trained in personnel does not necessarily pick up such things.
It is a matter of educating and helping. One way would be to bring home to all those responsible, such as teachers, the police, social workers and, above all, parents, what the problems might be, and how to recognise and tackle them. We need a balance between the heavy-handed approach and saying that it does not really matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth said that some teachers may say that it would not happen in their classes, and I am sure that he is right. Equally some teachers may say, "I must not interfere with the freedom of pupils to do as they wish." Both attitudes are equally dangerous. They are as dangerous as people who say, "It does not matter if people take soft drugs," and totally overlook the fact that soft drugs often lead to hard drugs. There must be a balance.
The Bill deserves a quick passage. It is arguable whether the penalties are sufficiently strong, but we can test and debate them in Committee. The advantage of having the penalties at this level is that cases can be dealt with quickly in magistrates courts. There would be problems if we set penalties at a level that would require the case to go to a higher court. We must measure the difference between the efficiency and speed of magistrates courts, and higher courts which take much longer and occasionally produce a field day for banisters who can find remarkably good arguments for both sides at almost the same time—hon. Members will appreciate that I am not in the legal profession.
The Bill is a good one, and deserves its passage. I hope that when my hon. Friend replies he will forgive me if I have had to depart for pre-arranged parliamentary business. I wish the Bill well. The House is fortunate that my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth came top of the ballot and chose this sensible subject.
§ Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) on introducing this measure. His catalogue of successes over the past few years may tempt his hon. Friends to find a distraction to keep him away from the House next year in order to increase our chances of winning the ballot.
Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I have a constituency interest. Peterborough is generally a Mecca of moderation, yet we have a developing and serious solvent abuse problem. I wish to pay tribute — not frequently done in the House—to the deputy editor of the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, who was so concerned that he started a campaign in that newspaper which has been most influential in educating my constituents about the problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth referred to peer pressure. I am sure that he is right that that is a factor, but I do not think that it is the single most important reason why young people get involved in this pastime. He also referred to boredom and the lack of "worthwhile opportunities". They may be factors in some cases, but he would not wish to imply that, by definition, people who are bored or feel a lack of worthwhile opportunities necessarily get involved in the practice of glue sniffing. It is interesting to note that some young people who get involved come from extremely privileged homes where neither case applies.
654 My hon. Friend referred adequately and graphically to the consequence of death. I wish to mention two further consequences, one of which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg). We want to prevent young people from becoming involved in solvent abuse because it is likely to lead to addictions of a more serious and permanent nature as they grow older. I do not accept the premise that solvents or soft drugs invariably lead to hard drugs, but there is enough evidence that, on sufficient occasions, it becomes a genuine worry.
The second reason why the problem is so serious is not that it causes death, but that it causes long-term permanent physical damage. Young people may survive a glue-sniffing bout in their youth but, in the process, they may do irreparable damage, perhaps even to the extent of life-shortening, and certainly to the extent of impairing organ functions, which will cause them considerable distress later. We would not expect children to think in those terms. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the House to consider the matter.
I am anxious about part of my hon. Friend's speech. Clause 1 of the Bill says that it is an offence for a person to supplyif he knows or has reasonable cause to believe that the substance is … likely to be inhaled.In Committee, it will be necessary to consider the word "knows". My hon. Friend created the impression that he was not as worried about normal trading and reputable traders as he was about street corner merchants. I shall give an example to the contrary.
In Peterborough we decided to call together organisations with the purpose of establishing a standing conference, which is proceeding well, and which arose from the concern of Mr. John Harper-Tee, the deputy editor to whom I have already referred. The local radio station sent a reporter to the embankment of the River Nene which flows through the centre of Peterborough. On a 15-minute walk, only three or four minutes away from the centre of Peterborough, he collected 30 plastic bags with glue in the bottom. The radio station then sent a reporter to a large national store, because 20 of the 30 packets bore its name. He took a hidden microphone with him and asked to buy glue. He talked about relative strengths and wanting a plastic bag, thus giving every clue and conveying the impression to the shop assistant that he was going to use the product for glue sniffing. Yet he was given what he wanted without a single question. Afterwards, when he revealed his identity and asked for an interview with the manager to explain the policy, there was considerable embarrassment and confusion, and bad publicity for the firm. I shall not name the firm because it has since recognised that there is a problem and it has redoubled its efforts to make sure that that does not happen again.
The Bill should cover that sort of perfectly legal and respectable establishment just as much as the street corner operator. Although the Bill covers that aspect, we must be careful about what it means by "knows" and "supply".
§ Mr. Trotter
I take my hon. Friend's point very much on board. I should have thought that not only the word "knows", but the phrasehas reasonable cause to believe",would, in the mind of the magistrate, cover the circumstances that he has portrayed.
§ Dr. Mawhinney
I am encouraged by what my hon. Friend says and by the affirmative mutterings of my hon. Friend the Minister. I hope that in Committee we can satisfy ourselves that that is the case. I am not trying to make difficulties. I simply want the Bill to be as effective as possible.
I understand why the preamble states that the Bill is unlikely to have significant financial implications. If it protects people from long-term medical damage, there will be positive financial savings to the Health Service.
It is always difficult to know where to draw the line between individual freedom and state protection. We have heard many libertarian arguments in the House in recent days. It does not behove adults, some of whom find their escapism at the bottom of a glass, to say that youngsters should not be allowed some escapism. It. is difficult to know where to draw the line between freedom and escapism and the need to protect our youngsters, in many cases from dangers that they do not understand or are incapable of appreciating. The Bill will be helpful. I agree with those who say that we must educate our people. However, we must do more than that. We must generate a community spirit that makes it socially unacceptable, not exciting, to indulge in such activities. If we can generate such a community spirit, and couple it with education and the Bill, we shall go a long way to helping our young people.
The House is grateful to my hon. Friend. I see no reason why the Bill should not be passed with acclamation.
§ Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)
I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), who mentioned at the end the concept of community spirit and of the community moving together. I shall return to that point later. I join hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) on introducing the Bill. In the first days of International Youth Year, it is appropriate that the House should address one of the great scourges of modern youth in Britain and elsewhere.
Just before Christmas a young girl, Tracey Hutchings, who lived in a village close to mine in the centre of my constituency, was found dead as a result of solvent abuse. As some hon. Members have said, I used to suffer from what I now know was highly dangerous complacency. I believed that it was a problem of which I had seen some small signs in the community which I represent, but I did not believe that it affected us greatly. I thought that it was confined to the inner cities. The tragic death of Tracey Hutchings shocked me out of that complacency, and I hope that it shocked the other members of my community out of their complacency.
The tragedy of Tracey Hutchings was not just the wasted life of a young girl who was still at school, but the fact that we knew about her problem. The school knew about it; indeed, she had been suspended from school after being found unconscious in the lavatories as a result of solvent abuse. The social services and the youth service, which is miserably small in my area, knew about it. The doctor knew about it, as did her parents, who had consulted the educational psychologist about it, yet our community failed to prevent her death. We failed to provide support for Tracey Hutchings and others.
I do not wish to distribute blame or to point to a dereliction of duty, because I believe that society failed 656 that young person, as it is failing youngsters in the rest of Britain. There was no support structure to provide the help that she needed to cope with the problem. If there had been, it might have saved her life. I do not know whether we would have saved Tracey Hutchings' life, but I am sure that, in terms of my community and elsewhere, such a life should not have been wasted in those circumstances.
§ Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)
Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that the graphic pictures shown on HTV of the funeral of Tracey Hutchings, the agony caused to her school friends, and the comments made in great distress by many of her school friends, may have driven home to teenagers, who are most at risk in those circumstances, the agony and difficulty caused to communities by such practices?
§ Mr. Ashdown
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who obviously saw the same pictures as I did. I share his belief completely. As hon. Members have said, the role of the press — in this case HTV and our local newspaper, the Western Gazette— in alerting parents and teachers to the problem, and in not allowing society to hide its head in the sand, is vital.
Here I must sound a note of caution. All politicians are susceptible to the Pavlovian reaction. I do not pretend to be free of it. Just as Pavlov's dogs salivated at the ring of a bell, when politicians see a problem they tend to legislate. I am in favour of the Bill, which will, as the hon. Member for Tynemouth said, close a loophole. However, there is a danger that by passing the legislation hon. Members will feel considerably more comfortable and may even believe that they have solved the problem. That is not true. The hon. Member for Tynemouth hit the nail on the head when he said that the Bill merely closes a loophole, albeit an important one. But it is not the solution to the problem, and I would not wish hon. Members or the public to believe that, as a result of what we do today, the problem will be behind us.
The hon. Member for Tynemouth said that this is a social problem, and he is right. We must be clear that it is a social problem, not only for the unfortunate youth who indulges in such practices, but for the rest of society. We cannot confine the problem only to those who engage in the habit. Despite the help that the Bill will undoubtedly give us, society must still provide assistance to counter the terrible scourge.
In that regard, I must return to the case of Tracey Hutchings. I said that our community had signally failed to support Tracey in her moment of considerable need. There was no properly resourced youth service, and no properly integrated support mechanism between the school and the social services. Everyone did their best, and I criticise no one's actions, but at her moment of greatest vulnerability there was no properly integrated support structure to assist her.
I hope that hon. Members will bear in mind the point made, I believe, by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsburg) that we must try to create a decent support structure to help youngsters, especially when they are most vulnerable. The role of the youth service as a safety net or last resort is vital. Youth workers in the community can recognise those youngsters, not just in the school environment but in the social environment, and can help them.
§ Mr. Ashdown
I will be happy to give way in a minute. I am sorry to introduce what may be an unwelcome political point, but it is a pity that the Government have taken such a poor view of, for instance, the Thompson report, which could have done much to provide us with a youth service that could have begun to tackle the problem in a more fundamental way. That is no criticism of the hon. Gentleman's Bill. It is, however, an important factor in the background against which we have to tackle the problem. The Bill represents the first step in tackling that problem.
§ Dr. Mawhinney
My comments refer to the point in the hon. Gentleman's speech at which I first tried to intervene. The youth service is certainly important, but what is needed is something much broader than a youth service. One can draw a parallel with smoking. Although there has been much support and assistance for those who wish to stop smoking, the greatest single influence has been a change in society—a change in the attitude of the whole community. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not lay too much stress on the need for a specialist service but will view the problem in a wider context.
§ Mr. Ashdown
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As has been said, we must educate the whole of society. The youth service alone cannot solve the problem. It may be that I am concentrating on the youth service on this occasion because, unhappily, the youth service provision in my part of Somerset, could have done much more to tackle the problem and is woefully inadequate. The youth service is only part of the solution, although it has a key role to play. I welcome the Bill, but I welcome it only if it is regarded as the first step—not the last—in carrying through our determination to deal with the scourge that afflicts the young people of Britain.
§ Mr. Geoff Lawler (Bradford, North)
I join others in applauding the introduction of this Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter). The Bill is good news for those parents who seek help because their children are suffering, or have suffered, from the effects of glue sniffing. It will be valuable for shopkeepers and their assistants, as there will now be legislation to help them prevent young people from buying such products. It will protect members of the public from the worst effects of glue sniffing by others. It will also be a great help to young people.
In assessing the potential effectiveness of legislation, we need to consider why young people turn to glue sniffing. The typical abuser is a boy aged 15 or 16. Four times as many males as females abuse solvents. The young people usually have some form of personality defect. They tend to be under-achievers. They lack confidence. They are looking for kicks. They see glue sniffing as a challenge, a kick against authority and an escape. It may be their only, temporary, pleasure.
All those characteristics combine to make such young people very vulnerable to peer pressure. Glue sniffing tends to be a group activity. When other members of a group of lads say, "Come on, try this. It's great fun. You can forget about the problems of school and about how your father prevents you from doing what you want. It won't do you any lasting harm. I tried it yesterday, and I'm 658 all right today." Vulnerability to pressure, combined with easy access to the products. means that such young people can easily turn to glue sniffing.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile
The hon. Gentleman may be underestimating the extent of the problem. Glue sniffing is engaged in by many children with no social or educational problems. The stuff is so readily available that children are trying it out in school. The hon. Gentleman says that the Bill is good news for parents. Surely the message that we must send out to parents is that they must not be complacent because we are passing a Bill. They must be ever vigilant and must watch out for this dreadful practice.
§ Mr. Lawler
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman. I was about to make some of the same points.
As the hon. and learned Gentleman says, it is the ready availability of these goods that encourages young people—especially vulnerable young people, although I agree that the problem cuts across social classes — to use them. It is easier to buy solvents than to buy cigarettes or alcohol, and certainly much easier than getting hold of more dangerous drugs. The Bill, therefore, will have an effect on one of the issues at the heart of the problem.
Most abuse is short term. The vast majority of young people will try it a few times and then grow tired of it or grow out of it. When they reach the age of 18, young people tend to find that alcohol is a much more pleasant way of getting kicks than putting their heads in plastic bags and breathing Evostik. However, even short-term abuse exposes young people to considerable danger. There is the danger that they may progress to more harmful drugs. Whilst under the influence of solvents, they may accidentally suffocate or inhale their vomit. They become vulnerable to other accidents. They may become more likely to indulge in vandalism or other criminal activities; some horrific examples of that have already been mentioned. They are also in danger of psychological damage.
I believe that the Bill will deter a significant number of young people from taking the first step. They may feel that the hassle of trying to acquire the product is not worth while. Even though they may have been told about the effects of these products, they may not bother to try to buy them.
The Bill, however, will not stop the hardliners. Those who are determined to sniff solvents will still find a way of doing so. That problem can be solved only through the counselling of young people and, perhaps even more important, the counselling of those who work with the young. We must make sure that they can identify solvent abusers and try to help them in the early stages.
We must take care that mass education about the products does not simply encourage more young people to try them. We are in danger of producing do-it-yourself guides to glue sniffing. The education must be selective and responsible.
The retailers should be applauded for the initiatives that they have taken. Initiatives have been taken by groups of retailers, individual stores and manufacturers. They recognise the existence of a problem. However, the vast majority of solvents are still bought in general stores, do-it-yourself stores and high street stores. They are not bought from back-street retailers. There are examples, for 659 instance in Scotland, where people give kits out over the counter, knowing full well the purpose for which they will be used.
In a recent survey, some young people were sent into a shop in which there was only a young, innocent shopkeeper. They went up to the counter with their pot of glue and made what would appear to the shopkeeper to be a natural request for an extra polythene bag. Later, someone went in and asked for two extra polythene bags. A 17-year-old shop assistant would not be aware of all the tell-tale signs or the social problems. He or she may never have come across such things before. Retailers who have sought to educate their assistants to look for these signs and to be aware of this problem have begun to stop the ready supply of solvents to young people.
Another important point is that the right action is to stop the supply of these products and not to hit the users. If we were to introduce legislation to make this a criminal offence, the only effect would be to heighten the challenge of this to young people in the same way that they drink alcohol under age, because it is illegal and that adds a bit more fun to it. Such a move might draw more young people into the habit. Another danger is that it would bring many more young people into contact with the law and put them on the wrong side of the law, probably for the first time and possibly for the only time. This might encourage them to go further down the wrong road, with disastrous consequences.
This is the right measure, although it will not solve the problem. Counselling is still necessary, especially for those who are hardened addicts and are likely to go on to something else. However, the Bill will go a long way towards stopping the average sniffer, the 15-year-old male who is vulnerable to peer pressure and who at the moment can wander into any shop and buy the products. I hope that that easy access will be limited by the proposed legislation and will therefore help others who are trying to solve this problem once and for all.
§ 11.2 am
§ Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)
I welcome the chance to take part in this debate, having sponsored a Bill on the subject last year, with my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter). In the last Session of Parliament, I sponsored two Bills on this very important subject. Although the Bill specifically deals with the under-18s, glue sniffing is not confined to that category, as I discovered during a further tour of the homeless during the night. I met several under-18s who had been sniffing glue during the day, but I also came across older people who had been doing the same thing. The problem hits people of all ages. We need to recognise that and hope that by education we can help older people to overcome this problem.
I am speaking not as an accountant, or as a doctor as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) was, but as one who ran a mixed school for over 2,000 pupils for seven years, was a teacher for 23 years and so saw the problem from the educational end. Some head teachers, teachers and parents in my constituency have presented four petitions to me in four years, with thousands of signatures, begging for action on this problem, and they were right so to do. They pointed 660 out that glue sniffing, solvent abuse, call it what one will, affects children from tots to 18-year-olds. Something has to be done fast.
Only a few days ago we had an example of a boy who was driven almost mad after glue sniffing. He murdered his mother and then his grandmother and then committed suicide. Things have come to a terrible pass, and the House can no longer sit back and do nothing. Recently I visited a prison and met several prisoners, one of whom was under 18 while the others were in their 20s. The prison officers told me that the prisoners' minds had been dissolved by glue sniffing. Two of them had gone back into the world when they had come to the end of their sentences but were incapable of living coherent lives because they no longer had any mind. The whole substance, power and physical aspect of their minds had disappeared as a result of glue sniffing. That is a tragic and agonising situation.
Between 1971–81 there were 169 deaths due to glue sniffing. In 1981, there were 45 deaths and by 1983 the figure had risen to 57, and it is rising every year. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken about the problem in schools. We know that, on average, 10 per cent. of children in all schools are sniffing glue or are abusing solvents, and in some schools the figure is as high as 14 per cent. and rising. This is serious and it cannot be left just to teachers, although they have a big responsibility.
Children and adults are dying and the causes of death have been referred to by hon. Members. A few months ago I said to the House:The catalogue of causes of death shows how horrific is the problem of solvent abuse. For example, it contains instances of death by asphyxia, suffocation following the use of plastic bags, by inhalation of vomit, by hanging, by drowning and from multiple injuries. The National Compaign Against Solvent Abuse"—which has done such a splendid job—has estimated that 25 per cent. of deaths are caused by the direct effects of these poisonous chemicals upon liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and brain. Only 10 per cent. of the deaths enumerated are caused by accidents when youngsters are high." — [Official Report, 2 May 1984; Vol. 59, c. 362.]The last point is evidence that deaths occur because children in particular have lost their mind, and that is tragic.
There are two ways forward. One is in the Bill, which I have the pleasure of sponsoring with my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth and which seems to meet the wishes of shopkeepers. A shopkeeper constituent of mine wrote to me a few weeks ago begging for legislation that would cover him in any refusal that he made to people who came to buy solvents. He told me that they would come and bang on his counter and demand solvents and he has no power to say no.
§ Mr. Greenway
He can do so, but he feels that he would be in a better position if he were covered by specific laws, and that is a reasonable point.
§ Mr. Greenway
No, he is not a weak-kneed man. He is trying to make a living in a difficult area and he has 661 asked for this protection, which is reasonable. People in much cosier circumstances than he ask for protection and get from the House and from local councils.
The Bill will help such individuals, and is a small step forward. I do not accept the assertions of the industry concerned with 15 per cent. of the problem—those who make and sell glues—that something harmless cannot be added to the glue. I introduced a Bill on this subject and simply asked that the Bill that we are now discussing should go a little further. Why cannot glue be made unattractive to sniffers by being non-solvent based? Glues do not have to have anything obnoxious added. The problem is that solvents attract sniffers. Why cannot they be made neutral in smell and therefore uninteresting to those who attempt to abuse them?
Part of the industry has made a splendid effort to produce unattractive glues. Dunlop has produced the glue that I hold in my hand. I have no financial interest in Dunlop. Its glue is as effective as any other, but it is unattractive to sniffers. Anyone in the House or outside who wanted to sniff it would receive no pleasure or stimulation.
The Home Office must be more radical and determined in its approach to glue producers. It seems to be protecting their wish not to fall into line. It does not seem to feel able to move forward with legislation and it does not even seem to be prepared to put moral pressure on them. I hope that I am wrong, and that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary may be able to come some way towards me.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)
I appreciate that my hon. Friend speaks with great feeling on this issue, in which he has taken an interest for some time. I am sorry to interrupt him, but he should be fairer in his judgment. He heard the former Under-Secretary for Health and Social Security say that the trouble with aversive substances is that some of them do more harm than good. That has been the American experience.
My hon. Friend has also heard a number of well-informed Members say, as is the case, that the problem is not confined to glue. In some ways, glue is one of the least dangerous substances to inhale as against the use of aerosols and many other products. While I am not advising people to sniff glue, the mere fact that we made some glues more difficult for people to get pleasure out of sniffing would not stop the problem. It might drive people to even more dangerous substances. My hon. Friend must not rush to judgment and perhaps become angry with people for not responding to what some of them are bound to find—dare I say this?—somewhat superficial criticisms.
§ Mr. Greenway
I do not accept the last remark. The Minister has nothing like the experience of children that I have, and I am not interested in that type of comment; nor do I accept his suggestion that I am looking for aversive additives. I specifically said that I was not. I said that I was wanting neutral substances to be added to glues. Glue sniffing represents 15 per cent. of the problem. I take his point—I know that he has worked hard on the problem and we have discussed this, but it seems to me that if we could tackle and overcome 15 per cent. of the problem we would be doing a good deal. It would be worth while.
§ Mr. Roy Galley (Halifax)
I should like to emphasise that if people move away from glue because they will not 662 get a kick out of it, there are 300, 400 or 500 other products to which they could move. It would do nothing to help the problem. It would be worse, if anything.
§ Mr. Greenway
The point is interesting, but if glues can be tackled there must be a knock-on effect on other solvents. All I ask is that there should be research. Let the problem be studied.
Although I believe that the Bill should go much further, it is a welcome first step. I hope and believe that it will receive the unanimous support of the House. It will have my support.
I went into a well-known shop the other day, and as I was being served a punk rocker came in. He asked for glue and was sold glue. A man standing next to me said to the person who had sold the glue, "You know that glue is going to be abused." The man behind the counter said, "Yes, I do, but what is it to me if people choose to kill themselves in that way?" That is disgraceful. The Bill will overcome that and I welcome it in that spirit.
§ Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)
Like many other hon. Members, I congratulate the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) on his success in the ballot and on bringing forward this legislation. I am grateful to him for asking me to be a sponsor of the Bill. The only other hon. Member in the Chamber with a Scottish accent is the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) who is not a sponsor. The Bill does not apply to Scotland, but it follows some of the welcome prosecutions and legal decisions that have been taken in Scotland. Under this legislation people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be equally guilty. For that reason the hon. Member for Tynemouth, who has gained all-party and geographical support across the United Kingdom has done well and deserves the congratulations of the House.
When I first came into the House some 18 months ago my maiden speech was delivered on the problem of youth unemployment and opportunities. To some extent, I see a considerable relationship between that problem and the one that we are addressing this morning. This is an all-party measure, so it is not one for political argument. There can be no doubt that there is consensus across the Floor of the Chamber that the general lack of opportunities and general sense of alienation that so many young people—not just deprived young people but those in the middle class and in comparatively affluent circumstances—feel is leading them to take steps and measures that we find abhorrent and disastrous.
Amongst those measures, the worst must be the use of intoxicating substances. I see that as being even worse than alcohol abuse because, as the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), a qualified medical practitioner, said, glue sniffing or solvent abuse can have more far-reaching and long-term consequences for health than alcohol abuse over the short period, if it is corrected. The vile and fairly insidious effect that intoxicating substances generally can have on individuals, particularly young people, demands action by Parliament. That is why this measure is so welcome.
This legislation, which deals with the retail side of the problem, could be the foreruner of further legislation or departmental action in respect of manufacturers. For example, the design of aerosol cans and butane gas fillers is sometimes as much an encouragement as the contents 663 because they lend themselves to use and inhalation through the nostrils. If some encouragement, if not legislation, were given by the Home Office to manufacturers to make the appliances that they are producing less accessible—I appreciate that they cannot be absolutely foolproof because where there is a will there is a way—for use or abuse, it would receive all-party support.
As many other hon. Members said, this Bill is only the beginning of a welcome step towards addressing this horrific problem. The hon. Member for Tynemouth, in seeking and achieving broad support and consensus, is to be congratulated. The explanatory memorandum to the Bill says:The Bill is not expected to have any significant financial implications".It would seem that he has even managed to please the Treasury. Any hon. Member who can achieve all-party support, broad and geographical support, and the support of the Treasury is one who deserves to succeed. This will be a welcome and necessary first step towards correcting and reversing one of the most hideous trends in young people. The problem is as much a cause for concern to parents in my area in the Highlands of Scotland as to parents in Tynemouth and throughout the country. I am happy to support the Bill.
§ Mr. Derek Spencer (Leicester, South)
Solvent abuse must be a national problem, as it has even reached Leicester. Its prevalence will be confirmed by any policeman, doctor, or social worker, or even any barrister. They will confirm that the scourge has not just reached council estates in the inner city but has permeated the leafy suburbs and also the towns and villages of the county. They will further confirm that the problem is not limited to a narrow age band but affects people in their late teens and even some middle-aged people. No family in the land can afford to think that it will not be affected because all the evidence shows that it could and it might be affected.
A quick glance through the pages of the Leicester Mercury in the past 15 months provides a number of specific examples. In October 1983, a glue sniffer assaulted a policeman with a knife. At about the same time, in another part of the county, a 41-year-old woman addict stole glue from a shop in Loughborough. In December 1983, a glue sniffer in Wigston attacked his mother and in March 1984 three young men who had been drinking and sniffing glue attacked a young student in Oxford street in the centre of Leicester. When I visited the Norton street branch of the DHSS in my constituency last week I was told that as early as 9.30 am, shortly before my arrival, glue sniffers had been sitting around making a nuisance of themselves in the public waiting room. There is thus no difficulty in backing up general statements of the problem with specific examples.
Setting aside the Leicester Mercury and consulting that definitive work on modern social conditions by one of Leicester's most famous sons, "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾", one finds evidence that even his friends sometimes become involved in this anti-social activity. We must therefore ask ourselves whether there is any satisfactory way in which this admitted problem can be dealt with or whether we must inevitably be thrown back on to the use of the criminal law as a last resort.
664 First, additives are not the answer. Stenchers have been added to poisons for a number of years by reputable chemical companies, but it is inherent in the nature of such additives that they cannot be put into an aerosol to be used for normal household purposes within the confines of the home. Chemistry therefore cannot solve the problem.
Secondly, can the trade itself deal with the problem? It has striven manfully to deal with it on a voluntary basis and we have heard examples of its efforts, but the evidence shows that its best efforts have not been blessed with success.
Thirdly, are the powers available to the police sufficiently compelling to eliminate the problem? The Leicestershire constabulary has set up a special unit to deal with cases requiring particular tact. It is staffed by women police officers and handles a wide variety of cases, including cases of solvent abuse referred to it from a variety of sources. Since 1982, it has handled no fewer than 292 such cases. Although the unit is doing splendid work, the volume of cases passing through its hands shows that there is a continuing problem. Fourthly, can the Government deal with the problem with existing measures? They have certainly put out information in an attempt to contain the problem. The DHSS has put out a film entitled "Illusions", held various seminars and sent out a mass of information to local authorities and the medical profession. Yet the problem has still not been contained.
Fifthly, and finally, can the law in its present form deal with the problem adequately? From time to time, the Court of Appeal has to wrestle with the matter. It said recently that a person driving a motor vehicle under the influence of glue was driving under the influence of drugs and therefore committing that criminal offence. It has also said, however, that a person under the influence of glue on licensed premises is not committing the offence of being drunk on licensed premises because under the licensing Acts that means being drunk on alcoholic liquor. Clearly, there are considerable gaps in the present law. Analysis of the problem must therefore lead us to the conclusion that the sharper claws of the criminal law are needed to tackle the problem.
I therefore support the Bill. It is consistent with the general principles of the law. Any person supplying solvents in the circumstances described in the Bill would clearly be displaying a degree of recklessness as there is manifestly a real risk that the person to whom the substance is supplied will end up either committing a criminal offence or indulging in some anti-social activity sufficiently grave as to compel the criminal law to intervene in the way specified in the Bill.
I have just two complaints about the Bill, both related to its modesty. First, there is plenty of evidence that the problem does not evaporate when young people reach the age of 18, as the case of the woman addict in Loughborough shows. Secondly, I am not convinced that the penalties are sufficient. I should have preferred the more robust approach adopted north of the border. I also believe that the courts should have power to try cases on indictment. If it is purely a summary offence, I fear that word will get around that that means that a first offence will involve only a fine. We should consider carefully whether the penalties should be toughened up.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) on introducing the Bill. With the 665 passage of time he might be remembered, not only in the statute book, but in further editions of Adrian Mole's diary.
§ Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn Hatfield)
I support the Bill, not only as a co-sponsor of the measure, but as one who for long has campaigned for positive action by Parliament to deal with the increasing prevalence of glue sniffing and other forms of solvent abuse, particularly among young people under the age of 18 and often only 11 or 12 years of age.
I have made clear previously in the House that I am a firm believer in minimum interference in the lives of individuals. All Governments and all hon. Members should be circumspect when introducing further legal provisions that inevitably place controls upon the citizen. However, I have also previously made clear my belief in the need for legislation fulfilling its fundamental role of the protection of the individual's life style. It is therefore right that the House should give a Second Reading to the measure so that by such controls upon certain citizens the majority are better safeguarded.
My constituency has a depressing history of the misuse of drugs. Glue sniffing and solvent abuse are becoming additional steps upon a deadly treadmill. To emphasise that, I quote from a letter which I received in the past six months from a mid-Hertfordshire mother who, tragically from her personal experience, says more in a few lines than perhaps can any hon. Member, however determined he may be that the Bill should succeed. She says:I have a son who has been sniffing now for four years and the effect of this evil glue is terrible. To watch your own flesh and blood gradually kill himself is heartbreaking …please help if you possible can.This glue sniffing Bill —as I suspect it might universally be called —is a response to such a plea by its objective of deterrence. It is not the complete answer to a highly complex problem and more will, unfortunately, be needed, including increased education about the dangers.
However, it is a brake upon that treadmill of death—one that is clearly desperately needed—and deserves support from the whole House.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
I am surprised that so many hon. Members have taken part in today's debate after a week when on average the House sat until 2 o'clock in the morning. The number of participants is a sign of the widespread concern and alarm about the incidence of glue sniffing, which is not an adolescent bit of fun but a killer. That is shown in the number of deaths. One death a week last year was caused by glue sniffing.
It would be wrong to suggest that the incidence of glue sniffing and solvent abuse in Southend is as serious as it is in some other towns. There may be many reasons for that. We have a vigilant and alert education service and the social services department watches closely. We have the great benefit of the vigorous, determined and continuing campaign by my local newspaper, the Southend Evening Echo, which constantly strives to bring the problem to the public's attention.
Will the Bill stop potential glue sniffers from obtaining glue? I accept that the Bill will almost certainly stop some small shopkeepers almost encouraging the sale of glue for 666 profit. There can be little doubt that if the Bill is properly applied it will stop the small minority of stupid, evil or irresponsible shopkeepers from supplying glue. However, I am worried about whether the Bill will stop the supply of solvents.
Most shopping is done in major self-service stores. I wonder whether the Bill will be an effective device which will stop, for example, a 17-year-old girl on a cash counter selling glue to a young person who is buying many other items as well and whose friend may later buy the plastic bags. I wonder whether the Bill will work without a major campaign by the heads of such stores. There is a danger of thinking that this measure, so courageously introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), might achieve more than it will.
There are two things that we could do as a result of my' hon. Friend's initiative. Do we really believe that it would make no difference, or even make matters worse, if we made it unlawful to sniff solvents in a public place? Some hon. Members think that that might drive the practice underground. Glue sniffing is widespread and it will spread further if the police can do nothing if, for example 10 young adults go to Parliament square five minutes from now and start sniffing glue or other solvents.
Groups of youngsters and others gather in public parks and other places to sniff glue. Not only are they doing something that is offensive to the general public; they can encourage others to do the same. Perhaps it would be helpful to make it unlawful to do that in a public place.
Secondly, we should consider introducing the system, which has worked well in Scotland, whereby a youngster caught glue sniffing can immediately be taken by the police and brought before the court. In Scotland, the young person has to go with his parents before the juvenile panel which decides what should happen, whether treatment is necessary and whether the young person should be taken into custody.
In Scotland, something can be done if a youngster is caught glue sniffing, but south of the border nothing can be done. If a youngster is seen glue sniffing in a public place, the police can do nothing unless some other crime, such as a breach of the peace, is being committed. We should consider those two changes in the law.
The problem is frightening. Only 10 days ago in that part of Southend represented by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade a young man murdered his mother and grandmother and then jumped out of the window and killed himself. A few days ago a group of glue sniffers congregated in an empty rectory, again in the same part of Southend. The problem is serious and worrying. I commend my hon. Friend's initiative and hope that it will lead to further changes in the law.
§ Mr. Roy Galley (Halifax)
This excellent, if modest, measure is about as far as Parliament can sensibly go in legislative terms.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) talked about the possibility of making glue sniffing in a public place illegal. I doubt whether that would have a potent effect. Much of the sniffing takes place in obscure and hidden places such as woods and cemeteries. I could take hon. Members to some well-hidden places in my constituency where this happens. If we were to say that it was unlawful to sniff glue in a public place, the habit would become even more secretive and people would go 667 underground. When there is evidence of disorderly behaviour, the police already have considerable powers to act.
There has been a great deal of discussion about additives, but that is the wrong way of looking at the problem. The case has been well made that the argument for additives is a nonsense. There are alternative ways of approaching some of the problems, such as producing non-solvent based products. However, more research into that is necessary. It will be a long-term, if not impossible, job to deal with the whole range of products available for abuse.
Excellent though this measure is, there is a danger that—
§ Mr. Greenway
My hon. Friend is supporting a point that I made, but which he challenged. I said that we needed non-solvent based glues.
§ Mr. Galley
My hon. Friend was suggesting legislation to insist on additives. I believe that to be too simplistic a view. In the long term, research may find non-solvent bases for a wide range of products, but it will be an extremely difficult task. Until the whole range is plugged, people can move from one abusable product to another.
I wish to take up a point made by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). There is a danger that, having passed the Bill—which I sincerely hope Parliament will do—there will be a degree of relaxation and that people will sit back and say, "We have done something and we have solved the problem." This measure will go a considerable way—it will act as a marker—and will be a morale booster for those who have been working very hard in the day-to-day nitty-gritty of trying to deal with the problem.
The crux of the matter still lies in the need for health education and efforts on a national rather than a localised basis. That must be given greater oomph—[HON. MEMBERS: "What?"] "Oomph" is a very useful word, and some oomph should be given to health education efforts. We need a great deal more research into symptoms and causes and into methods of treatment. We need to disseminate good practice because there is good practice in certain smaller localities within the country. I commend my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Health and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for their initiatives in disseminating good practice and funding research projects. Much more needs to be done in that direction, and I hope that they will not relax their efforts.
Apart from research, a great deal of information is already known. We need a great deal of training of teachers, general practitioners, social workers, parents, policemen and others involved with the problem. One of the first problems with solvent abuse is recognising the symptoms and obtaining awareness of what is happening. Having created the awareness, the difficulty is often that parents, teachers and those in the front line who know that there is a problem do not know to whom they can turn to find a solution.
We need to establish locally based networks of involved and informed people who can act as counsellors when the problem is spotted, and who are well known within the community. When a parent recognises the initial 668 symptoms of glue sniffing and other solvent abuse, they can find a key person within the community to whom they can turn for advice.
We need to identify the problem at an early stage and then have concerted counselling to overcome it. That means direct and close involvement of parents, teachers, doctors, social workers and others who are working within the community. It means co-operation by health authorities, local authorities, social services departments and voluntary organisations. Surely district health authorities must take the lead in this matter. I urge DHSS Ministers to do more to encourage them to fulfil their responsibility in health education and to play a role in the co-ordinated project of counselling.
It may be helpful for social services departments to develop a register of children at risk. That may be an enormous task in some areas, but it would be feasible for some departments and work should begin on that now.
Reference has been made to the panel system in Scotland. There are varying views about how successful that has been. Nothing that we do on this issue will have dramatic and immediate results, but there are doubts about that system. Under the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 there are certain powers for social services departments to identify cases, and that largely covers the provisions in the Scottish legislation.
The other important point concerns a voluntary code of practice by retailers, and that involves their taking the products off the shelves and putting them under the counter to make them less readily available. We need to monitor the progress and effectiveness of the voluntary code. There is a great danger that that effort could fizzle out. We need more oomph in ensuring that the voluntary code is being implemented and that retailers do not forget after a few months that they need to make an effort.
This is an excellent measure. It is an important step in the campaign to overcome this desperate social problem. But the attack must be three-pronged—health education, more effort by retailers, and the education of shop workers. This Bill may not eradicate the problem, but it will make great inroads into diminishing it.
§ Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)
The last time I was fortunate to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, was when I spoke on liquor licensing laws. I have now caught your eye to speak on intoxicating substances. I am not sure what message lies behind my two contributions, but I am sure that hon. Members will draw some conclusion.
There is certainly one conclusion to be drawn from this debate; I do not think that any hon. Member has yet referred to it. So far we have had contributions from the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy), from my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, North (Mr. Lawler) and for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim), and, if he is lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we will also hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan). They are all at the younger end of the membership scale of the House. While my hon. Friends the Members for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Murphy), for Halifax (Mr. Galley), for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), the Minister and myself would not claim the first flush of youth, we have all grown up in what was the drug culture of the 1960s. We may not necessarily have been surrounded by it, but we could not fail to be aware of it. The flower power music and societies 669 that were prevalent between 1965 and 1968 covered my teenage years. I think that many other hon. Members of that era also attended parties where soft drugs were peddled and consumed regularly.
The point I want to make about those drugs in comparison with the solvents of today is that many of the parents of children who are glue sniffing or abusing some other solvent will, having seen their own friends when they were teenagers taking soft drugs, presume that it is easy to get away from the practice. The problem is making the parents aware that the solvents being used by their children are much more dangerous than the soft drugs of the mid-1960s. Indeed, a large number of people never went further than to use soft drugs. However, as has been graphically described this morning by many hon. Members, it is very' easy to have one tragic experience of solvent abuse which could result in serious health damage or even death.
All hon. Members who have spoken this morning have presumed that primarily we are referring to young people. I believe that that is the experience of all of us, although the hon. and learned member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer) referred to the problems faced by older people. It is significant that the statistics available for the period from 1971 to 1981 show that the average age of all those who died during this period from some form of solvent abuse was 16.8 years and that this is overwhelmingly a problem facing younger people. They' are looking for some form of experience or "kicks" which they have not experienced previously. They are subjected to this danger during a period of immaturity. This means that they can be easily manipulated by older people.
For that reason, I particularly welcome the Bill. It would mean that we were getting at those people who are in a position to say no to youngsters when they recognise the symptioms. I, like the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, South, have doubts about whether the proposed penalties are sufficiently severe.
I was interested in the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) and the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) relating to the Scottish experience. There is an argument that we ought to look at ways of assisting young people or of taking legal action where it is the judgment of those who are there to give advice that guidance is not a satisfactory means of solving the problem.
Substantial reference has been made to guidance being given to young people who are glue sniffing or who may do so in the future. It is right that we should try to educate the teaching profession to recognise the symptoms and to impress on their pupils in whatever way is appropriate that sniffing is dangerous and could kill. We must also try to educate parents—as a society we have failed so far to do this—to recognise the symptoms. Very few parents, if asked, would easily identify the symptoms in their own children as being connected with glue sniffing or with the abuse of solvents. This point can only be made in television programmes. In some cases the message has to be fairly stark. I referred earlier to the news coverage of the tragic death of Tracey Hutchings in Crewkerne. There was also a "Juliet Bravo" BBC television programme which referred to the problems to which the Bill specifically relates and to the role which shopkeepers and parents ought to play.
We must also recognise the problems faced by people who live in areas where glue sniffing is prevalent. In my 670 constituency, as in many other constituencies, there are areas which are well known as being used by glue sniffers. In the Dunbridge lane area of St. George in my constituency' the residents face a particular problem. They are concerned about physical assault by people who are high on glue or about the general demeanour and attitude of people who are going to or coming away from glue sniffing. We have to recognise the problems created for a community in a particular area. We must try to educate not only the teachers but the children.
I welcome the introduction of the Bill. Despite the contribution of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), I am not convinced that the penalties are sufficiently severe. However, I hope the Bill will provide a basis upon which we can all build and that it will enable us to educate both adults and youths about the problems of solvent abuse.
§ Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)
I welcome this Bill wholeheartedly and unreservedly. Glue sniffing is a recent phenomenon. Action is needed to inform and thereby dissuade and deter the potential glue sniffer. Legisation is also required to provide a framework of responsibility which will require those who supply potentially dangerous substances to take care. The hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) mentioned a few statistics. May I add to the figures given by the hon. Member? In the United Kingdom, between 1971 and 1981, 169 deaths were associated with volatile substance abuse. Of these, 79 per cent. related to persons under the age of 20.
As has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, we are dealing with a problem that mainly affects young people. However, the problem is not confined to glue. The chief substances that are used, or perhaps one should say abused, have been shown to be butane, solvents in adhesives, aerosols and even fire extinguishers. Of this group, solvents in adhesives have become increasingly important. The available statistics understate the case. The majority of incidents of solvent abuse go undetected. I should like to praise the Derby Evening Telegraph for frequently publicising this problem.
Those who indulge in glue sniffing or solvent abuse generally run greater risks than they probably realise. Although sniffing is not habit-forming in the same way as, say. taking heroin, nevertheless the effects are highly unpredictable. Death or serious injury may follow from a single incident of abuse. Therefore, the first-timer cannot presume that he is not running a severe risk.
What should be done? First, education has a large part to play. The young who may be tempted to try something that they believe is exciting should be educated. Schools should be alerted and encouraged to point out the dangers. Apart from the obvious danger of death, many other illnesses may result from the abuse of solvents—for example, depressed lung functioning, damage to the liver, the kidneys and the heart and even damage to the nervous system. In addition, and perhaps just as important, those who are under the influence suffer loss of control and sometimes unconsciousness which can prove dangerous, if not fatal. Education is also important for those who, by recognising the symptoms, may be able to save, if not a life, somebody's health or career.
There is another area in which the problem needs to be tackled and can he tackled. It is by imposing a legal responsibility upon those who sell the product. That is 671 provided for by the Bill. I accept that legislation is difficult to frame. The Bill refers to the supplier committing an offence only if he knows or has reasonable cause to believe that he is doing so and the sale relates to substances that are likely to be inhaled. Some may say that this will give the lawyers a field day, but those who will form the majority of suppliers are responsible people. I believe that the measure will be a deterrent and that they will not wish to test the matter in the courts. If the Bill is passed, I believe that it will encourage them to exercise greater care over supplying solvents to young people. However, one problem is that children sniff a wide range of substances and are always experimenting with new ones. Many of the items involved are not expensive or obvious—such as, for example, alcohol or tobacco. They are items which young people could use for quite proper purposes. Therefore it is unfortunately impracticable to draw up a list of dangerous items for special control. Thus in some cases the shopkeeper will find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a judgment on whether he should allow the sale to proceed.
We cannot frame a perfect Act that will always catch the villains, but we can take a further step towards reducing the misery, pain and suffering caused by solvent abuse. The Bill is a big step in the right direction. Accordingly, I hope that the House will support it.
§ 12 noon
§ Mr. Colin Moynihan (Lewisham, East)
In speaking in strong support of the Bill, I hope that the message that goes out from the House is that the Bill extends much further than glue sniffing, to include all solvents where organic carbon-based substances produce effects similar to alcohol or anaesthetics when their vapour is inhaled, ranging from glues, paints, nail varnish removers, dry cleaning fluids and de-greasing compounds to propellant gases and fuels.
It is important to set the Bill in context. In my initial comments I should like to concentrate on the series of sensible developments that the Government have been processing since the beginning of the 1980s, leading up to this important and much-welcomed Bill. It is also important to place on record the fact that these initiatives have been strongly supported by Members of the Opposition as well. I am sure that the promoter and sponsors of the Bill intended this to be so—there is no doubt that the Bill seeks to take one step further forward Government action to combat solvent abuse.
It appears to me that the Government's strategy has, so far, been most beneficial. It must be right to improve prevention, treatment and rehabilitation measures. It must be right to develop yet mole effective policing and enforcement measures, and particularly to increase deterrence. The Bill, when enacted, will be an additional tool in the armoury of deterrence which, directed specifically towards the community and retailers, will assist in reducing intoxication.
I emphasise the community aspect because, unfortunately, solvent abuse seems to become common in localised areas, as I know in my constituency. It is not uncommon in estates and schools. In Lewisham, where there is considerable urban deprivation, response to the problem requires the compassion, understanding and 672 expertise of the local borough council officials in conjunction with the local police and the health authority as well as the schools.
Glues and most other sniffable products have been too easily made available in the shops. The law is right if, at worst, it does no more than alert retailers to the possibility of solvent abuse and legal action in connection with it. At best it should bring to the courts retailers who have aided and abetted in the horror of solvent abuse. Too few of them realise the consequences of their actions.
The media often highlight accidents and tragedies due to glue sniffing. Far more frequent deaths occur when the victim's head is covered by an airtight plastic bag. The point is simple. The real hazard to young people who sniff for intoxication is ignorance, doing something that is dangerous because the individual concerned does not know any better, with possibly fatal results. In the excellent research undertaken by Mrs. Backhouse, she said that one of the main dangers is placing a plastic bag containing glue right over the head, with the risk of suffocation. Not enough emphasis is placed and reflected in the press on that horror.
Another danger is sniffing in dangerous places where intoxicated youngsters face external risks—beside canals or railway lines or, as in my constituency, when they collect on benches near busy roads or in isolated locations where help is unlikely if things go wrong. There are risks in small, enclosed places such as cupboards, or in high buildings such as multi-storey car parks and flats. All those are areas where what is in effect a crime can happen, frequently through ignorance, and often with appalling results.
§ Mr. Lawler
One of the unfortunate spin-offs of solvent abuse is that, having sniffed, young people have a tendency to leave bags lying around which still contain glue and which even younger people might come along and inspect, and then try out the experience for themselves.
§ Mr. Moynihan
That is an extremely important and useful point. When I was working in Liverpool a case started for that reason. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that to the attention of the House.
It is also important to recognise the excellent work that is being done by a considerable number of local newspapers. I am glad that hon. Members have alluded to the work that is being done in their constituencies. I should like to add to their comments, and reflect on the detailed and serious investigations made in my constituency into the problem, not least in order to assist in rectifying future cases, deterring youngsters and advising parents on the implications of glue sniffing. Such work has been done by the South London Press and the Mercury. I am glad to have this opportunity to place that on record.
It is also important to take the campaign nationwide. I understand that the Government are currently undertaking a detailed investigation of the extension of their effective nationwide campaign, culminating in an advertising campaign which, I hope, will start shortly. I hope that if the Bill is enacted the campaign undertaken by the Government will publicise the aim of this specific measure, for we need to launch a major education and prevention campaign directed at young people, their parents, shopkeepers, manufacturers of the products and community leaders. We need the measure to increase 673 deterrence. It is therefore with great pleasure and honour that I lend my voice to those who have spoken in favour of the Bill, and I hope that it will be enacted.
§ 12.7 pm
§ Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)
The Opposition welcome and support the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter). He is to be congratulated both on his luck in coming top of the ballot and on his initiative not just in introducing the Bill but in pursuing the issue over several months, if not years. He is also to be congratulated for the reasonable, balanced and informed way in which he introduced his Bill.
As hon. Members have said, the Bill has all-party support, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis) who gave the House a vivid and horrendous account of the difficulties that he experiences in his area. Like other hon. Members who spoke, he showed clearly that the problem of solvent abuse is difficult to define and even more difficult to tackle effectively and successfully. Little reliable information or systematic research evidence is available on the scale of the problem or the numbers involved. Every hon. Member who spoke alluded to the problems in his constituency, but not one—one understands the reasons why—could accurately estimate the number of individuals involved. That is a great problem, and one of the great difficulties that we face in tackling the problem in a systematic and organised fashion.
We all have to rely on press reports, usually of horrendous and terrifying deaths or crimes, on the evidence of drug agencies and doctors, and the impressionistic and anecdotal evidence of police, social workers and others, all of whom, certainly in my area, suggest that solvent abuse, not just glue sniffing, is on the increase among both those who are referred to as the experimenters and those who are becoming regular users.
For example, in Merseyside, my own area, the drug specialist of the Merseyside probation service, Mr. William Skelton. who is also the chairman of the Merseyside drugs council, says that there is a great deal of evidence on the extent of solvent abuse in all parts of Merseyside, whether the Wirral, St. Helens, south Sefton, or Kirkby in my constituency. However, those concerned cannot determine the size of the problem. They have no doubt that there are pockets of it and that where it exists it is increasing. The particular problem at the moment is that of butane gas.
Of course, on Merseyside, as elsewhere, the incidence of solvent abuse is probably declining because of the ease of obtaining heroin and its relative cheapness. That has largely overshadowed the problem of solvent abuse. However, that does not in any way derogate from the importance of solvent abuse and the significance that the House should attach to it.
Although our knowledge is limited, we know that solvent abuse is spread throughout the country. Indeed, hon. Members from different parts of the United Kingdom and different parties have all given evidence of solvent abuse in their areas. However, we know that it tends to be concentrated in urban areas, and in particular schools and housing estates, and specific pockets on those estates. We also know that solvent abuse tends to attract young peple, mainly boys aged about 16, who are already at risk in some way. If they are of school age, they tend to be truants and to come from deprived backgrounds. They also tend to be 674 under-educated and inarticulate. Of course, some hon. Members have attested to the fact that solvent abuse transcends all backgrounds and includes the relatively privileged as well as the deprived. I accept that, but the facts, such as they are, demonstrate that abuse tends to be more attractive to those who are inarticulate, who are at risk, who are bored and who happen to be unemployed.
Not much allusion has been made to the fact that solvent abuse among young people causes great anxiety, distress and anguish to their parents. Parents are made to feel that they have failed their children, have failed in their upbringing, and have failed in imposing discipline and giving care and love. Parents experience a deep sense of hopelessness and find that great tension is created in their home by having a son or daughter who is a solvent abuser. Sometimes the parents need even more help than the abusers.
Those who abuse solvents can be divided into three categories. It is important to put the facts on the record so that we do not dramatise or overestimate the problem and do not become hysterical about it. It is also important to acknowledge that one of the main categories of solvent abusers involves those who are experimenting. They may use solvents for a relatively short time—perhaps no more than 12 months—and may not suffer any long-term deleterious medical consequences as a result. They may go on to a far more socially acceptable and possibly harmful abuse, such as that of alcohol. That probably goes for the majority of those who abuse solvents.
But there are also those who use solvents as adults use alcohol. They use them on a regular, controlled basis. Usually the same group of friends is involved in the same location. I am not in any way endorsing or apologising for that; I am simply describing the facts. Without describing and understanding them, we cannot learn whether this is a serious social problem or how to deal with it. There are some who seem to abuse solvents in a regular, disciplined and controlled fashion—if that is not an inappropriate description.
Finally, there are those about whom perhaps we should be most concerned. I refer to those who have developed a dependency not on the solvent but on the experience of being high on it. They are perhaps in the greatest danger and need the greatest help. Several hon. Members have mentioned the number of deaths not from solvent abuse but from the consequences of that abuse. For example, studies show that between 1971 and 1981 there were 169 deaths as a result of solvent abuse. The number of deaths increased to 104 in the year 1981–82. According to parliamentary answers, there were 57 deaths in 1983 alone. Indeed, an answer given on 3 February to the hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley) shows not that glue or solvent abuse kills but that the consequences of solvent abuse kill in a horrifying manner.
The answer to that question showed that of the 57 deaths in 1983 attributed to solvent abuse, 20 were by asphyxia, nine by suffocation by plastic bag, 40 by the inhalation of vomit, two by hanging, five from drowning, and three as a result of multiple injuries, while other unspecified causes accounted for a further four deaths. I think that every hon. Member will acknowledge that those are terrible ways for young people to end their lives. It is an utter tragedy and waste for them to end their lives in such horrifying and horrendous circumstances. Unfortunately, many of our young people unintentionally 675 end their lives in a most painful and distressing way. The distress, anxiety and pain that that causes to their relatives and families is unimaginable and immeasurable.
It is not just that the young people themselves are at risk from solvent abuse, or that they are at risk of death or of the permanent damage mentioned by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney). Other people are also at risk. As has been mentioned, those who are hallucinating or who are high on solvents are likely to commit offences. Compared with alcohol or drug abuse, not many offences are involved, but nevertheless serious offences are committed. I think, for example, of the recent and tragic case of the young man who apears to have stabbed his mother and grandmother before killing himself.
What is to be done? As a first step we have the Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Tynemouth. But with respect to him—I do not say this in any sense of criticism or churlishness—the Bill does not address itself to the problem that I have described and that others have referred to. The Bill says that it will be an offence to supply solvents to those under the age of 18 if those concerned know or have reasonable cause to believe that they are likely to abuse it. That is a perfectly reasonable measure to take and the Opposition welcome and support it. We shall give the Bill a fair wind in Committee to ensure that it is on the statute book as quickly as possible. Of course, we shall want to talk about one or two things, but we do not want to delay the Bill.
The Government's initiative in negotiating guidelines with the retail trade over the way in which solvents are to be used in stores is also to be welcomed. On the evidence that I have, they are being widely adhered to. The Bill will reinforce those guidelines, and is to be welcomed for that reason. With the odd exception that we have heard about from the hon. Member for Peterborough, most retailers, both large and small, are reasonable, sensible and law-abiding citizens. The Bill will deal with only a few cases, which are nevertheless worrying. Obviously, it is wrong for anyone knowingly to sell solvents that young people will abuse. Such retailers are clearly evil, and even if there are only a few of them, we must take measures such as this to deal with them.
It may be asked why the Bill is necessary, as most retailers are reasonable and sensible and few would go out of their way to encourage such abuse. Perhaps, therefore, I should put on record in a way that has not been done so far the facts of the case that probably led to the introduction of this Bill.
The case came before the appeal court in Scotland in November 1983. Two shopkeepers could not at that time be prosecuted—and could not presently be prosecuted under English law. The two brothers ran a newsagents in Glasgow. Long before charges were brought the police learnt that sniffers attending a police-run clinic had obtained their supplies from that shop. During the trial it emerged that a search of the shop had revealed eight gallons of solvent, plus boxes of empty crisp packets and plastic bags. The solvent was sold in quarter or half-litre dollops, already placed in the bags. Police, social workers, parents, local councillors and community relations leaders visited the shop and asked the brothers to stop that practice, but to no avail.
It is obviously right that, in such circumstances, it should be possible to bring a prosecution in this country. 676 That is what the Bill proposes and that is why we support it. There are not many cases such as that, but there have been some, such as that of the ex-policeman in Scotland who sold kits to young people, and the Patel family, father and daughter, who were doing the same in Huddersfield.
We must accept that the Bill is limited. After all, 39 per cent. of those who abuse solvents do not purchase them but steal them. A further 33 per cent. get someone else, usually an older person, to buy solvents and only 15 per cent. buy the solvents themselves. In any case, a wide range of easily available household substances can be used.
It would be wrong to attempt, by legislative means, to prohibit the sale of solvents to children, as suggested by the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). That would be ineffective. Moreover, it would be unreasonable to ask retailers to take on the responsibility of determining whether a person is above or below the age of 18 and whether he intends to use solvents for legitimate purposes. The hon. Member for Ealing, North prides himself on having some experience and knowledge of children. He said so in his rather churlish and headmasterly riposte to the Minister, yet he suggested that all punks who buy glue are glue sniffers. They are not. He clearly does not have experience of children or of those who dress and describe themselves as punks.
I know many young people who dress in what I regard as a bizarre way and who, in my experience and that of agencies with which I am associated, do a great deal of voluntary community work and play a substantial part in the community. They happen to have a peculiar fashion in clothes but are otherwise decent, sensible, law-abiding and reasonable young people. It is quite wrong—indeed, it is an offensive and unwarranted smear—to suggest that they or any young person who buys glue is a solvent abuser. It is perfectly possible for young people to buy glue or solvents for legitimate purposes. The hon. Member for Ealing, North is no more correct to argue that adding additives or aversants to solvents will deal with the problem. Many of the additives pose health risks and often interfere with the acceptability of the product to the legitimate consumer. That applies especially to hair sprays.
Of course we want to encourage manufacturers such as Dunlop and the makers of Evo-Stik to go further in finding additives that will not create problems, but we mislead them and everyone else if we suggest that the problem can be solved by imposing restrictions on sale or by adding aversants. Such action would merely drive young people to just as acceptable—for them—but far more dangerous substances.
We would not welcome, nor would we be prepared to support, measures that would criminalise solvent abuse. It is not that we like or endorse solvent abuse but that we believe that such a proposal would be counter-productive. It would drive the abuse underground where it is likely to be even more dangerous. The hon. Members for Peterborough and for Halifax talked of solvents being abused in public places. The practice is horrible, disreputable and distasteful, but if the abusers get into trouble, they can be seen and taken to a doctor or a hospital. If we make it an offence, abusers will go underground into the areas of our constituencies where nobody goes and where there are likely to be far more horrendous deaths.
677 We want the young people involved to seek help and to acknowledge, as the first part of their recovery, that they have a problem. If they accept that they need help they should not be deterred from obtaining it because we have made them criminals. They should not be threatened by criminal proceedings if they admit to being solvent abusers. We want them to go to the social agencies and to their parents and say, "Mum, Dad, I have a problem. I am sniffing glue, what can I do? What can you do to help me?" We all want that response but it will not be forthcoming if we make criminals out of them.
Another reason for not criminalising the activity is that we do not want to bring more of our deprived and vulnerable young people under the shadows of the criminal justice system. There are already too many. The more of them we keep out of those shadows and deal with through other means, the better. What we need is quite unglamorous and it is not an easy or ready answer. We need a long, patient and quiet process of improvement in the quality of our services and facilities. Above all, we must put greater emphasis on education. We should agree that a broad health education campaign in schools is the best method of preventing abuse. Information on solvent and drug abuse should be part of any education programme. We need a clearer Government commitment to a comprehensive education programme for children and adults, with a strong social and health education component, to help them identify and tackle solvent abuse.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle said, far more help is needed in educating parents as well as professionals. Parents are in the front line. It is they who have to take the real decisions and it is they who need the greatest help. They need to know what signs to look for, what help is available and who they can go to if they are unfortunate enough to discover that their children are solvent abusers.
There should be far more training. I believe that the Minister will acknowledge that the training which is currently provided to equip social workers and other professionals is inadequate. We should accord higher priority to training our professionals. Such training should become an essential part of pre-qualification courses and in-service training for professionals such as teachers, nurses, doctors, the police, social workers and probation officers. Hon. Members will have been surprised how many social workers, probation officers and policemen are ignorant on this issue, through no fault of their own, unless they have had first-hand, practical experience of identifying and dealing with the problems of solvent abuse. We need to build that training into their qualification courses and into vocational training after qualification.
We need more adequate services for drug abusers, of whom solvent abusers normally form a peripheral minority. To leave aside the hostels, which are not relevant to this matter, it is disgraceful that we have only seven drop-in street agencies in five cities where advice can be given on drug and solvent abuse. Such agencies need to be established on a far larger, more comprehensive basis so that every major city has an agency or advice centre where parents, children and professionals can seek assistance and advice.
The recent Government initiative to provide additional resources to voluntary organisations to deal with drug abuse is welcome, but inadequate. Although they are providing more than before, the resources are not nearly 678 enough to deal with drug abuse, still less to get to the root of providing the necessary advisory services. A major problem of the package is that it expires in three years' time and will require the take-up of local authorities or voluntary associations to make it a reality in future. A permanent system of central Government funding tied to the provision of projects for drug and solvent abusers is needed.
Above all, we need to tackle the social problems. In many cases solvent abuse, like drug abuse, is only a symptom. In that respect the Bill may be an unintended handicap and lull people into believing that the problem of solvent abuse, if not solved, is being seriously tackled. Neither is true. We must not pretend that the Bill will do more than it can achieve, or mislead the House or public into believing that we are making a major and serious inroad into the problem, because we are not.
The Bill has its merits. It is welcome and important, but it will not stop glue sniffing, the terrible consequences of solvent abuse, or end the crimes and outrages that are often the consequences of abusing solvents. The answer is to address and identify abusers, to identify and isolate the causes of abuse, and to tackle those problems at their roots.
The problems include boredom, social deprivation and. not least, although mentioned by only one hon. Member, unemployment. The Government have a clear, genuine and direct responsibility to ensure that young people are not treated as worthless, told that they are of no account, or made to feel that they have no part in the future or success of our consumer-orientated society, or prospect of belonging to it.
That is an important point. In my constituency fewer than 6 per cent. of school leavers found full-time employment. Many of the others will marry, have children and spend the rest of their lives on the dole. They will inhabit the terrifying area of social and economic deprivation where there are no jobs and no social facilities. It is not surprising, therefore, that to break the monotony, boredom and apparent hopelessness of their lives, they resort to such practices.
In that context even Conservative Members will recognise that if the Government ensure full-time jobs for young people, which give them a sense of dignity, self-respect and worth and which will overcome their boredom, they would help both to solve the genuine and enduring problem of unemployment and make the biggest single contribution towards eradicating drug and solvent abuse. The Government should address themselves to that today.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)
Both as a Back-Bench Member and as a Minister, I have taken part in a disproportionately large number of Friday debates, and I believe that on Fridays the House of Commons shows itself at its best, which one cannot always say about the other days of the week, except of course for Saturday and Sunday, when we are not here. Today we have had an excellent debate in which there have been differences of opinion, but it is appropriate to have differences when discussing a difficult social issue. The debate was conducted in an excellent spirit and with widespread agreement across the Chamber, which augurs well for the Bill's progress through the House.
679 I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) on introducing this Bill. He did not take up the subject simply because he had the exceptional good fortune to be drawn first in the ballot; he has been interested in it for as long as two years, after he became aware of the dimensions of the problem in his constituency. I was in correspondence with him for a long time before the ballot, and it was a special pleasure for me to see the outcome of the ballot. I thought that my hon. Friend would do something about solvent abuse, and I am delighted that he decided so to do and that we have been able to collaborate closely.
Another reason why I am glad that my hon. Friend had the good fortune to come first in the ballot is that he is one of the nicest Members in the House. Therefore, we forgive him even for the fact, to which he drew attention—unwisely, in my opinion—during his speech this morning, that he is an accountant. Most of us had either forgiven him for that or had forgotten about it. Accountants are held in no higher regard in this place than are lawyers—
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman might be surprised to learn that banisters are lawyers. However, the reputation of lawyers was improved by the excellent speeches of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) and of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer). I can think of no better definition of the accountant than the man who goes on to the battlefield after the battle to count the dead and bayonet the wounded.
As well as the many serious points to which I shall refer, appropriately for a debate conducted in a spirit of friendship and a common attempt to come to grips with a difficult problem, we have had our moments of humour. I shall treasure for some time the use by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley) of the word, "oomph". He has done much to make "oomph" a Parliamentary expression, although I do not know how Hansard will spell it. Will it be "oomph" or "umf'?
§ Mr. Mellor
I hope that the word will become part of my hon. Friend's contributions in the House. A senior Member once told me about the time that he chaired a meeting for Churchill. As Churchill approached the platform, he stopped and lit a large cigar. He waved it in the air and said, "My boy, never forget your trademark." My hon. Friend's trademark might be the word, "oomph", and no doubt he will enliven many a debate with it.
This is a distressing subject for us all because glue sniffing is a troubling phenomenon in many parts of the country. Indeed, like drug abuse, it has spread from the cities into areas where, as several hon. Members said, it was a surprise to see the phenomenon emerge. It is equally clear that what we say about the measures that we are discussing today, there can be no guarantee that we have found the key to prevent youngsters from becoming involved in such activities. We must try to address the matter in a common-sense way, eschewing easy solutions, trying not to sloganise and trying to come to grips with the 680 reality of the problem. As so often with the subjects that we debate in the House, the problems are much more complex than some of us may have believed when we embarked on our consideration.
This is an important Bill that closes a loophole in English law. My hon. Friend has done well to close it. However, none of us would suggest that the Bill is in any sense the answer to the problem. It is not. It simply deals with, and punishes, those who try to exploit the weaknesses of young people. Many disreputable things are done in our community, but selling glue sniffing kits to the young is one of the most cruel and callous acts that I can think of. It would be an outrage if English law could not deal with it as effectively as the Scottish law did in the lamentable case of December 1983.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth would not claim that the Bill represents the whole solution. Nor is it —as some hon. Members have suggested—a beginning. It is not a beginning. It is the continuation of an enormous amount of work done by the Government, local authorities, voluntary organisations, retailers and manufacturers.
Very properly, the opportunity has been taken today not merely to commend my hon. Friend's Bill and to raise interesting and useful points about the dimensions of the problem, the possible penalties and so on—all questions that will be addressed in Committee—but to debate glue sniffing in more general terms. In that spirit, I should like to explain what the Government have been doing on this important topic. By coincidence, two important circulars were issued two years ago today, on 18 January 1983. I shall therefore begin at that point, although I do not mean to imply that that was the point at which the Government began to think about the problem. The circulars had been carefully prepared.
The circulars were part of an upgrading of the Government's efforts to deal with the problem, which have led to a number of initiatives. One three-page circular was sent to retailers' organisations. It explored the ways in which it was then considered that the problem of selling the products might be addressed. It dealt with the possibilities of controls on retail sales and supply, the use of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the reformulation of products, warnings on packets and restricting possession or use.
The circular was sent to all the retailers' representatives that the Department had regular dealings with, or could identify, and it represented an attempt by the Department of Health and Social Security, the Home Office, the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Industry to co-operate in dealing with the problem.
On the same day, a lengthy and helpful seven-page circular was sent to 73 organisations concerned with criminal justice and voluntary work. It was sent to organisations such as the National Union of Teachers, the Police Federation, the regional health authorities, Release, Lifeline, the Magistrates Association, the London Boroughs Association, the National Association of Head Teachers, and the Association of Area Health Education Officers. It invited them to consider the wider issues of solvent abuse, to which the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) referred in a speech with much of which I very much agreed.
We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg), who was the responsible Minister at that time, how much care and 681 thought were put into the work of the DHSS. The circular represented a recognition that, while the Government must establish the framework for dealing with such issues, they have no monopoly of clear thinking or sensible opinions. One cannot leave everything to the Government. Other organisations, and, indeed, every individual in the community, have a duty to respond to the problem.
Following the issue of the circulars, there has been a series of lengthy written answers from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security. Answers appeared on 15 December 1983 and in May and July 1984, dealing with the range of initiatives taken by the Government. I do not want to detain the House by going through all of them, but I shall deal with some of the most important.
It was plainly recognised that there was a need for greater care in the sale of solvent-based products, but that there was no reasonable prospect of restricting the sale of solvent-based products to customers who were over a certain age. We all know how difficult that has been to enforce for cigarettes. It was also not possible to impose special restrictions on certain products.
I do not want to upset my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) because no one has shown more interest than my hon. Friend, with his warm heart and great commitment to resolving this problem. However, I and other hon. Members were anxious to tell him of our view that, although it has been called glue sniffing, and undoubtedly glue sniffing is the way that it began and is carried on by many young people, glue is not the only substance that is capable of abuse. Almost every product of which one can think, and certainly every aerosol product, is capable of being abused. Even butane gas has been abused. I do not wish to make the comparison, because both of them are profoundly silly things to do, but if there is a choice between inhaling some glue and spraying an aerosal into the mouth, which some young people have done and died as a result, the former is less dangerous. However, in the long term, both practices can cause damage, and sometimes death in the immediate term.
We produced guidelines for staff and managers of shops in the hope that this would help those who have a difficult judgment to make when selling products to customers. It is important to know that the retailers have co-operated on this, and the Government have tried to co-ordinate. The advice is written in everyday terms for shop assistants and, for instance, contains a helpful list of signs of a sniffer that would make a sensible, prudent shop assistant wary of selling a product. It says:Watch out for any or all of the following: groups of teenagers standing around counters or areas where glue or other solvent-based products are normally displayed.Frequent purchase of solvent-based products and aerosols by the same individuals.Traces or smell of glue or solvents on a customer's clothes or breath.A drowsy, vacant or glazed expression in the eyes.Unsteadiness, slurred speech or other signs similar to drunkeness.Red eyes, heightened colouring and reddening spots around the mouth and nose.Uncontrolled or excessive giggling or and rowdy/silly behaviour.We should not let too many shop assistants into Prime Minister's Question Time. It continues:Purchase of plastic bags at the same time as glue or other solvent-based products.Obvious absence by a child from school.682 This was an attempt to put shop assistants on their guard and we relied on the good sense of retailers to distribute it. Similar guidelines were published for managers of shops to alert them to the need to start training and to locate abusable products on the higher shelves, and so on.
A number of hon. Members have commented on the ease with which it still appears that some shops are selling glue to young people in circumstances when they should be on their guard. I hope that that is not the case, but if it is, at the moment they are acting in clear breach of the retailers' undertaking to co-operate with this, and that fact should be made public by anyone who knows about it.
Although it is not for me to say precisely what the legal dimensions of the Bill that we pass will be, I confidently believe that if somebody sells a bag of crisps and a tube of glue to a person who appears to be a glue sniffer, there would be the requisite mens rea for an offence to be committed under the Bill. That reinforces the valuable work that has been done to make retailers aware of the danger of selling these products to young people.
§ Mr. Greenway
I accept that there is a wide range of abusable substances, but I ask that there be research into the way in which an abuse could be prevented by something within the substances themselves.
§ Mr. Mellor
The Government and the Home Office have sought to engage manufacturers in those useful discussions. I feel sure that manufacturers will do what they can.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North and I differ not over the point that manufacturers should not use their best endeavours to make their products as unattractive as possible to the glue sniffer, consistent with them doing the job for which they were intended, but that there was somehow some easy answer by putting in some chemical that would neutralise their attractions or cause aversion. On the best advice that I have, that is not a practical proposition.
§ Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)
I agree that the Government have taken positive steps, which have helped, and that retailers are co-operating. The Minister made the point about displays of products being put higher. There are practical problems in some establishments where the products can be easily obtained without being bought. The shops have their displays on counters which are too low. The Bill may help. I hope that it will remind retailers of their responsibilities. Local authorities or some other group should perhaps be checking retailers in their areas to see whether there are ways to keep such products out of arm's reach.
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. It is up to all public representatives to encourage colleagues and members of the public to take action if they see a shopkeeper behaving in a way that seems to be an invitation to make it easy for people to obtain the solvents or who is in breach of the guidelines.
It is important that we recognise that the Bill is intended to deal not just with those who, like the two Scottish shopkeepers, set out cynically to supply glue in return for stolen goods to people whom they knew were going to abuse it but to people who are wilfully blind in the way in which they carry on their business when a reasonable person would know that what they were doing would have 683 the effect of allowing a substance to be used to obtain intoxication by the purchaser or some minor whom he would supply.
A number of colleagues have mentioned the use of other agencies. The Government agree. Circulars have been issued to the police, and efforts have been made to communicate with the social services and teachers to seek to improve the knowledge of those professionals of what glue-sniffing is all about and devise ways of counselling young people. There has been a film and a book is being produced. There should be better co-ordination at the local level, because I was upset, as I am sure we all were, to hear the case referred to by two hon. Members about someone who had a history of glue sniffing and who had been found unconscious at school but who nevertheless carried on and died.
It is not for me to comment on the details of a case of which I have no further information, but it is important to recognise that local services already have powers to act in proper cases. I draw attention to the role of the social services, and point to section 1 of the Child Care Act 1980 which requires social services to providesuch advice, guidance and assistance as may promote the welfare of children by diminishing the need to receive children into …care.That places on the social services a clear duty to assist in those cases where someone is behaving in a way that is on the edge of requiring action for a care order. One would have thought that persistent glue sniffing was as clear an indication of that as possible. We wish to get the social workers involved.
In more serious cases there is the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 which provides for direct intervention where a child's development or health is being prevented or neglected or he is in need of care or control. Glue sniffing as such is often an open manifestation of far deeper problems of a kind that would entitle social services departments to act.
It has been the wish of the Home Office to ensure that social services assist in that process. A circular was sent to the police designed to remind chief constables and police officers that although—for reasons that I find utterly convincing—we will not make sniffing as such a criminal offence, such people need help not punishment. There is no question that making glue sniffing a criminal offence would do anything but harm. I am grateful that that has been widely stated in the debate.
That does not mean that a police officer should walk by on the other side of the road when he sees a group of lads sniffing glue. He has always had the power to make a friendly intervention and take the child home. If the case seems more serious and he believes that the child is persistently involved in this practice, under the Children and Young Persons Act the police officer has power to take him to a place of safety, which may be a police station or a hospital. It has been the wish of the Home Office to encourage the use of that Act when chief constables wish their officers to become involved in the interdisciplinary response being made by many communities in getting police officers, social workers, probation officers and teachers together.
A further circular was issued by the DHSS to local authority social service departments last October. A leaflet for parents was included which I strongly encourage hon. 684 Members to obtain and to pass on to worried parents. This carefully produced pamphlet was presented by the Health Education Council on the initiative of the DHSS and is intended to help parents to come to grips with the problem. It sets out to explain what glue sniffing is, the signs and dangers of it and what can be done. There is also a blank space for the addition of information as to where help may be obtained locally.
All this is part of what we believe is a measured and sensible response on the part of the Government, designed not to reinforce the attractions of glue sniffing by glamorising it. If a great many figures of authority seem to be banging on about something this often increases its attraction for groups wishing to demonstrate rebellious tendencies, which is frequently the motive for having recourse to these practices. Our measured response is designed to take on board the duty that we feel but also to encourage people in the community—parents, teachers, social workers, and so on.
I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). Of course youth workers have a role to play, but it should not be thought that increasing the number of youth workers and people of that kind will necessarily solve the problem. There are far more youth workers now than there were 20 years ago, when glue sniffing was unknown, so one cannot take the view that youth workers can prevent or cure the problem on their own. Nevertheless they can play an important role in assisting in the process of counselling young people who at a most turbulent time in their lives often do not receive the friendly assistance from an experienced guide that they need to help them over the difficulties that drive them into desolating experiences, such as going to some piece of waste ground and sniffing glue. One can scarcely imagine a more dreadful way for young people to spend some of the best years of their lives.
Of course, there are problems facing young people today and the Government are desperately anxious to address those problems. Nevertheless, in material terms the facilities available to young people today are far greater than those that were available to previous generations, including my own, which is not very far removed and that of the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis), whose contribution I also enjoyed. Young people are now rid of many of the fears of diseases such as polio and diphtheria, which no doubt carried off a number of the hon. Gentleman's schoolmates.
It is up to all of us in positions of authority —teachers, politicians and even, dare I say it, bishops—to try to concentrate on the positive aspects of today's community and the ability of young people today to use their energies and initiatives to create a good life for themselves. Too many people seem to see their role as communicators as being to depress young people, making them feel that they are living in a hopeless world under the shadow of the bomb and with nothing but a life of unemployment ahead of them. That is not the reality. We must snap out of that attitude and be positive. It is no wonder that so many young people get locked in misery when other people, even with the best of intentions, seem to wish only to reinforce that misery.
The signs are that we might be turning the corner. I do not want to emphasise that too much because I have been distressed, like all hon. Members, at the number of deaths caused by solvent abuse among young people. We rely on statistics revealed in an epidemiological study by the 685 department of clinical epidemiology and social medicine toxicology unit in the department of chemical pathology at St. George's hospital medical school which derives information from local and national newspaper reports and coroners. Its statistics are the best available, but one cannot guarantee that they are right in every particular. The statistics show that in 1980 29 deaths were caused by solvent abuse. In 1981 there were 45 such deaths, in 1982 60 and in 1983 80. That is an ascending scale that will trouble us all.
Although we cannot rule out the possibility of further unfortunate incidents, which have not yet been uncovered, in 1984 61 deaths have been confirmed as attributable to solvent abuse. That figure is still too high and I am not complacent about it but perhaps it shows that the efforts by parents, teachers, voluntary organisations and others who are concerned about young people may be helping us to turn the corner. We do not know whether this is a temporary hiccup or whether it heralds a long-lasting decline in glue sniffing. The number of deaths attributable to glue sniffing appears to have fallen for the first time in five years and that is welcome. Hon. Members and people with influence and authority in the community will do everything possible to ensure that the trend continues.
The Bill is designed to deal with those who prey on young people's weaknesses or who are wilfully blind to the obvious consequences of their actions. The measure is necessary and, in terms of age limit and penalties, meets the needs of the situation. I am glad to say that there have been few examples of the kind of behaviour that led the Scottish shopkeepers into court.
We shall consider in detail in Committee the matters that hon. Members have raised. We shall take a useful step forward in coping with solvent abuse by passing the Bill. In no sense will we solve the problem and we shall not be able to say goodbye to glue sniffing: but we shall take a valuable step. I hope that as a consequence of the debate we shall be encouraged to consider the wider implications of the subject and to believe that we have started on a wide-ranging series of initiatives that might enable us in the end to contain and control, and later to eradicate, this most damaging and troubling phenomenon that has blighted the lives of so many of our young people.
§ 1.3 pm
§ Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)
I should like to take up the theme in the latter part of the Minister's speech when he said that we seemed to be turning the corner. I have been in touch with the local police in Gainsborough and I am told that the problem is still heart-rending, but that in the past six or seven months they seem to have got to grips with it. Glue-sniffing is not the craze in the town that it was six months ago. It seems that the problem is reduced to a hard core. The police have achieved this success by persuading local shopkeepers to operate a voluntary code of practice.
The problem still exists and the police in Gainsborough welcome the Bill because they are in a cleft stick when trying to deal with the problem within the framework of the existing law. They cannot use the common law and charge people with breach of the peace because that can result only in someone being bound over. Sometimes the police take a young person home at 5 o'clock and by 5.30 he is out on the streets again. The police would like to have the power of arrest so that they can take a child back to 686 the police station and, not necessarily charge him with an offence, but, having cooled him off in the police station, put him into care.
That is what the local police have told me, and I pass their comments on to my hon. Friend. I know of the difficulties that my hon. Friend has faced in framing the Bill. It is difficult to conceive how, in legislation, possession can be made an offence. It is not like possession of drugs; it is impossible to prove.
The police welcome the Bill as far as it goes, as I do. From my experience of and practice in the criminal courts—and my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned mens rea—I can see difficulties in establishing proof. It is based on the most difficult part of the criminal law, which is the establishment of subjective belief by the shopkeeper, retailer or seller that the person buying the product would abuse it. I do not envisage many prosecutions, but that does not worry me too much. Once we have a legal framework in addition to the voluntary code, that will no doubt instil caution in the minds of shopkeepers which will be a useful exercise.
The Bill is an essential first step, and I welcome it. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, we shall deal with the problem better by the initiatives that the Government have already taken in their circular to professionals and to the police in January 1983, which has already achieved a great deal of success. If we can build on the framework of the Bill and the circular, and if my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth will take note of the comments of the police, we shall be on the road towards dealing with this heart-rending problem. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ 1.7 pm
§ Mr. Trotter
With the leave of the House, I shall reply briefly to the debate. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. There has been unanimous support for the Bill from both sides of the House and both Front Benches. The speeches have shown a great depth of interest in the subject and concern about the problem, and also how widespread that problem is. The attention of the House was drawn to the position in communities large and small, north and south, east and west—they all seem to face the same problem.
I was especially interested in the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) who has a great knowledge of the subject from his previous involvement as a Minister dealing with the problem. He was right to draw our attention to the need to strike the difficult balance between sensationalism and being ineffective by not doing or saying enough.
I was also interested in the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), who gave a graphic description of what I would call culpable negligence. I am not a lawyer, but I would describe as culpable negligence a large shop that constantly supplies bags of crisps and glue to local youngsters. The courts should, I believe, find that such conduct came within the definition of "reasonable cause to believe" so as to constitute a crime under the Bill.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) that the Bill will have a deterrent effect. He wondered whether there would be any convictions. I understand that there have in fact recently been three convictions in Scotland. Only the first had national publicity because it made history. In a second case a shopkeeper was sentenced to 18 months and 687 a third, odd case involved a former policeman from the Leith police—with the unusual name of Macsporran—who had been supplying glue to youngsters.
I have not carried out a hunt for deliberate sellers in the north-east. The people to whom I have spoken in the shops have been both reasonable and concerned. However, I hear tales that one can buy fish and chips and glue and hot dogs and glue in Newcastle. I do not think that anyone could possibly say that such a practice is anything other than what will become a crime under the Bill, and should be stopped.
I fully accept that the Bill will not put an end to the problem of sniffing. Undoubtedly, however, there will be a reduction in the ease with which glue can be supplied, which will lead to less tragedy than would otherwise have been the case. If, however, the result of passing the Bill—
§ Mr. Greenway
Does my hon. Friend share my great concern about the most ill-informed remarks of the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk)—I regret that he is not in his place—about what he described as the failure of educational institutions to encourage positive attitudes in children? It was a very poor performance in a very long speech.
§ Mr. Trotter
I bow to the great knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). For many years he has shown great interest in the problems of glue sniffing and in the affairs of young people in general. I am delighted that he is one of the sponsors of my Bill. I pay much attention to his views.
To return to the main point of my remarks, the Bill will not stop glue sniffing. The need for the education of society about the problem will continue, as will the need for continued parental vigilance. However, the Bill will reduce the supply of solvents. Every tragic death that is prevented as a result of the legislation will make it worthwhile.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 42 (Committal of Bills).