HC Deb 06 December 1978 vol 959 cc1585-94

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Graham.]

11.46 p.m.

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising the vexed problem technically known as solvent inhaling, but more commonly known as glue sniffing. I have done my best by writing to Ministers to get them to take a more active attitude in dealing with this problem, but so far without much success. Therefore, I feel that we should understand the nature of the problem.

At present, we do not know how many young people throughout the country are involved in this dangerous practice. But one district out of five in a large health authority known to the Minister has been sufficiently public-spirited, in co-operation with the Strathclyde police, to attempt to do something over the past two and a half years.

When I discussed this matter with the officers concerned, they informed me that in that time no fewer than 600 young people under the age of 18 had been looked at, examined and treated for this dangerous addiction to glue sniffing. Of those 600, a fair number were under 12 years of age. I was exceedingly distressed to learn that one in every six of those young people was a female, and the number is increasing. The gap between the numbers of young male and female glue sniffers is now narrowing. Indeed, doctors take the view that, though these figures may seem alarming, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Those figures were obtained and checked no later than Monday of this week to satisfy me that they were accurate. That is an indication of the nature and seriousness of the problem confronting us.

It is estimated that no fewer than 17 people have died in the past few years as a result of glue sniffing. In my constituency, for example, a few young boys who had been glue sniffing and who were feeling high lit a fire with petrol. That fire was thrown at a 14-year-old constituent who was so seriously burned that he died in hospital. That accident was a consequence of glue sniffing. It should indicate that something must be done quickly if we are to tackle the problem effectively.

I understand that the Minister's argument, as he explained at Question Time. is that health education is the answer. That might be the case from the preventive angle. But we fall down on the curative aspect of the problem. It might be possible to prevent young people from beginning to indulge in this practice, but what are we doing about those who are now addicted to glue sniffing? We need something which is more effective than preventive treatment. We require curative treatment.

A clinic has been established by a district in a large health authority area. I suggest that the Minister should consider duplicating that type of clinic in large industrial areas so that parents can take young people there without consulting a doctor or the police. At such a place young people could receive expert treatment for their problems. Even teachers, policemen and others of good will could take young people there when the parents are not co-operative. This is one of the ways of tackling the problem more effectively.

Another way of tackling the problem is by insisting that manufacturers do research into eliminating components that have these grave characteristics in commodities which are sold over the counter and which can, by misuse, adversely affect health or even be dangerous to life. Those steps could be taken voluntarily at present.

I believe that we should go even further. I still believe that these commodities should be prohibited to persons under the age of 18 years. I understand that the argument against that suggestion is that there are too many such commodities.

But the problem is due mainly to the misuse of a handful of products. Those products could be controlled and their sale to young people banned. That would narrow down the area that we should tackle. The argument that too many commodities are involved is not valid.

The same could apply to other items that are restricted to young persons. It is no trouble to find the component parts of alcohol and make one's own brew. But we do not say that we should not ban the sale of alcohol to those who are under 18 because they can buy the components. We still ban the sale of alcohol to avoid misuse of that commodity. We should do likewise with the handful of commodities which are the major cause of this problem.

If the 'Minister visits a chemist's shop he will find that pharmacists have wide discretion to withhold the sale of a number of goods to young people. That is the law. There is no reason why we should not give retailers similar authority to withhold those commodities which are thought to be harmful to the health of young people.

We are duty bound to do something. I am reminded of the recent case in Glasgow sheriff court where the deputy procurator fiscal prosecuted a retailer for wilfully, culpably and recklessly selling glue, the vapours of which—so the fiscal said—the retailer knew young people would inhale. Yet the sheriff could find only one decision, that of not guilty, because it was not against the law. But the sheriff said that this was a matter that Parliament should be considering. Here we see being reinforced the evidence that there is a need to tackle this problem in a better and more energetic fashion—and along the lines I am suggesting.

Even Her Majesty's Chief Inspector. of Constabulary, for the first time, in his annual report this year, spelt out the problem of glue sniffing and the dangerous trends and the effects that it was having on the health and the lives of young people. Even he said that this was a matter that may be worthy of legislation and consideration by Parliament. When we have the law speaking out, in view of the accidents that we have experienced, and when we see the effect in one particular section of a very large area, it is obvious that we should do something much more effective than we have been doing in the past.

I am not in the least impressed by the argument that we might publicise something if we raise it in Parliament. I do not think that we could give this matter any more publicity than it has had in the past few months. But it is wrong and an abdication of our parliamentary duties to sweep under the carpet something which has tendencies of that nature, and which creates dangers for the existence of our young population, without doing our very best to draw it to the attention of the authorities, to those who have power to take action, and to prevail upon them to take action as soon as possible.

That is why I have raised the matter tonight. This is not something that is peculiar to my part of Scotland or to the West of Scotland. Of course it is not, although, as I have said, I have had my own experiences of the matter. I repeat that I know of a boy of 14 who suffered fatal burns arising out of glue sniffing. But the problem is much more widespread I have had representations made to me from the West of Scotland, from the East of Scotland, from Northern England, from the Midlands and from Wales, all asking, in the name of goodness and of protecting young people from this dangerous addiction, that Parliament should act immediately, and be seen to be acting, in order to deal effectively with the problem.

I am hoping, therefore, that as a result of this debate the Minister will give further consideration to this matter. I hope that he will again examine all the prospects. I have taken up the matter with the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Prices and Consumer Protection and for the Home Department in an effort to spell out the dangers arising from this regrettable practice and to make an appeal that the steps I have suggested, plus others which may emerge from a debate of this nature, be put into effect, in the hope that by implementing this action we can do something about the problem.

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary mentioned the possible need for legislation. I do not have criminal legislation in mind. I believe that there is a need for caring legislation. Our police can only speak to those concerned and appeal to their parents to co-operate. They need teeth, for example, to send young people to the children's hearings. They are the authority that could examine cases and could prescribe and arrange the treatment to enable young people to overcome this serious challenge which could very well affect their health not merely for a few months but possibly for life.

It is in the interests of protecting these young people from this most dangerous practice that I hope that the debate and whatever may follow will result in creating immediate action by the Government with a view to giving these young people that protection. Of course, we require the co-operation of all concerned. I should like to see more co-operation from traders. We made an effort to persuade shopkeepers not to sell these dangerous commodities to young people, and even to put them out of reach in the stores. But we did not get that cooperation. One always got the few unscrupulous traders anxious to make a quick pound, and willing to sell such items to young people, knowing perfectly well that they are bound to injure their health and their possible future.

I hope that, following this debate, the Minister will decide that additional steps must be taken with a view to reducing the catastrophe of this dangerous practice and in the hope that we can eliminate it from the lives of the present young generation.

12.1 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Harry Ewing)

I begin by totally rejecting the allegation of my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) that either I or any other Minister is trying to sweep this problem under the carpet.

Mr. Dempsey

I did not say that.

Mr. Ewing

I assure my hon. Friend that he is not the only Member who is concerned about this problem. For example, I have had letters from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State who represents Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown), from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) and many others of my hon. Friends about the problem. I repeat that my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie is not the only one concerned about this serious and vexed question.

I must in all honesty say that I sometimes wonder about the motives behind the raising of this problem. Even though f have begun my remarks by being rather critical of my hon. Friend, I am nevertheless grateful to him for raising this important topic. Like him and those other hon. Friends I have mentioned, I have been concerned for some time about this practice. But it is important to look at the matter in context.

First, it is important to be clear what we are talking about. Glue sniffing is a very simple term, but it is far too simple. What we are concerned about is the inhalation for the toxic effects of various volatile hydrocarbon solvents which are present in a considerable number of products in common domestic use.

My hon. Friend talks about banning sales of commodities. I shall not name them, but he would be astonished at the substances which are used in the practice, which we all regret. In addition to glues, there is a wide range of products which can be misused. I do not propose to identify them specifically, since I do not want to put ideas into the heads of young people. When properly used, all these products, including glue, are quite safe. and danger arises only from deliberate misuse, sometimes involving a plastic bag over the head in order to ensure that a greater concentration of the vapours is available for inhalation. We are dealing, therefore, with solvent sniffing and not glue sniffing.

I understand that the children who are misguided enough to indulge in the abuse of solvents do so because of the intoxicating effects. But unfortunately, as my hon. Frend has said, there can be, and sometimes are, serious consequences. Accidents through misuse of the plastic bag, or the inhalation of vomit, can result in asphyxiation, and this can be fatal. But quite apart from this, regular and prolonged indulgence in the practice can cause brain damage, or liver and kidney damage. There is at the moment little evidence to suggest that the practice is indulged in to this extent.

The pattern very largely seems to be one of limited and scattered outbreaks among groups of young people, and not a continuing and widespread habit. We do not have any reliable statistics, but we have had no recent reports from the police or from social work departments to indicate that there has been any recent increase in the practice. I am aware of the register of solvent users in the east of Glasgow, which has been the subject of press comment. My hon. Friend commented on it tonight. That register is maintained by the eastern district of the Greater Glasgow health board. It was started at the end of 1975 or the beginning of 1976 and is simply a cumulative record of the names of reported solvent sniffers since that time. The total now is about 600, but it is not known how many of the individuals recorded have now ceased the practice. It is important that I make clear that the 600 recorded on that register are there because they have been identified at one time or another as being solvent sniffers, but it is highly likely that a fair number of them have ceased the practice.

My hon. Friend has spoken about the need to legislate for a minimum age limit on the sale of glue. This clearly is a matter we have considered carefully over a period. In theory, to cut off the supply of solvents by legislating against the supply of these substances to children appears simple, but it is just not so. We all know the difficulty for police and traders in relation to the supply of alcohol and fireworks to the young. In the case of solvents we are dealing with a much wider range of substances, not only glues, which are in everyday use and are available in a very wide range of retailers.

Moreover, it is important to appreciate that many of the substances that may be used for sniffing are readily available in most households, and a number are perfectly proper substances for children to buy and use correctly. It is only when they are flagrantly and intentionally misused that they become dangerous, and in these circumstances the Government do not believe that it would be justifiable or practical to ban, for sale to children, substances containing solvents which the very great majority will use correctly and harmlessly. The wide range of substances capable of being misused also makes it doubtful whether a ban on sale to children would in fact limit supply.

My hon. Friend mentioned the report by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary for Scotland for 1977, in which he said that the introduction of legislation might be considered in relation to unscrupulous or unsuspecting dealers in areas where sniffing is practised who, after being advised by the police to be cautious on the sale of solvents to children, continue to sell them. My hon. Friend quoted only part of the report. It is noteworthy that it also says: The police have been concerned about the spread of this insidious practice for some time and with the full co-operation of medical and social work services, children found to have been indulging are warned of the inherent dangers in the presence of their parents who are advised to consult their family doctor. These matters are handled sympathetically and confidentially with the welfare and safety of the child accorded paramount importance. Although the abuse of solvents is not an offence, repeated instances following police warnings to parents could indicate that the child is beyond parental control necessitating consideration by the Reporter to a Children's Panel. Combined action involving police and other agencies is at present the most realistic way to control the problem. This last sentence is the crux of the problem and is the line supported by those closest to and most experienced in dealing with the problem. I cannot possibly condone the action of shopkeepers who sell solvent-based materials to children where there are grounds for believing that they will be misused; but I do not believe that there are many shopkeepers who would be so irresponsible.

I turn now to the steps which my Department and others have taken to contain and eliminate the practice of solvent sniffing. We believe the answer lies, as my hon. Friend suspects, in health education and in early identification of the problem when it arises. To this end, the Scottish Departments wrote on behalf of the Secretary of State, after consultation with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the health boards, in June and July of this year to all directors of social work, directors of education, chief constables and chief administrative medical officers in Scotland. These letters stressed the Government's view that health education, rather than legislation, was the best way of dealing with the problem of solvent sniffing and indicated that coordinated action by all concerned was required. It was also suggested, and I believe correctly, that care should be taken to avoid unnecessary publicity since this could be counter-productive and attract more people to experiment. The problem of solvent sniffing was not to be specially highlighted, but should be dealt with as part of a comprehensive programme of health education and in association with other problems of misuse, such as those related to drugs and alcohol.

The letters indicated three main needs in addition to the health education programme. These were, first, early recogtion of the problem by those likely to come into contact with sniffers. Professional staff have already been given a deal of information on this in the professional press, and in some areas, including Strathclyde, pamphlets for parents and others likely to be involved with children have been widely distributed. The pamphlets for parents are distributed by the police and social workers. The Scottish health education unit has also widely circulated, through education authorities and social work departments, a booklet on"Drugs and Young People in Scotland"which was published in November 1977 and which includes a section on solvent sniffing. More than 16,000 copies of this booklet have been issued. I take the view that awareness of the problem by those likely to be involved must have been increased very substantially by these steps.

The second need is knowledge of the action to be taken and the assistance available. Most cases are dealt with by counselling, but some require psychiatric help or medical treatment. In many cases the children involved in experimentation also have social difficulties manifested, for example, by truancy or juvenile delinquency, and some are already known to police community involvement branches or are under supervision to social work departments. The full range of facilities generally available to children in trouble are available to solvent sniffers. It is apparent from the evidence we have that the practice of solvent sniffing is more pronounced in areas of deprivation. The more that can be done to improve standards in such areas, the less I believe will be the incidence of solvent sniffing.

The third need which was identified was co-ordination of local effort to provide information, training and services, and the letters suggested that the coordinating role should be undertaken by the joint liaison committees recommended for establishment between local authorities and health authorities. Where separate sub-committees have been established for problems of drug abuse, these sub-committees should also cover solvent abuse. Such arrangements have already been implemented in the particular problem area of Strathclyde, and with the increasing awareness of all concerned I am hopeful that we will shortly see the problem diminishing.

Perhaps, before closing, I should make clear the other possibilities for action which we have considered and have found unacceptable. The first would be to make the practice of solvent sniffing illegal. If an offence is created, people expect it to be enforced. There are one or two other possibilities, such as labelling of bottles and packages, all of which have been considered.

I want to assure my hon. Friend that we are just as concerned as he is. I want also, through him, to assure his constituents and those of every other hon. Member that we are anxious to see an end to this regrettable practice of solvent sniffing. We are not convinced at this stage that legislation is the answer to the problem. We are convinced that parental responsibility combined with health education is the answer. We hope that, as we move on in the way that we have been going, with the distribution of leaflets, with making available the services of the police community involvement departments and taking all the action that I have described, we shall be able to convince people of the advisability of stopping this undesirable, regrettable and very dangerous habit—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at sixteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.