HC Deb 22 July 1980 vol 989 cc321-51

(1) The use of solvent adhesives for inhalation shall be an offence.

(2) Any person convicted of selling solvent adhesives to a person under the age of eighteen for the purpose of inhalation shall be guilty of an offence.

(3) Any person under the age of eighteen coming to the notice of the police as indulging in solvent inhalation shall be reported to a Youth Panel.— [Mr. Dempsey.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

6 pm

Mr. Dempsey

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following:

New clause 3—Solvent abuse.

New clause 5—Abuse of solvents.

Mr. Dempsey

The purpose of the clause is to seek more effective ways of dealing with a problem that is becoming more and more serious, especially in the West of Scotland.

The problem has been known for some years. I have been concerned with it for five or six years since I found that it was taking place in my constituency. Following what is known as solvent inhalation—more popularly acknowledged in my part of the country as glue sniffing—three young people, who got very high on glue sniffing, lit a fire. Two of them heaped the fire on to a 14-year-old constituent of mine, who died subsequently from the injuries that he received from that fire. There was no question but that it was the inhalation of the solvent that contributed to his tragic death.

Since that time we have learnt of other tragedies. It is estimated that in the deaths of 17 persons a major contributor to the cause was glue sniffing, or solvent inhalation. The extent of the problem clearly gives great cause for concern, but it is very difficult to know what more effective action could be taken. The overwhelming majority of those concerned are under 18, and a recently circulated report states that the largest single unit among them is composed of young people of 14 to 15. The estimate is that at the very least 10,000 are involved in this malpractice.

What happened at a recent school council meeting indicates how little the authorities know of the problem. One teacher stated that no fewer than 114 schoolchildren in that small school were indulging in the practice, and that neither the police nor the social work department knew anything about them. It is obvious from what is known that only a minimum number of young people are involved.

There are five health districts in Glasgow. Only one of them has a clinic. It is estimated that 800 young people are attending that clinic. If there were clinics in the other four districts we should have a better indication of the size of the problem. If there were clinics in the Lanarkshire district of the health board the size of the problem would surely convince people that it is not being tackled sufficiently seriously.

Some hon. Members may not have heard the full details of the problem. The malpractice of glue sniffing affects the brain of the young person. It also affects the liver, the balance of the muscles, and the ability to concentrate. It affects the ability to resist illnesses, disease and troubles. That is the effect that the practice has on young people.

I have been concerned for some time about how we should tackle the problem. I have to urge, first, that it be made an offence. It should also be made an offence for retailers to sell these commodities to young people.

It has often been argued that there are so many offending items that it would not be feasible to draw up rules and regulations to deal effectively with the problem. I am not impressed by that argument. I grew up in the shop assistants trade and eventually became a branch manager. There were certain commodities in the shop that neither I nor any of the staff could sell to young people. There is nothing unusual about that. Indeed, there are many items which a chemist, in his discretion, may feel should not be supplied to young people because of the fear that they may be misused. We should therefore disabuse our minds of the idea that it is impossible to introduce some sort of legislation to prevent the sale of these commodities on the scale that is taking place at present.

There are some who may say "Why not try to get the voluntary co-operation of the shopkeepers?" That has been tried. We had a voluntary scheme only a few years ago, when the Coatbridge police canvassed all the shopkeepers. All except one co-operated. The one who did not co-operate was the nigger in the woodpile. He was involved in the bulk of the trade because he had no scruples about being involved in a problem affecting young people.

There is always a bad apple in the box; therefore some sanction will always be necessary if we are to try to control the distribution of these dangerous commodities to young persons. I felt that this aspect should be mentioned in the clause, so that the Secretary of State and his colleagues would have an opportunity to consider it.

There are more ways than one to make alcoholic liquor. In the working-class area to which I belong I have seen all sorts of gadgets and elements being used for making alcohol. I should not like to mention them here in case the publicity had a counter-productive effect, but if we were to decide that we could not control the sale of liquor to persons under 18 because of the other avenues available to them there would be no legislation whatever dealing with the sale of alcohol to such people. The same argument applies to cigarettes. There are dozens of ways in which young people can cook up something like cigarettes without having to buy them, but that is no argument against trying to introduce some type of restrictive legislation.

Recently I was approached by a constituent who had a licence for a gun. He gave me all the details of the unlicensed materials that can be bought. I understand that 1 lb. of a particular powder will produce 200 bullets. That can be done without a licence and with no control whatever. If it were to be argued that because these avenues are available we should not license guns, there would be no gun licences in this country.

The mere fact that we might find it difficult to control numbers or to control the sale of these various substances to young people is no adequate reason why we should not apply our minds to the problem and try to do something about it.

Under both Conservative and Labour Governments, the Department of Health has not gone far enough in its efforts to deal with the problem. It is too serious to be dealt with simply on the basis of health education. We are talking here of the lives of young boys and girls. I understand that one out of every six people indulging in the habit at present is a young girl.

The tragedy is that by the time these young people become adults they are beyond the help that can be given through health education. They are in need of curative treatment. At an early stage they need to attend assessment centres, which should be set up in different parts of urban communities. In Scotland we require special hospital facilities, where strict and effective curative treatment can be administered to rescue those young people from a life that would otherwise be disastrous.

The reason why I am anxious to air the matter today is that, above all, there should be legislation whereby the police, when they catch these young adherents, can send them to special centres for care and attention. They cannot do so at present in Scotland because they do not have the authority. Most of the police are placed in a position whereby they can only telephone the parents and say that they have caught their son or daughter indulging in glue sniffing, and that they would be obliged if the parents would take him or her home. Beyond that, they have no authority.

The object of the new clause is to try to give the police the authority to refer those young people to the children's panel. I was advised that in order to have that objective placed on the amendment paper I had to go through the routine of the three subsections of the new clause.

I am anxious to learn whether the Minister can give any advice, assistance or direction whereby our police will be able to arrange for referrals of young people to children's panels, which can determine the most appropriate action. I am not anxious to make the youngsters criminals. I do not believe that prison sentences, fines or other punishments are needed. Treatment is needed, but the young people are not getting it, mainly because nine out of 10 cases are unknown. They never come to the notice of the authorities. The best that we can do is to prevail upon the guidance of teachers, voluntary services and nurses. Recently, a nurse approached me and offered to set up a voluntary clinic, with the service of a doctor, to try to help these young people and to cure them before it was too late.

Few cases are discovered, because our legislation lacks the teeth to deal with the problem. I hope that from our deliberations will emerge a more concrete, effective and worthwhile procedure to enable young people to be given proper treatment, and to enable the problem to be minimised, if not eliminated.

6.15 pm
Mr. John MacKay

I know that over many years the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) has conducted a campaign about this serious problem, and I pay tribute to him. Having been a member of the Committee and discussed the new clauses on this subject, I am sure that he will not be too surprised to hear from me that we do not yet have a solution that will be acceptable to the Law Officers or to the Minister.

I shall not go over the arguments that we discussed in Committee—that would be tedious repetition, though not foreign to the Labour Members of the Committee. The proposition that we should try to make solvent inhalation an offence was dealt with by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General for Scotland in Committee, and he pointed out the defects. He also said that at present the Strathclyde police were referring cases to the children's panel The instances of glue sniffing are not declining in the Glasgow conurbation, which tends to suggest that referral to children's panels is not the way forward. Although it may be part of the way forward, it will not solve the problem in any way.

The only possible solution must come from looking at and possibly stopping the supply of these inhalants. I refer the House to the case that was often quoted in Committee—that against the Glasgow shopkeeper Mohammed Malik. He was accused of selling glue to 12 children wilfully, culpably and recklessly, knowing that they would inhale it to the danger of their health and lives. The sheriff said that either Parliament must outlaw glue or the High Court must use its declaratory powers.

We are still trying to find a way in which the House can outlaw the supply of glue, if it is to be sniffed. In Committee there was total agreement on the question but we failed to find a solution. I took the view then, and I take the view in my new clause, that we must pursue the matter at source. Obviously we shall not stop glue or its derivatives from getting into the hands of children who want to sniff it. I have talked to children in the Glasgow conurbation about this problem, and I was more horrified by their comments than I have been by the press reports. It seemed to be common knowledge among the children as to the incidence of sniffing, the number of children who sniffed glue, where they did it and where they obtained the glue.

This is a major problem. We are not merely talking about the odd tube of glue dropping out of father's cupboard or being bought. We are talking about fairly large amounts of glue that have to be bought from shops selling both over the counter and by self-service. The sale of glue in self-service shops would be more difficult to control, but if it has to be taken off the shelves that will be a small price to pay.

Sheriff Irvine-Smith said:

"If this court were to intervene and hold this complaint relevant the question still arises how the principle will be limited in practice. If it cannot be limited and it is the supply of the glue that is to be proscribed, it seems to me only Parliament could do so."

Those remarks were directed at us. My new clause tries to do that.

It was pointed out to me in Committee that to list the substances was tantamount to advertising, so I have removed that provision. It was also pointed out that a parent who had unknowingly given glue to a child could be caught by my proposed clause. I have also dealt with that. I have tried to make the new clause as simple as possible. It is a genuine attempt to try to stop the sale of the glue at source.

I shall be accused of putting the onus on the shopkeeper. I shall be told that a shopkeeper cannot know whether Jimmy Smith is buying a tube of "Stick-it" to sniff. However, if a shopkeeper finds that he is selling lots of tubes of glue to lots of little boys and girls, he should be suspicious. The clause is designed to deter rather than convict. The police should be able to tell a shopkeeper that they believe that he is the source of glue that is being sniffed and that he should be cautious to whom he sells it. He should be more guarded about selling it to older children who may pass it on to younger ones. The police should be able to ask him to accept his social responsibility. They should also be able to point out that Parliament has passed this legislation and that if, after such warnings, there is evidence that a shopkeeper is continuing to sell glue, he can be prosecuted. That may help the police to put an end to the large-scale manifestation of the practice.

The purists will argue against having a law that will seldom be used. It may be difficult to establish a watertight case in law. However, legislation could make the task of the police easier. To water down legal principles slightly will be well worth while if we can prevent children from being drawn to the practice. If mothers and children can see that Parliament has made an effort, and if the police have some measure to help them, we shall have done the public a service. Therefore, I am tempted to press my new clause to a Division.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

My hon. Friend says that his purpose is to assist the police. I am concerned that the new clause will make their task more difficult. The police are charged with enforcing the law. It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to prove a criminal offence, which will complicate instead of ease their task.

Mr. MacKay

That is a danger. In the case of Malik, the Crown considered that it had sufficient evidence to prosecute, without the advantage of such legislation. In cases involving the most flagrant selling of glue to children, knowing that it will be sniffed, the police may well get a conviction. Legislation could help to encourage shopkeepers to tighten up. Supermarkets would be encouraged to remove such substances from their self-service displays to other less accessible areas, where they hold other dangerous items.

I ask the Government to consider the proposal seriously. Young lives are being ruined. Let us dilute the legal purity if we can thereby improve the position of the authorities, parents and schools in Strathclyde.

Mr. Dewar

This is a difficult problem, to which there are no obvious and easy solutions. If there had been we should doubtless have had legislation before now. We are dealing with the proliferation of various products, and not a small, neat, easily defined category of products that give off the fumes that produce incapacitating effects. We are not dealing with a specific system of outlets, as with the licensed trade, where certain shops are licensed to sell a category of products and where control is therefore easier. The products that children can, with ingenuity, use for glue sniffing are found in every corner grocery store and supermarket.

With respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey), I do not believe that sending a child to a children's panel would help. I was once professionally involved with the children's panel system, and I believe that section 32 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 is sufficient to allow any child who is manifestly involved in glue sniffing to be referred and put under supervision if that is considered to be the best way of mobilising help and resources for him. There are no short cuts.

I am conscious that by tabling new clause 5 we may be raising false hopes and expectations. The problem causes real fears. I believe that my constituents would like to think that Parliament was searching diligently for solutions and was involved and aware, rather than putting the problem to one side because trying to do something about it was fraught with difficulties and could, at the margin, be counter-productive.

I hasten to say that I do not believe that we should legislate for the sake of legislation. I shall listen to the debate with care. I know the substantial structural and administrative arguments that will be deployed. At the end of the day I might be convinced that we should not press new clause 5 to a Division.

I do not wish to over-labour or over-dramatise the point, but in the housing schemes that make up the Garscadden constituency glue sniffing is a major problem, which is affecting the quality of people's lives. I hear that not only from the people who talk to me about the problem of glue sniffing but from mothers who are extremely anxious about the effect on their children. They recognise the importance of group pressure and fashion among young people. They are finding it harder and harder to persuade their own children to stand aside from what has become, in some areas, a prevalent activity among teenagers. I know how important it is, because I obtain insight into it when people write to me about different matters.

Frequently, I receive letters from people asking for housing transfers because they have had trouble on stairways with youths sniffing glue. They have tried to clear them off the stairs and there has been continuing trouble and problems for them and their families. They complain about the difficulties of living in some areas of Glasgow—one or two of which are in my constituency—from which people want to move because of the multiplicity of social problems.

6.30 pm

This is a most unpleasant problem. Young people act to their own detriment, putting themselves at risk legally and physically because of their irresponsibility. Further, the problem affects others living in the area. I am conscious that this is a major problem. The big drive for the long-term solution must be in terms of health education and propaganda. I agree that specialised units are needed for extreme cases where intensive social and educational support can be given. I should like to see a much heavier investment than we have managed in the past and than I fear we shall manage in the present economic climate. Anything that I say about the new clause must be seen against that background. I do not want it to be thought that I am suggesting that the new clause will make a major impact on the problem. However, it may make a marginal contribution, for reasons to which I shall come. My remarks may overlap those of others, and therefore I shall not dwell on arguments already advanced by the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay). New clause 3, which stands in his name, is similar to new clause 5, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends. The clause with which I am connected is a little more restrictive, in the sense of making it. an offence to supply as part of a commercial transaction to any person under the age of sixteen years". The clause of the hon. Member for Argyll has no such limitation. If we are to legislate at all, the slightly more restrictive category would make the concept more workable and manageable. It is the impact on young people, especially those of early teenage, which worries us.

Let me explain why I think that this clause could make a marginal contribution. It goes back to the prosecution which was mounted in the Glasgow sheriff court, to which the hon. Member for Argyll referred. That is the case of the procurator fiscal of Glasgow against a Mr. Malik, a shopkeeper in Glasgow. He was charged with selling glue to people, who were named specifically in the complaint well knowing that they were purchasing said cans and tubes intending to inhale the vapours of the said glue to the danger of their health and lives, and this you did wilfully, culpably and recklessly, and they did inhale the said vapour to the danger of their health and lives. That prosecution was brought with the permission of the Crown Office. It was the subject of an extremely interesting judgment by the learned sheriff of Glasgow, Sheriff Irvine-Smith. He gave a lengthy and valuable judgment. Basically, at the end of the day he upheld the plea that the complaint, on the face of it, disclosed no offence that was known to the common law of Scotland. He said that if the courts had a right to create new offences—and this is a matter of dispute—it was certainly a right that lay only with the High Court of the Justiciary, not with the Glasgow sheriff court. He went on to argue that if this were to be an offence Parliament would have to do something about it.

Apart from the interesting technical arguments, the part of his judgment that struck me was his summation. I quote from the last paragraph of the judgment. Sheriff Irvine-Smith said: If what is alleged in this indictment is in fact happening it is a very grave matter indeed—what Mr. Carmichael called a grave social evil—and, accepting that"— it is clear that the sheriff accepted that— it is a matter on which the law ought to be in a position to intervene. He went on to say, obviously regretfully in view of that, that the law did not allow for intervention and, therefore, he had to uphold the plea to the relevancy of the complaint and dismissed the matter.

If Sheriff Irvine-Smith is right that this is a matter on which the law should be able to intervene, I contend that new clause 5 is worth seriously considering, as it is an attempt to give grounds for that intervention. It would be applicable only in a small number of cases. It is clear that a large number of the products which are used for glue sniffling are shoplifted. That is well known to those who struggle with the problem. Many others may be bought by adults and passed to youngsters later, or obtained by youngsters in the home. A large number will be bought by youngsters from innocent shopkeepers, with no idea of what they are going to used for, where prosecution would be a monstrous imposition and, in any case, would patently fail for lack of evidence.

However, there may be occasional cases where it is clear that a shopkeeper over a period of time is acting irresponsibly in his selling policy, and this has been pointed out to him by community involvement and the police. The point has been driven home; he has been warned and asked, and has still proceeded to sell to children whom he knows are abusing the solvents. He must well know why they are purchasing them.

If it is said that that may be difficult to prove, I accept that. However, cases may obviously arise where it is at least thought by the responsible Crown authorities that proof is possible. In the case of Malik that circumstance existed. We know that that prosecution was brought. If the Crown had managed to get over the plea to the relevancy—over that preliminary hurdle—presumably it was in a position to adduce facts from which the sheriff would clearly have been able to deduce that the facts in the complaint had been proved to a satisfactory standard under the law of Scotland.

If that were the situation, if the Crown Office felt keenly enough about it, and if it were satisfied that it had a case to present, it could bring that prosecution and consider the appeal.

The document in my possession is a stated case which was requested by the procurator fiscal. The fiscal did not proceed with it, presumably because, when he read it, he concluded that the legal arguments used by the sheriff were unchallengeable as the law stood. The very fact that the Crown Law Office thought that it was worth starting the stated case procedure shows that it felt that this was a case which it was important to try in the interests of teaching this shopkeeper to take a more responsible line in dealing with children in an area of high risk.

I unashamedly advance the new clause as going only to the margins of the problem. There is no way in which it will cut into the abuse of solvents. That will need a social change, propaganda, persuasion, social work support and education. It may be a long, slow and hard battle. On the analogy of the Malik prosecution, there may be in Scotland, perhaps in my constituency and perhaps in others, shopkeepers who are abusing—as that shopkeeper abused, in the view of the Crown Office—their responsibilities to the public and who are irresponsibly continuing to push their wares, well knowing the damage being done as a result.

In new clause 5 I want to put upon the statute book a basis that would allow the intervention which Sheriff Irvine-Smith, in his judgment, said was so well justified in the circumstances which were, at least, alleged. He did not know whether proof would have stood up. As I say, it is not a great departure. However, of all the possible legislative initiatives it is perhaps the most modest in its intention. It seems to me to be the most practicable, and is well worth considering.

I have re-read what the Solicitor-General said in Committee. He was trying to be helpful. Indeed, he was helpful, because he pointed out many difficulties which were genuine and substantial. His last sentence was: We shall certainly try to find a simple form of words which overcomes the major problems that I have outlined, one of which I have said that we shall excluded, namely, any attempt to list such substances as we regard as falling into the category."—[Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 24 June 1980, c. 1545.] Like the hon. Member for Argyll I have tabled my new clause so as to exclude the drawing up of an exhaustive list of substances and I have tried to meet as many of the objections of the Solicitor-General for Scotland as possible.

I hope that the Government have looked sympathetically at this possibility because I believe—I make no apology for this—that if we could legislate in this limited way we would advertise our concern. That would be appreciated by my constituents and by many other people. Such legislation would not be mere tokenism, because in its limited way it would make a real though modest contribution to the fight against a real social evil.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth)

It may be helpful if I intervene at this stage to speak to new clause 5. I should say to the Secretary of State straight away that new clause 5 is not meant as a criticism of any lack of action on the part of the Government. I speak as someone who has previously had responsibility for attempting to deal with this difficult matter, and I was never really completely comfortable—I suspect that this may well be the feeling of the Secretary of State—when I answered my hon. Friends on this vexed question.

It is worthy of note that so important has this issue become that it is not the first time today that the House has debated solvent sniffing. It was the subject of the Adjournment debate that ended just after 2 o'clock this morning. My reason for commenting on that is to illustrate that glue sniffing is not only a Scottish problem. It would be a tragic error if we gave the impression that solvent sniffing is purely a Scottish problem. The problem has developed over the last three or four years, and is a United Kingdom problem.

Nevertheless, we are dealing here with Scottish legislation, and we are charged with the responsibility of attempting to do something to deal with this problem in Scottish legislation. I speak as one who once had to view the corpse of a young boy from Lanarkshire who had been found dead behind a gas holder, having taken part in solvent sniffing. Without painting a horrific picture, I can tell the House that that sight was something that will live with me for a long time.

It is not generally appreciated that those who are unfortunate enough to get involved in solvent sniffing and suffer the fatal consequences suffer great bodily distortion. There is strong evidence that such sniffing causes brain damage, and I am sure that the identification of that young boy by his parents is an experience that will live with them for the rest of their lives.

I do not wish to over-dramatise the position, but I think that we all accept that over the last six years a particularly serious problem has developed. Our concern is with what happens to those who sniff solvents. Though we have concentrated our comments on the matter of solvent sniffing, there is the added question of how a youngster moves from what we regard as a soft drug—if we may describe solvent sniffing as a soft drug activity—to hard drugs.

When I had to deal with this problem I was advised that there was no strong evidence that those who sniffed solvents subsequently moved on to hard drugs. I suspect that that picture has also changed. It is for those reasons that I believe that Parliament has the responsibility seriously to consider taking the steps defined in new clauses 3 and 5. The difference between them has been explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). The difference between those new clauses and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) is that new clauses 3 and 5 seek to deal with those who retail solvent substances, and new clause 2 seeks to deal also with those who inhale the solvents. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie said—I join in the tribute paid to him by the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay)—it is difficult, if not impossible, to deal with those who inhale solvents.

I hope that the Secretary of State will clear up the matter of referrals by the Strathclyde police. Referrals in Strathclyde are not made on the basis that a youngster is sniffing solvents. Sniffing is the basis for the police action, but the referral is made because the child is beyond parental control or for some other reason. The police may not refer youngsters to the children's panel on the basis of solvent sniffing. I am sure that the Secretary of State will wish to clear up that matter.

6.45 pm

At one time I had a great deal of faith—I still have—in a project that was undertaken, I think, in the East End of Glasgow. There was a co-ordinated effort by the police, the social work departments and a host of other agencies, and a register was kept of those who were caught—to put it no higher than that—in the act of solvent sniffing. When the Secretary of State replies to the debate I hope that he will provide up-dated information on how that experiment is progressing.

I think that it would be worth while for the House to hear whether the work done by Dr. Joyce Watson about five years ago has advanced to any great extent. I pay tribute here to one who has worked long and hard in this area. Dr. Watson has made a major contribution in seeking to solve this problem, and I chink that the House would wish to hear whether further progress has been made in her work.

I do not wish to delay the House, since a number of my hon. Friends wish to take part in the debate, but I wish to say two things about the changes that have taken place. Hitherto there has been no demand by police forces in Scotland to make either the sniffing of solvents or their retailing for inhalation an offence. I think that that is an accurate statement of fact. There has been no demand to create these new offences.

At the weekend, however, I got the impression that that position had changed. I noticed in a weekend newspaper that the chief constable of Dumfries and Galloway, Mr. Alex Campbell, said that the sniffing and retailing of solvents should be made offences. That is the first time that I have known a senior police officer go on record as saying that that should happen. I do not know whether Chief Constable Campbell is still chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland and whether he was speaking on his own behalf and that of his force. The Under-Secretary of State is indicating that Mr. Campbell is no longer chairman of that association. Nonetheless, he is a police officer of long experience and is held in high regard in police circles, and when a police officer of that standing makes that kind of pronouncement we must take the matter seriously.

My final point relates to health education, which has a major role to play in dealing with this problem. I may be clutching at straws, and it may be that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown), who has strong views on this matter, will take the view that we are merely tinkering with the problem by mounting an extensive advertising campaign. I do not speak of a massive advertising campaign, because that would be to overtax the ability of the Scottish health education unit in dealing with the problem, but the campaign is an attempt to bring home to youngsters and their parents the dangers of glue sniffing.

I am aware of the counter-arguments about the danger of glamorising something when we want to achieve the opposite effect. I appreciate that by going in for such a campaign we may glamorise the problem and that youngsters who have not hitherto been attracted to this nasty habit of solvent sniffing may be attracted to it. However, if we are to have the involvement of the Scottish health education unit in an advertising campaign—this will probably be the only contentious point in the debate, but I do not apologise for making it—the Secretary of State will have to restore its budget.

In this financial year the Scottish health education unit has had its budget cut to the extent that it will be able to purchase only 75 per cent. of the advertising space that it purchased in the last financial year. If the unit is to continue to deal with the problems of lung cancer derived from smoking and of alcoholic psychosis derived from over-drinking, and all the other social problems for which it is responsible, and in addition is to take on this task, the Secretary of State must look at the financial resources available within new St. Andrew's House and restore the unit's budget and, if possible, add to it to enable it to go in for this extensive advertising campaign to seek to bring home the dangers of solvent sniffing not only to children but to their parents.

I know that the Secretary of State will be anxious to give us cause for hope, because this problem concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House. There is no divide between us. No one has the monopoly of concern about the consequences of solvent sniffing for children and their parents. My remarks are made on the basis that we are all equally concerned about this serious problem. Therefore, I hope that the Secretary of State will at least give us cause to hope that something will be done to bring about a reduction in the numbers of children involved in solvent sniffing.

I do not want an announcement that a working party has been set up. Governments of all political complexions have sheltered under the working party approach. Whenever a problem is difficult, their first race for shelter is to announce "We have set up a working party", and during the next four years Ministers come to the Dispatch Box and answer questions on the basis that a working party is considering this or that aspect of a particular problem. I hope that the Secretary of State will not lumber us with yet one more working party. We have been through all this before. This subject has been well debated. As I said, there is no monopoly of concern about this issue. I hope that the Secretary of State will take on board the budget of the Scottish health education unit and indicate any new thinking that has developed in the Scottish Office on this matter within the past two or three years. I hope, too, that he will be able to send out a ray of hope to those who are suffering from the disastrous effects of solvent sniffing.

Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire) rose

Hon. Members


Mr. Walker

I do not normally dress in this manner to talk about solvent sniffing.

I intervene briefly because in Committee we covered this matter thoroughly and deeply. Those who served on the Committee expected something to be done that would be meaningful and helpful. The new clause moved by the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey), which is not exactly the same as the clause that I moved in Committee, deals with those who partake of this obnoxious habit. I felt that there would be problems in prosecuting those who were vending the goods and I still believe that there are difficulties.

Nevertheless, I should inform my right hon. Friend that in the absence of anything meaningful from him in reply to the debate I am prepared to support new clause 3 if my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay) presses it to a Division. I am sure that many hon. Members want to feel that something has been done about this problem. I sincerely hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to remove my fear that we are about to shelve this matter for a further period.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

I feel obliged to put on record a contrary view to that which has been put forward so far. I hope that the Secretary of State will not seek to take advantage of the fact that I may go into the Lobby with him tonight, because my reputation is going through a somewhat trying period now.

I have always felt that it is wrong to leave the impression that legislation will solve this problem, knowing the apprehension and worry of parents whose children are involved in solvent sniffing. I make no allegation against any of my hon. Friends or Conservative Members on this occasion—I am tempted to do so at times—because I recognise that there is a genuine concern in the House to reflect the desire in the community that something should be done about this problem. However, I cannot support any of the three new clauses. They are contradictory. They express only the difficulty of trying to define the substances that cause the problem.

I do not know what a "solvent" is in legal terms. Perhaps some of my legal Friends will be able to help me in this respect. People sniff other substances that cause trouble. Therefore, we must define them and make it an offence to sniff them. The clauses do not say that. They say that it will be an offence for a shopkeeper to sell any substance that can be sniffed. There is confusion about the definition—or lack of definition—of the substances that can give rise to this abnormal behaviour. I am concerned about this lack of definition of the substances that can give rise to this problem and whether it should be an offence for an individual to indulge in sniffing such substances or for a shopkeeper to sell them.

My information from contacts in my constituency is that youngsters are indulging in sniffing not only glue but paint remover, hair lacquer and petrol. Do they come under the category of "solvent"? How can we, in all conscience, ask the police to enforce a law such as this in the belief that it will cure this problem? I do not see how we could possibly prosecute a shopkeeper for selling lighter fuel, paraffin or petrol in legitimate circumstances which are known to all of us. Therefore, we have to fall back on the need to exhort, to encourage and to set an example.

On a party point, I find it depressing that in my constituency there are closes of empty houses which form the breeding grounds or gathering places for youngsters wishing to indulge in this habit. It is also depressing that the Government have selected the sale of council houses as a top priority and that they can find a few thousand pounds to run advertising campaigns in favour of such sales.

I feel strongly about this issue, because I know of parents who are worried sick. They write pathetic letters, hoping that I shall support the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey). In saying this I do not wish to reproach my hon. Friend, but it is pathetic that parents should think that by passing ill-defined and unthought-out measures their children will be reclaimed from whatever dangerous circumstances they may live in. For those reasons, I shall go into the Lobby tonight to vote against the three new clauses.

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Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

It may seem effrontery for an English Member to enter the debate. However, I rise briefly to support the new clause. If it proves successful in Scotland, I hope that it will spread to England. A problem exists throughout the United Kingdom. If the proposed legislation meets with success, we shall be only too happy for it to spread to the other part of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

The contribution of the hon. Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) is very pertinent and is relevant to last night's debate on glue sniffing, which was raised by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). A year ago, in Committee, we debated glue sniffing during discussion of the previous Government's Bill. I participated in that debate. The same problems were mentioned, including those of identification of substance, of enforcement and of proving guilt. The Bill passed away, and we now have a successor to it. At the time, many of us hoped that glue sniffing would burn out just as fashions burn out. Fashions change for youngsters. Sometimes the best way to deal with such a problem is to hope that it will disappear in the course of time.

The evidence is clear. Glue sniffing has become endemic. It is not confined to restricted areas but has become generalised. There is also evidence that it damages the health of young people. When the House debates such a subject it must consider whether glue sniffing is likely to continue and develop. If the House judges that glue sniffing is likely to continue, and to harm the physical health of our children, the balance must swing in favour of legislative action.

There are plenty of examples of certain products being shielded from and prohibited to children for their sakes and for reasons of health. Cigarettes and alcohol are probably two of the most common examples. I accept that such products are, by their nature, specialised. They are easily identifiable and easily prohibited. However, it is not easy to stamp out the use of such substances among young people. Health education has had limited success in curbing tobacco smoking among youngsters. In recent years it has probably had little effect on the consumption of alcohol.

I also accept that youngsters who are older than those who fall within the prohibited category go into off-sales premises to buy alcohol for the use of those who are younger. The solution may be chemical. Methylated spirits were doctored to make the liquid less palatable. In the same way, chemical ingredients could be included in the more common solvents to make it improbable that children would sniff them. That involves technology, and there is no guarantee that such a solution can be found.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) raised some valid points. I concede that a legislative solution will not be completely effective. It may make only a slight dent in the problem. If it deters only one youngster from partaking in glue sniffing, or deters shopkeepers from selling the product, we shall have done something to cut down the problem. The balance has swung heavily in favour of action by this House. If there is something wrong with the drafting of a particular measure, the Government can take it to the House of Lords.

I assure the Secretary of State that the problem is increasing. It is only a matter of time before a Government will be required to act. As the hon. Member for Lancaster said, we have an opportunity to take the first step If we make mistakes we can cure them, but that step must first be taken.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston)

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) put the case in support of new clause 5 extremely well. I hope that he will divide the House on the clause.

I support the new clause. Glue sniffing is reaching alarming proportions in Glasgow and in many other cities throughout the United Kingdom. Every week horrifying reports appear in the press about its results. Even if we allow for the exaggeration of press reports, the problem remains worrying and it is not confined to one part of the United Kingdom. Glue sniffing occurs in all cities, particularly in inner city areas and among the older parts of cities.

I am not concerned only about the harm that glue sniffers do to themselves. Our greatest worry is that glue sniffing leads to damage to property, and to the lives of innocent citizens being put at risk. Youngsters under the influence of glue are completely unaware of the effects of their actions. Sometimes they have no control over them and are unaware of what they are doing. There have been disastrous cases involving loss of life and great damage to property.

Like my hon. Friends the Members for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) and for Garscadden, I am repeatedly asked by my constituents in the East End of Glasgow what Parliament is doing to tackle the problem. They ask when Parliament will do something definite to solve it. This subject is of great concern to parents and the police. The police are virtually powerless to combat glue sniffing, because of the lack of legislation. Although I appreciate that there are problems about the introduction of such legislation, I sincerely believe that we should make the effort. As the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) said, if legislation makes it more difficult for younsgters to obtain glue and if it makes it less attractive to shopkeepers to sell glue indiscriminately—as some of them, to their shame, do—and if we can prevent even one youngster from suffering the horrible effects of glue sniffing, it will be worth while. I hope that the House will support the new clause 5.

Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

It is a sad reflection of the times that we have to debate this subject at all. Last night the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) raised an Adjournment debate on the subject. The problem is therefore not exclusive to Glasgow. I should like to emphasise that, because an hon. Member gave the impression that only Glasgow had that problem. Unhappily, it plagues several predominantly urban areas in the United Kingdom.

This place is a constant source of education. I listened to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing) and I remembered arranging a meeting between him and Dr. Joyce Watson at the beginning of 1977.

Perhaps there has been a change of attitude since. The view that was expressed then was that we could not legislate on this matter and that health education was the best approach. Frankly, there are limits to the extent to which leaflets or television advertising can alter the problem. My view is that such leaflets and television advertisements usually mean employment for the public relations ment but do not do a great deal to help the parents and the youngsters who are up against the problem.

Tonight we have an opportunity to make some inroads in an attempt to deal with the problem. I am not altogether happy with the drafting of the new clauses. My own view is that we are more likely to have success by tackling the problem through youngsters who are under the influence of solvent-based products rather than by trying to control the sale of the products. One must acknowledge the point made by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown). The range of solvent-based products that can be used is mind-boggling. We are talking not only about petrol, but about boot polish, bicycle repair kits, nail polish, hair lacquer and all sorts of everyday products which it would be exceedingly difficult to ban, far less control, in the shops. We are more likely to have success if we tackle the problem from the point of view of youngsters under the influence of solvent-based products.

From my discussions on this topic, and from the representations that have been made to me, it seems more likely that we shall succeed by going in that direction. The police are uncertain about their powers. Very often they do not receive the parental support that is necessary. The establishment of advice clinics for youngsters has been a useful development. It is one which I hope the Scottish Office will support, because many of these youngsters need help.

At the same time, we must be realistic. Many youngsters do this once and never do it again. Therefore, we are trying to get at the ones who become addicted to the practice, because they are the ones who really need help. I do not want to turn them into criminals. They require support which, for reasons which we cannot determine here, is not always available, be it at home or among their peers. Unfortunately, the police are usually able to act only when another crime takes place, such as results in vandalism or anti-social behaviour.

We have an opportunity to do something tonight. I am not altogether happy with the wording of the new clauses. However, if we do not take this chance to do something, we shall simply allow the problem to grow. One thing is certain, and that is that it will not go away.

Mr. Younger

This has been a thoughtful debate, as befits a subject which deeply concerns hon. Members in all parts of the House and, indeed, hon. Members from both sides of the border. We are very much indebted to the hon. Member for Coatbridge ad Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) and his hon. Friends, as well as to my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay), for tabling the new clauses. It concentrates our minds when we address ourselves to specific proposals, and this has been a valuable way of using the time in this debate. I am grateful to all those hon. Members.

I reiterate that this problem will not go away. It is becoming more serious, not less. It is evident from what has been said tonight that none of us has an easy, quickfire, simple solution to the problem. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing) for giving us the benefit of his experience at the Scottish Office, making it clear that he also has done a great deal to solve this problem and that he was as baffled about it as everyone else.

7.15 pm

Therefore, I hope that those hon. Members who have tabled the new clauses will not take it amiss if I say that I honestly do not think that any of them would stand the light of day as legislative provisions. I think that probably all hon. Members would agree with that view.

We must be careful about creating a statutory offence of any kind, particularly in this instance. As the new clauses suggest, in order to create a statutory offence—to sell these substances to people under a certain age, or whatever variant of that we produce—one must start by defining what the substances are which it will be a statutory offence to sell. One must define what the offence is to be—whether it is to be purchasing it or inhaling it. One must define what inhaling is, and one must spell out the conditions under which that would be an offence. I do not think that any hon. Member who has listened to the debate will deny that all those questions remain unanswered by what has been said this evening.

As many hon. Members have pointed out, it is not just a question of glue. A multitude of different products is involved. Even if I were to try to list them, which I have no intention of doing, I would be deficient in many of them, and there are many others which might also be invented or used for the purpose. Therefore, in that sense we are miles from being able to define the problem.

It would also be difficult to put an onus on the shopkeeper, even supposing that we knew what the products were. It would be difficult to put an onus on the shopkeeper to make a judgment as to whether the child asking for glue, or for one of the many other substances, was doing so with the intention of using it for sniffing or inhaling. That would be difficult in respect of any shop—even the corner shop, where the people concerned might be known to each other. However, it is absurd to imagine that the girl at the checkout desk at the supermarket will be able to make a judgment of that kind. We know that some of the substances used for inhaling are shoplifted. Obviously that cannot be legislated for, in this sense anyway. In other cases, they are bought for perfectly legitimate purposes and picked up in the home or transferred from one person to another, such as the purchaser to a friend.

Without labouring any of these points, I suggest that the drawing up of a statutory offence, supposing that we had a clear idea of exactly what was involved, is far removed from the provisions of any of the new clauses, admirable though they are. That is not to say that there is nothing which can be done. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) was absolutely right and courageous to point out the truth of the matter, which is that it is no kindness at all to lead people to think that there is a quick, easy legislative way of removing their genuine worry. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) made the right approach in defining the much more difficult and less precise ways in which we shall have to work carefully and with much deliberation to reduce what is a growing evil.

We believe that we have to start with comprehensive health education. This view was conveyed in a number of circulars by the previous Administration. The circulars were sent to directors of social work, chief administrative medical officers, chief constables and directors of education. They stressed the value of health education and focused attention on the need for earlier recognition of the problem by those likely first to come into contact with those affected by the practice of inhalation or sniffing. This point was made by the hon. Member for Mary-hill.

The circulars mentioned the assistance available, the need for co-ordination of local effort to provide information and services and the case for the formation of joint liaison committees by local authorities in the areas where this is a major and growing problem. Much is already being achieved at local level by the cooperation of doctors, teachers, social workers and police and through the Scottish health education unit, which maintains a lively interest in the matter. More recently, solvent abuse has been further considered by an ad hoc group of the advisory council on social works. This group recommended that the abuse is best dealt with by continuing education about its dangers rather than by the mirage of legislation that is not practicable.

Nor is it right to suggest that the police are hamstrung becaus solvent sniffing is not a criminal offence and that there is nothing that the police can do about it. Nothing could be further from the truth or reality. If a child comes to the notice of the police as having indulged in solvent inhalation and no other offence is committed, it is considered important that the parents should be made aware of the circumstances. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary for Scotland conveyed this view to all chief constables in a circular last year. He drew attention particularly to the effective co-ordination procedure developed by Strathclyde police for dealing with solvvent abuse. As some hon. Members will know, this procedure was described in some detail in Committee. I do not propose to go over the matter again. It is recorded in the Hansard reports of the Committee. It is interesting to note that, following the inspector's circular, similar procedures have been adopted by other police forces, notably Lothian and Grampian. I firmly believe that this is a proper, fair and most effective way of handling the problem.

Mr. Dempsey

The right hon. Gentleman is only confirming what I said—that police powers are limited to notifying the parents. What he overlooks, very badly I regret to say, is the large number of parents who are unco-operative. Some parents are irresponsible. Some parents could not care less. What happens in those circumstances when there is no co-operation?

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that he is right. This is a baffling problem for social workers and those involved.

There is the further step that can be taken, and which is taken, in appropriate cases for those who continue the practice despite the warnings and advice. That is the situation that arises if the parents, as the hon. Gentleman says, are irresponsible, disinterested or not prepared to help. In these cases a child can be, and is, declared to be beyond parental control. This can mean consideration of proceedings by the reporter of the children's panel under section 32 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968. It would be referred as a child beyond parental control. In that context, the question of an offence does not enter into the matter. It is a matter of the child being beyond parental control.

I propose to continue to keep this problem of solvent abuse under active review and to continue to encourage local arrangements to ensure that outbreaks are quickly identified and dealt with by the police, teachers and social workers and, where necessary, by doctors and with the help of the children's panels.

Mr. Craigen

What does that mean? The right hon. Gentleman is simply watching the problem. Teachers, doctors and others are already involved at individual level.

Mr. Younger

That is a fair question. There are numerous ways in which the Scottish Office, through all its parts, can keep pressure on those concerned in areas of difficulty to examine the circulars, to follow the advice and to consult others. We are also prepared to give a great deal of advice. This is not, of course, the most glamorous, dramatic and quick solution. It is, however, the way in which difficult problems are tackled and solved. The chief constables are working to this end. We have many contacts through the health department in the Scottish Office and much expertise to contribute. This will be done by putting pressure on those concerned to follow the guidance that I have mentioned.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

Like the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen), I am not sure what that statement adds up to, except an expression of good wishes and personal control. I accept the difficulties of definition in relation to the supply of solvents. How does the right hon. Gentleman reply to the fact that the Crown Office, presumably through the procurator fiscal in Glasgow, felt that it may have had sufficient evidence on which to base the invention of a charge to deal with the problem? If the Crown Office, a Government office parallel with that of the right hon. Gentleman, felt that there was a case where something could be done, it is surely not beyond his own Department, which has responsibility for legislation relating to these matters, to come up with a formula that would allow the Crown Office to bring a charge that might stick in circumstances where the police, the procurator fiscal and the Crown Office believed that there was sufficient evidence on which to proceed.

Mr. Younger

The Crown Office can no doubt respond to that question if it is put down. Obviously the Crown Office felt that it had to make a deliberate attempt to bring a prosecution to see whether it was possible to do so. In that particular case, it tried but failed. I understand that it failed—I have not studied the case in detail, although the hon. Gentleman may have done so—because it was not able to make the charge stick. This suggests that the sort of difficulties that I have outlined are real and can be obstacles to taking legal action.

Mr. Dewar

I accept that there are many problems. I understand that in the Malik case there was a plea on relevancy. The stage was never reached of deciding whether the case would stick in terms of proof. Counsel appeared on behalf of the shopkeeper and said that there was no such offence known to the law of Scotland. That was upheld by the sheriff. The Crown Office, which presumably took the decision that the pro- secution could proceed, obviously thought that it could make it stick in terms of evidence or it would not have mounted it.

Mr. Younger

The Crown Office did the proper thing in trying to bring a prosecution, but it did not succeed. I am reminded of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll in one part of his excellent speech. He said that he did not want the legal purists to prevent action from being taken. I am not worried about legal purists. The problem is that the pragmatists cannot find a way that will make such a law, if introduced, produce the result that we all desire. That is why I have listed the difficulties in defining the substances and taking the measures that have been suggested.

Mr. Tarn Dalyell (West Lothian)

I believe that those of us who did not take part in the Committee proceedings should not detain the House now. But as the Secretary of State knows, I have had lengthy correspondence about Mr. David Cook of the EIS with his ministerial colleagues. I have not heard the Secretary of State say that there will be any discussions with the manufacturers. Many of us understand that by adding certain chemical substances one can cause vomit and distaste. Perhaps through the manufacturers—by introducing certain regulations about the manufacture of the glue itself—we can best approach this difficult problem.

7.30 pm
Mr. Younger

That is a very interesting suggestion and I shall certainly look into what the hon. Member has said. But it still does not solve the problem. We are dealing with very many different sorts of substance. It is a massive job, but that does not mean to say that we should not look at the hon. Member's suggestion.

I think that I have detained the House long enough. I am grateful to hon. Members who have tabled these new clauses. I applaud their wishes in doing so but—

Mr. Harry Ewing

The Secretary of State has just given a very helpful reply to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). Therefore I think that I should give notice that I certainly do not intend to press new clause 5.

Mr. Younger

I am very grateful to the hon. Member. I recommend the House not to support any of the new clauses. I applaud the reasons for which they were tabled and I can assure hon. Members that my hon. Friends and I will do all that we can to keep this problem under review. We want to improve our methods of dealing with it, but I really do not think that legislation of the type suggested here is practical.

Mr. Dempsey

The debate has been very informative. My only request to the Secretary of State is that he should not concentrate on the difficulties but should get down to the possibilities. Having said that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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