HC Deb 19 April 1985 vol 77 cc527-53

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered; reported, without amendment.

9.37 am
Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill seeks to deal with one of the sickest crazes of the 20th century, colloquially known as glue sniffing, but which is the much wider problem of solvent abuse. It is a youthful form of self-poisoning, and the problem is, as we heard in speeches on Second Reading, found all over the country in urban and rural areas. It has been gratifying to have the support of the House for this measure. There was not one speech against the Bill on Second Reading, and support has come to me from all over the country during the intervening period.

This is the third Bill that I have been fortunate enough to bring to this stage in the House. The other two, the Consumer Safety Bill 1977 and the Licensing (Amendment) Bill 1980, gave rise to many debates and arguments, some controversy and many amendments. I remember myself tabling over 100 amendments to one of those Bills.

There has been no attempt to amend or improve the Intoxicating Substances (Supply) Bill since it was first brought before the House, and I find that very gratifying. I thank in particular the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department for the assistance and wise counsel that he gave me when the Bill was being drafted. I also thank the sponsors who have supported the Bill throughout, those who took part in the Second Reading debate, and my hon. Friends and Opposition Members who are here today to speak in the debate.

We know that the vast majority of the young people who indulge in solvent abuse do so out of curiosity. In many cases they do it as a group activity. They want to belong to a group in which sniffing is the current craze. The substances are cheap and easy to obtain and are to be found in every broom cupboard in every home.

As well as the large number of people who indulge in the habit as a craze or out of curiosity, there are a smaller number of serious cases of chronic addiction to solvent abuse. The usual background is that they come from unhappy or disturbed families. It is a way of seeking attention or a way of escape, and it is a very serious problem.

Those who engage in solvent abuse or sniffing only as a passing phase can, unfortunately, kill themselves in that short time. One trial sniff can lead to death, and we read about it all too often in the newspapers. They are indeed tragic events. The damage can be to the heart, to the lungs or to the brain. There is not only the problem of organs of the body being seriously or fatally damaged. Frequently accidents are caused by the intoxication resulting from abuse and many are fatal. There is the additional problem of anti-social acts done by people under the influence of solvents.

A wide range of products can be used in solvent abuse. I shall not go into all of them, but I have a table that was produced by one of the bodies concerned with the prevention of solvent abuse. It shows that 24 per cent. of the deaths in a 10 or 12-year period were due to the use not of glue—the substance most often thought of—but to gas fuels, and in particular lighter fuel. The table shows that a further 17 per cent. of the deaths were due to the use of aerosols—a particularly dangerous form of sniffing. They included fire extinguishers, anti-perspirants, air fresheners, cleaners, fly sprays, paint sprays and hair sprays—things in everyday use in every house. Glue of one form of another accounted for 27 per cent. of the deaths, and the remaining 31 per cent. were from a wide variety of products. I should not have thought that chloroform—one of the products listed—was to be found in every broom cupboard. Many others, however, such as petrol, paint thinner, plaster remover and cleaning agents, are all widely available products.

I should like to repeat the warning about aerosols. Anything that can be sprayed from an aerosol can be sniffed, and people can kill themselves by using any of those products. It happens regularly. The message should go out from this debate that aerosols are very dangerous for young people to use in the way that I have described. Many of the tragedies are due to the abuse of aerosols, and that fact is not sufficiently appreciated by parents. Most people believe that glue is the substance to avoid, but the statistics to which I have referred show that, although the sniffing of glue gives rise to death and accident, most accidents are not due to the use of glue. I repeat that aerosols are a particularly dangerous form of abuse, and all parents should be aware of that.

One of the suggestions made to me during the three months since the Second Reading is that there should be dummy containers of the abused products kept in shops. I do not think that that is a practical suggestion. Bearing in mind the wide range of products to which I have referred, it would not be practical for shops to carry on their shelves dummy containers for so many products. I have been in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security on the subject, and he is raising the matter with the British Adhesives and Sealants Association and the British Retail Asociation for them to consider. Perhaps some products—glue in particular—might be dealt with in that way, but I do not think it would be practical to treat so many products in the way suggested and to have only dummies on the shelves.

Those at risk are mostly between the ages of 13 and 16. When the Bill was being drafted, it was suggested that perhaps the offence of deliberately supplying substances to youngsters should be limited to those up to 16, but the problem continues beyond the age of 16. Therefore, it seemed to me right that the limit should be 18. There has not been any opposition to that suggestion, and therefore, the age remains in the Bill at 18.

Some young people regard the sniffing of solvents as a kids' craze, but I am told that the fact that it is totally different from what adults do gives it some attraction to young immature people.

How many children take part in solvent abuse? No one really knows the answer. For obvious reasons, it is not practical to have a census, but it is thought by some researchers that as many as 5 per cent. of all children in the age group have sniffed solvents at some time, although in most cases it is a passing phase.

There has been research in Newcastle by Dr. Anthony Thorley, the director of the centre for alcohol and drug studies at St. Nicholas' hospital together with Brenda Davies, the senior registrar in psychiatry, and Mr. Dennis O'Connor at Newcastle university, to whom I referred on Second Reading, who runs a very successful clinic for people suffering from the problem. Those three people have produced a study which suggests that, of the 5 per cent. of 15-year-olds who engage in sniffing, 10 per cent.—one in 200 of those children —continue sniffing beyond that age into young adulthood. That is a serious factor.

In the three months since Second Reading I have been keeping a note of developments in my area in the northeast. I do not think that that area is any different from the rest of the country. There has been a continuation of the distressingly regular series of tragedies and problems caused by solvent abuse. In February, an 18-year-old boy was convicted of indecent behaviour which was brought about by his being under the influence of glue. There have been several cases of burglary. In one of those cases the 19-year-old involved pointed a gun at a policeman. The policeman found himself with a gun at his temple held by someone in a fairly crazed condition. Fortunately, the policeman was able to seize the gun. Although it proved to be a very accurate replica, it was a worrying and terrifying incident for him. Those burglaries and other incidents have been carried out by children in their late teens, not by children in their early teens.

There has been trouble on our splendid Tyneside metro system. A train had to come to an emergency stop because a youth, intoxicated by sniffing, was in front of it. There was a crowd of sniffers around at the time. A 12-year-old sniffer of gas went berserk when his cartridge of gas was removed from him. He ransacked his house, and the police had to be called. In February, an 18-year-old boy was found to have permanent damage to a lung as a result of sniffing. Last month an 18-year-old girl, who had been sniffing all day, collapsed and died three days later from irreparable brain damage. In March, there was a fortunate escape by a 16-year-old girl who had been sniffing for a long time and who collapsed. Fortunately, the ambulance was called speedily. She lived near the ambulance station, and within three minutes of her collapse the ambulance men were there. They saved her with seconds to spare as she was turning blue. I am told by the local ambulance service that there is now about one call a day to deal with serious cases of glue sniffing. The ambulance men find that the young people can be violent and strong as a result of the intoxication to which they have subjected themselves.

One of the particularly worrying factors that has come out of the research by Dr. Thorley and his colleagues is the way in which a small but significant number of those who have become serious addicts of solvent sniffing go on to hard drugs. After four or five years of sniffing glue, they turn to sniffing heroin and end up injecting it. Let me give two examples.

First, there was an 18-year-old girl who had sniffed for seven years since she was 11. At 17 she started taking LSD tablets together with solvents, and spent 12 hours a day on that activity. It is hard for us to understand how young people can spend a whole day doing that, but she did, and she took heroin whenever she could get hold of it.

Secondly, a 20-year-old girl had sniffed for six years from the age of 14. When she was 18 she moved on to LSD and heroin.

To add to the tragedies caused by abuse of solvents there is the danger of the activity extending into hard drugs, with permanent effect. On Second Reading I referred to a young man who told me that he had spent 12 or 14 hours a day consuming a litre of glue. It is terribly hard to understand how anybody could absorb a litre, but it appears to be a regular occurrence for hardened addicts. I am old enough to have difficulty in understanding litres. I am one of those who nowadays never knows how much petrol I am putting into my car except by the price. I tend to think of a litre in terms of the amount of whisky that one can bring back duty free from one's holiday. However, I am not sure whether whisky is a good subject to refer to in a debate on abuse—

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

There are more people addicted to that.

Mr. Trotter

As the hon. Gentleman says, more people are addicted to whisky.

I understand that a litre is 1¾ pints, and a pint is something that I do understand. From my earliest days, I have known the size of a pint of milk. Therefore, a litre is getting on for 2 pints. That is the quantity of these substances being consumed daily by some people. ft is a very large amount. The substances are also relatively cheap—much cheaper than whisky.

At present the police are powerless to prevent glue from being deliberately sold to children for sniffing purposes. On the one hand, dollops of glue in old crisp bags are sold in kits tragically known as "happy bags", and, on the other hand, hardened addicts buy and consume a litre of glue. In England and Wales, the police are powerless to do anything about it. As we know, in Scotland, under the different legal system, it has been established that the police have the power to act. The Bill simply seeks to bring into statute law in England and Wales the rules which now exist in Scotland.

I believe that the existence of such a law will act as a powerful and effective deterrent. On Second Reading the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) referred to the clang of gaol doors. I like that expression. I believe that the threat of the clang of gaol doors will deter evil shopkeepers. In the House we argue about the extent to which gaol sentences act as a deterrent to criminals. I believe that that threat will be a successful deterrent against the sort of person who is deliberately selling glue for that dreadful purpose.

Not only those who deliberately sell glue but those who are wilfully blind will be affected. It is in no way my intention to put at risk the ordinary shopkeeper. Some shopkeepers have expressed concern, but no formal representations have been made to me on behalf of shopkeepers. I think that they understand, and I am sure that they all abhor the deliberate sale of poison in that way. The ordinary shopkeeper is appalled by it, as we all are, and understands that he is not being put at risk. I fully understand the problems that shopkeepers face when a child comes in and asks for a product. If they make a genuine mistake they will not be at risk. They should use their discretion and not supply the product if they have any doubt. I hope that they do so now. Shopkeepers in my area tell me that that is their practice. If a boy who they have reason to suppose may want to use the product for sniffing comes into the shop, they do not supply it. I am sure that they are right in not doing so.

For those who deliberately sell glue recklessly and without regard to what it might be used for, the punishment should be gaol or a heavy fine. The Bill provides for a six month gaol sentence or a £2,000 fine. When the Bill was drafted, I wondered whether the House might wish to alter those penalties, but it has not done so. Hon. Members have agreed with my judgment and that of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department that that is the correct level.

We had it in mind that the penalty could be imposed in the magistrates courts. It is widely felt that such an offence should be dealt with speedily before the magistrates. If they felt that an offender had behaved in an appalling and large-scale way, and that more than six months' gaol was called for, I imagine that they could impose consecutive sentences. I cannot conceive that a case would be brought on a single incident of selling glue. We are talking about people who have a record of selling it in large quantities.

I remind the House that in Scotland gallons of glue were sold in small corner shops when in no way could gallons of glue have been needed in the normal course of business.. Some people were buying it a litre at a time and even more were buying those dreadful happy kits, with a few spoonfuls of glue in an old crisp packet. No shopkeeper would sell glue in an old crisp packet without knowing exactly what it was being used for. People doing so will be doing it on a large scale. It is possible for the courts to impose consecutive sentences if they wish. In Scotland, two-year gaol sentences were imposed.

The police know who is involved in and guilty of such activity. The authorities in Tyneside told me that they have been aware that a fish and chip shop has also been selling glue. A hot dog seller is also known to have provided glue. No reasonable person could suppose that the sale of glue with fish and chips or hot dogs was a normal trading activity. It is the people who do such things that the Bill is designed to deal with, not the normal corner shopkeeper who has no wish to engage in this wicked trade.

There has recently been an interesting development on Tyneside. After four years' research, a firm called Plus Products reckons to have produced a solvent-free glue. Glue is not the only problem—most of the serious accidents are caused by other substances—but in the case of casual sniffing glue is the substance most commonly sniffed. If a successful solvent-free glue could be produced, that would be a great achievement. Mr. Perry, who runs Plus Products, tells me that one could sniff the glue for as long as one liked and it would do one no harm, and that the glue performs just as well as normal glue. If that is so, the product has a very good future. The product is called Plustex C3530. That means little to me, but it may mean something to my more technically minded colleagues. It may be more expensive than ordinary glue, but it goes much further. We must follow that development. I shall encourage Mr. Perry to the best of my ability, and I am pleased that this breakthrough is a Tyneside development.

There is a need for education by teachers and by parents, and for education of teachers and of parents. This matter does not fall directly within the scope of the Bill, but it has been suggested to me on Tyneside that all local authorities should be required to prepare a plan to deal with the problem in their area and perhaps to report each year on what they are doing about solvent abuse. There is a precedent in that authorities are already required to prepare such a plan to deal with problems of cruelty to children. I am satisfied that everything possible is being done on Tyneside to deal with the problem, but I am not sure what is being done elsewhere in the country. It may be that other areas are equally aware of the problem. Nevertheless, it might be a good idea if each local authority had to produce an annual report.

The solvent manufacturers are at present represented by the British Adhesives and Sealants Association. The members of that body are good citizens who are very much concerned about the abuse of some of their products. They have gone to considerable lengths to assist in dealing with the problem, and I understand that they have plans for even greater efforts in the future. The subjects to which they are devoting their attention are the alleviation of the suffering arising from abuse, the education of the public about the dangers, the promotion and support of research into the problems and the dissemination and publication of the results of that research for the benefit of the public. There may also be the endowment of scholarships for the support of relevant research work. The association proposes to increase its activities. I believe that it intends to hold an international conference on the subject next year. The House will congratulate the association on its efforts.

The Bill is deliberately short, and I hope that it will be effective. It has a very straightforward aim. I believe that it will lead to the closure of an obvious loophole in the law. It will not eradicate the problem. The substances are too readily available in every broom cupboard, bedroom and bathroom as well as in the shops. It will not deal with the social and family problems that often give rise to serious abuse. However, it will provide a weapon to be used against the evil men who deliberately profit from this sick craze. The Bill will provide a weapon that does not yet exist, and will help to reduce the supply. Each death prevented will make the Bill worth while. The sooner the Bill appears on the statute book, the better.

10.6 am

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

Once again I congratulate the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) on his initiative in bringing forward the Bill, his good sense in restricting it to a narrow and noncontroversial area, and his expertise in steering it so successfully towards the completion of its stages in this House. It is not the Opposition's purpose to delay or obstruct the Bill. We have some qualifications about what it may achieve in practice, and there may be some problems, but we support the Bill and wish to see it on the statute book.

Solvent abuse does not attract as much attention today as it did at the time when the hon. Gentleman first thought of the Bill. It has been overshadowed—certainly in my own area of Merseyside—by the increasing problem of the use of heroin and cocaine. Heroin is now much more readily available, and there are increasing quantities of high-quality cocaine on the streets at relatively low prices. Those much more dangerous drugs are therefore now being used by a larger number and a wider variety of young people, some of whom might otherwise have used solvents. The problem has moved away from the abuse of solvents towards the addiction to heroin and cocaine.

To some extent, the problem of solvent abuse disappears, as the user tends to move on from that form of abuse to other in many ways much more dangerous drugs, or, indeed, to alcohol. Solvent abuse is not, apparently, the problem today that it was 18 months or two or three years ago. The problem is now much more serious, and on a much larger scale. However, we all know from experience in our constituencies that solvent abuse is a considerable problem, not least for the parents of the children concerned.

We have all had letters from, or met at our surgeries, parents who are deeply worried and upset because they have found out that their children have been abusing solvents. They feel themselves to be failures. They feel helpless to confront the problem. They do not know how to deal with it. Quite apart from the problems for the user, solvent abuse certainly creates considerable problems and much distress for his family. There are also the incidental anti-social effects that have been alluded to. Many crimes are committed, not because the person concerned is inherently criminal or would in more lucid moments have embarked on an act of criminality, but because he—or she—is under the influence of some solvent substance. He might commit indecent exposure or burglary, or some more horrendous crime of malicious actual bodily harm. There has been one widely publicised case of murder. Such crimes can occur because of the effect on young people of sniffing glue or other solvents.

More disturbing are the deaths, of which there were 282 from volatile substances between 1971 and 1983—there were 80 in 1983 alone—72 per cent. of which were of people under 20. As the hon. Gentleman said, the addiction tends to be concentrated in the younger age group. When considering how the Bill will work, it is important to note that 31 per cent. of those deaths were accounted for by the use of cleaning agents, 27 per cent. by the sniffing of glues and 24 per cent. by the inhalation of lighter fuels and the like. It is worrying that volatile substances can be the cause of death, but it is even more worrying that there is such a massive and terrible waste of young life in such horrible and disturbing circumstances.

It is a great pity that the Bill and its passage through the House has attracted relatively little attention from hon. Members, many of whom want at other times to make great play of the problems of solvent abuse. They seem not to take a great interest in the subject when it comes to doing something, or attempting to do something about it.

As I have said before, the Bill does not address itself to the real problem of solvent abuse, nor does the hon. Gentleman pretend that it does. It provides no more than that it will be an offence for a retailer to supply solvents to people under 18, knowing that they are likely to be inhaled. That is a perfectly reasonable objective. Nobody should knowingly aid and abet young people in this antisocial, unhealthy and distressing practice. If anyone is prepared to take that responsibility knowingly, he ought to be regarded as having committed a criminal offence and be convicted for it.

Nobody should profit from young people's addiction to or affliction by solvents. In that regard, the Opposition have supported and will continue to support the Bill. However, most retailers do not knowingly aid and abet the purchase of solvents for sniffing. The overwhelming majority—99.9 per cent.—of retailers would not wish in any way to aid or abet such a practice or to profit from it. As the hon. Gentleman said, there are a few evil people who profit, but the vast majority are only too willing to abide by the Government's guidelines. My evidence is that those guidelines are being adhered to conscientiously arid, in many cases, enthusiastically. It is perhaps not amiss that the Bill reinforces those guidelines.

We must ensure that the public are aware that the Bill is limited. They should not have grandiose expectations of it. The Bill is limited simply by the fact that 39 per cent. of those who abuse solvents steal them. They will not be caught as a result of the Bill. A further 33 per cent. get somebody else to buy the solvents. When the Bill becomes law, that percentage will rise because young people will not run the risk of being embarrassed in public by retailers, but will get older and unaware people to buy the solvents. Only 15 per cent. of solvent abusers themselves purchase the product. it is therefore only that 15 per cent. who could be caught. It is obvious that that figure will change.

Some people will be caught by the Bill. Some retailers will be identified as embarking on this evil, vicious and anti-social trade and be prosecuted and convicted. Nevertheless, I suspect that, when in two or three years' time we consider how the Bill has worked, we shall find that it has had little impact. I hope so, because I hope that most retailers are law-abiding. The real need, as the hon. Gentleman began to say, is for comprehensive health and social education of children likely to be at risk, and their parents. As with drug abuse generally, it is essential to give help, counselling and education to the parents of children who might become drug or solvent abusers. It is also important to have a well-thought-out strategy of training for professionals. Many social workers, health officials and teachers are not sufficiently trained in the recognition of symptoms or the type of help that they should give a solvent abuser or a drug misuser. I am aware that much is being done, but nobody will pretend hat it is enough. We should provide far more services for solvent and drug abusers.

The central funding initiative and the £10 million is welcome, but it is not enough, given the increasing scale of the problem. If we are to believe what the Minister is telling every radio and television station—that we are confronted with an epidemic of heroin and cocaine abuse—and if the quantities of those drugs entering the country are increasing as alleged, it is clear that £10 million, significant though that sum is, is a drop in the ocean compared with what is needed to provide additional services for those in need.

I shall put the Opposition's anxieties on the record in the hope that they will help to inform those who have to implement the Bill and because they should be on the record for when the other place considers the Bill and what changes might be appopriate. The first concerns the phrase, "reasonable cause to believe". Retailers must refuse to supply solvents to young people if they have reasonable cause to believe that that young person is likely to inhale them. Responsibility is put on the retailer to ensure that he is not committing a crime.

I am not jibbing at that, but the problem is that many retailers might become over-cautious when supplying solvents to those aged under 18. Many young people might be prevented from buying perfectly innocuous substances such as paint strippers, petrol, glues and cleaning fluids which they, or somebody who has sent them, want to use for perfectly legitimate purposes. If there is a great deal of police activity and public concern about solvent abuse in a particular area, individual retailers may be over-timid about selling solvents to anyone under the age of 18. It would be most unfortunate if young people were discriminated against and publicly humiliated in a crowded shop by a retailer refusing to sell an article to them, with the implication that they must be disreputable drug or solvent abusers.

That problem has been compounded by the unfortunate remarks about punks made on many occasions by the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), whom I am glad to see present today. On every occasion the hon. Gentleman has identified someone dressed like or otherwise resembling a punk as being ipso facto a solvent or drug abuser.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

That is misrepresentation.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

It is on the record.

Many of the voluntary organisations with which I am associated are staffed by people who adopt bizarre and frightening clothes and hair styles which I should certainly not adopt or wish my children to adopt, yet those people are the most sensitive and hard-working and often the most cautious and timid. To tar them with the brush of solvent or drug abuse, as the hon. Member for Ealing, North has done on three occasions in the House—

Mr. Greenway

I have never done that.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

It is in Hansard. It is an unwarranted slur and I fear that it will compound the problems that may occur under the Bill. We cannot have retailers automatically refusing to sell glue to anyone with orange hair or studs round his belt. That is unfair to the retailer and to the young person and it will cause great animosity and controversy, which we can well do without. I hope that it will not happen and that most retailers will have a better knowledge of young people than that displayed by the hon. Member for Ealing, North and will use the powers provided by the Bill with far more sense than he would.

I am also concerned about the meaning of the word "substance". How are retailers to interpret that concept? For instance, they may conclude that lighter fuel is a substance which they can refuse to sell, but that a disposable lighter is not. Again, Tipp-Ex thinner is presumably a substance, while Tipp-Ex fluid is not. A host of similar anomalies will arise if retailers are asked to make definitions which no hon. Member would be able to make and which lawyers may find extremely difficult to interpret. It will be no use if the potential abuser merely buys a different product which has the same effect but is not a "substance".

The most important caveat about the effect of the Bill in practice is that it may restrict availability of the less toxic substances. The substance most widely associated in the public mind with solvent abuse is glue. In the House, too, when discussing volatile substances we tend to talk about glue sniffing. Therefore, retailers will tend to be most cautious, nervous and restrictive about the sale of glue. If that happens, young people will turn to aerosols, cleaning products and other substances which are more likely to be supplied but which do the most irreparable damage. Those substances are the killers. No one wants to legislate to ensure that young people switch from glue to even more dangerous substances, but that could be the unfortunate and unintended consequence of the Bill, and we must guard against it. Retailers must be alerted to that risk. For that reason, it will be necessary to monitor the working of the legislation very carefully.

Most important of all, we must not over-sell the likely effect of the Bill. We endorse and support its Third Reading, but we do not want it to raise false hopes or to pretend that it is a major step towards solving the problem of solvent abuse. Solvent abuse will continue on much the same scale the day after the Bill becomes law as the day before. We must also not pretend that the Bill deals with the problem of drug abuse in any real or meaningful way. We must not allow this legislation to distract our attention from the real issue of identifying and dealing with the causes of solvent and drug abuse.

Above all, in the polite, all-party, non-contentious atmosphere that tends to prevail on Fridays in relation to Bills of this kind, when we are all working together as we should in the interests of all our constituents and irrespective of party politics, we must never forget that the major responsibility for dealing with drug and solvent abuse rests with the Minister and the Government. It is their problem, but in many cases they are not living up to their responsibilities in the way that they should.

We must also take into account the social and economic circumstances in which solvent and drug abuse flourish. Whatever the actual causal relationship, we know that there is a major and significant relationship between high unemployment, poverty, social deprivation and inadequate housing and the problems of solvent and drug abuse. Of course, as recent well-publicised instances have shown, some people at the top of the social scale with good job opportunities and large incomes are solvent or drug abusers. We do not deny that. Nevertheless, the largest concentration of solvent and drug abuse is in decaying inner city areas and in the decaying outer estates of areas such as mine. The Government have a great responsibility for having created those conditions, and an even greater moral responsibility to take action to eliminate those social and economic conditions and the abuses to which they give rise.

10.27 am
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

It is a pity that the reasonably well-informed speech of the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) included a totally ill-informed, unwarranted and disgraceful attack on me. The hon. Gentleman had the gall to claim that I classified all punk rockers as glue sniffers because on one occasion —not two or three—I thought it right to bring to the attention of the House a most distressing example that I had witnessed of glue being sold to a punk rocker. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do his homework properly next time. I remind him of what I said on that occasion, and I stand by it. I said:

I went into a well-known shop the other day, and as I was being served a punk rocker came in. He asked for glue and was sold glue. A man standing next to me said to the person who had sold the glue, 'You know that glue is going to be abused.' The man behind the counter said, 'Yes, I do, but what is it to me if people choose to kill themselves in that way?' That is disgraceful. The Bill will overcome that and I welcome it in that spirit."—[Official Report, 18 January 1985; Vol. 71, c. 660.] That is the single example of a punk rocker that I used. I took one instance, and the person buying the glue just happened to be a punk rocker.

When I gave that example, I was not saying that all punk rockers are likely to do the same thing in the same way, just as I would not say that somebody who is dressed in a particularly slick way is a slicker and financially devious, and that all other slickers are the same. I would not bracket all City gents with the actions of one City gent, however sweet and charitable, or whatever. The hon. Gentleman has some knowledge of these matters and he is usually an honest debater, but it was unworthy of him to speak like that.

I join in the hon. Gentleman's congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) on his great success in bringing the Bill before the House and on the fact that it will be the third Bill that he has got on to the statute book. That is no mean achievement for a Back Bencher.

The problem of glue sniffing relates to all ages, from tots to adults, and even people in middle age. We know that on average 10 per cent. of all children in schools sniff glue. In some schools the percentage is as high as 14 per cent. and rising, so it is a serious matter. Between 1971 and 1981 there were 169 deaths from glue sniffing. In 1981, there were 45 deaths, and in 1983, there were 80 deaths, as the hon. Member for Knowsley, North said, and the figure is still rising.

In between the first sniff of glue or solvent and death all sorts of damage can be caused to the individual. We hope that elimination of such problems will be helped by the Bill. From the staggering around of tots who have sniffed glue to the deaths of people of all ages from glue sniffing, people can suffer the most terrible brain damage. I know about one man whose brain was so damaged by glue sniffing that, on release from prison, he was unable to lead a coherent normal life and was soon back in prison because he committed further offences.

I hope that the Bill will go some way, although I know that it will not go all the way, towards overcoming the problem. I have presented two Bills to the House relating to the problem of glue sniffing and solvent abuse because of my long concern over the matter. I have received four petitions in two years from constituents—two from head teachers, one from a parent and another from a classroom teacher—each with hundreds of signatures and in one case with thousands. They have all pleaded for action. Effectively, the Bill is the first action that the House has been able to take since I received those petitions. The fact that they came from parents, teachers and head teachers is a sign of the particular concern felt by those who are involved in bringing up and educating young people.

I should particularly like to see more glues of the type mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth as being produced in his constituency, which are solvent-free and therefore not open to any abuse. Dunlop has produced such a glue as well, as has EVODE. I hope that all manufacturers will bend their minds to the production of such glues, because it has been shown that it can be done.

Education is part of the answer in the long term. However, there is heavy pressure on the school curriculum, so there is not much room for a great deal to be said about the problem of glue sniffing when teachers have also to deal with drugs and so many other problems. We shall be heavily dependent upon what the Bill can do to lessen the difficulties that glue sniffers and their families are facing.

I welcome the Bill for its limited value in making it a committable offence deliberately to supply toxic substances to young people for inhalation. That brings English law into line with Scottish law, and the supply of toxic substances into line with the peddling of drugs to some extent. The two are closely related.

Motivation is obviously an important factor. That needs to be emphasised, so that shopkeepers and shop assistants do not feel too stressed when faced with the consequences of the Bill. From my knowledge of the matter, I know that those addicted to solvent abuse can buy as much as a litre a day. If a shopkeeper or shop assistant is asked for such a quantity of solvent every day by the same youth, such an individual should become suspicious. The Bill will cover such circumstances. Therefore I welcome it.

It is clear that those who are addicted are keen and sometimes desperate to get a regular supply of solvent, with no questions asked. Therefore, they are not likely to go to the same shop every day, once the Bill comes into force. That, perhaps, is one of its weaknesses. Mothers of addicts have written to me about their children's problems and expressed frustration about the Bill. They feel that there are so many different outlets where addicts can purchase solvents—DIY shops, department stores, local shops, Woolworth, and so on—that they need never arouse suspicion. That is especially true of large shops which have frequent staff changes, tea breaks and shifts and many different cash points.

Much depends on where addicts live, but it seems characteristic of addicts that they are devious in pursuit of their addiction, and we need to bear that point in mind as we examine the Bill on Third Reading. Recently, I received the most harrowing letter that I have ever received, from the mother of an addict. Her son, who has indulged in solvent abuse for three years, is now 18 years old. His name is Daniel. He is a Londoner, but he could come from anywhere. The mother argues that his addiction has helped to cause the death of her husband, the loss of her addicted son's job and the break-up of the family.

The worst part of the story is that the mother cannot get any help from anywhere. Everyone has washed their hands of this lad. While he was still legally a juvenile, the police would take him in for his own protection for being drunk and disorderly on glue, which he had been free to purchase, but which he may be less free to purchase as a result of the Bill. Other support aid agencies no longer take an interest. What is almost worse is that he is a social outcast, and unemployed. His mother thinks that he now sniffs glue almost 24 hours a day.

Does any agency exist that can help, if prompted, in this situation? If it does, I should be glad to know of it, because this Third Reading debate gives an opportunity to draw attention to what the Bill is seeking to do and perhaps to relate other curing agencies to it at the same time. There are many such sad cases that desperately need help.

I support the Bill strongly for its limited value. It will end the terrible, wicked situation of which my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth spoke when he moved the Second Reading and again today, whereby people can go into a shop and buy fish and chips and glue at the same time. That is dreadful and wicked. It is an obvious abuse with which the Bill will deal.

I went recently to a church residential centre where a youth high on glue had cut his wrists and run amok one night. The priest in charge told me that that youth always went to the same place and had no difficulty in obtaining glue. The youth received hospital treatment, and with bandaged wrists returned to the centre a day to two later, when again he ran amok. The priest in charge and otters had the terrifying and difficult job of trying to control, help and save him from himself while he was high on glue. It appeared that he had purchased the glue at the same place, even though it must have been obvious to the shopkeeper that he was in an unstable medical condition. The Bill will ensure that that sort of thing does not recur. I felt agonised for those who were attempting to deal with that youth. The law is weak without the amendment that the Bill will introduce. There is no referral agency that the church residential centre can call in aid.

Surely it is right to punish drug pushers and shopkeepers who knowingly sell glues and solvents to would-be sniffers. The Bill is absolutely right in principle. Some shopkeepers have told me that they expect to face considerable pressure and stress as a result of the Bill when they refuse to sell solvents to regular clients. We should not make too much of this, but the House should face the problem and offer some advice to individual shopkeepers who will be obliged to refuse to sell glues and solvents to those who are already high on them. Shopkeepers must not panic. They should try to lecture the youngster or expect very much self-control on his part. No purpose will be served by being critical of him or by giving him lectures. I think that shopkeepers would be well advised, when faced with that situation, to call in the police or the help of social service agencies. The House must accept that difficulties may arise as a result of the Bill's enactment and should offer coherent advice.

In the Daily Express of 18 April, and in one or two other newspapers, there were reports of the deaths recently of two glue-sniffing brothers who died within four weeks of each other while in council care. Their heartbroken mother, Mrs. Angeline Coyne, who is only 37, said: If it had not been for glue sniffing, my sons would be alive today, yet no one seems to be able to do anything. I have spoken to medical people and there is no doubt that glue sniffing is the thin end of the wedge which leads to general drug abuse. We are aware of the seriousness of drug abuse, and the link between that and glue sniffing is clear. One leads to the other. It seems that glue sniffing is part of the general drug abuse scene. That is emphasised by the report that appeared in the Daily Express and in other newspapers.

The chairman of the Leeds social services committee has claimed that the police are turning a blind eye to the problem, but we must recognise that the police do not have the power that they need without the enactment of the Bill. That is why I welcome it with renewed zest and enthusiasm.

I shall conclude by reading a short extract from the letter of the mother of Danny, who, as I have said, has been a glue sniffer for three years. He is now thought by her to be sniffing glue 24 hours a day on some occasions. He has his known sources of procurement. However, he will be limited, to some extent, in that procurement because, when the Bill is enacted, he will not be able to go to the same sources. The shopkeepers know him. They know that if they serve him glue he will sniff it. Once the Bill is enacted, they will be aware that they will be breaking the law if they sell him solvents. They will be aware also of the penalties for doing so.

Danny's mother wrote: Danny got on the Youth Training Scheme—he loved it. He also went on work experience to one job learning car mechanics for three months and then to another job to do arc welding for three months. The only time he went glue sniffing was at the week-ends and it looked like we were getting back to being a normal family again. I felt sorry for my younger son Peter, because he is a good boy and he has to live with all the misery of his mother and brother.

The last job Danny did closed down at Christmas, and he hasn't even looked for a job since. He is probably on glue 24 hours a day. He takes it to bed with him and starts sniffing the minute he wakes up, so we have rows every morning and night now. I have told him to go out and not come back, but where can he go? We have no other family or friends. All Danny's mates have grown out of glue and ignore him now. I think he is always on his own. Last week the Careers Office 'phoned him and asked him to go and see them, and he came back and said he had an interview for a job in the Cumberland Hotel in two days' time, but he had to wear black shoes and black trousers, which he didn't have because he always wears jeans and trainers. He was so enthusiastic about getting this job as a bus boy. I went out with him and spent my electric bill money on getting him a pair of black shoes and trousers, which cost me nearly £40, but I was hoping he might get the job. He looked really smart and I was just as disappointed as he was, when he didn't get the job. So we are back to square one again.

A few days ago, Danny came home early and locked himself in the bathroom to glue sniff. He started shouting and swearing and saying he wished he was dead. Danny is 18. The letter continues: He was sick of this life, and me, and this house, and his brother. I tried to speak calmly to him. I was scared he might try and kill himself, when my younger son came in and tried to break the bathroom door down. I 'phoned Carter Street Police Station and asked them if there were any Police passing could they call here, because my son was a glue sniffer and he had locked himself in the bathroom and my other son was trying to break the door down trying to get him out. (No wonder nobody talks to us.) Five minutes later two Officers called and they persuaded him to come out. One of the Officers took him into his bedroom to have a talk and I helped the other to find the tin of glue. He said he would take it away. They said its a shame to see a young boy in such a state, there are so many kids on glue or drugs these days, but Danny wasn't breaking the law, its O.K. to sniff glue. They admired all his boxing trophies in the front room and asked him if he was still boxing. He said 'No', and they went. They also told me to 'phone up anytime we needed help. The next day Danny was back on glue. When I think that there are so many places for drug addicts so much help also for alcoholics and even gamblers, but people don't realise that glue is dangerous. It's only if it is in your own family do you find out all the misery and upset it can cause. We are not a family any more.

It is so easy to buy solvents. This is where the Bill will help. Danny's mother adds: All the DIY shops must know when a boy goes in each day to buy glue what he wants it for? Do they care? Even Woolworths sell it. It is too easy for any child to get started and end up hooked on it, just like a drug, that can cause so much heart break for a victim and his family who have to live through all this with him. We are watching him kill himself with a slow poison.

Please do something before it is too late for my son. I don't want him to be just a memory. The Bill will help a little.

10.49 am
Mr. Ted Garrett (Wallsend)

The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) and I represent neighbouring constituencies. We are both well aware of the scale of the problem in the north-east, especially in the Tyne and Wear area, and we are saddened and concerned about the number of our constituents who have lost children as a result of the problem.

Oddly enough, I first raised the matter some five years ago, and it was referred to the Minister for Consumer Affairs to ascertain whether the chemical industry in particular could make a product with adhesive qualities without being dangerous. I regret that after much research the chemical industry cannnot find the right product and the adhesive manufacturers, who in the main purchase from the large chemical companies, have also admitted defeat. Therefore, I am somewhat heartened to learn that a firm on Tyneside, Plus Products, may be moving towards some solution, or partial solution, of the problem, but it would be foolish to be too optimistic, given the scale of the problem.

I must disagree with the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), because the Northumbria and Durham police have involved themselves considerably in this matter. In my constituency the police, in co-operation with councillors, have organised a series of public meetings and have shown the horror films on this subject. They have had good support from teachers, social workers and many youth organisations in the area, but regrettably, the problem continues on the same scale.

In last night's edition of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle there was a report of a public meeting at Consett which was attended by over 400 people who went to hear the experts speak on the dangers of various drugs. A mother, who is not named, told the horror story of her son who is being paralysed as a result of drug abuse. I shall not give details of the particular method that he used because I do not want it to receive too much publicity.

I also want to pay tribute to the provincial press, particularly The Journal and the Evening Chronicle, for their long, sustained and responsible campaign to highlight the scale of the problem. It is noteworthy that in this article Detective Inspector Harvey Harrison of the Durham drugs squad highlights the responsibility of parents in analysing their children's behaviour. He highlights some simple points, which it does not take an expert to observe. He says that parents should look for glazed eyes or slurred speech, tinfoil used for the smoking of heroin, minute scales used for weighing drugs, a general lack of interest in appearance and dress and, above all, whether a normal healthy child has a lack of interest in the opposite sex. Clearly, those basic symptoms should be readily observed.

I should like to see such matters raised more publicly. A long campaign is required. The problem will not go away. I disagree somewhat with my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) when he says that the drug problem is superseding that of solvent abuse. The drug problem is increasing in the United Kingdom and it is causing the Minister much concern. I congratulate the Minister on his visit to America. He used valuable time during his Easter recess, and he did so wisely, obtaining good, responsible publicity thereafter. The BBC helped the Minister to highlight the problem that could arise in Britain, and the House should commend the Minister and his advisers for that initiative.

I concur with the views of the hon. Member for Tynemouth on Newcastle university's academic staff. They have played a prominent part and have been patient and kind and considerate to me, in particular, when I have asked for information.

This is a sombre subject and I cannot envisage any magical solution to the problem. I hope that the Government will continue to publicise the use and abuse of drugs as they have been doing in recent leaflets. I should also like to see another campaign, perhaps in a region such as the north-east, on the narrow subject of solvent abuse. If we can do that, despite the cost, we may be able to bring the question responsibly to the fore.

I have time to make only a short speech and I hope the Minister and other hon. Members will forgive me if I have to leave shortly, but I shall be back soon. The hon. Member for Tynemouth's Bill will receive my support and the wholehearted support of the people in the northern region. It is as far as we can go, bearing in mind the limit of our knowledge on the subject. Therefore, I hope that the House will give the Bill its Third Reading today and that it will have a successful passage in another place.

10.57 am
Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

I speak from a completely different viewpoint from that of every other hon. Member who has spoken so far today. In the first place, let me disclose my financial and personal interests on the Bill. I am a small shopkeeper and a member of several chambers of trade and commerce. I have an honorary role looking after the interests of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents — a host of small shopkeepers. I cannot but support the Bill because its principle is so good, even though it will be almost impossible to implement in practice.

Every hon. Member who has spoken so far has said, "Yes, but". They have all said that the Bill is a good idea, but have asked whether it will work. Some of the quotes that I have jotted down this morning include, "No one knows how many take part in glue sniffing," "the official list is not complete," and "it is a bit hard on the shopkeeper because he may be in court as a result of an incomplete list."

I was amazed to find that my own shops sold many of the substances listed. My business deals with drawing office and art materials. It had never occurred to me that a glue sniffer would come in to one of my shops, but I was told only yesterday that a young man, bearing all the signs of being, as my staff had been advised, a glue sniffer, had come in the previous week to purchase a solvent. It was a well-known proprietary brand of gum which we all use for pasting up our election literature. It must be able to be applied and removed or moved once in place. I suspect that there are many more adhesives than my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) knows about. There are low tack, high tack and many other degrees of stickiness.

The girls in the shop, bright intelligent young ladies, had a quick conflab and agreed not to supply that young man—quite rightly. Unfortunately, it turned out that he was over 18 and the son of a local architect purchasing the glue for a respectable practice. We have lost that customer for ever and the girls have lost their commission. I do not criticise those girls, because they were right to act as they did, and I congratulate them, but that is a perfect example of how an excellently intentioned legal sledgehammer may miss the nut at which it is aimed.

How long will we go on persecuting the small shopkeeper simply because hon. Members feel that what the House is doing may improve things? I do not deny that the Bill should make matters marginally better, but by only a jolly small margin.

Another comment was that there is no magical solution. Of course there is not. The retail trade welcomes and supports the guidelines and principles of the Bill, but we already have voluntary guidelines, which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security said some months ago in the House were working reasonably well. I do not doubt that the principle is good, but I doubt the practice. I suspect that the measure may fill the courts with small shopkeepers, but I doubt whether it will stop many round-the-corner glue sniffers.

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) that appearance does not matter a pennyworth in terms of what people will do with solvents. There are so many solvents that it cannot be fair to put this legislation on the statute book, although my hon. Friend the Minister has inserted a clause which provides for vendors who have acted reasonably and responsibly.

A corner newsagent is busy in the early hours of the morning and evening sending out newspapers. The staff will be good people and, probably, part of the family or part-timers. How can they be expected to tell that a person is under 18? Can any hon. Member genuinely tell the age of a boy or girl? A 14-year-old who was 6ft 2in came to see me recently. I knew that, but no shopkeeper could possibly have known that. I suspect that when cases do come to court, the person alleged to have bought the solvent on behalf of the defendant will turn out not to be the buyer, because glue sniffing has almost become a party sport. That sounds horrible, but sniffing tends to be done in groups. The lad or girl who is sent to buy will look 18.

The shopkeeper must first judge a buyer's age, but that person may be buying balsa wood cement for an aircraft kit. Which 10-year-old has not done that, let alone a 17-year-old? The shopkeeper has not made the product that he sells, but has bought it in good faith from the manufacturer. He is no chemist. He may be an expert in art, newsagency or pharmaceutical matters, but these substances are now available in almost every chemist's shop, now that chemists' shops are retail shops, as are garages these days.

We are drawing a net with extremely large holes. I suspect that we shall catch some rather small fish, which will probably not be worth the cost of the net in the first place. That may be an extreme view. Although no hon. Member will vote against the Bill, the measure relies on the shopkeeper to make a judgment which is both onerous and unrealistic, especially regarding age.

Many young people look older than they are, yet the seller must decide on their age. How many retailers of cigarettes, for example, are prosecuted for selling to an under-age buyer? The same applies to obscene publications. It is hard on the shopkeeper if he must make a snap judgment and someone else may be judge and jury in his case at court.

The variety of solvents is legion. I had to write their names down because they mean nothing to me. They include toluene, hexane, acetone, amyl, acetate and benzine. Many of those items are for the home. Ladies need butane refills for the things that they use to curl their hair, and they use hair lacquer sprays. Can we expect a retailer to divine whether a normal-looking person —99.99 per cent. of the time the person will look perfectly ordinary and normal—is under a certain age and that having obtained a butane refill for mother's curling tongs will give it not to mother but to someone else?

We must not forget that most small shopkeepers rely on repeat trade. There are two sides to that. If a genuine customer, or his son or daughter, is refused service, he will not return to the shop. That is fair enough, but not from the shopkeeper's point of view. The ordinary small shopkeeper is probably the most respectable person in society. I say that in full knowledge of the fact that there are only five shopkeepers in Parliament and many more attorneys, accountants, schoolteachers and other folk. A small shopkeeper who finds himself in court will suffer from being taken to court. However, that is nothing to his further suffering, even if he is found innocent, as he almost certainly will be, because the burden of proof under the Bill is hard on the prosecution. He will feel the social stigma of being taken to court. If it is a small newsagent, who will mind the shop while he is in court? Will the person who minds the shop be as vigilant as the shopkeeper in watching to whom he sells the goods? If a shopkeeper misjudges the circumstances, he could literally find himself in gaol, not for criminal intent, but for a misjudgment. That is inequitable.

On Second Reading the Minister congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), as I do, on the narrowness of the Bill, in that it is intended to get at the pusher. The more that I have considered the Bill since volunteering to serve on the Committee on the Bill and following its passage, the less sure I am that we shall catch pushers. Indeed, what would we do with an under18-year-old pusher if we caught one? Will the result be as sad as that of the case mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, in which the user merely got the supply from elsewhere? Supplies are readily available. The only answer is for the substance on the market not to be a substance that can be used. That will involve research and patents. Moreover, glues and solvents are cheap and necessary in every sector of our life. I do not see that solution arriving in the short term.

When the Second Reading of the Bill was announced, the headline of the Evening Chronicle in the north-east, which is not a paper I normally read, stated: Police set to Pounce on Evil Dealers — M.P. Tells Commons. Even bigger headlines referred to "Corner-shop Killers". One may say that that is over the top. The Minister may say that the Bill is loose and narrow and not intended to catch the good shopkeeper, but I wonder whether that will be the case. Following that heady headline, the editorial referred to corner shop owners who sold glue-sniffing kits to children as being evil. The editorial states that my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth stunned Parliament—I suspect that the House was as crowded as it is—today with a catalogue of horrors.

The Daily Express questioned whether the proposed punishment was tough enough. The press are selective in pursuing a campaign for a perfectly good principle. None of us could deny that. However, we cannot let our national newspapers see in every corner shop a wicked man intent on making a fortune from selling a small tube of glue, probably at the recommended retail price or 2p off. Thank heaven there is no incentive for corner shop retailers to sell these products to a person who will misuse them. Moreover, the product is generally sold industrially in vast quantities; indeed, hon. Members have referred to tons of glue.

One of the problems is the fact that there are so many types of glue. I have about 18 different types of adhesive in my business, which are used for everything from modelling, to mending bits and pieces, to mounting paper. When people think of glue, they forget that fact. We know that it is extended to hair sprays and butane refills. Who knows to what else it will be extended? I suspect that every office in this building has something which could be sniffed. I understand that even matches can be used in some circumstances.

Without wishing to labour the point or detain the House, I need an assurance from the Minister that the intent of the legislation is to bring down the weight of the law only on those who would make it their business to push intoxicating substances on people under the age of 18, and that it is not intended, and may not become, a charter to victimise small shopkeepers. I know that that is the intention of the House, but we are a long way from, for example, the shopkeeper who has got up the nose of the local environmental health inspector or one from the local trading standards office. It is not difficult to make a case with such blanket legislation.

The Bill has caused great anxiety among small shopkeepers. We shopkeepers feel somewhat naked. We are aware of all the Acts and restrictions, and we try to obey them. I do not suppose that any small shopkeeper, who stands to lose his business only too easily in these days of harsh competition, wishes to promote drug pushing or the awful abuse about which we have heard. I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth that, although I accept the excellent principle of the Bill, I believe that in practice more shopkeepers than pushers will end up in court.

11.10 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretay of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

Three months ago, during the Second Reading debate, the Bill was unanimously and rightly supported by the House. The Bill had a short and highly sucessful Committee stage, and has now returned to the Floor of the House. As I suppose is inevitable, several points have been raised now which show less than fullhearted support for the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) spoke with his usual eloquence and sincerity, and the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) also raised one or two points of detail. The hon. Gentleman said in Committee: The fact that no one wants to table amendments to it and that no organisation outside the House with a knowledge of, interest in or experience of the Bill whom I have approached over the last weeks has any caveats or qualifications to make about the Bill is again a tribute to the sense of the hon. Member for Tynemouth. Since then the hon. Gentleman has found a few caveats, and I shall be happy to reply to them on the basis that they were sensibly advanced and not intended as an exercise in nit-picking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) took an interest in glue sniffing for many months before he was fortunate enough to secure first place in the ballot for private Member's Bills. This enabled him to make this most useful change in the law, and I congratulate him on the skill and moderation with which he has piloted the Bill through the House, and wish it every success in the other place. The care with which my hon. Friend monitors the problem in the north was apparent from the examples that he gave today. I also wish to associate with that observation the speech of the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett), who is the epitome of gentlemanliness and courtesy in the House. I thank him especially for what he said about my efforts to ensure that there is responsible information and comment on these profoundly difficult related social problems of glue sniffing and drug abuse.

Several hon. Members have said that glue sniffing has left the headlines in recent months, but there is no evidence to suggest that glue sniffing is less of a problem now than when it featured largely in the headlines. Although the focus of attention has inevitably shifted towards other drugs, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Services who is responsible for the matter, and myself—I am responsible for the law and order aspects—remain especially troubled by glue sniffing and most anxious that the efforts being made by communities to resist glue sniffing should continue. The effort must not be left to the Government alone.

It was most timely, although a tragic occurrence which one would wish had not happened, that my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth was able to tell the House of a coroner's inquest at Leeds this week. Tragically, two brothers aged under 16, in unrelated incidents, probably died from solvent abuse. It certainly appears that both of them were solvent abusers. The problem has not gone away.

On Second Reading I gave the House some details of the number of deaths that can be attributed to solvent abuse. I mentioned the steep increase in recent years, from 29 deaths in 1980, to 45 in 1981, 60 in 1982 and 80 in 1983. I said then that, on the figures available for 1984, it appeared that there might be a reduction, which would be welcome, but I said that all the statistics had not been analysed. It now appears that the figures for 1984 will he broadly similar to those for 1983. That has two lessons for us. First, we might draw some hope from the fact that deaths did not increase in 1984 as they did in the years leading up to 1983. Secondly, it might suggest that glue sniffing is reaching its peak, although one would not wish to draw too many conclusions from one year's statistics.

The fact that nearly 80 youngsters may have died in 1984 from the effects of glue sniffing is not a matter about which any of us can be complacent. It is 80 youngsters too many, and it strengthens the point that I made earlier, which was echoed by many hon. Members, that we must not let the problem of glue sniffing slip out of our minds.

No one makes large claims for the Bill. The hon. Member for Knowsley, North recognises the narrow compass of the Bill, and said in Committee: What it does is simply to plug a loophole that none of us realised existed, because none of us thought that there were such evil people around who would deliberately and premeditatively supply so-called glue-sniffing kits to vulnerable young people." —[Official Report, Standing Committee C; 30 January 1985, c. 4.] It is highly relevant to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North that he should he aware of the dilemma caused to my hon. Friends the Members for Tynemouth and for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), who have taken such a consistent interest in the matter, and indeed to the Government, when the Scottish shopkeepers' case was decided at the end of 1983. Two Glasgow shopkeepers had cynically set out to corrupt children by selling them so-called glue-sniffing kits—glue and paper bags to put over their noses while they were sniffing—in return for receiving stolen goods from those children. They had plainly set out to run a Scottish version of Fagin's den, using glue as the bait with which to attract children. They had stored large quantities of glue in the basement of their shop for that purpose.

Rightly, it was made apparent in the Scottish courts that such activities were not acceptable and were a breach of the criminal law, and those men were sentenced to long periods of imprisonment. Then came the problem. As custodian of the criminal law of England and Wales, the Home Office was obliged to consider the matter, and it discovered that there was no equivalent provision to the Scottish common law which would have permitted those two shopkeepers to be brought before the English courts had they committed the offence in Tynemouth, Bideford, Knowsley, Putney or Ealing. If it had been discovered some months later that an unscrupulous shopkeeper in Ealing, Putney or Tynemouth thought that this seemed a good way of making money, and knew that he could not be prosecuted, the Government and the House would have been condemned by the public for having allowed the loophole to remain open.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Although I agree with the hon. Gentleman, will he remind me about one matter, because I have forgotten? I believe that there was a case in England involving a former policeman. He was convicted of selling glue-sniffing kits to young people. Under what law was he prosecuted and convicted?

Mr. Mellor

We have very few documented cases in England, and they did not result in any penalties being imposed. I believe that the individual referred to by the hon. Gentleman was brought before the court on matters which did not allow the court to impose any substantive penalty. The attraction of my hon. Friend's Bill is that it allows the imposition of a large fine and six months' imprisonment. Whether or not the hon. Member for Knowsley, North is right when he suggests that similar cases have come before the courts in England, our clear advice is that there is no crime known in the English criminal calendar which precisely fits the terms under which the Scottish shopkeepers were prosecuted and sent to prison for a significant period. Obviously, I cannot be expected to know of every case settled in the English criminal courts. It would be of considerable assistance if the hon. Member for Knowsley, North would write to me about the case that he has in mind.

In passing my hon. Friend's Bill, the House is doing the very minimum that could have been expected in the wake of the Scottish case. Not to have acted would have exposed us to real criticism, but now we come to the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North. Once we start to impose criminal sanctions on what hitherto has not been criminal, that cannot always be all gain. Whether an offence has been committed is never at the margins the easiest issue to unravel. I can well understand the apprehensions of shopkeepers, especially in the light of some over-coloured and rather tendentious press comments about the implications of the Bill.

The question put to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North can be answered in the terms that he wants to hear. This is a long-stop Bill designed to deal with those who knowingly or recklessly become involved in behaviour akin to that of the Scottish shopkeepers. It cannot be used to penalise shopkeepers who make an honest mistake and in good faith sell a substance which is capable of being used to cause intoxication to a youngster who, unbeknown to the shopkeeper, subsequently abuses it. I have to say in categorical terms that no shopkeeper who acts in good faith is placed in any jeopardy as a result of the Bill.

Mr. Greenway

This is very important. Will the Home Office issue guidelines about possible symptoms in the regular glue sniffer which might help shopkeepers? They need some sort of guidance.

Mr. Mellor

I agree, and I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that that has been done already.

Mr. Greenway

Can it be done again?

Mr. Mellor

I do not know whether it needs to be redone. The information is available. What is important is that shopkeepers who require guidance should know that that guidance is available and should set out to obtain it. I am sure that the various organisations represented by my hon. Friend will play their part in disseminating this information.

As the hon. Member for Knowsley, North knows, we have been pursuing a range of policies to try to ensure that the dangers of glue sniffing are brought to the attention of parents and children by the provision of a leaflet which can be made available. I can tell the hon. Member for Wallsend that about 500,000 copies of the Health Education Council leaflet have been produced. I shall arrange for some to be sent to the hon. Gentleman. Because we attach importance to local counselling and local efforts, one panel of the leaflet has been left blank so that it can be overprinted by local organisations to give details of local counselling groups or individuals who may be contacted. We are extremely gratified to know that 500,000 copies have been distributed, because that is a major achievement.

A video has been produced by the Central Office of Information. It is entitled "Illusions" and is devoted to glue sniffing. In fact, it has won a prize. It is available to be borrowed and it has been borrowed on about 2,000 occasions for the use mainly of professional people, teachers, youth workers, parents and the like who wish to become acquainted with the problem. A number have also been sold. Again, if anyone wishes to make use of that film, it is available. It is regarded as one of the best information films available, and that is why it won the prize that it did. Its success has encouraged us to ask the same people to produce a similar film to help people who are trying to combat the wider implications of drug abuse in their communities.

Mr. Garrett

I have seen the film to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and it is of exceptionally good quality. However, it underplays a very important source of these solvents, which is from industry. There is a lot of petty pilfering of solvents that are used in industry, especially in heavy industry, and it is very difficult to apprehend the pushers. More publicity in this direction would be extremely useful, not necessarily to shopkeepers, but to employers, trade unions and anyone caught taking the stuff away and passing it on to young people.

Mr. Mellor

That is very helpful.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North that the Government are well aware of how easy it is to rush into action which proves in the longer term to have been misguided. That is why we took so much trouble, when trying to work out the appropriate steps to be taken, to consult interested organisations. In January 1983 we issued two circulars. The first one was to retailing organisations asking for their assistance in devising a set of guidelines to shopkeepers to help them restrict the sale of solvents to people who should not have them and giving advice on where these products could be located and the range of products that could be abused. The second circular was sent to a wide range of community groups, magistrates' associations and groups involved in the criminal justice system generally to inquire what intervention from the criminal law would be helpful.

I deal with the latter point first because it has turned out to be the least controversial. The almost unanimous opinion of the several dozen groups contacted on the criminal law point was that it would be wrong to make the sale of solvents to anyone under 16 a criminal offence. It would have caused tremendous problems to retailers, and we have never contemplated doing that. We were also advised that glue sniffing should not be made a criminal offence. We want to help children who sniff glue, not punish them. We do not want to drive the problem further under ground by making it a criminal offence, which might even add to its attractions for some youngsters.

The only intervention in the criminal law that we have been minded to make is the limited intervention which, with his customary good sense, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth has proposed. Rightly, my hon. Friend is making a virtue of the fact that this is such a limited intervention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North asked for guidance to be given to shopkeepers. That guidance has now been issued. However, guidance is never a once-and-for-all process. If further points should be included and supplementary guidance is required, those are matters about which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Services will want to hear.

I think that the guidance is common sense on this crucial point of how a shop assistant doing his or her best for the business and for the community might identify a potential glue sniffer. I shall read out five or six paragraphs from the guidance to show what common sense it is, because the warning to shopkeepers is cast in these terms: Watch out for any or all of the following: groups of teenagers standing around counters or areas where glue or other solvent-based products are normally displayed.

Frequent purchase of solvent-based products and aerosols by the same individuals.

Traces or smell of glue or solvents on the customer's clothes or breath.

A drowsy, vacant or glazed expression in the eyes.

Unsteadiness, slurred speech or other signs similar to drunkenness.

Red eyes, heightened colour and reddening spots around the mouth and nose.

Uncontrolled or excessive giggling and rowdy silly behaviour. On Second Reading I said that perhaps too many shop assistants should not come into Prime Minister's Question Time on that basis. Purchase of plastic bags at the same time as glue or other solvent-based products.

Obvious absence by a child from school. Those are common-sense points. One is not asking the impossible of shopkeepers, although one recognises the difficulties of their job.

I believe, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North will accept, that it would be wrong, faced with the problem of glue sniffing, which has brought misery to thousands of families and caused the death of perhaps as many as 80 youngsters in the past three months, and 80 in the previous 12 months, to suggest that shopkeepers should be under no obligation to the community to do their best to restrict sales where it is plain that abuse will or may take place. Most socially conscious shopkeepers would not want to be completely free of any moral obligation.

We are trying to keep the criminal law from the outer edges of extreme and unpleasant behaviour, but to put out common-sense, practical guidelines which have been negotiated and hammered out with the retailing organisations so that any prudent shopkeeper can train his staff or himself. The organisations which represent shopkeepers will make them aware of that. That enhances the reputation of the shopkeeper as a socially responsible person.

I am sure that we are not asking shopkeepers to do difficult things. Equally, it would be wrong for us not to recognise that there are youngsters who are plainly sniffing glue. If we could make it more difficult for them to get the substance, even if we will not prevent the problem, we shall be taking a step in the right direction.

I should like my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North to reflect upon what I am saying. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security will be more than willing to hear from hire if he feels, in the light of what I have said, that there is more that we could or should do to assist the responsible shopkeeper to run his business responsibly.

We, as Members of Parliament, know only too well that the world is full of some thoroughly unreasonable people. Many of them write letters to us in red, black and blue ink, heavily underlined and so on, but no one—

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

They buy the ink from your hon. Friend's shop.

Mr. Mellor

Yes—ink which they no doubt buy from the shop of my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North.

If a shopkeeper or his assistant is genuinely troubled about a young man purchasing a potentially abusable substance and refuses to sell the item, I should have thought that it was outrageous for his parents to hold that against the shopkeeper. I spend much of my time in the Home Office trying to find ways to persuade people to behave sensibly and understandably in relation to a wide range of matters which go on in the community and in which they could intervene and help. It is sad to me and to all of us that many people hear noises of assaults or criminal acts and do nothing about them. If someone telephones the police and makes an honest mistake about a criminal action, it would be awful if the neighbour involved said, "I was just kicking the cat. You obviously thought that I was being murdered and rang the police." That is a thoroughly objectionable approach. It is equally objectionable—

Mr. Greenway

He must not kick cats.

Mr. Mellor

Of course, I am against kicking cats, but we have a number of cases where people have become aggrieved over what they regard as interference by neighbours who are merely doing their best. If people are to take a responsible attitude towards crime, they must report suspicions to the police. If those suspicions turn out to be wrong, people must understand that that is the only way that people can show good neighbourliness in their communities. The same is true here. If a shopkeeper, acting in good faith, restricts the sale to a youngster, for the parent not to recognise the pressure on the shopkeeper and to hold it against him would seem to be thoroughly irresponsible and unreasonable. I hope that shopkeepers will recognise that even if they lose one customer they will gain much more respect in the community by being ready and willing to stand up in that way.

Mr. Greenway

I know that my hon. Friend is a cat lover. On the point of the guidelines, which are so important, he will know that not all shopkeepers are as assiduous as our hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller). Will the onus be upon them to obtain the guidelines, or will they be sent to them?

Mr. Mellor

The guidelines have already been distributed. I hope that most shopkeepers have them, but it is impossible to send the guidelines, unasked for, to every shop. One of the arrangements entered into with the retailing organisations was that they would participate in the distribution. If my hon. Friend knows of shops which do not have them, part of the common-sense role, which I am aware he plays in his community as a Member of Parliament, is to see that they are available. No doubt Members, as a result of the debate, can put in their local papers the fact that guidelines are available and advise shopkeepers to write for them.

Most of the guidelines are simple, common-sense and straightforward things about which most sensible folk following the glue-sniffing problem will know. The guidelines are merely an attempt to assist those who wish to structure their staff training. We see that as a crucial part of our effort.

The hon. Member for Knowsley, North can never resist a degree of partisanship and, of course, today was no exception. Having made, on the whole, a sensible speech, he sought to blame the Government for glue sniffing by saying that we had created the conditions within which glue sniffing could flourish. That suggestion is wide of the mark. Glue sniffing began in the United States in the 1950s. It came to Scotland in the early 1970s. It has been in England and Wales since the middle and late 1970s. The fact that it has grown in intensity causes us all anxiety, but to reduce the argument to one of narrow partisanship is not helpful and falls below the standards to which I am sure he normally aspires.

The hon. Gentleman's argument was unfair in relation to his area of Merseyside because in so far as the social conditions in Merseyside facilitate glue sniffing by youngsters, I do not know that it is just this Government who need to examine their conscience. What about those who locally have considerable influence over the attractiveness of the region to employment and who have controlled, without exception, local government at metropolitan county and borough level for 20 years or more? Are they to be free of the taint of having assisted glue sniffing to flourish if, as the hon. Gentleman asserts, it is the result of economic decline? I think not. I should have thought that that was the kind of boomerang argument which strikes the hon. Gentleman as firmly on his forehead as it does me on mine.

This has been a helpful debate. I am grateful to those who have sought reassurance, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North. It is crucial that there should be no-misunderstanding about the Bill. It is an important Bill, even though it is limited. It is not intended to make the problems suffered by small shopkeepers any worse. No responsible shopkeeper has anything to fear from the Bill. Those who do are those who, for their own financial reward, trade cynically on the weakness of children. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North will carry back that message to the small shopkeepers whom he represents.

11.38 am
Mr. Trotter

With the leave of the House, I shall deal briefly with some of the points that have been raised.

I do not accept that drugs have taken over from glue sniffing as a problem. They are an additional problem. The glue sniffing problem will be with us for some time. To deal with it we must have a continuing campaign by Government, local authorities, industry and, as the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) said, the media. The hon. Gentleman referred to the efforts of the police on Tyneside, and I wholly support what he said. They are playing a very constructive role in the front line of the campaign because they come across the incidents day by day as they occur on the streets.

There has been reference to the problem of supplies of glue from industry. Glue is used not only in mechanical industries but also in the building industry, and much of it is stolen and used by glue sniffers. I draw the attention of builders to the need to keep under safe control the large stocks of glue that they use in woodworking, in particular.

I should like particularly to dispel the worry of my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) that the ordinary shopkeeper will be at risk as a result of the Bill. It is perfectly understandable that such a view should be put forward. I would not have wished to introduce a Bill which would penalise in any way the ordinary shopkeeper, whether on a corner site or anywhere else. I do not believe that any honest mistake made in good faith will lead to a prosecution.

I have found the attitude of my local Northumbria police very sensible. I suggest that chambers of trade or commerce in every part of the country, if they are still worried after what the Minister and I have said on the subject, should talk to their local police forces. I do not believe that they will find any intention by the police to harass or attack the ordinary honest shopkeeper.

If it had not been for the prosecutions that were brought in Scotland, many of us would have thought it beyond belief that there were people who deliberately set out to make profits from selling glue to young people to be sniffed on a large scale. However, there are such people. People are in gaol in Scotland for having done it. I have no doubt that there is a small number of such people in other parts of Britain.

I referred earlier to the information given to me on Tyneside that it has been possible to be supplied with fish and chips and glue or hot dogs and glue. That is not the practice of an honourable trader. It is a disgraceful activity, and I do not believe for a moment that the people that my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North represents could be included in that category.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

If the hon. Member has been given information that retailers, carrying out an otherwise lawful business, are supplying children with glue along with hamburgers or fish and chips, what did he do about it? It is a very serious and important allegation. Were those retailers identified? Was the information followed up? If they were identified, what happened?

Mr. Trotter

I was advised of it by the authorities themselves, who are powerless to deal with if for the reasons that have been debated now for three months. There is no law in Britain—apart from the odd case of the policeman to which the hon. Gentleman referred—under which prosecutions can be brought.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Surely a great deal could have been done. It would have been possible to publicise the names of the retailers concerned. That kind of publicity, in a decent law-abiding community, would itself be a deterrent. The retailers could have been reported to their own professional trade associations. There are clearly other legal sanctions that could be taken against such people. I believe that someone was found to be supplying glue sniffing kits and was prosecuted under the procedures dealing with breaches of the peace. I am sure that in those cases, with enough will-power and ingenuity, action could have been taken.

Mr. Trotter

I understand that one of the traders concerned operated from a tricycle. I very much doubt whether he was a member of any trade body.

There are at present no laws to deal with the problem. The whole aim of the Bill is to close this loophole. I anticipate that when the Bill becomes law the police will visit those who are regularly supplying the substances and knowing what they are doing. They will be warned that if they do not desist they will be prosecuted. I believe that that will stop the trade. If, however, they continue with the practice after they have been warned, they will be prosecuted and they will go to gaol, as happened in Scotland.

Those who were prosecuted and gaoled under the Scottish law had been warned at a time when it was thought that the law also did not apply in Scotland. They took no notice of the warning. When told that they were carrying out anti-social, dangerous and wicked behaviour, they said, "We have not broken the law and there is nothing you can do." They continued to trade, but when it was found that under Scottish law an offence had in fact been committed, they were prosecuted and gaoled.

I believe that the police will not abuse the statute. They will warn those who are regularly, recklessly and deliberately supplying poison. If those people do not desist, they will be prosecuted and gaoled. The ordinary corner shopkeeper has nothing to fear from this necessary measure.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.