HL Deb 10 May 1985 vol 463 cc875-84

12.27 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I have the honour to put this small but very important measure before your Lordships this morning because my honourable friend in the other place Mr. Neville Trotter, the Member for Tynemouth, won a Private Member's allocation a few weeks ago and managed, through his skills and his powers of persuasion, to get this Bill, as it stands, through the other place not only in record time but without dissension or amendment. Therefore, I feel that I am fortunate to be asked to bring the Bill before your Lordships' House this morning.

The Bill consists of only one clause, and for the record I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I read out this one clause because its aims will then become apparent to all those who are interested in this problem. The clause states: 1.—(1) It is an offence for a person to supply or offer to supply a substance other than a controlled drug—

  1. (a) to a person under the age of eighteen whom he knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, to be under that age; or
  2. (b) to a person—
    1. (i) who is acting on behalf of a person under that age; and
    2. (ii) whom he knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, to be so acting,
if he knows or has reasonable cause to believe that the substance is, or its fumes are, likely to be inhaled by the person under the age of eighteen for the purpose of causing intoxication. This is a small, succinct, well drawn up Bill. I must say straight away that it is not about drink. It is not about alcohol. It is about glue-sniffing and solvent abuse. This is an international problem which has spread to this country and which is now spreading rapidly throughout it. As I hope I have made clear, this Bill is aimed solely at the suppliers of the intoxicating substances. It is also for those under the age of 18.

There are hundreds and hundreds of substances that can be either sniffed or sprayed through aerosols which are in ordinary household use and which are kept in practically every home in the country, and that perhaps makes the problem even more difficult. The method of causing intoxication is through glue or aerosol. Polish can be inhaled, and marker pens are used, as are cycle repair outfit glues, fire extinguishers, nail polish remover, paint which is heated and then sniffed, and a great number of other substances. As I say, all these things can be found around the home. They are cheap and they may be lethal if inhaled or sprayed.

Although this problem has been escalating for many years, I think perhaps our attention was drawn to it in Glasgow two years ago when two brothers were found to be selling for 30p each, crisp packets that contained glue. They were sold to children who casually came into the shop. They also sold pints of glue in great quantities to chronic sniffers. At that time it was not illegal but the police went round to warn them that it was wrong, as they took the view, which I am sure your Lordships will take, that anyone selling substances which can be lethal in either small or large quantities is evil. They are not normal retailers or sellers as we know them in the three countries that comprise our islands today.

I start by saying that the people who supply these substances, as the Bill says, knowing or thinking that someone under 18 might use them for intoxicating purposes, are in my view evil men. However, there is a new law in Scotland which this small measure seeks to emulate. It is a similar law. As I suspect your Lordships will remember, the two brothers were sent to prison and I hope that they are still there. But the practice has now spread south and the evil men are selling what are called "happy bags"—"happy bags" which can bring death quickly. These are polythene bags or even crisp bags containing glue. They are being sold by people who do not care about the welfare of those to whom they sell them.

I shall tell your Lordships three stories because I feel that to some people outside the Chamber just to sell a substance might not seem very evil. Perhaps I may cite a recent case of an 18-year-old who was drowned in a canal. At the inquest, his friends said: We had sniffed the thinner and were feeling really high. We were laughing and joking". But the police evidence at the inquest was that they were completely comatose and unable to answer any questions until the next day.

A pathology professor was called to give evidence, and he said that the victim had suffocated after inhaling his own vomit. I quote: Sniffers of this type come to grief just as alcoholics do in traffic accidents, fire, drowning or vomiting. Sniffing is extremely dangerous—more dangerous than drinking". A 15-year-old girl also died. The boy with whom she was walking said: She had not sniffed very much. She just began to stagger, put her hands on her head, fell over and she was dead". Glue-sniffing or solvent abuse started the craze. As I said, it can be lethal because the direct action of the substance, which is a poison, can cause a heart attack which can kill at once, or choking. But we have moved on from glue-sniffing to aerosols. In my house I have many aerosol canisters containing various liquids. Any child under 18 can pick them up and use them. The inhalation of a deodorant or any other aerosol spray can deprive the brain of oxygen, causing rapid death. It can also rupture the membranes of the throat, which can cause drowning, and drowning can cause death in seconds rather than minutes. In America they have tried to put an unpleasant smelling additive in aerosols. They did so with women's hairspray. The side effect was lethal in the end to the users of the sprays. It caused cancer; and so that had to be dropped.

The retail consortia have been very helpful. The message has got through because of the methods adopted by the various Ministries to make shopkeepers aware of how a small amount of glue sold in a shop, together with a packet of crisps, may end up with a child's death. The Department of Education has for some time been very much aware of the problem. Last weekend I spoke at a meeting in Buxton. At the end of it a lady teacher came up to me, and I asked her whether she was aware of the "happy bags". I am pleased to tell your Lordships that she was, that a circular had come round warning them to be on the look out for any child who had a bag which obviously had a substance in it. Thus I commend the Ministry for that move. I shall ask my noble friend the Minister if the Government have any further plans to bring this problem to the notice of the general public. By the general public I mean not only children, because I think they are frequently unaware of what they are doing, but also teachers and families. I need not tell your Lordships that every death that is caused in this way must be horrific for the families concerned. I feel that there is no way that any parents could absolve themselves from being partly responsible for the death of a child in this way.

As your Lordships will know, the magistrates' courts are to deal with any retailer or people who sell these substances. "Retailer" is a word that I do not like to use because one thinks that all retailers are honest, good men. We in this country like to think that. However, there are people, especially in the Midlands, as I understand it, by whom these happy bags and solvents are being sold with the knowledge that young people are likely to use them for intoxicating purposes. Thus the magistrates' courts are being enabled to levy a fine of up to £2,000 or six months' imprisonment.

This Bill closes a loophole. However, I feel that it will only be a deterrent. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, will agree with me that those of us who practise in the courts will realise that it is very difficult to find the onus of proof proved. People can get out of an onus of proof. They can make up all kinds of stories about how they did not know, etc. I hope this Bill will be proved in the rare cases to be a deterrent. If it is a deterrent, then it may save many young lives. It is estimated that one or more people under 18 die each week as a result of this glue-sniffing or inhaling of aerosols.

I am privileged to have been able to have introduced, as briefly as I could, this very important measure. I hope that it will pass as speedily through your Lordships' House as it did through the other place. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Macleod of Borve.)

12.43 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the noble Baroness, who has just explained so lucidly and so movingly the contents of this Bill, described her honourable friend Mr. Neville Trotter, the Member for Tynemouth, who was responsible for having guided the Bill through the Commons, as having achieved a great deal through his persuasiveness and charm. I should like the noble Baroness to know that we who know her so well think that the honourable gentlemen has nothing on the noble Baroness for either of those qualities. Therefore, I am sure that this Bill, when passing through your Lordships' House, will have the same happy and speedy passage as it did in the Commons.

The noble Baroness has so correctly dealt with what is a very sad evil, not only in this land but in so many other countries. However, it is our duty to do as much as we can by way of legislation in our own islands. In this case it means limiting it to England and Wales and Northern Ireland because, as the noble Baroness pointed out, Scotland is afore us, and not for the first time.

Indeed, it may interest the noble Baroness to know that the two brothers to whom she referred, who ignored the policeman who very courteously came to chat to them because they thought there was no offence in Scotland, found that there was an offence in Scotland even at that time. As she correctly says, a sentence of imprisonment was imposed upon them.

Possibly the degree of the evil ought to be known to your Lordships. I was amazed to see the figure that I read in the record of the proceedings in another place. I was horrified. It amounts in our islands to the death of more than one child per week. The figures were given as the following: there were 282 deaths from volatile substances between 1971 and 1983; there were 80 in 1983 alone, and 72 per cent. of that figure of 80 were of people under 20. There is no doubt that the habit is concentrated on younger people. The figure of 31 per cent. of those deaths is 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.

As we were told, it is not only a question of its leading to tragic deaths. The effect of the abuses of these substances, such as aerosols and solvents, is terrible. It gives a feeling of complete exultation to the individuals concerned. There have been cases of youngsters throwing themselves from heights by virtue of the fact that in these delusions they had thought quite literally that they could fly. There are other dreadful cases where sexual offences have been committed by those youngsters who have taken these substances, and it has driven them to acts of that kind. They were acts which I am perfectly sure, if they had been normal children or had not had this abnormal habit, would never have been committed.

Let me immediately tell the noble Baroness that this Bill has the wholehearted support of my noble friends. We shall try to facilitate as much as we can the very speedy passage of this very worthy Bill. However, when I was considering it, there were two questions that arose in my mind, quite apart from the very pertinent question that was put as to what the Government are doing (and I know they are doing their best) in regard to bringing this evil to the attention of parents and teachers, and so on.

My first thought was: does this Bill go far enough when it deals merely with retailers, or indeed any persons who sell, knowing or having reason to know that the substance is being sold for this horrible purpose? I pondered for a moment as to whether the taking of these substances should or should not be made an offence. Having read also the arguments in the other place where this was discussed, I came to the conclusion that it would be counter productive. I think that making it an offence for young people to do it would most likely drive it right underground. Thus we would not discover it, parents possibly would not discover it and teachers would not discover it. Also there might even be a temptation to do what was prohibited by those adults sitting in Parliament.

The second thought I had was as to whether the punishment fitted the crime. If somebody was proved—and the noble Baroness spoke so correctly of the onus of proof—to have known or had good reason to know that a substance was being sold to a youngster under the age of 18 for the purpose with which we are dealing this afternoon, I wonder whether it is sufficient that it should be a magistrates' court offence, punishable only at the present moment by a fine of £2,000 (but that is a variable amount) and six months' imprisonment. I reflected that, yes, this was sensible; it was sensible that it should be dealt with speedily in the magistrates' court with all the publicity that can be given to it by a local magistrates' court. Of course, if there happens to be a case where more than two offences are proved, there will be nothing to stop two consecutive sentences of six months being imposed by the court.

Therefore, I conclude by saying that though this is, as the noble Baroness modestly said, a small Bill, it fills a vacuum which your Lordships may not have appreciated existed. I did not know that it existed. I did not know that this type of thing could be done and that people could sell these substances quite openly knowing, as they must, the wretched consequences of what they were doing, all for the evil of cash. There is a gap and this Bill fills it. I know that your Lordships will wish to fill the gap speedily.

12.51 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I apologise for this interjection, but I did not expect to be present for the debate. Luckily, the meeting which I had expected to attend was cancelled. I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, on introducing this Bill. Before the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, spoke I had written down that I thought that something should be done about glue sniffing—and soon—in public and that the police should be able to apprehend those who indulged in it. I have listened to what the noble Lord has said and I suppose that he is probably right, and that such a course would drive this problem underground.

While welcoming the Bill from these Benches, I should like to mention two matters. It seems to me impossible that parents and teachers could not notice that young children were indulging in this awful habit because I believe that there are tell-tale signs of the problem visible around the nose and the mouth of those who indulge in it. Therefore, how on earth can a parent scream and cry, "My child is dead. Why doesn't someone do something about it?" Why did not the parent do something about it? Children are with their parents morning and night and the parents must be able to see the signs. What are the teachers doing? How can glue-sniffing children get away with it? Is it the case that teachers do not care sufficiently today? Some obviously do care, but enough do not. I hope that the Bill goes very speedily through your Lordships' House.

12.53 p.m.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend's Motion that this Bill should receive a Second Reading and that it should do so very speedily. I noticed that it does not apply to Scotland and I think that my noble friend explained why that is so. I know that in Scotland sentences of imprisonment have been imposed on people who knowingly sold "happy bags" to young people. However, I am not quite sure whether the offence arises under regulations of a municipality or under an Act of Parliament.

There is one point which I do not think my noble friend emphasised. If young people experiment with these substances, even in this rather haphazard way, it may well be the stepping stone for them to go on to other narcotics. Unfortunately, I have personal knowledge of a case of that type in which the person in question progressed up and up until they reached heroin. It began with glue sniffing. With those few words I urge the House to give a Second Reading without delay to my noble friend's Bill.

12.55 p.m.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, first, I should like to congratulate very warmly my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve on the moving and comprehensive way in which she opened this debate. I should also like to thank the other noble Lords for their helpful contributions. Of course we are all greatly indebted to my honourable friend in another place for initiating this valuable legislation.

The Government have given the Bill the fullest support since it was introduced. It forms an integral and important part of the wide range of initiatives which we have taken to try to combat solvent misuse. As my noble friend Lady Macleod has emphasised, the range of substances involved is wide and includes aerosols, thinners, butane gas and many other products most of which are in everyday use. That is why the Bill does not attempt to define or limit the substances to which it applies. Any such list would be lengthy and, indeed, loopholes might be found and subsequently exploited.

We are all deeply concerned about the dangers of solvent misuse, its insidious attraction for young people and its harmful, distressing and sometimes fatal consequences. Many proposals for legislation have been put forward to make sniffing itself an offence, to increase the powers available to the police to deal with sniffers, to introduce general restrictions on sales of solvents to young people, and to require additives to be included in solvents to make them unpleasant to sniff. But serious and justifiable objections have been raised against all of these proposals.

The Government consulted widely in 1983 on steps which might be taken to combat the problem. In January of that year that Department of Health and Social Security wrote to a wide range of statutory and voluntary bodies to seek their views on measures which might be taken. Those measures which involved some change in the law to make solvent misuse, or at least some of the undesirable behaviour resulting from it, an offence, are of particular relevance today.

Discussions with those working with misusers had suggested that such a course of action may be counterproductive as, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has already indicated. For example, it was suggested that the threat of prosecution might lead young people to sniff in out-of-the-way places, where help would not be readily available in the event of an accident. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has reminded us in this context, accidents are often associated with the act of sniffing and it is sometimes those accidents which prove fatal. Moreover, the knowledge that they were indulging in a criminal activity could deter young people from seeking help at a time when they should be encouraged to talk to their parents, to teachers or to youth workers and perhaps then be given help to shake off the habit of sniffing. Moreover, court proceedings could result in young people gaining a criminal record at a time when they were going through what is often no more than a transient phase of behaviour.

The responses to the DHSS consultation letter confirmed that view. A large majority of those who replied were opposed to making sniffing, as such, an offence. The police already have a wide range of options in respect of those whom they find misusing solvents. Those options range from offering informal help and advice, through action under the Children and Young Persons Act, to prosecution for such offences as breach of the peace, threatening behaviour or criminal damage. The range of options has been described in a Home Office circular to chief officers of police, issued on 8th June last year, a copy of which is available in the Library of your Lordship's House.

However, the responses to the consultation letter revealed wide-ranging support for a programme of education and persuasion aimed at young people, their parents and professionals. In the light of these responses my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health launched a number of initiatives during last year. I need not go into detail, but they included an advice leaflet for parents, an education manual, a training film, local and regional seminars for professionals, and a bulletin for schools and colleges. It is hoped that perhaps some of those measures may go some way towards meeting the very valid point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee.

The possibility of some form of restraint on the sales of products containing solvents was also canvassed in the consultation letter to which I have referred and in a separate letter to retailers' associations. The difficulty about such restraints is of course that the range of products which can be misused is very wide indeed. Many are used regularly by young people for perfectly proper reasons. Any restriction would therefore cause considerable inconvenience, not only to young people but to the public at large and to shopkeepers.

While there was general agreement that restrictions on sales of solvent-based products to adults only were not feasible, the retailers themselves took the view that there was scope for voluntary guidelines which would aim to prevent sales to young people for misuse. After consultations between representatives of manufacturers and retailers and the DHSS agreement was reached on a set of guidelines.

This package contained notes for sales staff, notes for shop managers, a list of products, and a poster for public display. The notes for sales staff describe briefly the signs of a sniffer and give advice on what action to take if a customer is suspected of being a sniffer. The leaflets give advice in simple straightforward language. These guidelines have been widely distributed. Some organisations have produced their own material incorporating similar advice, and the DHSS recently made available a grant of £20,000 to the aptly named independent educational charity, RE-SOLVE, to enable them to replenish their stocks of advisory kits for retailers.

Perhaps I may say in passing that I am glad to be able to pay tribute to the responsible attitude shown by the great majority of retailers. This is a significant and most welcome contribution to our efforts to tackle the problem. In our response to the problem of solvent misuse the Government, as well as the majority of those working with solvent misusers, have thought it best to concentrate on educational measures. Together these measures represent an important and Valuable programme. Indeed, that programme, updated and extended as necessary, will continue to form the basis of our policy.

But this did not take into account that a few shopkeepers, and others, are not prepared to act in a responsible way. Indeed there are a few, (and I must stress that the number is very small indeed), who are prepared, as we have heard, to profit by actually promoting the sales of glue for the purpose of sniffing. This evil behaviour, and I say "evil" deliberately, was brought to our attention by a case in Glasgow in 1983, to which reference has been made, when two shopkeepers were convicted under Scottish common law for selling glue-sniffing kits to children. Like my noble friend Lady Macleod, I believe that the epithet "evil" is not inappropriate when applied to behaviour so callous as to seek profit in this way from young children. What was also worrying was that an urgent review of the legal position in England, Wales and Northern Ireland suggested that it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute those shopkeepers anywhere other than in Scotland. If I may answer my noble friend Lord Ferrier, the answer to his question with regard to the legal system in Scotland is that it was under Scottish common law.

It was for this reason that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced in May last year that we favoured legislation which would make it an offence not just to sell glue-sniffing kits but to sell any substance to a young person in circumstances where the seller knew, or had reasonable grounds for believing, that the substance was to be used to achieve intoxication. However, we wished to consult with the police and representatives of manufacturers and retailers' associations before any such measure was introduced. Those consultations took place last year. Most of those involved supported the proposed legislation. They recognised that the number of prosecutions would be small; but they agreed that the evil of deliberately supplying solvents for sniffing was such that it should be made an offence.

Understandably one major concern was expressed by some retailers' associations. This was that an innocent shopkeeper might be prosecuted—a justifiable concern, and one which I may say we have been at great pains to meet. We have made it clear that we would only support legislation if the onus was put on the prosecution to prove that the shopkeeper either knew, or had reasonable grounds for believing, that the young person to whom a substance was being supplied was likely to inhale that substance to achieve a state of intoxication. I am glad to say that the Bill now before your Lordships' House meets that requirement. It will therefore give considerable support to those who are operating the voluntary guidelines on retail sales, and will cause those who are tempted to ignore those guidelines to think again.

My noble friend Lady Macleod asked what further steps the Government are taking to bring this problem to the attention of the public. As I hope I have already indicated, the Government are firmly of the view that the primary response must be through education and persuasion. I hope I have given some indication of the wide range of measures we have taken in support of that objective to improve local co-operation in responding to the needs of solvent misusers, to stimulate training for professionals, and to provide help and advice for parents. We realise that the practice is still a serious problem, and the figures which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, gave to us reminded us how serious that problem is. We are not complacent. We shall continue to monitor the situation very closely and review the need for further initiatives.

We remain convinced that to criminalise sniffing would be counterproductive, and that any general restrictions on sales of solvent-based products to young people would be impractical and unfair to those who use them for their intended purpose. But we cannot countenance a situation in which a very small minority of irresponsible or evil-minded people can, with impunity, supply these products when they know they are likely to be sniffed.

We owe it to our young people to protect them from this sort of wanton behaviour. We believe that this Bill will create an effective deterrent against such blatantly irresponsible conduct, and that it meets the justifiable public demand for action. The Bill has had an unopposed passage in another place, and I urge your Lordships to give it full support now in order that it may quickly enter into force and reinforce the other initiatives which are being taken to combat solvent misuse.

1.7 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I am most grateful to everybody who has given this Bill such a warm welcome. I think I got your Lordships with me, which was lucky on a Friday morning or afternoon. After yesterday I thought that we should all be too exhausted to bother with this Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. He mentioned hallucinations. I failed to mention them, but they are certainly one of the end products of glue sniffing, or indeed taking by aerosol. I am glad that he agrees that the local magistrate's court is the place to have these people when they are found and brought to justice.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, also mentioned glue sniffing. He mentioned parents and said that they should be more aware. I do not know whether he read in the papers on Monday or Tuesday of this week of a tragic case in Dundee in Scotland where a parent had no idea that a boy had a deodorant aerosol. He was 17, and he had everything to live for. He was trying it out, and he died. I do not think parents could possible have been responsible in that case, but this is one of many.

I think the question of the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, has been answered by my noble friend the Minister. I must thank my noble friend the Minister for her helpful and knowledgeable speech to us today. I am sure that education and persuasion are the right methods. I have heard already that the voluntary guidelines have been welcomed throughout the retailing trade. I knew that the Government had been looking at this and for the last two years had thought about how they could bring it to the notice of the public. I am delighted to know that their future initiatives obviously show a high degree of imagination. I am very glad that the noble Baroness and all noble Lords who have spoken are behind this measure and will wish it every speed in your Lordships' House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at ten minutes past one o'clock.