HC Deb 21 July 1980 vol 989 cc203-16

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

1.35 am
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

It is never easy to follow such an exciting debate as the one that we have just had. I thought that I would have some difficulty in speaking over the hubbub of hon. Members leaving the Chamber. However, I am grateful to my now absent hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) for his assistance in emptying the Chamber so effectively.

Two years ago, glue sniffing was sufficient of a problem in my constituency for the social services department, in cooperation with the police and the area health authority, to issue leaflets to parents, teachers and young people about its dangers. For a period it died down, but now, I am afraid, its practice has started to increase. Residents in one area of the town—Daisyfield—have become so concerned about the disruption to their neighbourhood caused by glue sniffers who have broken into bricked-up houses and acted in a disruptive and anti-social way that, led by one of the residents—Mr. Mohammed Desai, of Ross Street—they have produced a petition about it. Their councillor, Mr. William Taylor, who is also a youth and community worker with extensive knowledge of young people in the town, has taken the matter up, and it was he who asked for my help.

It was, therefore, this immediate constituency interest that led to my request for this Adjournment debate. Subsequently, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph conducted an investigation into glue sniffing within the town and came up with some detailed and pretty horrifying evidence from children, some as young as 12, who appear to be habitual glue sniffers. From all that I have read and heard, I do not believe that my constituency is any better or worse than any other urban areas. Since this debate was announced hon. Members from both sides of the House have expressed their concern about its incidence and have mentioned the worries of their constituents. The fact that even at this late hour there are as many hon. Members as there are in the Chamber indicates the concern that is shared across the Floor.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) held a similar Adjournment debate two years ago he pointed out that 600 young people under the age of 18—I think in one year—in the Strathclyde region had come to the attention of the authorities as having been examined and treated for glue sniffing. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend, because it is he above all other hon. Members who has pursued this problem and tried to suggest solutions to it.

No one should be in any doubt about the dangers inherent in glue sniffing, as well as the dangers inherent in the inhalation of other solvents. Glue is sniffed, as I think we all understand, because it can produce a sensation of being "high" and of pleasant hallucinations. If young people are leading rather aimless lives, and are truahting—there is a close relationship between children who are glue sniffing and those who are truanting—or if they are a bit older and face the prospect of no job, one can perhaps understand why they may seek such an escape.

Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman consider the fact that, certainly in my constituency, it is most unfortunate that glue sniffing has been associated with excessive amounts of vandalism and that older children have engaged in glue sniffing which has involved young children of 8 or 9 years of age?

Mr. Straw

Yes. One of the worrying things about this is that in some cases it involves children as young as that. Certainly, the evidence of the social services department in my constituency is that it is children in the 11 to 14-year-old bracket who can be particularly at risk.

There are many unpleasant and potentially dangerous side effects from glue sniffing. Users can become violent and aggressive, but because they do not know what they are doing they can place themselves in danger, at risk of accidents, and can cause disturbance, inconvenience and violence to others.

Last Saturday the London Broadcasting Company programme "Jellybone", which is broadcast to young listeners, held a live half-hour phone-in to ask the views of its listeners about the problem of glue sniffing and how it might be tackled. I shall detain the House by reading two of the verbatim comments of children who phoned that programme.

Gary, who is aged 14 and lives in Islington, said: quite a few kids in my class have been glue sniffing and the effects on them are something rotten. They've been having fights with other kids and they haven't known what they've been doing… at first they don't know what they're doing, then they go into a trance and if you go over to them… they just blow up and start kicking out and hitting you. A girl, Coleen, aged 15, from Bexley-heath, said: quite a lot of them in school do it, and there's quite a lot of trouble when it happens. They become violent and moany and they sweat. Those are only the short-term effects. The Minister, in answer to a question in May, said that those short-term effects are usually reversible but may be severe, and even, in rare instances, fatal. But he went on to point out: Chronic effects may include damage, which may be irreversible, to bodily organs and the nervous system." [Official Report, 15th May 1980; Vol. 984, c. 549.] So the dangers from glue sniffing can be very severe.

We may be in no doubt about the dangers of glue sniffing, but there is a great deal of doubt as to how big the problem is and whether, throughout the country and in particular localities, it is on the increase or is decreasing. The reason why we are in doubt about the size of the problem is that neither centrally nor on a co-ordinated basis are figures collected of the number of persons admitted to hospital suffering from the effects of glue sniffing or who come to the attention of the police.

I know why these figures have not been collected centrally. In the case of hospital admissions, it is because glue sniffing does not form part of the international classifi- cation of diseases and in the case of the police, it is because glue sniffing is not a crime, and I am certainly not proposing that it should be. Therefore, police practices in the recording of incidents of glue sniffing vary greatly.

I do not believe that the international classification of diseases should be regarded as a kind of bureaucratic bar to hospitals being encouraged to collect these figures where necessary. I believe that the Home Office should follow the lead of some police forces, including Strathclyde, which collect on a central basis figures relating to children who come to their attention suffering from the effects of glue sniffing.

Mr. William Waldegrave (Bristol, West)

As a member of the inner London juvenile court who has some experience of this problem, the hon. Gentleman might consider it sensible to encourage the Minister to collect figures from local social services departments, too. Perhaps he is coming to that point. This is normally how the courts come across these problems.

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that suggestion. I hope that the Minister will bear it in mind.

The figures are important not because they would be accurate in absolute terms but because they would indicate rising or falling trends in areas and nationally.

The second question concerns access to these glues, whether they should be banned from sale to young people under 16 or 18 years of age, and whether additives should be put in them to make them unpleasant.

As for a ban on sales, I am aware that one leading manufacturer has advised retailers not to sell to children where they suspect that the purchasers may be using the glue for sniffing. I have had a helpful suggestion from the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Page), that retailers should be made aware of the dangers of glue sniffing and should inform the police where they experience a run on particular product lines of glues.

Some manufacturers are adopting a responsible approach to this matter, but the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Security should consider whether powers should be taken to enable the sales of these products—product by product—to be banned in specific areas on a trial basis. I am aware that banning the sale of these products to under-sixteens might not work, and that if it did work it might lead to children going on to worse things which had to be made publicly available. I think that there is a strong argument for experimenting with bans in particular regions for two years and seeing whether that has an effect on the sales of glue and the incidence of glue sniffing.

I am aware of the manufacturers' objections to additives, but I think that the Government and the industry should do more to see whether certain additives could be put into glues which would have the effect of deterring children from glue sniffing.

Three states in the United States already have laws requiring additives to be put into glues. Massachusetts requires that oil of mustard or other deterrents to inhalation should be put into glues. The DHSS and the Home Office should consider the United States' experience, both in respect of additives and in respect of the fact that 23 states restrict the sale of glues in one way or another.

Thirdly, and most important, there is the question of better education, and of the DHSS taking a lead in educating children and parents about the dangers of glue sniffing. Parents should be told that if their children have boils round the mouth and are listless and moody, and lose their appetite, they are showing symptoms not of an illness but of glue sniffing, and require social as well as medical help.

Children should be made more aware of the problems. The DHSS should consider the excellent example of the social services department in Lancashire, which, in co-operation with the police, produced some useful and helpful leaflets two years ago.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

fs my hon. Friend aware that the Department of Education, to which I referred a case some time ago, did not see it as its duty to advise schools, which are often the first to witness outbreaks of glue sniffing, on how they should go about looking for the signs and perhaps creating a pool of national information?

Mr. Straw

I am sorry to hear that. I hope that the Under-Secretary who is to reply will try to change the DES's laissez-faire attitude.

I am aware that it is the error of every politician to believe that each problem must have a solution. I do not pretend that there is an easy answer to the problem of glue sniffing but I believe that it is a problem that we cannot ignore and that needs to be taken seriously. The Government could take helpful action, and I look forward to the Minister's announcing such action.

1.47 am
Mr. David Young (Bolton, East)

On 12 July this year, in Bolton, a girl of 15 years of age died tragically from sniffing a pain-relieving medical spray. That was certainly a contributory factor to her death. That brought home to us all in Bolton the effects of sniffing such agents, and also solvents.

I am concerned that it is difficult to ascertain the facts and discover the size of the problem. It is difficult to discover whether what we are seeing is the tip of an iceberg or something that is widespread. I ask the Minister to arrange for statistics to be collected so that local authorities and other concerned bodies may be able to judge how vast the problem is. Unless we can judge that we shall not be able to take remedial action. I am sure that the police, the social services and all the other concerned bodies will do what they can, but obviously they must have a yardstick against which to judge the resources that they devote to the problem.

Each of us recognises that drug addiction can be extremely serious. The experimentation that we are discussing is the first stage towards soft, and then hard, drugs. Unless we get down to the roots where the experimentation starts and stem it before it takes hold, the drug problem will be greatly expanded. I am concerned that the DES has not given guidance or encouragement to authorities to find out more about such experimentation, because that is the point at which drug addiction often starts.

I am concerned about an answer that I recently received from the Department of Trade, to which it was transferred by the Home Secretary. In reply to my question on the sniffing of sprays, particularly medical sprays, it concluded: As far as the problem of sniffing is concerned there are many consumer products which can be and are misused in this way, but are quite safe when properly used for their intended purpose."—[Official Report, 17 July 1980; Vol. 988, c. 638-39.] We recognise that, but if sniffing of medical sprays is at least one element in a complicated formula, should not these at least be put on prescription? Again, we return to the question of statistics to justify such action. Let us see how big the problem is and devote all the resources we can to stop this pernicious habit.

1.50 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Sir George Young)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) for raising this topic in a responsible and constructive way, because it is a matter that causes a great deal of concern among the general public.

I propose to try to set the matter in perspective, consider a positive range of responses to the problem within existing powers, and then consider some of the ideas that have been suggested for using the criminal law against users or suppliers, and some of the practical problems involved.

Although the practice is generally referred to as glue sniffing it is not restricted to glue. A wide range of goods in common domestic use can be misused to experience hallucinatory effects or a euphoric sensation similar to that experienced after drinking alcohol. This can lead to dizziness, double vision and nausea. Short-term use can in rare instances cause death, but in other cases does not, from the evidence available, seem to produce any detectable damage. The cause for real concern, as the hon. Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Young) implied, comes from casual or intermittent use, which leads to prolonged use, from which some people may develop permanent damage to the brain, liver or kidneys. In the United Kingdom exact figures on the incidence of sniffing, or on the number of injuries and deaths resulting from the practice, are not available, but in the last 10 years there have been some deaths—between five and 10 a year.

I have some sympathy with what both hon. Members said about better information on the incidence of sniffing. I shall urgently consider how we can improve the statistics, by using the local authority social service departments, the courts, or the hospitals.

Many young people may experiment briefly with "sniffing", as one experiment among many in growing up, without its becoming a habit or leading to any serious consequences. The practice is not confined to any particular age group, though undoubtedly it mainly affects adolescents. The pattern seems to be one of limited and scattered outbreaks among groups of young people, rapidly tailing off as other activities, including drinking, become available. In the country as a whole there is no firm evidence to show that sniffing is becoming more widespread.

Before considering possible solutions to the problem I should like to set it in context. The hon. Member for Bolton. East, drew attention to the tragic death from sniffing in his constituency this month. Although we know of only about five to 10 deaths a year from this cause, each one is one too many, especially as the deaths are of youngsters. I should like to extend my sympathy to the girl's family and friends. However, compared with deaths from, for example, road accidents in the under-19 age group, which totalled about 1,800 in 1978, they are few. Set against the 50.000 premature deaths from smoking, they also fall into insignificance, and, of course, cigarettes do not perform the useful function of sticking broken pieces of china together or making one's furniture shine, or making the top of one's wife's head look attractive. But the fact that a solvent-sniffing death receives the headlines that we saw last week at least indicates that this is not one more tragedy of life that we blandly accept and pass by with no more than a cursory glance.

Therefore, we must consider most seriously what can practically be done to reduce, if not eradicate, the harm. Many of the ideas that I have looked at over the past few days are either so drastic that they are unacceptable or of such little effect as to be hardly worth undertaking. So before I look at what might be done negatively by law I should like to look at what can be done positively under present powers.

The hon. Member for Blackburn suggested a national education campaign. I fully agree that education is vital, and propose to consider what sort in more detail. In general, warning children about the serious risks that they incur represents the most rational and effective response. That message is dramatically and tragically reinforced by the death of Dawn Hulme.

Responsible informative articles in appropriate journals aimed at parents, such as a recent article in Good Housekeeping, can also play a valuable role in educating the public. Parents must exercise their own responsibilities for knowing what their children are doing and controlling them. Parents should be advised to look for the symptoms—the smell of glue and other solvents, signs on clothing, a rash or boils round the nose and mouth, a red ring round the nose, possibly accompanying loss of appetite, loss of co-ordination, confusion, restlessness or slurred speech. But such behavioural changes could, of course, be due to other causes. In any event, parents and other adults may need help in recognising the problem, and confidence in tackling it.

I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs and other Ministers who have looked with concern at this problem that the most practicable way to meet it is by local initiative through appropriate health education, by drug liaison committees where they exist, and crucially, by enlisting the co-operation of school teachers, doctors, social workers, police and youth organisers in those localities where there is evidence that sniffing is taking place.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department on 17 March expressed the view that the correct approach is through persuasion and education rather than the criminal law. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, in response to a written question on 7 May, said: The matter is best tackled through teachers and others in positions of responsibility, warning young people about the dangers involved, and through continuing programmes of health education which include reference to the misuse of drugs generally".—[Official Report, 7 May 1980; Vol. 984, c. 126.] That was reiterated on 4 June. I will draw to his attention the critical remarks made in this debate.

I understand that there is a chapter on this in the Department of Education and Science's handbook "Health Education in Schools". Other leaflets are available which teachers would find helpful. In particular, there is "Notes on Solvent Sniffing", prepared by the Camden and Islington area health authority.

I am not convinced at this stage that a circular from my Department is wanted or needed by the field authorities and the professions concerned. Two specialised voluntary organisations are helping in this matter. One of these is the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependency, which is grant-aided by the Department; it publicises an extensive bibliography on solvent use and a leaflet on "Teaching about a volatile situation", aimed at minimising casualties. The other organisation is Release, supported by the Home Office, which publishes a factual leaflet, and held a conference in January attended by 250 people from a wide range of statutory and voluntary organisations.

The consensus of that conference was that health education directed at minimising harm represents the most rational and effective response, and is the most hopeful course for preventing those tragic deaths which can happen to the young experimenter the first time out.

Some people have suggested that children's legislation should be amended to make sniffing a specific ground for bringing a child before a juvenile court as in need of care and protection. I am not convinced that it is necessary to identify sniffing in particular as a form of self-abuse before care proceedings can be brought. One of the existing conditions for bringing care proceedings is that the child's health is being avoidably impaired or neglected. Although care proceedings could not be ruled out in an exceptional case, I do not think that removing a child from his parents—which would generally be the purpose of care proceedings—is the best way to tackle this problem.

It has also been suggested that the police should have greater powers. At the moment, there is no evidence that the police have insufficient powers to take appropriate action when a person is found to be intoxicated by solvents.

It is open to a constable to refer any person to a suitable medical or perhaps detoxifiation facility, and to take him to such a place if he is willing to go. Where an arrestable offence or a breach of the peace is involved, a person may be taken into custody, and the police will ensure that he receives medical attention if it is needed.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs has considered the desirability of introducing regulations requiring products that may be sniffed to carry a warning, but the great and growing range of items makes this impracticable; worse, such labelling would identify the product worth sniffing. If one looks at the range of products involved one sees that it is quite extensive. There is gas-lighter fuel, nail varnish, nail polish remover, surgical spirit, anti-freeze, petrol, polishes, cleaning solutions, and all aerosol sprays. Similar objections apply to ingredient labelling. General publicity about harmful substances could likewise be counterproductive.

The hon. Member for Blackburn suggested putting an aversive additive into products to deter the sniffer. This must not cause discomfort or risk to a person using the product for its intended purpose, or detract significantly from the product for its intended purpose, or detract significantly from the product's effectiveness. A number of different additives would be required because, for example, an acceptable smelly additive for floor polish might deter the innocent user of a hair spray. A research programme to identify additives would be uncertain and costly, and I agree with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs that it is difficult at present to justify embarking on such a project.

Mr. Straw

Whenever the question of additives or restrictions on sales is raised the objection is taken that this could cover a very wide range of products, but the truth is that only a handful of glues are really popular among children. Rather than carrying it so widely, should not consideration be given to providing warnings on the packets of those substances and at least seeing whether it has some effect on the practice?

Sir G. Young

That is a valuable suggestion. I should like to explore it. The danger of identifying one or two products for this rather distinctive treatment is that it simply moves potential abusers on to some of the other products that I have mentioned. A few years ago inquiries were made of the chemical defence establishment to find out what might be the cost of identifying one additive for the most abused substance. I understand that the estimate was that it would take up to two and a half years and cost at least £ 150,000, and that there was no guarantee of a successful outcome. I shall look at the matter again in the light of the representations that have been made, but I am not optimistic that this is a valuable avenue for progress.

My right hon. Friend's inquiries have suggested that the substitution of less harmful substances would not be technically practicable, partly because there are good reasons why particular products are used, for example, to avoid flam-mability hazards. Moreover, unless all sniffable products were replaced by substitutes, misusers would simply turn to the remaining ones.

The hon. Member then suggested prohibition of the sale of solvents to young persons in certain areas. But so many products would have to be controlled, as the list that I have just read out would indicate, and many of those products—indeed, most of them—are products which in normal use are perfectly acceptable to be used by young people. It would be extremely difficult to ensure the effective enforcement of age limits, even on pain of criminal prosecution of the trader and the check-out girl at the supermarket.

Moreover, if one overcame that, young people who could not buy solvents themselves could simply persuade older friends to do so, they could use products that are readily available at home, or they could travel outside the area to get them, and it would be more difficult to prevent theft than, for example, in the case of drugs. So without wishing to appear totally negative, I think that there are some formidable practical objections to pursuing that suggestion from the hon. Gentleman.

It has also been suggested that as solvent sniffing and the social problems arising from it bear similarities to the misuse of drugs, similar regimes of control might be introduced as are applied to drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. But the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—which advises Ministers on all matters to do with the control of drug misuse—has looked at this and has concluded that the model of strict control under the Misuse of Drugs Act, which penalises such activities as unlawful manufacture, supply and possession of drugs that are misused, could not be applied to a whole range of common household products and would in any case be doomed to failure because of the impossibility of enforcement.

To sum up, I see many difficulties in creating new offences and I share the confidence that the Home Secretary has expressed that the police could play their full part, along with other local services, in the educational and persuasive approach that we consider to be the most practicable for tackling this problem. I shall look again at some of the specific suggestions that have been made in the debate, especially the one about statistics. But we have to remember that we live in a society in which individual responsibility and common sense, rather than State intervention, are the main safeguards against damage of this kind, and there really is a limit to effectual Government action in this type of activity.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Two o'clock.