HC Deb 26 October 1982 vol 29 cc1009-18

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

11.43 pm
Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)

I make no excuse for raising this important matter in the House, notwithstanding the fact that there was a debate initiated by the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) on the same subject on 20 April of this year. I raise the matter now both because of my personal concern about the magnitude of the problem among young people and also to enable my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to report on Government progress in this matter.

I do not wish to raise fears unnecessarily, or in any way to be accused of placing the problem of glue sniffing out of proportion to its reality, but one of the great difficulties is in trying to assess how widespread among young people is solvent abuse, as the matter should more properly be described.

In April, the Under-Secretary said: More research is needed, but the evidence does not justify the alarm generated in some quarters and we must always be careful not to encourage some to experiment just because they hear about this craze … Reliable information on the numbers of sniffers or the proportion whose misuse becomes prolonged is not available.—[Official Report, 20 April 1982; Vol. 22, c. 243.]

I should like my hon. Friend tonight to state what efforts the Government are making to ascertain the extent of the problem. A written question to my hon. Friend, answered on Monday 25 October, asking him what information he has on the number of persons admitted to hospital suffering from the effects of solvent misuse, received the answer that information on hospital admissions relating solely to solvent misuse is not available. Solvent misuse may be a small or a large problem. I suspect and hope that it is the former, but we just do not know and, bearing in mind my hon. Friend's comments about the absence of information, I hope that he can now give the House an assurance that his Department will try to assemble more statistics on the matter by contact with police, health services, education authorities and other bodies dealing with young people. Of course, such statistics could not lead to conclusive evidence as most of those bodies, when they become involved with young people in such circumstances, can only suspect that there has been solvent misuse rather than being able to prove the matter. Nevertheless, it would be a step in right direction.

I welcome the Government's attitude of trying to inform persons more about solvent misuse, and I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister specifically whether he intends that there should be any further seminars held under the aegis of the DHSS, as the one at Guy's hospital in London last November. That was a valuable study and research into the problem and should be repeated. In April this year my hon. Friend told the House that a training film for parents and professionals likely to come into contact with solvent sniffers was to be promulgated by the Central Office of Information. In addition, he said that the Government were exploring the possiblity of a book, perhaps based on the Guy's seminar, as an aid for professionals. Perhaps he could tell the House now how these projects have progressed.

I welcome what my hon. Friend then said about his Department funding studies into solvent abuse and I should like to know whether any such studies have been undertaken or requests made by local services for such funding. Finally, from a long string of questions to my hon. Friend, which I hope he will be able to answer, I understand that his officials have consulted representatives of the voluntary services to learn what more the Government might do to strengthen and enhance their responses. Perhaps he can inform the House what consultations have taken place and what the results have been.

Of course, a number of solutions have been suggested by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans) suggested that some substance could be added to aerosol sprays that would make people physically sick if they tried to inhale them, and the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) asked for further research into the use of aversive additives to the substances in order to make them less attractive to the glue sniffer. I should like to tell my hon. Friend that, although these may seem attractive remedies, I believe that the problems inherent in them in trying to find an aversive substance that does not materially affect the efficacy of the substance's main purpose are so great as to render such a course impractical in the present state of the art.

There are legislative checks to safeguard young people on the purchase of alcohol and tobacco, but not on solvents. I am aware of the problem that such legislation could create, it being impossible to restrict the sale of the wide range of household products containing solvents. Enforcement would be difficult also as retailers would have to judge whether certain restrictions applied in various cases and might face prosecution if their judgment was wrong. Nevertheless, it is well known that certain solvents are more commonly used by sniffers, such as toluene and other hydrocarbons found in impact adhesives and glues. At least such products could have warnings on their containers even if they were not as dramatic as the poster published for retailers by the Hardward Trade Journal which states Glue sniffing kills! We do not sell glue to anyone under sixteen unless accompanied by an adult. I ask my hon. Friend to look more carefully into such matters to see whether action can be initiated.

In the absence of any real statistics, we can rely only upon our own experience and reports in the press which, I accept, can tend to dramatise the subject. I find it deeply disturbing that many hon. Members have asked the Government to assemble statistics but nothing appears to have been done. Many people report incidents of persons in parks and on underground trains, as well as in other places, with their heads buried in plastic or paper bags obviously inhaling solvent vapour. My experience of the courts has led me to the conclusion that in many cases there is a link between solvent abuse and anti-social behaviour, which can lead to crime.

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 in the period 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. However, the actual figures may be higher, as cases which are solvent-related are often not recognised as such, ether by the police or by local health authorities.

The solvents involved are contained not only in glues but in a wide range of household and industrial products that are easily accessible to young people at low cost. These products include gas lighter fuel, hair spray, cleaning agents, dyes, paraffin, adhesives, nail varnish remover, and many others. They can either be sniffed directly from their containers, mixed with drinks or, in the case of aerosols, sprayed directly into the mouth or nose. Another common practice is to saturate a cloth, which is then held to the mouth or nose. Plastic bags may also be placed over the head to concentrate the fumes and thus heighten the effect.

The dangers of such practices are wide-ranging as well. There is much disagreement over the long-term effects of solvent abuse, but it has been established that damage can occur to the kidneys and liver. However, there is no doubt that young people have died as a result of the circumstances under which sniffing occurs. There is a danger of asphyxiation from the use of plastic bags over the head, or of suffocation if the sniffer chokes on his own vomit. Most dangerous of all is the practice of inhaling from pressurised containers, such as aerosols, fire extinguishers or gas containers. With such products, the propellant particles can cause spasms and asphyxiation and also metal poisoning. Sudden death has occurred after inhaling fluorocarbon, a liquefied gas present in most aerosols. If aerosols are sprayed directly into the mouth or nose, the whole substance is inhaled and not just the fumes from the solvent. This could coat the inside of the lungs, causing suffocation. Dizziness and faulty space perception of the intoxicated sniffer can lead to falls and sometimes fatal accidents, especially as the practice is often carried out in out-of-the-way places, such as river embankments and railway lines.

I find it deeply disturbing that many hon. Members have asked the Government to assemble statistics but nothing appears to have been done. A written parliamentary question to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, asking what information he had on the number of persons suffering from the effects of solvent misuse who come to the attention of the police, elicited the reply today that such information as is collected by the police is not available centrally. What, then, has happened to the pledge given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment—who, I noted with pleasure, was in the Chamber a moment ago—when he occupied my hon. Friend's position in the DHSS, when he stated on 12 March 1981: we are actively exploring a way of collecting statistics and what more can be done to educate parents and children and improve local co-operation".—[Official Report, 12 March 1981; Vol. 1000, c. 382.]

How successful has that collection of statistics been, and where are the statistics?

Although this problem has occupied my attention for a considerable time, the immediate catalyst in bringing it to the attention of the House was the headline in the North Wales Chronicle of 16 September 1982: Glue Sniffers In Frenzy On Mountain". It referred to pots of glue and numerous plastic bags being found strewn about Bangor mountain along paths popular with people out walking. I note—again, with pleasure—that my hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts) is in the Chamber, no doubt taking a close interest not only as a result of his ministerial responsibility but because the event to which I have referred occurred in his constituency. That prompted a responsible and helpful editorial from that newspaper on 30 September, referring to 32 cases of glue sniffing documented in Gwynedd schools and setting out the tell-tale signs for parents to look for in ascertaining whether their children are indulging in what can become addictive and lead to permanent damage or even fatal consequences.

It may be helpful if I refer to part of the article because in my view it was a responsible contribution to the debate. It said: As with drugs abuse some mothers may feel that it could not happen to their children. But glue sniffing is no respecter of social status or upbringing. Group sniffing is commonplace, those taking part are nearly all boys, aged 11 to 19, although girls are becoming more involved. Last year at least 45 youngsters in Britain were killed by the habit. How can mothers tell if their child indulges in the craze? These are the ten-tale signs to look for: Is there a smell of glue in the house? Has your son or daughter taken to sleeping at unusual times? Do they then wake up and become aggressive towards you? If this is happening, it's time to become worried. The need for sleep and the aggressive behaviour are the classic symptoms. Outwardly the reddening around the nose similar to the effects of cold sores is sometimes visible. When the glue sniffer begins to inhale, the first sensation is a kind of numbness. This is followed by dizziness which develops into a feeling of euphoria and many then begin to hallucinate. They see different colours and objects coming from space and floating into them. This lasts for an hour or more depending on the amount of glue inhaled. While they are on this 'high' they can behave in a way which is now euphemistically labelled 'antisocial'—like beating, someone up, shop lifting or stealing. As they come out of the 'high' they desperately want to sleep, then they awake with a headache and hangover symptons which leads to the aggressiveness. This will wear off and after a good night's sleep they will be ready to start the cycle again. Apart from damaging the brain to an extent which can cause paralysis, postmortem examinations have also shown that glue sniffing affects other systems of the body, particularly the lungs and liver; eventually, it kills. That was a dire warning from the editorial of that newspaper which I hope those who might consider indulging in this dangerous practice, and indeed parents, will take cognisance of.

There was also a recent report by Dr. D. P. W. Roberts, a specialist in community medicine to Gwynedd county council. During the course of that report he stated: Arrangements ate now in hand whereby the Police in North Wales inform the Health Authority of children found to be misusing solvents. They also advise the children and parents of the danger of such practices and suggest seeking the advice of their general practitioners. On the Health Authority side the family guidance se: vice offer a counselling service to the children and parents. About half of these accept such a service. School authorities and school medical officers are kept informed. The general view of the medical and teaching profession about dealing with the problem is to act quickly where incidents occur but not to draw too much attention to the matter in a school situation and to adopt a low key' approach. It is difficult to give accurate statistical information on whether the problem is growing or subsiding. I believe the less attention the media gives to this matter the better. The problem is more prevalent in the urban areas of Gwynedd, especially along the North Wales coastline. The education of parents, teachers and other persons involved with young people is essential. This kind of activity may be occurring under the very noses of parents without them realising what is happening because they have no knowledge of the symptoms.

I am glad that the Government's response is to help the helpers, but I invite my hon. Friend to be more aggressive. What information is being circularised to schools? Are family practitioners being advised? What easily read and non-alarmist literature is being made available to parents? Such matters need to be discussed and in so doing we must inform and educate.

There is no evidence, as American studies have shown, that publicity of solvent abuse leads to its extension, since it was widespread before such publicity was given to it. It may be that only a few young people are involved in experimenting and that that does not lead to addiction, just as the first surreptitious smoke behind the shed by a youngster evading his parents does not necessarily lead to the habit of cigarette smoking. If it is not too late at night to make a personal admission, I can remember by own youthful escapades, evading my parents, down the garden smoking straws—a most revolting habit which must have put me off smoking for the rest of life.

However, there are some who indulge in the habit of glue sniffing and solvent abuse who do become addicted. I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) who supplied me with a study on glue sniffing undertaken by Mr. McCarney, the senior lecturer on youth and community work at St. Joseph's college of education in Belfast, in the course of which some young people who have become addicted were interviewed. The last word, and our responsibility consequent upon it, should be left with them. They stated: We are left with nothing to do except to go sniffing. We are all sorry that we started sniffing. We all want to give it up. But all we have is our mates and our glue. If anyone is thinking of starting to sniff—don't. It might seem good at first but after a while, when you want to stop, you will find that you can't. I hope that tonight my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to offer hope to parents and children, and indeed to the House and Britain, that the Government are taking steps that will definitely achieve a reduction in a practice which could have serious consequences in future.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

Does the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) have the agreement of the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best) to intervene?

Mr. Best

Yes, Sir.

11.59 pm
Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

The Minister knows that I have an interest in the subject. I have asked numerous questions of him previously, of the Secretary of State for the Home Department and of the previous Secretary of State for Social Services. In view of the replies that I have received for more than a year now, I am not at all satisfied that the Government are moving quickly enough on this subject, especially bearing in mind the problems in my own constituency.

I have received representations from doctors, solicitors, social workers and probation officers. Many of these youngsters are appearing in court because of what they are doing. I have gone round my constituency with doctors and have seen the end result of what these children have done. We have found plastic bags containing glue in stations, under tables in cafes, in telephone kiosks and elsewhere. This is a nation-wide problem, and I hope that the Minister will not duck the issue. He should not tell us that it is a question of education. We want some action, and I hope that we shall get it tonight.

12 midnight

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg)

I am glad to have the opportunity of responding to this brief debate and of thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best) for raising the issue. It is six months since the House last debated this matter, and public concern has not abated.

All around the country representatives of the social services, the police, the Health Service, doctors, health visitors, school nurses, teachers, youth workers and, in some places, retailers, have been meeting the problem in the ways best suited to their communities. With parents, they have been getting the job done. As I said in April, the Government have been busy helping these helpers, and tonight I am glad to be able to make a progress report.

My hon. Friend raised a number of detailed questions, and if I do not cover them all, I shall most certainly write to him with the information. Let me remind the House of the nature of the problem. It is not only glue that is sniffed. Substances that may be sniffed are, in the main, common household products, including adhesives, that are safe if used properly for their intended purpose, but they may well be misused to achieve intoxication and to experience hallucinations. In most cases, people who misuse solvents do so to experiment and then stop without appearing to sustain permanent physical harm.

I am worried in particular about the small minority of misusers who go on to prolonged misuse, because they may well suffer damage to the central nervous system, the liver or kidneys, or they may suffer psychological impairment. There seems to be evidence that this minority already has other problems, and it seems that solvent misuse may be an expression of these deeper problems.

The causation of any apparent damage from solvent misuse is not clear cut. The circumstances surrounding an individual's misuse may also be a cause. Nor is it known whether psychological defects result from experimental or short-term misuse. We do not know how many people are admitted to hospital as a result of solvent misuse because information is not kept in that way. Hospital statistics are largely based on the nature of an illness or injury rather than the circumstances in which it arose. These are areas in which research would be helpful.

Even when a condition is identified as being caused by the toxic effects of a solvent, the statistics do not distinguish accidental inhaling and deliberate solvent sniffing. It would not be acceptable to require hospitals to notify the police that an individual was there seeking treatment for the effects of solvent sniffing. All health care staff are under a very clear duty of confidentiality to patients, which may be breached only in very exceptional circumstances—for example, to bring a serious criminal to justice. Solvent misusers are not criminals. Indeed, youngsters needing help might be deterred from seeking it if it were known that they would be reported to the police.

Sadly, some people's misuse of solvents can be fatal. Recent research from St. George's hospital in Tooting has shown how many people have died. In some cases, it is the effects of the solvent that cause death. In others, death may result from the method of sniffing or an accident while intoxicated. There is clearly no room for complacency. However, it must be said that the numbers involved are very small compared with the number of young people who died in road accidents last year. In 1980, 1,005 young people died as a result of road accidents and 27 died from sniffing glue. As my hon. Friend said, prevention is obviously better than cure.

Each individual is responsible for making sensible decisions about his or her own health. But since it is in the main youngsters of school age who misuse solvents, parents find themselves in the front line. They have to teach children about looking after their health; and parents have to find ways to help their children if they start sniffing. As I said in the House in April, let none of us seek to undermine parents' efforts, nor underestimate the support that they expect from all of us.

What should be done? A number of controls have been urged, but after very careful consideration the Government have decided these would not be helpful and might make matters worse. It would not be practicable to apply the stringent restrictions of the Misuse of Drugs Act to the ordinary household products that can be sniffed. Nor, I suggest, would the public accept the inconvenience. Requiring manufacturers to change their products' formulation would not, as my hon. Friend demonstrated, be practicable. Many products that we are now accustomed to using, such as impact adhesives or paint thinners, could not work without their solvent component. Adding an aversive substance may create other risks, as has been found in America, when New York State last year banned the use of the only viable adhesive substance available, when it was found that this substance carried a cancer risk. Warning labels might lead to an increase in solvent abuse rather than alleviate the problem.

All our inquiries indicate that local statutory and voluntary services, with retailers, are working together to give parents support and to help young solvent misusers. It is not right to go on saying that nothing can be done without fresh legislation. Solvent misuse is not a specific ground for social services intervention. However, child care legislation puts duties on social service authorities to promote children's welfare.

I turn to the more positive aspects of the issue and pay tribute to the Hardware Trade Journal and to Evode Ltd. for the encouragement that they have given to help people to understand the problems of solvent abuse. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey and the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) asked what had happened since April to help the helpers. I promised the medical profession a paper in the Department's journal Health Trends. It was published in May and a copy is in the Library. In July, the proceedings of the seminar at Guy's hospital, which the Department co-sponsored, were published in the journal Human Toxicology.

A training film for professionals is being made, following a suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler). Since April a "film treatment" has been considered by all the Departments concerned, including the Welsh Office and Departments in Scotland and Northern Ireland. After some further work, shooting of the film is to begin shortly. It is particularly encouraging that this project has caught the imagination of those working in the field. I am grateful for the fact that some trade associations have offered to co-finance the film and hope that other offers will be forthcoming. I anticipate that the film will be available for viewing and use in February.

I announced in April that we were exploring the possibility of a book for professionals. I can now inform the House that discussions have been held with Macmillan Ltd., which has invited a prospective editor to submit a detailed synopsis of a book. That is expected this week. If all goes well, I expect a book to be published early next year.

My hon. Friend asked about research. When the House last debated solvent misuse, I invited people to come forward with proposals for small scale studies, which, subject to their suitability, the Department might fund. 1 repeat that invitation tonight. I appealed in April for people with research proposals to come forward, but only six inquiries resulted, and of those only two followed up the information supplied to them. Those two are being developed into applications for funding, and I hope that they will prove to be pilot schemes. Another proposal that we have also been developing since the Guy's hospital seminar is among those with priority when decisions are next made on major departmental research funding.

I am disappointed at the lack of response to my proposal that people should send us ideas for small locally based research projects. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member Anglesey and the hon. Member for Ashfield will encourage people to send in such proposals. I announced in April that officials would consult representatives of retailers, on the scope for encouraging voluntary restraint, and representatives of statutory and voluntary services in England, on the support that they expect from the Government. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is considering consulting representatives of local services in Wales. We have had to take many people's advice in preparing the consultation letters, and officials have had some informal contacts already. The formal consultation letters will be sent out in the next few weeks and copies will be placed in the Library.

What more might be done? The consultation letters will be seeking ways of spreading good practice. One possibility is by promoting seminars. To see whether, and if so how, such occasions can be effective, the Department has underwritten the costs of a seminar earlier this month for those working with solvent misusers in the West Midlands and neighbouring regions.

Pressure on the Government for legislation to deal with this problem continues. We see no prospect of making sniffing itself or selling solvent products an offence in England, although I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will shortly be making a statement on the result of the Scottish consultation. I do not wish to anticipate what my right hon. Friend will say, but I understand that the response to those consultations was strongly against the creation of such offences.

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 ex tended to include intoxication from solvents. The consuitation letter to statutory and voluntary services will seek views on whether changes in legislation might support and enhance local services' work with young solvent sniffers and their parents. In the meantime, I have asked officials to see whether anything needs to be done to help agencies detect whether someone is sniffing solvents and whether they can identify the solvent being misused.

I am anxious that general practitioners and hospital accident and emergency departments should be able to find out whether a young person has been inhaling solvents. That may also be important to other helping agencies, so that they can respond appropriately. Officials will report by the end of the year.

Everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey and the hon. Member for Ashfield have said tonight will be studied and I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales—although my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for Wales the hon. Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts) will doubtless do it for me—what has been said about solvent misuse in Wales.

There is no simple answer to this problem. I hope that the House will agree that the Government's approach is both practical and sensible. It is to support the work of those supporting parents and solvent misusers. But in the end—I must repeat what I said in April—it is each individual's responsibility for his or her own health, rather than State intervention, that is the real safeguard against the hazards of glue sniffing.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.