HL Deb 11 May 1983 vol 442 cc473-80

3.22 p.m.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It is a very short Bill—it is a Bill of three clauses, two of which are fairly formal—but its importance is not to be judged by its size. There has been growing concern in Scotland (and, indeed in England, if the facts be known) about the behaviour of children concerning solvent abuse. It causes harm to the children, distress to the parents and, indeed, from the point of view of passers by or even neighbours, a sense of danger.

The fact that we have a Bill today is a recognition of the work done over ten years by a man who died a year ago, the late James Dempsey, Member of Parliament for Coatbridge and Airdrie. I think he first raised this subject in the House of Commons in 1968, arising out of a tragedy that happened in his own area. Since that time more and more people have shared his concern, and I know that in 1981 the Scottish Office was moved to make inquiries into what could be done, and into the incidence of the practice. Just last year it commissioned a special report from two people in Edinburgh University about the whole subject. We have not had that report yet, but the Secretary of State was sufficiently concerned to announce on 16th January last year that from a preliminary report he felt he should introduce legislation along the lines of this Bill.

It was Mr. David Marshall, member of Parliament for Shettlestone, Glasgow, who anticipated that in a Ten-Minute Rule Bill which was accepted by the House, received its Second Reading and had a full Committee stage and a full Report stage and Third Reading. Now, with the support of all parties in the House, this Bill arrives on our doorstep today. May I say that I am grateful to Mr. Marshall for his initiative. I am also grateful to the Scottish Office and to the Secretary of State for lending their unqualified support. I am particularly grateful to the Lord Advocate and the Crown Office for the fact that it has been very well drafted indeed.

I am not going to explain the facts; I think everyone knows the problem. What has worried people is what could be done about it. We do not want to create for children a new offence, and the Bill does not do that; but it is obvious that the children need care and guidance—some kind of care and attention—and the parents, too. When it comes down to it, eventually there is a parental responsibility which parents must accept and share with others in curing this difficult condition for their children.

I have to apologise that it is purely a Scottish Bill, although it is also an English problem. The reason is that in Scotland in 1968—and I am not going to tell your Lordships who was Secretary of State at that time—we dispensed with the juvenile courts and instituted a system of children's hearings at which, on the decision of a reporter (who generally tends to be a person with legal qualifications), children in need of care are brought before a panel of lay people; and in Scotland these lay people are drawn from all sections of the community. The parents are there; the child is there; the police are not there. There is no paraphernalia of a court about it. It is very informal, and I am glad to say that over ten years the panels have built up a very good reputation for dealing sympathetically and firmly with cases like this.

Section 32 of the Act says: A child may be in need of compulsory measures of care … if any of the conditions mentioned in the next following subsection is satisfied with respect to him …

  1. "(a) he is beyond the control of his parent; or
  2. (b) through lack of parental care he … is exposed to moral danger; or
  3. (c) the lack of care".
The child is at risk. Other conditions cover truancy from school or committing an offence. "Care" is defined, as it will be for this Bill, too, as including protection, control, guidance and treatment. In that informal atmosphere the child is central to the hearing, but the parents are there. The panel comes to a decision on what should be done.

Unfortunately, that list of grounds for a reference to the reporter and, through the reporter, to the children's panel does not include anything that would deal with solvent abuse. I think the draftsmen are to be congratulated on how they have done it. They have added another ground for bringing a child before the reporter and the panel, which is that the child has misused "a volatile substance" (and that phrase "volatile substance" has been deliberately chosen because some of the substances used by children are not necessarily solvents, and it will cover that) by, deliberately inhaling, other than for medicinal purposes, that substance's vapour"; because the child might inhale a spray for some condition such as asthma, or may accidentally inhale, or it may be a "one-off' and never happen again.

I think we are fortunate that we have this system in Scotland. It enables us to take this action, and it is the first recognition of solvent abuse to appear in a statute. It is not the end of the road. It is only the beginning of the road. I know that the Secretary of State for Scotland is awaiting further reports from the people whom he has commissioned to draw up reports as to what else can be done.

There are many people who say that we should have inserted a list of all the substances in an Act of Parliament. That is almost impossible to do, because there are so many substances. It is not just glue sniffing. Very often, it is not glue at all. It may be butane gas or something else from an aerosol. There are all kinds of sprays. Children do not know the danger. They are sometimes attracted to the substances by being goaded into it by others. These substances are not necessarily addictive, but they can cause harm and the distress to parents is enormous.

There was a fatal accident inquiry in Scotland just the other week. It was a very tragic case, indeed, of a brilliant child who died as a result of this practice. I think that in 1981 there were 33 deaths throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, and in Scotland there were 14. But the Chief Constable of Glasgow reported over 1,700 cases and 11 deaths. There is concern in Strathclyde, Glasgow and the Grampian area, and action is being taken there, with the financial support of the Scottish Office. At the moment, it is all a question of being voluntary and there is a clinic in Glasgow. But there are cases where authority is required, so that a child can be taken with his parents before a panel and a decision can be made as to treatment. It may well be that the reporter himself will deal with the case and the child may never have to go to a panel. But it may have to do so, and the panel can then decide what should be done. The whole matter is handled privately and quietly, but firmly, and I am sure that this is the best way to make a start.

As I said, there are so many substances and, if you put into the Bill a list of what a child can or cannot buy, it could be used by those who want to try these substances. So that is not the way out. The other method is to deal with the person who is supplying. I am glad to say that, in many cities and elsewhere, retailers are deliberately applying strict controls and not selling to children unless they are accompanied by parents. They also want to be assured that such substances will not be used for inhalation. Some kinds of restriction on sales may have to come. It depends very much on what we find out and on the decisions that are taken in cases which are presently before the courts. But that is for the future.

This Bill is a big advance in relation to a problem that has been worrying us all. We have discussed it in this House and it has been discussed elsewhere, and at last we have some kind of action. I am sure that, having taken this action, we shall get more information about the extent of the problem. It is not just a town or city problem. There was evidence given in the other House that people in the countryside are also concerned about it. I am glad that there has been such all-round party support for this Bill and I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Ross of Marnock.)

3.34 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I should very much like to support this Bill. I do not intend to speak for long, because the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, has covered the field with his usual competence. The Bill, like many of the other things with which he is concerned, is a very sensible and necessary measure, and I am sure that we are all very grateful to him and to the Members of the other place who brought it forward.

I should like also to congratulate the Government. It is a pity that we are not in a permanent state of preparing for an election, because all the doctrinaire nonsense has been dropped and what we have done in the last few days has been to pass very sensible measures. In fact, one wondered whether the Government had been sniffing something else—such a change there was. If we get these sensible measures through, it will be a great bonus, and if we get other changes after the election period that will be a great bonus, too.

An election certainly does something to the Government. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has chaired us for at least 20 years, but I can only describe his actions as gazelle-like as he put through the Medical Bill. So perhaps the election will do good in many ways, apart from offering the chance of a totally new type of Government. I commend the Bill and I am personally grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, for bringing it forward, because this problem is a great evil in Scotland.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships for the fact that my name is not on the list of speakers, but I gave it in late at the Table. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, on this Bill is of the greatest possible consequence—a consequence which far transcends the confines of this Bill, for it is the first step on the road to the statutory recognition of a very serious social evil. It is not the end of the road, as the noble Lord said, but the beginning of it. In welcoming this Bill in its application to compulsory measures of care for children in Scotland, is it not to be hoped that in due course consideration may be given to the creation of a new substantive offence of general application on either side of the border, so that by this means in the main, by magisterial intervention, steps may be taken where appropriate to deal with this type of practice or addiction which, though once trivial, may all too soon assume the proportions of a menace?

3.37 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I should like very briefly to intervene. I have had quite a lot of experience of dealing with young people and I realise only too well that, both north and south of the border, this addiction is becoming far more prevalent than I think most of us are aware of. It is high time that such a measure was brought before both Houses. So I should like to welcome this measure and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, who has introduced it.

I hope that something is also done in the British courts, because, although I am not in favour of its being made a criminal offence, I am very much in favour of the general public, and parents and school teachers in particular, making the children in their care far more aware of the problems that are created by sniffing glue et cetera. Boot polish is another substance. As the noble Lord said, it is almost impossible to prevent children buying these substances. Therefore, in my view, it is up to the adults who have control of these children to try to make them aware of the possibility, not only of injuring their own health or their brains but, as the noble Lord has rightly said—and I know some of the figures—of dying as a result of sniffing these substances. It is high time that this measure was brought before your Lordships' House and I certainly warmly welcome it.

3.39 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, your Lordships will have been fascinated to hear about these problems. We are glad to confirm the support of the Government for this Bill and to congratulate both the noble Lord, Lord Ross, and the honourable Member of another place who achieved the unusual distinction of getting a Ten-Minute Rule Bill to this stage in your Lordships' House. Certainly the first thing I shall do on leaving the Chamber is to draw the attention of my noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate, and my right honourable friend, to the encomiums which were so kindly delivered by the noble Lord, Lord Ross. I shall also convey the compliments of my noble neighbour Lord Mackie. I just wonder what my noble neighbour and I sniff, apart from the scent of the noble Lord's potatoes and soft fruits. But, whatever it is, it has certainly brought his approval and that of his party to the Bill that is before us today.

I thank my noble friends Lord Campbell of Alloway and my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve, both of whom. I am sure, appreciate that this short Bill applies only to Scotland. If I may digress, when my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve referred to solvents. I was appalled to hear her refer to boot polish. I have looked at my own shoes which I see may be in need of some treatment, but when I remember that on my way to briefings this morning I observed columns of Grenadier and Coldstream Guardsmen I begin to wonder whether an epidemic of boot polish sniffing is rife in Her Majesty's Brigade of Guards. I shall try to find out whether boot polish is included in the term "solvents".

The success of both the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, and the honourable Member for Glasgow, Shettleston, in piloting this measure through both your Lordships' House and another place is indicative of the widespread support throughout Scotland for the proposed action. The Government regard solvent abuse as a foolish and potentially dangerous practice. They are anxious to take or support any action which is likely to be effective in order to discourage the practice and to check its spread. In Scotland, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, the uniquely Scottish institution of the children's panels offers a basis for such action, of which the Bill seeks to take advantage.

The Scottish Office conducted a substantial consultative exercise in 1981 and 1982, in which a large number of Scottish bodies and individuals were asked for their views on how solvent abuse should be dealt with. These bodies included health boards, directors of social work, the police associations and a very wide spread of educational and legal interests. Those who responded were almost unanimous in their opposition to the idea that solvent abuse should be made an offence, and very few supported the creation of an offence of selling or supplying solvents to children. A clear majority, however, agreed that there was a valuable role to be played by the children's hearing system in dealing with children identified as caught up in solvent abuse, although they differed on the appropriate means of referring a child to the reporter to the children's panel.

After considering this very complex and thorny question at considerable length, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced on 16th December last year his intention to seek an apropriate legislative opportunity to introduce a new statutory ground for referral which was linked specifically to solvent abuse. In Scotland, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, and those of your Lordships who are interested in child care north of the Border and who are acquainted with the legal structure in Scotland will know, anybody can refer a child to the reporter to the regional children's panel on any of the grounds set out in Section 32(2) of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968. When the reporter receives such a referral he has discretion to refer that child to a children's hearing as in need of compulsory measures of care. I should stress that the new ground of referral, which the Bill is intended to introduce, does not make it an offence for a child to inhale solvents but instead defines a circumstance in which he or she may be in need of care and protection. The Bill before us today incorporates a number of Government amendments which were tabled in another place. These amendments, which were welcomed by the sponsor of the Bill in another place, are intended to set out the new ground in the most appropriate and practicable terms.

We are of the opinion that the children's hearing will provide a unique opportunity to explore constructively, in an informal setting, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, any personal problems from which a child may be seeking escape by persistent abuse of solvents; or it may hear about any wider family problems which may be putting pressure on the child. The hearing will have the power to impose compulsory measures of care, if this seems likely to be helpful for the individual child. However, I should emphasise that this approach is not, and is not intended to be, a universal remedy, nor would we expect every child detected as being involved in solvent abuse to be referred to a hearing. In most cases the children give up the practice after a short time.

The Government would not see this useful piece of legislation as in any way supplanting or substituting for the continuing and developing work of the police, teachers, doctors and nurses, social workers and others whose task involves the counselling and advising of children who are caught up in solvent abuse and of the parents of those children. Again, while all the agencies which are concerned should make parents aware of the help which is available to them, it is the parents themselves who have the primary responsibility and, above all, concern for their children. I hope that the Bill will make a useful contribution to tackling the problem. I commend it most heartily to your Lordships and I congratulate the noble Lord. Lord Ross of Marnock, for bringing it before your Lordships this afternoon.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him whether he would accept that the intervention of my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve was a serious intervention, that it was made in the light of considerable practice and experience and that it ought not to be treated with such levity?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, of course I accept that my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve has considerable experience of these matters. However, she referred—I listened very carefully to her speech—to boot polish. If I offended my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve, I apologise unreservedly. However, she appeared to show no signs of offence. If I have upset my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway, I apologise unreservedly to him.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I ask whether this measure will apply to the use by children of snuff? Certain brands of snuff are extremely strong. Is snuff a solvent? My noble friend the Chief Whip is fond of using snuff, but he of course is an adult. However, if very strong snuff were to be used by children it could be very harmful, especially to the membranes of the nose and to the brain.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I do not know whether snuff is in any way addictive or harmful to the brain or to any of the organs of children or adults. I understand that snuff is not a solvent, as defined by the Bill. If, however, I discover anything about snuff which is in any way harmful to children, I shall certainly inform my noble friend.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, I am very grateful to those noble Lords who have given a general welcome to the Bill and for the valuable contributions which they have made. I explained in my Second Reading speech, to the frustration of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, that this can be done only in Scotland because of the unique nature of the children's hearings. There is no reason why we should hold back. Furthermore, if this had been an English Private Member's Bill it would never have reached this House in time. The noble Lord, Lord Glenkinglas, who was here earlier today, set up a second Scottish Committee in 1960 which enables Private Members' Bills that are purely Scottish in nature not to have to wait in a long queue in another place. They are able to bypass that queue and go straight to that Scottish Committee.

This Bill was a Ten-Minute Rule Bill on 1st February. That was only two and a half months ago. It then had to receive its Second Reading in another place, and it then went to the special committee, had its Committee stage, went back to another place for its Report stage and Third Reading, and then eventually came to your Lordships' House. I am sorry to say of the organisation for Private Members' Bills in England and Wales that it cannot normally be done as speedily as that—but we have this opportunity and I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, will not object if we take it and take it for this particular purpose.

The noble Baroness made a very good point (and I am sorry that I missed it) about education. There has to be a fine balance. Suggestions have been made about a great publicity drive, but we have to be careful not to make this matter almost enticing to children by giving it too much publicity. There has to be balanced publicity and I am perfectly certain that the Scottish Health Education Group will be looking into something of that kind.

I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, for what he said—although he left out the very important contribution that the Government made. The Government inserted Clause 2 at Committee stage in another place, and Clause 2 provides the money We could not have done very much about that here. But this does show the dedication there is when we encounter something on which we believe that action must be taken. This point was made in a rather frivolous way by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, but when we see that action has to be taken, and when we see the opportunity to take that action, then we in Scotland can do it. Not for the first time are we leading England—and we shall be glad to see England coming along with us.

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order No. 43 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution of 10th May): Bill read a third time, and passed.