Solvent Abuse

– in Westminster Hall at 5:00 pm on 24th May 2006.

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Photo of John MacDougall John MacDougall Labour, Glenrothes 5:00 pm, 24th May 2006

I am pleased to have secured this debate and to have this opportunity to raise the subject of solvent abuse, particularly abuse of cigarette lighter fuel.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his new responsibilities. I wish him well and every success.

I welcome the document from the Home Office and the Department of Health, in partnership with the Department for Education and Skills, entitled "Out of Sight?...not out of mind" on children, young people and volatile substance abuse. It is difficult to work out the reason for trends, but I note from page 6 of the document that they seem to exist. In 1993, there was a tremendous amount of substance abuse, particularly in males, which increased slightly in 1994, but generally fell in 1997. I cannot say that that was because of the change in Government, because there seems to have been a dramatic increase from 1997—with the exception of 1998 when no male deaths were evident—when the trend increased again, as opposed to that from 1993 to 1997 when it fell. There must be a reason for that trend and that reason is important in trying to assess how we can deal with this serious matter more effectively.

I bring this Adjournment debate before the Chamber because of the tragic death of my constituent, Lee O'Brien, who died in January 2003 after inhaling lighter fluid. Lee was only 16. I pay tribute to Lee's father, John O'Brien, and his family who set up the Lee O'Brien Solvent Trust—LOST is, sadly, an appropriate name. I believe, as do Lee's family, that highlighting such tragic cases is educational for young people. The message—not just legislation—must go out to young people that solvent abuse, even the first time, can cost them their life, because it is a life-threatening practice.

Lee's family immediately started a campaign calling for a change in the legislation on the sale of solvents so that the terrible tragedy that happened to Lee would be less likely to happen to other young people. The family have campaigned tirelessly and have achieved a great deal. The Queen gave her seal of approval at a gala dinner not long ago to honour pioneers of the nation.

I was pleased to receive John O'Brien and the LOST campaign here in Westminster when we presented a massive petition with more than 15,000 signatures to the Prime Minister at No. 10 Downing street. I tabled an early-day motion, which, with no effort, instantly gained the support and backing of more than 70 MPs who wanted to show that we are dealing with a serious issue.

Lee's death was not an isolated incident. According to Re-Solv, a national organisation that was set up in 1994 to prevent solvent abuse, volatile substances kill more young people than any controlled drug. I would like to thank Re-Solv for all its work on this matter. It works hard with the all-party group on solvent abuse and was established because of the scale of the problem.

Figures from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reveal that one in seven 15 to 16-year-olds in Britain abuse solvents. Thousands of teenagers are putting their lives at risk by sniffing glue, lighter fluid and other substances. I have heard of some remarkable and inventive cases of youngsters setting fire to plastic bins because the make-up of the bins and the toxic fumes from them can give them a kind of high. Sadly, that inventiveness is all going to the wrong purposes—purposes that can bring about tragedies.

Some 1,700 deaths related to such substances were recorded among young people in the UK between 1983 and 2000. On average, more than one young person dies in the UK every week because of solvent abuse. More worryingly, great concern remains about the level of deaths among under-18s from the abuse of cigarette lighter fluid. Statistics gathered before 1999, prior to the introduction of regulations on cigarette lighter refills, show that the figures almost doubled in 2000. Butane cigarette lighter refills now account for 64 per cent. of all substance abuse deaths. The statistics go on and on. St. George's hospital medical school's current report provides figures for 2001 on deaths from solvent and volatile substance abuse. For the first time, there was strong evidence that disposable cigarette lighters were involved in substance abuse deaths.

For under-18s, there has been no sustained decrease in deaths since 1999. It is therefore clear that we face a nationwide problem. It is not confined to one area of the UK. Young people remain the group most associated with solvent abuse. Between 1971 and 2000, most deaths from substance abuse occurred in the 14 to 18-year-old range. There are even recorded cases of children under the age of 10 dying from the effects of solvent abuse.

The statistics in the graph show that solvent abusers can be male or female. There seems to be no connection, other than a general trend up and down over the years. However, the graph indicates higher numbers of solvent-related deaths among boys. There is no stereotypical solvent abuser. People who abuse solvents can come from any social, cultural or ethnic background, and we have to take that into account in addressing the problem. We cannot tackle the issue by targeting one problem area. It covers a range of areas and does confine itself to one location or type of person. We must therefore combat the problem nationally.

One of the most distinctive factors about solvent abuse is that the products involved have a legitimate everyday use. The age at which young people experiment with such substance abuse is generally much younger than for controlled substances. We all know that there have been many debates, questions and early-day motions in the House on solvent abuse, and it is time to ask the Government to strengthen the regulations even further, particularly on the sale of cigarette lighter fuel.

Re-Solv was started 10 years ago to combat the problem, and young people are still dying despite its best efforts. There are great antisocial behaviour problems, as well as crime-associated problems, with substance abuse. There are many reports of serious crimes being committed while people are high on lighter fuel. That is not to mention the impact that solvent abuse has on the people around those involved, such as their family, and the wider community.

In Scotland, the LOST campaign has already prompted the introduction of a test-purchasing scheme, which was piloted in my local region of Fife. It was aimed at stamping out the illegal sale of lighter fluid to young people. Test purchasing should be increased. One crucial method of preventing deaths by inhalation is to investigate vigorously the prospects of making the habit abhorrent. Reducing the cans' capacity would result in there not being enough lighter fuel to achieve a temporary high.

On the preventive side of the problem, a retail campaign working with the British Retail Consortium, the Government and schools is essential to make clear through educational programmes the dramatic and immediate threat that exists, even when someone is inhaling for the first time. It does not take a number of occasions to cause death, as Lee O'Brien showed, tragically.

Encouraging vigilance among shopkeepers not to sell several canisters of lighter fuel at once should be paramount in any campaign by the British Retail Consortium. We have to increase awareness of the tragedy behind the fact that a shopkeeper may make a profit from selling six tins of lighter fuel but the youngster who has purchased them has no intention of using the fuel for lighting cigarettes—although that in itself would kill them, never mind the inhalation of the fuel. It is quite clear why that purchase is being made, and through the British Retail Consortium we must seek co-operation with shopkeepers to ensure that they are vigilant and wise about discouraging such purchases.

The way forward is much tighter and stricter enforcement of the law. In Staffordshire, the council has three trading standards officers to police the sale of cigarette lighter fuel. Perhaps, therefore, consideration should be given to the nomination of an enforcement agency, which could well be trading standards. It would achieve a great deal if consideration were given to such a measure.

I am sure that the measures that I have outlined, taken together as a package, will make less likely unnecessary deaths such as that of Lee O'Brien. I re-emphasise that there are no safe levels with solvent abuse; as I said, it can kill the first time or the 100th time. As I mentioned, education is vital on the preventive side. With that in mind, I gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee, recognising, of course, the role of the devolved structures and the differences in terms of the educational role. However, solvent abuse is a UK issue, and consumer legislation is UK-wide. My efforts in Scotland and in Glenrothes have included working with the voluntary sector, and I congratulate all of those bodies on their important, unselfish and caring work.

I congratulate the Home Office and the Department of Health on their findings in the document "Out of Sight?...not out of mind", which recommends better education, and that we should deal with volatile substances locally and reduce their availability and accessibility. They are commendable areas to emphasise and concentrate on for the future. If we do so collectively, that will make a profound difference in reducing the number of deaths from this appalling practice; young people do not realise the life-threatening nature of the experience that they are about to encounter.

I call on Government agencies and Departments to implement the recommendations as soon as possible. All too often, we reach an awareness stage, we collate and note the information and the drive is there to amass the information—I hope that that drive does not end and that the Minister, in his new position, will take the matter forward with great vigour. It is our task to make children and young people aware and to protect them from such dangers.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 5:16 pm, 24th May 2006

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. MacDougall on securing this important debate, and on the way in which he presented his points. Before I forget, may I also thank him for welcoming me to my position? It is kind of him to give me his good wishes.

I acknowledge the work that my hon. Friend has done to highlight this important issue on behalf of his constituents and other families who have the experienced tragic consequences of volatile substance abuse, or VSA, as I shall call it. On behalf of the Government, I pay tribute to the O'Brien family for the way in which they have tried to do something following Lee's awful and tragic death.

Tackling the use of drugs and other substances by young people, including VSA, is a key element of the Government's national drug strategy. As my hon. Friend will know, some responsibilities for tackling VSA are devolved to the Scottish Executive and others are UK-wide. Broadly, the regulations under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 regarding offences of selling butane lighter refills are UK-wide, although there are some differences in Scottish law. Shopkeepers in Scotland can be prosecuted under common law if it can be proved that they knew that the product would be abused by the purchaser irrespective of age.

My hon. Friend made the point well that it is important that laws are enforced. I hope that, through this debate, the message will go out loud and clear that the law is there to protect people. Let us see that law enforced to prevent the tragedies that he talked about.

Education and health make important contributions to the comprehensive approach required to tackle this issue. Those areas are also devolved, but we work closely with the devolved Administrations, sharing experience and good practice, and where appropriate, achieving economies of scale with joint work. My hon. Friend will be aware that his work to secure the piloting and introduction of test purchasing in Scotland, which is a technique used successfully in England by trading standards officers to control the supply of volatile substances to under-18s, alongside other age-restricted products, has been quite successful. The Lord Advocate has announced that test purchasing can now be used in Scotland following a successful pilot involving under-age sales of tobacco. Alongside other action, the Scottish Executive are funding a training programme for trading standards officers on test purchasing. I hope that that training will make that action much more effective.

I shall outline the action that we have taken in England under the wider drugs strategy, as well as specific action on VSA in both parts of the UK. Helping young people avoid the harms and risks associated with drugs and other substances requires a comprehensive approach. I know from my work before I came to the House that that approach is important: I was a teacher with specific responsibilities for drug education, which involved trying to encourage young people to avoid the lure of substance abuse. A comprehensive approach was needed not only in what the school was doing, but more widely across all the agencies and including the family from which the young person whom one felt was at risk came.

We need tough action to crack down on dealers, particularly where young people are at risk. We need to provide effective substance misuse education and credible information to young people and their parents. We also need to ensure that those most at risk are identified and targeted early, and that specialist support and treatment are available for those already using drugs and other substances. Sometimes the joined-upness of the system could be improved.

We have made good progress in England through our young people and drugs programme, in which the Home Office is working hard with the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Healthto deliver evidence-based interventions designed toreduce the impact of drug and substance misuse on individuals and the community.

The use of class A drugs by young people is stable, with encouraging reductions in the use of some other drugs. For example, as compared with 1988, the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds reporting the use of cannabis in the past year has fallen by 16 per cent. Acquisitive crime, to which drug related crime makes a significant contribution, fell by 12 per cent. in the year to April 2005. Therefore, within our overall approach to drugs, we are taking specific action on volatile substance misuse.

We introduced the Cigarette Lighter Refill (Safety) Regulations 1999, which banned the supply or sale of butane cigarette lighter refills to people under the age of 18. It is incumbent on us to ensure that people are aware of those laws and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, that the law is enforced and action is taken against offenders. Where we have training for trading standards officers, it is to be hoped that they will use the law to full effect.

Although VSA is not an offence in itself, the supply or sale of any product to a person under the age of 18 with the knowledge that they are going to inhale it for the purposes of abuse is an offence. We need to ensure that people are aware of the law as it stands and that that law is enforced.

We have also introduced a system of voluntary warning labels for aerosols and other abusable products. We published the first ever national framework for VSA in July 2005, which sets out an action plan aimed specifically at reducing deaths and harms associated with VSA. The action plan identifies new interventions and drives forward those for whose effectiveness we already have good evidence. There is not much point in having a strategy, for all its fine words, unless we think that it is going to work. That is the point. My stay in the Home Office will be related to trying to ensure that what we have written down in paper translates into action in communities.

The key priority areas identified in the framework include providing better information about VSA. The Frank campaign has become a credible source of information and advice for young people and their parents. More than 1.3 million calls have been made to the Frank helpline, and there have been 11.3 million visits to the website and more than 82,000 e-mails sent to and replied to by Frank.

In 2005-06, about 4 per cent. of calls to the Frank helpline were about solvents. In response, the Frank website has increased the information that it provides on VSA. Frank leaflets are in the process of being revamped, with a greater emphasis on VSA. In addition, Frank helpline operators have received extra training on VSA better to equip themselves with calls from young people, parents and people working with those at risk.

The Scottish Executive also have a comprehensive programme of action under way. That includes providing advice on solvents through the "Know the score" information line, the distribution of materials to retailers in 2005 to raise awareness of the law governing sales of the items in question and the provision of drug education, including about solvents, in nearly all schools. The Scottish Executive have also supported the development of the Young Scot card, accredited under the British Retail Consortium's proof-of-age standards scheme. To date, 160,000 PASS-accredited cards have been issued. My hon. Friend will be interested to know that there will be a full roll-out of the scheme to all 32 Scottish local authorities in the next few months. As part of the package, the Scottish Executive have funded the production by the Scottish Retail Consortium of a leaflet that reminds retailers of the age restrictions applicable to the purchase of various goods, which covers the point we made earlier about people knowing about the law. The Scottish Executive have also provided Re-Solv with a three-year training grant with effect from 2005-06.

Schools have a key role to play. More young people need drug education in schools, including on VSA. Nearly 10,000 schools have achieved the national healthy schools standard, which includes substance misuse education. We need to ensure that drugs education is fully effective. The Home Office is funding the blueprint programme, which is the UK's biggest drug education research project. A key element of the blueprint programme is a health policy component designed to reduce the availability of age-restricted products, including volatile substances, where the programme was delivered. That included proof-of-age schemes, training for retailers and, where necessary, test purchasing activity. Final results from the research will be available by the end of 2007, and they will help to inform the future development of effective drug education.

We are ensuring that those whose work brings them into contact with VSA in the health, education, social care, community and youth justice sectors have the confidence and skills to identify and respond to VSA. We are also ensuring that those who need help with drugs and other substances can receive specialist support.

More young people are accessing targeted interventions through children's services and the youth justice system. More than 110,000 young people have engaged in "Positive Futures", a social inclusion programme that uses sport and leisure activities to engage with disadvantaged and socially marginalised young people. There are 116 "Positive Futures" projects running in high-crime and deprived areas. "Positive Futures" provides training for project staff on substance misuse, including VSA. It is important for us not only to have the enforcement, but to work to tackle some of the deprivation and other causes that may lead disaffected young people to abuse substances.

In England, 80 per cent. of local authorities have identified tackling substance misuse as a key priority in their plans for children and young people as part of the local delivery of "Every Child Matters". The VSA framework has identified butane as a priority. It is imperative that we make butane cigarette lighter refills as far as possible impracticable for abuse by inhaling, especially by children and young people, as that is still the biggest cause of VSA deaths among under-18s. Action in that area could have a dramatic effect, and I am pleased that the VSA framework has targeted it as a key priority.

It is important that all those working with vulnerable children and young people play their part in addressing the VSA needs of those in their care, and that all children and young people receive effective education about VSA. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, statistics from the St. George's hospital medical school show that deaths from VSA are at an all-time low.

However—this is the important point—51 deaths in 2003 are still far too many. That means that in our country, approximately one young person every week dies from VSA. Six of those deaths were in Scotland, which is the lowest number for several years—but it is still far too many. As my hon. Friend pointed out, VSA is responsible for more deaths in young people under 15 than illegal drugs.

To conclude, the Government take very seriously the points that my hon. Friend made. We will consider reducing the capacity of the fuel cans, as he mentioned. We are reviewing that. It is about enforcing the law and ensuring that we make our young people aware, and the message that has to go out from here today is that one death a week among our young people from VSA shows that this is an important debate. My hon. Friend was right to raise this subject and the Government are trying to give it the priority that it needs. Far too often, other illegal drugs are mentioned and VSA gets forgotten. That is something that we must ensure does not happen, and my hon. Friend's debate has given us the opportunity to put forward what we are doing. Working together, we can ensure that we reduce the number of deaths still further.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Five o'clock.