HC Deb 21 December 1982 vol 34 cc841-4 4.20 pm
Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restrict the sale of certain glues to children under the age of sixteen; to strengthen the powers of the police in relation to persons under the effects of glue sniffing; and for connected purposes. The Bill once again draws the attention of the House to the growing menace of glue sniffing. I know that the House will share the sense of revulsion that is fell by so many at the horrors of this odious and habit-forming disease. I wish to emphasise that it is a disease, although unfortunately it is not often recognised as such. The problem has been brought to the attention of the House by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The most recent occasion on which it was raised was in an Adjournment debate on 26 October initiated by the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best). My hon. Friends the Members for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), Bolton, East (Mr. Young), Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans), South Shields (Dr. Clark) and Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton), along with many other right hon. and hon. Members, including myself, have also raised it. I drew the attention of the House to the problem in an Adjournment debate on 20 April.

I ask whether all hon. Members appreciate the ways in which these substances are taken into the system. They can be sniffed from a can, tin or bottle, while aerosols are sprayed directly into the mouth or nose. Solvents are known to be mixed with drinks, or handkerchiefs can be saturated and held to the mouth or nose. To heighten the effect or hasten the effects, a bag is placed over the head. The House will share the sense of revulsion at such practices, but they would not be our business if no harm resulted to users and society generally.

As usual, there is some disagreement among the experts about the likely long-term effects of addiction. However, it has been established that damage can and does occur to the liver and the kidney. There is also harm in the short-term which in many instances is temporary. The user becomes confused and suffers from blurred vision. His speech becomes slurred and the actions of the body become unco-ordinated. He may become dizzy. This is all bad enough, but the craze becomes a killer, even to someone trying it out for the first time, from the methods that are used.

The campaign to prevent children having access to plastic or polythene bags was well founded and has been successful in reducing the number of accidents. Youngsters are putting bags over their heads and achieving a state of intoxication involving dizziness and loss of consciousness. The House will appreciate what can happen. Some have suffocated and some have choked on their own vomit. As the practice is carried out secretly, often in out-of-the-way places, other dangers arise, with serious accidents on building sites, railway lines, river embankments and other potentially dangerous spots.

In the Adjournment debate on 26 October the hon. Member for Anglesey said: According to a recent report in the journal Human Toxicology, published as a result of the seminar held at Guy's hospital last November, the menace of solvent abuse has been on the increase during the past 10 years with the number of solvent-related deaths quadrupling from 1975 to 1981. Thirty-nine young people died in 1981, either as a direct result of solvent inhalation or through related accidents occurring as a result of intoxication from such substances."—[Official Report, 26 October 1982; Vol. 29, c. 1012.] A disturbing feature is the ease with which youngsters can get hold of these substances. A lethal dose can be bought with their weekly pocket money. I do not always agree with everything that chief constables have to say, but I agreed when the chief constable of Northumbria, addressing a conference in Newcastle last year, said: Solvent abuse was not merely a cult as some experts would have it—it caused death and misery to many. He asked: Do we go ahead and do something or do we dither and hold back hoping that it will go away? I hope that we will on this occasion do something, and something positive, by the House supporting the Bill.

In giving some idea of the way in which this odious practice is increasing, we could spend all day quoting tragic cases that have resulted from this terrible disease. In The Daily Telegraph on Friday 10 December there appeared the following article: A mother who battered her 'evil' glue-sniffing son to death with a full gas cylinder when her patience finally 'snapped' was jailed for nine months at the High court in Edinburgh yesterday. The article referred to Mr. Donald Findley, defence counsel, who told the court that Mrs. O'Neil had been subjected to a unique and horrible course of conduct which few people could have survived. Following a successful campaign that was initiated by the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, which was praised by Ministers earlier in the year, the Evening Chronicle carried an editorial on 11 November entitled Why The Law Must Change". The article stated: Until July 31, Jimmy Walker, a 16-year-old school boy, was a lively and healthy lad. On that day, though, during a glue-sniffing session when the pals he was with tried to prevent him from going any further with the dangerous 'game', he fell 12 feet from a stretch of Newcastle's ancient city walls. He had cracked his skull and suffered potentially lethal damage from the fumes from the solvent that he had poured into a plastic bag, and went into a coma from which he never regained consciousness. A month later he died in Newcastle General Hospital. Yesterday's inquest into young Jimmy Walker's death brought into horrifying close-up the true dimensions of the sniffing plague that threatens the health and the very lives of so many boys and girls on Tyneside. And, sharing the horror of his friends who had tried to take the bag away from him, and of his dreadfully distressed father, we believe that the full account of how he met his end should be studied by Ministers at the Departments of Health and Industry and the Home Office. The evidence of pathologist Dr. Robert Perry should force the Government into taking the glue-sniffing menace far more seriously than it has so far. Ministers wonder out loud about making public sniffing an offence, like being under the influence of drink. They plan to circulate films and warning material for use in schools and youth clubs. We can only repeat that changing the nature of the solvent mixtures—with the help of Government research funding if need be—can provide a real answer. Until that is found, the case for licensing retailers—as it applies to liquor and tobacco sales—to prevent young people buying the stuff, should be urged vigorously. My Bill is a simple measure that would extend the legislation which already prevents children from purchasing alcohol and tobacco. I know that many shop keepers assist in not selling these products to children, but unfortunately not all take that line. I quote from a letter that I have recently received from one of my constituents. It states: Mr. Dixon, our son is sniffing glue and, on occasions, has spent nights away from home while we had no knowledge of his whereabouts. We have visited all shops in the area that sell products which can be used for sniffing. All said that they did not sell these products to children or to youths if they were suspicious of their behaviour or reasons for wanting the products. However, our son, on his father's instructions, went into one of the shops which had previously said that they did not sell to children and, without trouble, bought a tin of Thix-a-Fix. There should be a complete ban on the sale of these products to children. The restrictions were successful with the sale of fireworks to children. The problem of fireworks, serious as it was, existed only for a couple of weeks a year. Glue-sniffing is a 365 day a year problem and is much more serious. The Bill would extend the powers of the police. When the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security replied to the Adjournment debate on 26 October he said: However, there may be scope for removing uncertainty about unlawful acts associated with solvent misuse. For example, the present offence of being drunk in a public place might be extended to include intoxication from solvents."—[Official Report, 26 October 1982; Vol. 29, c. 1018.] I do not want these youngsters branded as criminals. My Bill would, in appropriate cases, whether the initial default was solvent inhalation or associated misbehaviour, give the courts the necessary power to require such offenders to attend remedial centres where their addiction could be treated. If the Bill can save the life of one young person and save worry and apprehension to their parents, it should command the support of the House.

Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Is the hon. Gentleman opposing the motion?

Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)

I rise not because I do not share the hon. Gentleman's concern—there is a considerable problem in my own constituency—but because I do not believe that the way to deal with this problem is to make the sale of glue to those under 16 illegal. This is not merely a problem of glue sniffing The problem relates to all kinds of solvent sniffing. Many youngsters sniff glue, polish, Tippex or aerosols containing various different substances. It is impossible to define exactly what substances should be made illegal. Many useful household items could not be sold to those under 16 if the hon. Gentleman's course is followed. For that reason I seek to oppose the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Ray Powell, Mr. Harry Cowans, Dr. David Clark, Mr. W. E. Garrett, Mr. David Young, Mr. John Maxton, Mr. Keith Best, Mr. Jack Straw, Mr. Ted Leadbitter, Mr. Ron Lewis, and Mr. Gareth Wardell.