HC Deb 09 December 1970 vol 808 cc429-34

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to empower local authorities, with the consent of the medical officer of health of the county or county borough concerned, to authorise medical inspection of pupils in attendance at any school maintained by them to be conducted without notice given to the said pupils or to their parents or guardians. It is a marvellous thing about British parliamentary democracy that sandwiched between these vitally important issues and foreign affairs an hon. Member can intervene with a Ten-Minute Rule Bill, and I will do so as succinctly—[Interruption.]—as I can—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman deserves to be allowed to proceed at once in view of his ingenuity.

Mr. Dalyell

This is a modest Measure to give local authorities on the advice of their medical officers of health, the power to carry out urine tests on school pupils for analysis in a laboratory and for urine collection at school as evidence of drug taking. In making this proposal, I am motivated by two sets of circumstances. First, I am one of a number of Members from outside London and the Midlands to whom the problems of drug-taking in our constituencies are relatively new and who have been shaken out of our complacency. Going round seven Scottish universities and training colleges in October, I was told on six occasions that any politician who was not aware that significant soft drug taking was occurring in certain of our secondary schools was burying his head in the sand like an ostrich.

Secondly, as his P.P.S., I went on Ministerial visits with my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman). Not 10 miles from here in drug addict centres in East London I saw—including death—the most harrowing sights I have ever seen—these 15 and 25-years-old mooning around hooked on the hard stuff, with a 10–20 per cent. chance of cure.

In this Bill there is an underlying assumption, which ought to be laid bare, namely, that much misery can be avoided if only parents and doctors had early knowledge, for example, of amphetamine-taking. I put it to the House that drugs are rather different from alcohol. If a youngster returns home having had a beer or two at least his parents know what he has been up to. With drugs it is different. Drugs are far more insidious in that youngsters have often gone a long way along the road to damage before parents and teachers suspect. Therefore the early warning system, which is what the Bill is all about, is all the more necessary.

It would not only be stupidly dishonest but futile if I did not say candidly to the House that there are difficult issues.

There is the question of whether it would be better to let sleeping dogs lie. Yet, no young person who watches television or reads the newspapers can be exactly unaware of the fact that drug taking in our society is a widespread activity. In a situation where one teenage idol after another has appeared in court on drug offences, many medical officers of health tell us that it is essential to get information about what is suspected in certain areas to be little more than the tip of the iceberg.

Then there is the issue of the mechanics of testing. I am told by Professor Arnold Beckett of Chelsea College, Professor of Pharmacy, and Dr. Henry Matthew of the Drugs Unit of the Royal Infirmary that detection of amphetamine present no problems; barbiturates no problem; narcotics, in general, no problem. Heroin is more difficult to detect. As for cannabis, there are problems at present but the Working Party on Biochemical and Pharmacological Aspects of Drug Dependence, under Professor Paton, states: It is likely that the position of cannabis will change, since unpublished work indicates that a metabolite appears in the urine in reasonable amounts. As for L.S.D.—and lesser humanised problems—there are problems not likely to be solved in the immediate future.

Then there is the issue of the collection of samples. Expressing only their personal opinion, because there is no association policy, senior officials of the N.U.T., the E.I.S. and the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association have told me that they do not foresee too much resistance to the collection of urine in the schools, provided that it is done by a school medical officer and assistant nurses, not by teachers. If it could be done in conjunction with what we might call some non-moral purpose involving no criminal overtones, such as diabetes testing, so much the better. Certainly testing through schools of an age group is infinitely to be preferred to the random search in the streets which is deeply resented by most young people who feel that society is picking on them and their sub-culture.

There are delicate problems of the liberty of the individual in terms of subsequent action. I respect the doubts of some of my hon. Friends who have declined to support my Bill on liberty and freedom grounds. In a sense they are right. This Bill in a small way curtails liberty. That cannot be concealed. Balanced on the other side of the scales is the fact that such a Bill is the only way to detect people at risk through drug taking at an early enough stage when something can be done. This is a value judgment and all I can say to hon. Members is that since this is a complex balance of conflicting freedoms "please do not kill the Bill at an early stage before parliamentary discussion can take place."

There is the issue of the legal consequences and senior police officers to whom I have talked are reluctant to emphasise the rôle of the police in the early stages. So, indeed, are many of us. If, for example, amphetamines are found in the urine it does not follow that the donor can be had up on a charge of possession nor, indeed, are there grounds for the police to search for possession. Again it would be for the House, if leave is given, to reflect whether the police should have the power to look at laboratory records.

The issues of possession are complicated, involving a recent legal case before Lord Chief Justice Parker, Mr. Justice Waller, Mr. Justice Fisher of Hambleton versus Callinan, Fumier, Farrier and Graham.

There is also the question of privacy. If positive results were registered by the person, who should be told and to what use should the information be put? If the House gives leave, this would be a matter to be dealt with in Committee. My inclination is to go along with the advice I have received from the doctors from the Maudsley Hospital to the effect that information should be given to parents, to the echool medical authorities and probably headmasters. Teachers might be told of the percentage of positive results in their school.

On this issue the Deputy Secretary of the B.M.A. in charge of this matter, Dr. Hitchcock, has expressed interesting, though unofficial views to me.

There is the question of whether such a Bill would make it easier for young people to communicate with adults about drugs. Very often a 15 to 18-year-old will go to a teacher and say, "I am very worried. My friend is taking drugs. What should I do about it?" "Who is your friend?" is the obvious reply from the teacher. "Won't tell." "Where is he getting the drugs?" "Won't tell." If a pupil knew that the adult world was aware of who was taking drugs I contend that it would be easier for them to help each other.

In asking for leave to bring in the Bill, I am making no attempt to foist on hon. Members propositions which require more thought. After talking to the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), and the former Secretary of State for Education and Science, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short), and to the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), all of whom have been more than helpful, I am convinced that it would be wrong to insert the phrase without consent of parent and guardian". I take the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) that a positive purpose would be served by bidding for parental cooperation at the beginning of the school year, even if it means that some youngsters refuse to give samples.

This is a malleable Bill. In dealing with drug sub-culture, there is no black and white but various shades of grey. The only point to which I am passionately committed is the belief that the House of Commons would not be wasting its time if it gave an opportunity for the Bill to be discussed at further stages and faced an urgent and unpleasant problem which it is no use blinking.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

I ask the House to refuse my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) leave to introduce the Bill. In view of the business which is to follow, I hope that I shall take less time in stating my opposition to it than my hon. Friend did in asking for leave to introduce it.

My hon. Friend has put a number of excellent proposals to the House in the past, but this is not a proposal which should be supported. Unless the words on the Order Paper, namely, to authorise medical inspection of pupils in attendance at any school maintained by them to be conducted without notice given to the said pupils or to their parents or guardians"— and the last point about parents and guardians is particularly important—are in the Bill, the Bill is worthless.

My hon. Friend accepts that there are objections to his proposals as outlined on the Order Paper, which is what we have to make a decision on. We are not concerned with what might or might not be in the Bill. As a precaution, my hon. Friend has put on the Amendment Paper for the Misuse of Drugs Bill tonight a series of Amendments which would cover his point. He said that danger to life and liberty was involved. No one under-estimates the problem in any school.

Apart from my fundamental objection that the proposed Bill would apply to a limited range of schools and pupils—it would be better if it applied to students at colleges and university, but it is not proposed that it should—my fundamental objection and reason for asking the House to reject the Motion is that it would take away the responsibilities of the parents towards their children. Under the Bill, any medical officer of health could decide to go to any State controlled and maintained school and say, without any reference to the parents or guardians, "I want an inspection of the children to be carried out". The fundamental principle of the matter is this: no one touches my children without my prior knowledge or consent, or there is likely to be trouble.

It is not suggested that the children have committed a crime. We have previously objected in the House to random testing. We had a lengthy debate when the Misuse of Drugs Bill was being discussed about the power of the police to stop and even search unless they had some reasonable grounds for believing that a crime had been committed. The proposed Bill is a perfect example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian will agree to withdraw his Motion so that the matter can better be discussed later tonight on the Misuse of Drugs Bill. If he feels unable to do that, then I shall ask the House to divide.

Question put:—

The House proceeded to a Division

Mr. MCNAMARA and Dr. MILLER were appointed Tellers for the Ayes, but no Member being willing to act as Teller for the Noes, Mr. SPEAKER declared that the Ayes had it.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Dalyell, Mr. Bishop, Mr. Coleman, Mr. Fernyhough, Dr. Dickson Mabon, Dr. Miller, Mr. William Price, Mr. Richard, Mrs. Renée Short, Dr. Summerskill, Mr. Taverne and Mr. Walden.