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24 May 2006 : Column 521WH

Yvette Cooper: That is complete nonsense. The fact is that the information provided by HIPs is largely provided in the current process. However, it is now provided at the end of the process and only after a huge amount of money and time has been spent trying to get hold of information that may not be needed because the sale has fallen through.

That is a waste. It is a market inefficiency and a classic example of a market failure, with a lack of proper transparency and proper information. Let us try to imagine making an offer for a car without knowing whether it had passed its MOT. People would not do it. Why should we have a system in which someone makes an offer, the seller accepts it, but the deal is done on the basis of very limited information? With such a huge asset and when so much information is required before the deal can be completed, why should we use a system that causes inefficiency and protracted delays and that has such huge costs?

Those who seek to defend the existing system are trying to defend the indefensible. The question is how to improve it. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) has started to list those who want to defend the current system, all of whom currently make money from it. It is important to consider the consumer’s perspective. The approach is about preventing duplication, providing information up front and dealing with the lack of transparency.At the moment, when somebody is waiting for information, they do not know whether it is the fault of their solicitor or the other party’s solicitor, or even whether it is the estate agent’s fault. People can spend much of the time in a fog, but if the information is provided up front in a home information pack, they will know exactly what the information is, and also who will be responsible if it is not available.

The pack also makes it much quicker to get a mortgage valuation. I know that people are complaining that mortgage lenders will not use home condition reports, but those reports will be far more robust and comprehensive than the valuations and surveys on which mortgage lenders now base their valuations. In practice, mortgage lenders will take home condition reports seriously because they will be based on the work of home inspectors, who will be properly certified.

Hon. Members have made important points about the number of home inspectors, and it is clear that home inspectors need to be in place in time for the commencement of the home information pack system on 1 June 2007. The time that it takes surveyors to complete the courses is relatively limited. Hon. Members are right to say that we must ensure that home inspectors are in place, but it is now May 2006, and there are still 12 months to go before the new system is in place.

Another benefit is that home information packs will be free to first-time buyers. Opposition Members have expressed a sudden interest in the fortunes of first-time buyers. They are suddenly concerned and claim to want to represent and improve the lot of first-time buyers. First-time buyers will get for free the information that they currently have to pay for. Most of us are buyers and sellers, so there will not be that much difference for
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us, but the new system will make a difference to first-time buyers, because they will get the same information for free.

We will also prevent first-time buyers facing huge bills after the process, as many currently do, because of problems with the property of which they were not aware. That affects many first-time buyers. People may be prevented from taking on debts that they cannot sustain or afford because they did not know something about the property in advance.

Energy performance certificates will also be provided. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) referred to energy efficiency information. That is extremely important. The new system is a great opportunity to provide people with information about the energy efficiency of a home at the beginning of the process. Opposition Members are supposedly interested in the environment now, too. Is it their official policy to support energy performance certificates? If they do not, many of their warm words on energy—

Michael Gove: Is it not the case that those certificates are required under European law anyway and that there is no requirement to have home information packs in order to make them available?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman is right. There is no requirement to have a home information pack in the European system, but under the European system we have to bring in energy performance certificates by 2009. Home information packs allow us to introduce them in 2007 and in a cost-effective way. Rather than expecting people to pay separately and additionally for energy performance certificates, we can incorporate them into the home condition report at a much cheaper cost for consumers. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is saying that he is still in favour of energy performance certificates, although I notice that he did not take the opportunity to say whether his party is in favour of them. Perhaps he needs to clarify his position and tell us whether he believes that the certificates should be paid for separately and additionally, rather than incorporated cost-effectively into a home condition report, as we have advocated.

Opposition Members are right: this is about a transformation in the home buying and selling market. The new system is an important aspect alongside e-conveyancing and provides us with a way of making e-conveyancing more effective. Significantly, it is also about encouraging new entrants into the market and making it more transparent. Hon. Members may be aware that Asda has said that it wants to enter the estate agency market and will provide home information packs for consumers for free. The reason why Asda is saying that it can do so is that estate agents’ fees have, in many cases, remained the same. The proportion has remained the same at a time when house prices have doubled, so estate agents have had big increases in the fee that they receive per transaction. Because of the lack of transparency in that area, it is right to encourage new entrants and to promote home information packs as an important part of creating greater transparency.

Hon. Members expressed concern about whether the new system will have an impact on the market. The
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hon. Member for Bridgwater has quoted the Danish estate agents association as saying that the packs would have a big impact on the market. The man who was chief executive of Denmark’s estate agents association until the end of February this year has written to the hon. Gentleman and has copied me into his correspondence. He says:

as saying that

He continues:

I concede that I have not read the report myself, because it is in Danish—

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but we must move on to the next debate.

24 May 2006 : Column 524WH

Solvent Abuse

5 pm

Mr. John MacDougall (Glenrothes) (Lab): 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
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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
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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
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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.

5.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes(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.

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