HC Deb 15 December 1983 vol 50 cc572-4W
Mr. Rowe

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what measures are to be taken to tackle the problem of solvent misuse in England and Wales; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. John Patten

In England consultation letters were sent out on 18 January 1983 to statutory, voluntary, professional and trade organisations to seek their views on ways of tackling the problem of solvent misuse. One hundred and thirty replies were received. The response was encouraging and it is apparent that the issues raised have been discussed widely.

There was little support for new legislation covering the various options discussed in the consultation letters. The Children and Young Persons Act 1969 already gives the police a power to detain in a place of safety any youngster in respect of whom they have reasonable cause to believe that any of the conditions in section 1(2) of the Act are satisfied. The first of these is that the youngster's proper development is being avoidably prevented or neglected or his health is being avoidably impaired or neglected, or he is being ill treated. In suitable cases persistent solvent misuse could be drawn to the attention of the social services department as an indication for considering the need for care proceedings under the Act. In addition, it is possible to bring a prosecution for an offence committed while under the influence of solvents, including offences of abusive, threatening or insulting behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace, as well as acts of violence or criminal damage. It would be unnecessary and undesirable to create new powers for situations in which the use of the existing powers would not be justified. A large majority of those who commented were opposed to legislation to make sniffing a criminal offence, and no fresh arguments were put forward which would justify further exploration of the considerable medical, scientific and resource implications of a new offence of this kind. It would be undesirable to draw more young people into the formal criminal justice system in circumstances which may vary widely from a transient phase of unsettled behaviour to a more deeply rooted maladjustment. However, in the light of the recent conviction of two shopkeepers in Scotland for selling solvent misuse kits, we shall be examining urgently the case for introducing legislation to make it an offence to sell such kits in England and Wales.

What did emerge from consultation was a need for more information and guidance for parents and the professions and services involved, to help them in using existing skills, resources and powers to cooperate more effectively in preventing and coping with solvent misuse. The comments strongly and most encouragingly support the Government's policy which is, through education and persuasion, to help the helpers to enable young people to avoid or give up the habit. Steps already taken to improve the information available to contribute to training and to encourage local cooperation include the following:

  • —A national seminar attended by representatives of the whole range of professional and other interests concerned held at Guy's hospital in November 1981; the proceedings were published in the Journal "Human Toxicology" in June 1982.
  • —An overview of current knowledge for the medical 573 profession published by the DHSS in "Health Trends" in May 1982.
  • —A similar overview by one of the Department's nursing officers published in the Nursing Times on 22 June 1983.
  • —"Illusions", a training film/video-tape commissioned by DHSS through the Central Office of Information for professionals and parent-teacher associations was launched on 29 September 1983 and is available free of charge to borrowers*.
  • —A book for professionals promoted by DHSS, with Macmillan Press Ltd., due to be published in 1984.
  • —Readiness indicated by DHSS to fund suitable local studies into solvent misuse.
  • —Major research commissioned by DHSS on the effects of various teenage activities on health and educational performances.
  • * From CFL Vision, Gerrards Cross.

In the light of the general consultation, the following specific consultations and additional measures have now been put in hand by the Departments indicated.

  • —Consultation with local authority associations on whether the local authority departments concerned might welcome the preparation centrally of leaflets, which could be adapted to local requirements to help parents and would also be available to teachers and other professionals (DHSS).
  • —Consultation with the Health Education Council on the inclusion of appropriate references to solvent misuse in their educational material, reflecting the "healthy lifestyle" context supported by our consultation exercise (DHSS).
  • —An offer has been made to the National Children's Bureau to fund a post to collate and disseminate good practice through its links with a wide range of statutory professional and voluntary bodies concerned with children (DHSS).
  • —An offer to contribute to the cost of some regional seminars convened by health or local authorities to promote the wider use of training aids we are already providing for professionals (DHSS).
  • —Reiteration of our offer to find suitable research, and small local studies, within the funds available (DHSS).
  • —Consultation with the Association of Chief Police Officers with a view to the issue of a circular to all police forces setting out the various options and facilities already open to the police when they come into contact with misusers, including informal advice, referral to other agencies and prosecution for offences such as breach of the peace and criminal damage (Home Office).

Consultations with representatives of retailers and manufacturers have resulted in their general agreement to guidelines on voluntary restraint on retail sales on which I am making a separate statement today.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales instituted a similar consultation in Wales to which there were 52 replies. The balance of opinion broadly matches that in England. As a result he is taking similar follow-up action in Wales. In particular, his Department is to convene local seminars to spread good practice and, if a leaflet for parents is produced following the consultation with the local authority associations, his Department will produce an edition in the Welsh language.

Mr. Rowe

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will disclose the outcome of his consultation with representatives of retailers about voluntary restraint on sales of solvent-based products, to prevent misuse by inhalation.

Mr. John Patten

Consultation letters were sent to representatives of retailers on 18 January 1983 to seek their views on ways in which they might contribute towards tackling the problem of solvent misuse through the exercise of voluntary restraint on sales. At a meeting on 8 November with representatives of both retailers and manufacturers, agreement in principle was reached on a set of guidelines incorporting "Notes for Sales Staff', "Notes for the Manager and List of Products", and a poster for public display. The majority of associations represented at the meeting have now confirmed their agreement to the draft guidelines, with some minor amendments which are being incorporated.

In view of the wide range of products containing volatile substances which are liable to misuse by inhalation and the wide range of retail businesses involved, the guidelines are designed to be flexible and for use at the discretion of the retailer according to the circumstances of his business. Some organisations and firms may wish to issue the guidelines in their own format, or extended to cover specific circumstances. Arrangements for printing are in hand for an initial supply by the Department, for distribution to be undertaken by the associations commending the guidelines to their members.

The "Notes for Sales Staff' consist of simple information designed to enable the assistant to recognise the potential sniffer and give guidance on, for instance, how to refuse to sell the product and when the manager should be informed. The advice is flexible and takes account of the varying needs and sizes of retail outlets.

The "Notes for the Manager" contain a range of suggestions to be applied as appropriate, for example on the display of sensitive products, staff training, and liaison with the police and other agencies. They also include information on products liable to be misused, in a list which the manager is advised to keep in a safe place.

The poster for public display, for example at the point of sale, is intended to back up a refusal to sell and simply states that the management reserves the right not to supply certain products.

The guidelines have been drawn up by the trade representatives who share the view of many professional people that it would be counter-productive to draw the attention of youngsters to potentially misusable products, since this might well encourage experimentation.