HL Deb 18 June 1984 vol 453 cc3-6

2.42 p.m.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they intend to take following recent evidence suggesting that the rate of glue sniffing among young people is growing.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Lord Glenarthur)

My Lords, it is difficult to obtain reliable evidence of the extent of solvent misuse. The Government's policy through education and persuastion, is to help parents and the relevant services use existing skills, resources and powers to co-operate more effectively to discourage the habit of solvent misuse. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health announced on 15th December 1983 a package of measures designed to tackle the problem, including the funding of a post at the National Children's Bureau to collate and disseminate good practice, the production of training materials for professionals and the preparation of a leaflet for parents, teachers and others; and the commissioning of research, and further consultations on guidelines on voluntary restraint on retail sales. My right honourable and learned friend the Home Secretary has issued guidance to the police and has announced support in principle—subject to consultations—for the creation of an offence in England and Wales of knowingly selling substances to under-16s when they are likely to be inhaled to achieve intoxication.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that very full Answer, which is appreciated and is reassuring. Has my noble friend any evidence of addiction with regard to glue sniffing, and, if so, is any action contemplated by the Government to deal with this problem?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, as I said in my original Answer, the extent of the problem in terms of addiction is difficult to measure. It is not actually addictive in the same way as drugs or cigarette smoking are; it is more of a dependency. We have no firm information on numbers, but all the indications are that, of all those who sniff, 95 per cent. give it up and only 5 per cent. require special help.

Lord McCluskey

My Lords, the Government will undoubtedly be aware of the recent case in Scotland in which, without legislation, the High Court of Justiciary held that it was a crime at common law to sell glue sniffing kits to children. One notes from the Minister's reply the intention to introduce legislation covering England and Wales, but do the Government not think that it is somewhat unsatisfactory that in Scotland there is such a crime, the penalties for which might indeed be two, three or five years' imprisonment, whereas in England, no doubt, the legislation would introduce much smaller penalties? Do the Government not think it desirable that any such legislation should apply uniformly throughout the United Kingdom, so that the courts on both sides of the border are given guidance as to penalties which is to the same effect?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord will be more familiar than I am with the differences between Scottish law and English law, but the fact is that the common law in Scotland does allow the imposition of a penalty in the way that he described. But so far as legislation is concerned, the Solvent Abuse (Scotland) Act 1983 states that the misuse of volatile substances is grounds for a referral for compulsory care, whereas in England and Wales the existing legislative framework under the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 allows for a child or young person below the age of 17 to be detained in a place of safety if his health is being avoidably impaired or neglected, or if he is being mistreated.

Lord McCluskey

My Lords, on that point may I just say that in asking my question I am not concerned about the children—though, of course. I am very concerned about the children—but about the penalties on the suppliers, which should be uniform on both sides of the border?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am sure that in his consultation my right honourable friend will take note of that point.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that, so far as smoking and glue sniffing are concerned, young people are more likely to indulge in both of these to the extent that it might become a habit if the Government tell them that they should not?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, my noble friend may have a point. That is why I think it is important that these things are tackled gently, and not in too harsh a fashion in the way suggested by those who say that immediate legislation might solve the problem.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, to offset the case mentioned by my noble friend, is the Minister aware that an informal campaign initiated by the National Chambers of Trade has issued notices to very many shops? This is an entirely voluntary action on behalf of shopkeepers which I think should be applauded.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I was not aware of that but I think it sounds an excellent idea and I certainly commend it.

Lord Auckland

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that it is not only glue which is highly dangerous and may be lethal? Has my noble friend's attention been drawn to a recent survey which includes petrol and other solvents? Will he really take notice of the very disturbing figures which are constantly published?

Lord Glenarthur

Yes, my Lords, there are a great many substances of which we are aware which have the same effect, and we shall certainly note what my noble friend has said.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Minister agree that the principle enunciated by his noble friend Lady Macleod, who usually voices very welcome principles in this House, is a little dangerous? Does he agree that, if we are dealing with things which can harm young people, to keep silent upon them because young people might wish to be rather difficult and do just the opposite would lead us to no action at all? In the circumstances, does he think that to encourage some programmes on the media pointing out how dangerous this habit can be to young people might be a useful addition to the measures which he has announced to the House?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am sure that the media can help in this respect, but I think we have to await the results of the initiative which my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health announced last December.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, will the Minister tell us whether the Government are doing any research into a possible correlation between the glue sniffing problem among young people and the availability of cheap heroin among young people? Will he tell us whether it is becoming clear that the linkage of those two together relates to the ports of our country and the big cities close to the ports? Is there any research on this particular aspect of glue sniffing and cheap heroin and the areas near the ports where there is some evidence that this is going on? Are the Government looking at that?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I do not know specifically whether any direct correlation between the two has been investigated. I am sure there is merit in looking at it, and shall draw my right honourable friend's attention to what has been said.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I think the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, had a very good point, but, if she will excuse me for saying so, I think she put it badly. It is not saying "No" to it: it is the publicity it gets which makes children inquisitive.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, that may well be true.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, could the Minister inform me whether a record is kept of fatalities due to solvent abuse, including glue sniffing, and, if so, whether he has figures available?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, yes. The information is that deaths totalled 80 in 1983 as against 60 in 1982, but the increase should not necessarily be interpreted as an increase in the practice because there are all sorts of compounding variables. For example, it may be that more deaths are reported because of a greater awareness of the practice which has been brought about through media coverage.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether the Government, in their propaganda on this subject, might not merely take the negative attitude of saying, "Don't sniff glue", but take the positive attitude of saying, "If you want to sniff something, sniff snuff, which is less harmful"?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, we debated snuff and smoking last week, and I am sure that noble Lords had an opportunity then to discuss this matter.