12 September 2023
Sir Mike Penning backs legislation to make possession of NOS illegal

Sir Mike Penning backs bringing nitrous oxide under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 as a class C drug.

Sir Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con)

I refer the House to my outside interests on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I bear the scars of being on the Treasury Bench in 2016 when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) alluded to, I took through the primary legislation on what most people called “legal highs” or synthetic drugs. We had many a debate, like we are having this evening, on how far that legislation should go and what it should contain. I learned an awful lot during the Bill’s passage—I took it all the way through—about certain habits and certain uses of certain products. We discussed nitrous oxide, and at the time I was comfortable with it being exactly where it was until today.

I agree with many colleagues on both sides of the House that the enforcement envisaged when we passed that legislation has not materialised in quite the way we would have liked. Corner shops were selling legal highs and, sadly, there were some really tragic deaths. People were not only hospitalised but long-term hospitalised, and parents lost young children, so we had to pass that legislation. Alongside this statutory instrument we should have more enforcement, although I know that not everyone in the House agrees.

Local government could do more, and it is asking for these powers. My constituents are fed up to the hind teeth with their parks and streets being turned into dumps. I have many beautiful parks in my constituency, and I recently spoke to the gardeners responsible for looking after Gadebridge Park. I was astonished when they told me of the sheer quantities of these little capsules—we also have some degree of the larger ones coming through now. I stand to be corrected, but do not think these little capsules are for commercial use. They are specifically manufactured for the predominantly young people who think nitrous oxide is safe, which is massively dangerous. When we had the debates back in 2016, we heard that the same language was being used to indicate that legal highs were safe. Nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas” as it is called by those who want to undermine the argument we are making today, is not safe. It is dangerous. Some people using it will feel, at the stage they have been using it now—God knows what will happen further down the line—that it is okay and has had no effect on them. However, like others who have spoken this evening, I have heard from my constituents of instances where nitrous oxide has had a devastating effect on their young children. It appears that younger and younger children are using this product and it is becoming increasingly freely available.

I support this measure and will go through the Lobby in support of it, but legitimate questions have been raised in the House today. If we pass legislation, we have to feel that it is going to make a difference and be enforceable. I do not quite know how my local police force in Hertfordshire is going to be able to enforce this. I do not know how it enforces the legislation, which I voted against, on people smoking in their car if there is a young person there. We all know that that legislation was right and logical, but it is almost unenforceable and there have been almost no prosecutions. So there is a lot more work to be done, and the Minister is going to have some of the scars that I had on my back as a result of this, but what we are doing is right. Let me go back to the issue of advice. Ministers get advice from many different places—colleagues, experts, their civil servants and their special advisers—but at the end of the day they have to make the decision. On the decision that this Minister has made, there will be work to be done when we bring the further secondary legislation through, and we might need to amend primary legislation in the distant future. We have heard from both Front Benchers that there is no intention to do that imminently, which will disappoint some in the House this evening. However, it is right to concentrate on what we can do today in this House to protect our constituents and their loved ones, and I hope that this legislation will do that.