Orders of the Day — Protective Headgear for Young Cyclists Bill
9:30 am

Order for Second Reading read.

9:34 am
Photo of Mr Eric Martlew

Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is the third time that my name has been drawn in the private Members' ballot since I was elected in 1987. I always put my name into the ballot and always secretly hope that I will not be successful. I know that for the next four, five or six months the Bill will certainly change priorities and dominate my working life. I will become what is known as a private Bill bore, which is not a member of the British Army. I will talk of nothing else and everyone else's eyes will glaze over. That has been my experience with two Bills. Although I have failed to get them on to the statute book, that does not seem to have been an obstacle in achieving their objectives.

My first Bill aimed to stop calves being exported from the United Kingdom to the cruel veal crates on the continent. Although the Bill failed, within six months BSE ensured that that cruel trade would stop. Fortunately, it has not restarted.

My second Bill was designed to take Railtrack out of the private sector. The Bill failed, of course, and I can remember the Government speaking against it at the time. However, within four months, they had put Railtrack into liquidation and Network Rail, a not-for-profit organisation, had been formed. Even if this Bill fails today, I am sure that, with my record, the law will be changed in the near future.

Photo of Mr Christopher Chope

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Government have already told him that they oppose the Bill and are intent on talking it out?

Photo of Mr Eric Martlew

Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I think that the hon. Gentleman must have defective hearing. I said, "If this Bill fails". I did not say that it would fail, and I am confident that enough of my hon. Friends are here to carry the day unless the Conservatives try some sharp practice.

When I came seventh in the ballot, I knew that I would be very popular, but I did not expect to be as popular as I was. Within an hour of the ballot, somebody knocked on my door with a Christmas hamper, saying, "If you do my Bill, I will give you the hamper." Unfortunately, I was not bribed that easily. I took a leisurely look at all the Bills. I returned to my constituency office and went through the piles of stuff that we had and I read a letter from the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust asking me whether I would take up its Bill. The letter was signed by the trust's chief executive, Angela Lee, OBE.

I was immediately interested in the Bill, because it reminded me of a serious road accident that I was involved in as a child; one could say that I had a flashback. When I was about five-years-old, I had an argument with a petrol tanker in which I came off second best. Obviously, I was not responsible as a child, and the accident was my fault. Although I do not remember the accident itself, I remember the separation from my parents and the months in hospital. I remember the loss of schooling and the embarrassing physical scars that I had at the time. Bald patches on the head and scars on the face were very embarrassing for a child. I thought that if I could help to alleviate such or worse cases for children, it would be a very good Bill. That was one of the main factors in my decision.

I then started to examine what the Government were doing. I came to the conclusion that they had a bit of a blind spot about protecting child cyclists. There is a lack of safety training, and I understand that a private company is launching an initiative today to attempt to replace the cycling proficiency test. I well remember my cycling proficiency test; it was the first examination I passed, and I did not pass too many after that.

Photo of Mr Eric Martlew

Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

It may be a bit cruel, but it is not far from the truth.

I also realised that there is a lack of legislation on helmets. I thought, "This Government are supposed to be doing a great deal for children." We now have a Minister for Children, who apparently has no involvement in this Bill, and we are talking about having a commissioner for children, but I still think that the Government should do something on this matter.

The second thing that I noticed about the Bill is that it is simple, well defined, modest, targeted and effective. It would work, which is very important for a private Member's Bill. Thirdly, the Bill is easy for people outside the House to relate to, because the vast majority of them have cycled at one time or another. I am sure that most hon. Members will also have cycled at some stage, so they will understand the Bill's significance. That is why I decided to promote it.

I want to record my thanks to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have supported my Bill. I have received letters of support from 200 Members.

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I suspect that 400 Members have gone to school today because it is national "back to school" day. Some Members pay more attention to their constituents than the right hon. Gentleman does, but that is a matter for him.

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Mr Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst, Conservative)

I tend to give priority, as a Member of Parliament, to the making of law, which is what I always thought we were supposed to be here for. If other Members choose to give priority to visiting schools when law is being made—or not, as the case may be—that is a matter for them. I was simply saying that it is all very well for Members to come here on a Friday and claim that 200 Members support their Bill, but I hope that we will see evidence of that when the House comes to vote.

Photo of Mr Eric Martlew

Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

There are two schools of thought about the right hon. Gentleman: one is that he is a great parliamentarian and the other is that he is a pain in the neck. I have never changed my opinion about him.

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Mr Andrew Dismore (Hendon, Labour)

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I remember Opposition Members protesting only a few weeks ago about the Genetically Modified Organisms Bill not proceeding simply because—

Photo of Mrs Sylvia Heal

Mrs Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. We have business before the House today, and it has nothing to do with Mr. Forth.

Photo of Mr Eric Martlew

Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I was not sure what the right hon. Gentleman was talking about.

I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for their support. I am grateful also to many of my ministerial colleagues, including the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the Minister without Portfolio and the Secretary of State for Transport. I understand that the Prime Minister, too, supports my Bill. I also give special thanks to my right hon. Friend Mr. Bradley for the work that he has done in the Health Committee on this issue, and to my right hon. Friend Jean Corston for the work that she has done on the Bill behind the scenes.

I give special thanks, too, to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Mr. Jamieson, who will reply to the debate. He has been helpful and courteous throughout our discussions. In 1995, he successfully promoted a private Member's Bill, the Activity Centres (Young Persons' Safety) Bill. Its purpose, like that of my Bill, was to save children's lives.

I thank the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, a small registered charity that ensures that child cycle safety is not forgotten, and its patron, the racing driver David Coulthard, who flew straight from the Malaysian grand prix to help me launch my Bill in the House of Commons. Its chief executive, Angela Lee, is the driving force behind the trust. She is a nursing sister at a Reading hospital whose experience of the consequences of child cycling accidents made her realise that something had to be done to change the law. She has worked tirelessly to build a broad coalition of support among parents, the medical and scientific community, the Government, civil servants and Members of Parliament. The cause for which she and the trust fight is very straightforward: to protect kids on their bikes by making them wear a helmet. It must be to the credit of the trust that the Bill is being debated today.

Photo of Ms Meg Munn

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley, Labour/Co-operative)

Is there not a great deal more that can be done to protect children on bicycles, such as having more separated cycle routes, particularly for young people going to school, which we clearly want to encourage? We need to develop proper, safe routes and proper training in cycling proficiency, as my hon. Friend has already outlined. Should we not also be impressing more on motorists their responsibilities to respect the road space of cyclists? I speak as somebody who regularly cycles to and from the House of Commons. All those issues have to be tackled along with that of wearing helmets.

Photo of Mr Eric Martlew

Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I accept that totally. If my hon. Friend intends to speak later, perhaps she will tell us whether she wears a helmet.

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Mr Andrew Dismore (Hendon, Labour)

My hon. Friend Ms Munn made a very good point about cycle lanes. Will my hon. Friend Mr. Martlew join me in condemning Conservative-controlled Barnet council, which has decided to start to remove cycle lanes to allow traffic to move more quickly, thus jeopardising the safety of children and others who use bicycles?

Photo of Mr Eric Martlew

Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I have no knowledge of that, but as the council is not Labour-controlled, I will condemn it.

I return to the serious point that I was making. The death of a child is a tragedy, but a death that could have been avoided is a scandal, and today we are working to prevent such deaths. I hope that Ministers will take note of the debate and support the Bill.

The Minister for Children, whom I have already mentioned, has published a Green Paper, "Every Child Matters", in which the Government identify a number of outcomes that are important to children, including being healthy, staying safe and getting the most out of life.

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Mr David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde, Labour)

My hon. Friend speaks about avoiding children's deaths. Even if children who are involved in cycling accidents do not die, they can sustain serious head injuries that leave them with disabilities for the rest of their lives, and that, too, is a tragedy, so the Bill is also about preventing avoidable long-term damage to children.

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

Yes, for every child who dies, about 10 are severely injured, and many of those suffer brain injuries.

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Mr Ian Stewart (Eccles, Labour)

Does my hon. Friend accept that when we reach adulthood we can have arguments and express different views about whether we should impose things on people for their own good, but safety is an educative process that is best started when children are young and impressionable, so that they accept good practice throughout the rest of their lives?

Photo of Mr Eric Martlew

Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

We have a responsibility in that regard as parliamentarians, parents and citizens of the UK. Some people have accused me of introducing a Bill that expands the nanny state. I suspect that few of my colleagues had a nanny, but we know that the job of nannies is to look after children. Children reach an age at which they can decide things for themselves, and the Bill says that once they reach 16 they do not have to wear a helmet. I am not one of those who say that helmets should be compulsory for every cyclist. This is not the thin end of the wedge; it is what we should be doing for children.

Before I was so kindly interrupted, I was discussing the Green Paper. It is all very well issuing a Green Paper, but if the Government fail to support the Bill they will send the wrong signals. I argue that cycle helmets are crucial to ensuring healthy, safe and enjoyable lives for hundreds of thousands of young cyclists in this country.

Photo of Mr Christopher Chope

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman says, "If the Government support the Bill" but I thought he had already said that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Transport did so. Is he suggesting that his Government are speaking with forked tongue?

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I am a little disappointed. Originally, Mr. Brazier, who I know supports the Bill, was to be the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. It appears that Mr. Chope is interested only in making political points, which I find upsetting.

The sad truth is that a disproportionate number of accidents involve child cyclists. Figures from the Transport Research Laboratory and the Department for Transport starkly reveal how vulnerable child cyclists are. The TRL points out that although children account for 6.6 per cent. of road cyclists, they account for 21 per cent. of cyclist deaths in a three-year period. Child cyclists are four times more likely than adult cyclists to die on the roads. Once a fortnight, a child dies in a cycling accident on the roads of this country. More than once a day, a child is seriously injured in such an accident and is likely to be disabled. I mentioned that hon. Members were likely to be visiting schools in their constituencies today. I am talking about the equivalent of wiping out a primary class and severely disabling a secondary school every year. I do not claim that cycle helmets will necessarily reduce the number of accidents, but I am absolutely convinced that they will reduce the severity of the injuries sustained.

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

Statistics can be interpreted in various ways, but any death or injury is a tragedy. How many of the deaths of the 28 child cyclists killed on our roads each year could be prevented by the wearing of a helmet?

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I was just coming to that. Many of the accidents involve serious head injuries, and scientific research performed both here and abroad has proved that cycle helmets protect the head and brain against the worst effects of injury. Dr. Andrew Curran, whom I met in the House of Commons at the launch of my Bill, is a consultant paediatric neurologist at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool and has for three and a half years been involved in research into the effect of head injuries in children. He believes that the wearing of a cycle helmet reduces brain damage in children by 80 per cent. Perhaps the most comprehensive independent analysis of existing research is the Department for Transport-commissioned "Bicycle Helmets: A review of their effectiveness" published in November 2002. I recommend it as a very good read, although I am sure that all hon. Members read it before coming to this debate. I am grateful to the Department for its lead in marshalling and reviewing the evidence in this crucial area. The report states that

"there is now a considerable amount of scientific evidence that bicycle helmets have been found to be effective at reducing head, brain and upper facial injury in bicyclists. Such health gains are appropriate for all ages, though particularly for child populations."

The report states simply that cycle helmets save lives. Supporters of the Bill, which include a wide range of highly respected professional organisations, have clearly reached the same conclusion.

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Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham, Labour)

There are some who would accuse my hon. Friend of extending the nanny state. Does he agree that the same arguments were used in the 1960s and '70s against the wearing of seat belts, and that the legislation passed in that respect has reduced the number of deaths and the personal tragedy experienced by families whose members would otherwise have died on the roads?

Photo of Mr Eric Martlew

Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

My hon. Friend is perfectly right. We have always seen a knee-jerk reaction against such measures, whether on the wearing of seat belts or preventing drink-driving, but, after a while, such things become common sense and we wonder why we did not do them before.

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Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

The answer to Mr. Jones is that requiring people to wear car seat belts has not stopped car use, whereas the Bill, if passed, would have a dramatic effect in terms of discouraging children from cycling. When helmet laws were introduced in Australia, the result was large decreases in the number of people cycling: child cycling fell by between 30 and 50 per cent.

Photo of Mr Eric Martlew

Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the facts, and not at that pamphlet, he will find that cycling has since returned to its former levels. In addition, he will recall that I said that only 6.6 per cent. of cyclists in this country are children.

I have strong support from various organisations. I have here a letter from Sir Peter Morris, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, who writes:

"This seemed to me an entirely sensible public health measure and I am pleased to inform you that the . . . Royal College of Surgeons of England yesterday expressed full support for your Bill."

I also have support from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Faculty of Accident and Emergency Medicine, the Society of British Neurological Surgeons, the Faculty of General Dental Practitioners, the British Dental Association, the Institute of Road Safety Officers, the Child Brain Injury Trust, the brain injury organisation, Headway, the road safety organisation, Brake, this country's leading cycle retailer, Halfords, and, last but not least, and greatly welcome, the Royal College of Nursing, whose letter states:

"we strongly support the bill and our members have first hand experience of the tragic injuries and loss of young life which could have been prevented by wearing a cycle helmet. Whilst wishing to encourage people to cycle as much as possible we also want to ensure this is done safely".

One person who has first-hand experience of such tragic injuries is Mr. Alistair Fraser-Moodie, a consultant in accident and emergency medicine at Derbyshire royal infirmary for the past 26 years. He writes:

"It is quite obvious to me as a practising clinician seeing patients come through the front door of our hospital that once you are on a pedal cycle the chances of survival in a crash are far greater if you wear a helmet. These poor pedal cycle casualties only realise this when the shock has died down and some well-meaning ambulance man gives them their cycle helmet back again. Instead of suffering a fractured skull or worse they have a bruised skull, a bit of concussion and a smashed up helmet. So the helmets have taken the strain.

It is about time that we start looking after the children in our country. Many use their pedal cycles to get to school. Others use their pedal cycles for paper rounds or pleasure alone. It is about time we protected these children by introducing the compulsory wearing of cycle helmets. Failure to do this will inevitably result in carnage."

For me, Mr. Fraser-Moodie captures eloquently people's sense of anger and bemusement when, in the face of overwhelming evidence, no action is taken to protect children.

Photo of Mr Christopher Chope

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman cites many common-sense propositions, and I certainly advise my children to wear bicycle helmets, but why does he believe that the voluntary route has failed and is failing? Why does he not think that more should be invested in education about the propositions that he articulates?

Photo of Mr Eric Martlew

Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

My understanding is that, overall, 25 per cent. of cyclists wear helmets, but in the most vulnerable group—teenage boys—that figure is only 12 per cent., because wearing a helmet is considered "not cool". Peer pressure is such that they will not wear them, and those are the people who are most vulnerable. There are people—

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Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that cyclists in the 12 to 16 age group would think it cool to obey the law.

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I am not suggesting that at all. I was talking to my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, who told me in the Lobby that the Bill was excellent. As a mother, instead of telling her teenage children that they should wear a helmet, she will be able to say, "It's the law and you must wear a helmet." That is the advantage.

I said earlier that the Bill's aims are relatively modest, but that does not mean that it will not be effective. I said that the Bill was straightforward, but that does not mean that it oversimplifies the problem. While preparing it, I have been conscious of the need to frame legislation that will be practical and proportionate. The Bill makes it an offence to cause or permit a child under the age of 16 to ride a cycle on the road or in a public park or recreation ground unless the child is wearing protective headgear.

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Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley, Labour/Co-operative)

Can my hon. Friend explain his thinking about including off-road cycling? Although I do indeed wear a helmet while cycling to and from the House of Commons, I might take a different view depending where else, off-road, I was cycling. I would take a view of the risks involved in that. Clearly, the impact of a road traffic accident is likely to be much more serious than the effect of falling off a bike in a park. If my hon. Friend could tell us his thinking about that and about including off-road cycling in the Bill, I should be grateful.

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

Two thirds of accidents where children end up in hospital take place off the road. I know that my hon. Friend Mr. Pike will speak later about the son of a constituent of his who died recently not on the road, but riding his bicycle in a skateboard park.

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

The all-embracing nature of the Bill concerns me and has led me from an initial position of general support to a much greater scepticism. Will my hon. Friend comment on the following circumstance? A couple of weeks ago I went with my five-year-old daughter to a neighbouring park. She met one of her friends, who lent her her bicycle to ride around the park. Am I right in believing that I would be committing a criminal offence by allowing her to do that? Is that not taking matters a little too far?

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I know that my hon. Friend is a sensible person, and I believe that common sense will prevail. If, for example, one let a three-year-old ride a tricycle along the pavement, one would be committing an offence because that would be against the law. In reality, however, no action would be taken, because common sense would come into it. I can give two further examples of laws that are sometimes not enforced. We see few prosecutions of adults or children for riding bicycles on the pavement. Some of my constituents say there are not enough prosecutions for that. As another example, my hon. Friend Mr. Brown told me that he was in Whitehall last night and watched the number of cyclists go by without lights on their bikes. Apparently, they were wearing helmets, but they had no lights on their bikes. If my hon. Friend Mr. Lazarowicz takes the measure to the extreme, yes, he would be prosecuted, but in reality common sense will prevail.

I have a letter from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who says he has no objections to the Bill. In my discussions with him, he said that he thought that it was the law already. He understood the situation and he thought a long lead-in time might be needed to build up the rate of compliance before the Bill is introduced. There is no objection from the police.

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Mr Michael Foster (Worcester, Labour)

I take my children to Worcester Woods country park for rides on cycles. That is off-road, and one is not likely to come into contact with four-wheel-drive vehicles, but there are trees, branches and twigs that can easily get stuck in the spokes of a wheel and send the cyclist over the handlebars. That is why I insist that my three children wear helmets when they come on a cycle ride with me in Worcester Woods country park.

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for helping me out. He clears up the point that was made. I shall press on, as I do not want to be accused of talking out my own Bill.

The parent, guardian or employer of a child will be held responsible, as will the owner of a cycle if the owner is over the age of 15, or any person other than the cycle's owner who has custody or possession of the cycle immediately before the child rides it, if that person is over 15. The offence is liable to a level 1 fine, currently a maximum of £200. There is scope in the Bill to allow the Secretary of State to exempt certain groups and to prescribe the protective headgear that should be worn. The provisions of the Bill would cover all of the United Kingdom. For the purpose of the Bill, a cycle will mean a bicycle, tricycle or cycle with four or more wheels.

Hon. Members may think the Bill breaks new ground, but that is not the case. Those who were in the House before 1990 may remember the ten-minute Bill introduced by the then. Member for Ealing, North, Harry Greenway, and we know how difficult it is to get such a Bill on to the statute book. That Bill did almost exactly the same as my Bill would do, but for children riding horses. It is illegal for a child to ride a horse on a road unless the child is wearing a riding hat. That went through the House on a ten-minute Bill, so it must have been unopposed.

What my Bill will not do, as some of its more excitable opponents claim, is make every child cyclist and every parent of a child cyclist a potential criminal. The provision is an important mechanism to counteract persistent flouting of the law. I envisage that a friendly word of caution or a verbal instruction to provide a helmet for a child will suffice to make people comply with the legislation. The very fact that legislation is in place will encourage most people to ensure that children obey the law. It is one thing to tell teenagers they should wear a helmet, and another to be able to say, "You must wear a helmet because that is the law."

I know that the Minister is deeply concerned about compliance rates. His Department is increasingly active in targeting young people with the message that safe cycling makes sense. Last year the Department devoted £137,000 to an advertising campaign showing the importance of wearing a helmet. I welcome the efforts of the Department, but the fact that I have introduced the Bill indicates that I do not believe it is doing enough. The Minister wants wearing rates to reach a critical mass before he contemplates making that compulsory. I understand his motivation but ask him to consider whether that goal will ever be reached. Surely matters should be the other way around. Rather than waiting for wearing practices to change, the Government should introduce enforcement. The Minister should act now to put enforcement measures in place to ensure that wearing practices change.

If the Government do not, they will continue to fall into the trap of the opponents of helmets, such as the Cyclists Touring Club, which not only does everything possible to stop helmet wearing becoming mandatory, but campaigns against the Government advocating the wearing of helmets. That is one reason for concern that the Government will never achieve their compliance rates.

Helmet wearing rates in the population as a whole have increased from 16 per cent. in 1994 to 25 per cent. in 2002, but the trend among teenage boys has been reversed and is down to 12 per cent. It is all right for hon. Members to talk about freedom, but they know that the children are at risk, and I hope that they will take note of that.

Teenage boys are the most vulnerable group and it is not good enough to shake one's head and shrug one's shoulders and say that boys will be boys or that kids will be kids. It is precisely because children are children, who take risks on their bike, who make errors of judgment, who do not have experience, and who have to use their bikes for practical journeys, that action needs to be taken to protect them.

The Minister's policy of persuasion is well intended, but it will never deliver the results that all hon. Members must surely want—a safer cycling environment for all young people. His efforts must be backed by enforcement measures, which will be acceptable to the vast majority of the population once the issue is decided. Otherwise, we will continue in a curious policy vacuum in which the Government fully accept the case for cycle helmets and argue that children are vulnerable without them, but do precious little to rectify that situation. The Government's March 2000 road strategy said that the wearing rate of helmets for the population as a whole was about 18 per cent. It went on to say:

"At this level, making helmets compulsory would cause enforcement difficulties and without greater public acceptance could have an effect on the levels of cycling. We will monitor wearing rates and review the option of compulsory wearing from time to time."

Three and a half years later, in an answer to Mr. Hancock, who I understand supports my Bill, the Minister updated the wearing rates to 25 per cent. but his words sounded eerily familiar. He said:

"At these levels making helmets compulsory would cause enforcement difficulties and without greater public acceptance could have an effect on levels of cycling . . . We will continue to monitor wearing rates . . . and review the option of compulsory wearing from time to time."—[Hansard, 5 November 2003; Vol. 412, c. 639W.]

The time is now. To be frank, that does not inspire a great deal of confidence that the area of policy has been reviewed at all. In fact, it suggests to me that unthinkingly, and with a little complacency, the Government are doing their best to brush the matter under the carpet.

The issue will not go away, in part because helmet wearing is not increasing quickly enough, in part because young children continue to die or sustain serious injuries while cycling, and in part because people, including many hon. Members, are genuinely mystified by the Government's lack of activity in an area which, on the surface, they say is so important. We agree how effective helmets are, we agree on the vulnerability of child cyclists, and we agree on the importance of delivering a safer cycling environment. As the Prime Minister said to me on 3l March during Prime Minister's questions:

"The issue that my hon. Friend raises is a high priority for hon. Members and the Government."—[Hansard, 31 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 1594.]

Is it not a pity that we cannot yet agree on an effective method for delivering the outcome? I hope that the issue can be explored in more detail today and during later stages of the Bill.

I want to deal briefly with some of the opponents of the Bill. I do not include those hon. Members in the Chamber. I have been a Member of the House for quite a long time now and I have been involved in various campaigns, one of which was on the Hunting Bill with my hon. Friend Mr. Foster. After a while one acquires a grudging respect for one's opponents, despite disagreeing with them, but I cannot say that with regard to this Bill.

The Association of Cycle Traders seems more interested in selling bicycles than in the safety of children. It argues that helmets will have only a small benefit for cycle safety, which is nonsense. Then we have the National Cycling Strategy. I was ignorant of that quango before I took up the Bill, but I was rather alarmed to see that it had written to hon. Members, although it did not write to me, and its address is the Department for Transport, Marsham street. Moreover, it gave a distorted version of my Bill, so I hope that the Minister will investigate that.

I received a letter signed by the vice-chairman, which made me wonder who the chairman of the strategy was. I did a bit of digging and discovered that the chairman at the time the letter went out was none other than Mr. Steven Norris, a former Member of the House and the Conservative candidate for the Mayor of London. I wondered why he did not sign the letter opposing my Bill. This Bill is popular; it has 80 per cent. support in the country. Perhaps it was because he did not want to put his name to the letter because he thought that it would affect his vote. He is a clever man and he may also have thought that a letter from him to Labour Members of Parliament would have been counter-productive, and it probably would have been. Then I did some more digging and the vice-chairman is a chap called—

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Mr Andrew Dismore (Hendon, Labour)

Perhaps another reason for Mr. Norris not signing the letter is that he is rather too busy with his part-time job with Jarvis, where he spends two days a week for an enormous sum of money engaging in matters of greater concern to Londoners.

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, but I am not sure that that is the truth. To give credit where credit is due, I had a frank and full telephone conversation with Mr. Norris, so he obviously had time to phone me back.

To return to the point, it was the vice-chairman of the National Cycling Strategy who wrote to hon. Members. He is a senior executive of Raleigh Industries Ltd., and one of the arguments that he put forward against my Bill was that it would reduce cycling, and therefore, I suspect, the number of cycles, so perhaps the vice-chairman should have mentioned his other role in that letter. If hon. Members had written such a letter they would have had to declare some sort of interest.

Finally, I come to the Cyclists Touring Club. I am sure that most members of the CTC are normal, well-adjusted souls, but—

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Ms Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes, Labour)

As a former member of that organisation, I wish to reassure my hon. Friend that I am a normal, well-adjusted soul, and I support the wearing of cycling helmets.

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

My hon. Friend is as well adjusted as the rest of us, I will give her that.

I am sure that the CTC has well-adjusted members, but it seems to attract its fair share of lunatics in lycra. The organisation campaigns actively to stop the Government promoting the benefits of helmet wearing. All those hon. Members who have received a leaflet from that organisation must realise that not only is it against compulsory wearing of helmets for children or anyone else, but it campaigns actively against the Government saying that wearing helmets is a good idea.

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Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley, Labour/Co-operative)

Does my hon. Friend accept that some people are in favour of cycle helmet wearing, such as my constituent Simon Geller who is active in the local Pedals organisation and is a stalwart of cycling in Sheffield—but he is nevertheless very concerned about the Bill's enforceability? While he wears a helmet and encourages his children to do so as well, he is concerned that this measure would be difficult to enforce and that more needs to be done in terms of persuading people to wear helmets.

Photo of Mr Eric Martlew

Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

My hon. Friend could reassure her constituent by telling him that the Home Secretary sees no problem with enforcement. If the Home Secretary is happy with that, perhaps it will satisfy her constituent.

The CTC is anti-helmet to an extreme extent. I mentioned the £137,000 that the Government spent last year on advertisements in magazines. It is a pity that we did not spend more and put some of the advertisements on television, but the campaign was good. What did the CTC do? It took the Government to the Advertising Standards Authority to complain about the advertisement. That is the sort of people who have been sending leaflets. I accept that the vast majority of members are fine, and I know that a lot of them join because they get cheap insurance, but I suggest to the CTC that if it wants to be taken seriously, it should change its policies and also its leadership.

Before introducing the Bill, I thought that it was obvious that encouraging children to cycle should go hand in hand with measures to create a safe cycling environment.

Photo of Mr Andrew Dismore

Mr Andrew Dismore (Hendon, Labour)

I get the impression that my hon. Friend is coming to his conclusion. I have received a lot of representations from a plethora of cycling organisations that are opposed to his proposals, or at best lukewarm or neutral about them. Which cycling organisations, representing the people whom the Bill would affect, have come out in favour of it?

Photo of Mr Eric Martlew

Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I think that the vast majority of cycling organisations are against the Bill, but I remind my hon. Friend that professional cyclists have to wear helmets by compulsion in this country. They accept that, and they are working with a major company—I think that it is a pharmaceutical company—to improve cycle training for children. It will be compulsory for the children to wear helmets during that training.

I had hoped to finish my speech by now, but I have been generous with interventions. As I said, I thought it obvious that encouraging children to cycle should go hand in hand with measures to create a safe cycling environment. Last June, the Minister said in a press release:

"by making cycling safer, more people will take to their bikes".

I am sure that he still holds that view. I thought that it was common sense to say that cycling is a healthy and beneficial activity, but that it should be conducted in a sensible manner. That was before I encountered some of the Bill's opponents, who seem to find a dangerous and alarming contradiction between the promotion of cycling and the introduction of basic provisions to improve the safety of child cyclists. I do not believe that such a contradiction exists, which is why I am promoting the Bill, and I do not believe that anything in the provisions will discourage children from cycling, as some opponents claim.

Furthermore, I do not believe, as some of the Bill's opponents do, that helmets increase the risk of accidents. I prefer to accept the overwhelming evidence provided by scientific research around the world. Neither do I believe, as some of the Bill's opponents do, that the mandatory wearing of cycle helmets will lead to such a downturn in cycling that we will breed a new generation of obese Britons. If that is the best argument that opponents can come up with, I feel rather sorry for them.

None the less, however exaggerated and alarmist such claims may be, I accept that there are concerns. That is why, after today's debate, we should take the Bill Upstairs and scrutinise it. The Minister can table amendments and any hon. Member who wishes come to the Committee may do so and make their points. As has been pointed out, what we are witnessing now is the same knee-jerk, unthinking reaction that we saw when we introduced similar measures relating to cars. It was said that measures on drink-driving would never work, and the same was said about wearing seat belts.

Ultimately, the argument that the provisions will never work, that nobody will agree with them and that there is no way to enforce them is not only defeatist, but plainly wrong. If the Minister needs to be convinced of the measure's popularity, he should study the results of an independent survey carried out by MyVoice, a polling organisation, in April this year. More than 9,000 people were polled, and 80 per cent. of them wanted helmets to be made mandatory for children. Indeed, almost 70 per cent. of the children themselves wanted helmets to be made mandatory.

Experience in other countries has demonstrated the effectiveness of cycle helmets. The Government accept the effectiveness of helmets, but will do nothing about the issue. Accidents and injuries have declined dramatically in each of the countries where mandatory helmet wearing has been introduced, including Australia, New Zealand, Spain, the Czech Republic, parts of the United States and Canada. Of course, some of those laws have been in place for a long time. If they had been found to be wrong, I am sure that they would have been repealed by now.

In conclusion—I had not intended to speak for an hour—I hope that the Bill will receive the scrutiny and consideration that it deserves. If it does not become law, that will not be the end of the line. It is my intention to set up with others an all-party group to build up strong support, with the assistance of hon. Members from across the House. This matter is not going to go away. I remind the House of what I said in opening my remarks: my two previous private Members' Bills failed, but they became law soon afterwards. I do not think that we can keep on going forward knowing that we are sacrificing 28 children a year and knowing that some of them could be saved. As I said earlier, the loss of a child's life is a tragedy, but if we can do something to avoid it, such a loss is a scandal.

10:27 am
Photo of Sir George Young

Sir George Young (North West Hampshire, Conservative)

I congratulate Mr. Martlew on his good fortune in the ballot, and commend him for his wisdom and courage in choosing this subject. I also commend him on the way in which he introduced the Bill to the House.

On 19 April, I received a letter from the policy adviser to Sustrans expressing surprise that I was supporting the Bill and going on to say:

"All cycle world united against it."

Of course, that is nonsense. The cycle world is rarely united about anything. The cyclist is not a herd animal, but a loner who prefers to go his own way in his own time rather than get on a bus or a train. Most cyclists do not join an organisation, and those who do so have a love-hate relationship with it. I believe that I am an honorary vice-president of the Cyclists Touring Club, but I certainly do not share its view on the Bill.

As someone who has sought over the past 30 years to work with the many splendid organisations that are active in this field and to help mould them into an effective political force, I think I know what it must be like to be the Chief Whip of the Liberal Democrats. Cyclists are notoriously difficult to organise in a coherent way. Some oppose cycle lanes because they see them as the first step towards banning cyclists from the roads, while others want them. Some believe that the present road traffic laws should be observed and enforced, while others do not. So anyone who comes to this debate expecting to find a united view from the cyclist will be disappointed. I hope that the cyclists among us who end up on different sides of the argument do not let each other's tyres down at the Members' cycle rack.

I want to begin by putting the Bill in context. Of course, there is a general and legitimate debate about the respective role of the state on the one hand and of the individual and his family on the other. That is a relevant debate when it comes to lifestyle decisions, whether they relate to smoking, drugs or sexual preferences, and also in terms of activities that involve risk. I suspect that nothing that is said this morning will satisfy what I call the fundamental libertarians—those who believe that unless someone is directly doing harm to someone else, they should be free to take risks and injure themselves. Such hon. Members tend to sit on these Benches, and some of them may be here this morning—indeed, I shall give way to one of them.

Photo of Mr Edward Leigh

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

I do not oppose the Bill on fundamentalist libertarian grounds; I oppose it because it will result in a dramatic fall in cycle use.

Photo of Sir George Young

Sir George Young (North West Hampshire, Conservative)

That view is perfectly respectable, and I shall come on to it in a moment.

I do not subscribe to the fundamentalist libertarian view—nor does my party, as I shall show in a moment. I recall a story told to me by a consultant surgeon at the time of one of the earlier debates about seat belts. He was about to operate on a patient in St. George's hospital, which at that time was located at Hyde Park corner. The patient had a rare blood type of which it had taken the hospital some time to acquire sufficient quantities. Just before the patient went under the anaesthetic, there was an accident on Hyde Park corner. A driver who had not been wearing a seat belt was seriously injured and was brought into the hospital critically ill. He had the same rare blood group, so the supplies were given to him and the original operation was cancelled. That shows that, in the interdependent society in which we live, the health of one's neighbour is not a matter of complete indifference to oneself. We all have a mutual interest in living in a healthier society, where demands on the NHS are minimised by justifiable accident prevention measures.

Photo of Mr David Cairns

Mr David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde, Labour)

I am enjoying the right hon. Gentleman's speech. Given that the Bill is about children, surely not even the most fundamentalist of the fundamentalist libertarians believes that children should be free to do whatever they want.

Photo of Sir George Young

Sir George Young (North West Hampshire, Conservative)

I do not share that view, and if other Conservative Members share it, they must advance it. The question for the House is where this measure falls on the spectrum of legitimate intervention by the state—does it erode the liberty of the individual or is it a legitimate intervention by the state?

Moving from the general to the specific, road accidents are an obvious target for any Government who have an interest in reducing burdens on the NHS and reducing avoidable deaths and injury. So far as transport accidents are concerned, this House has decided to compel the individual to wear a seat belt, first as a driver and later as a rear seat passenger, to wear a crash helmet as a motor cyclist and, for those under 14, to wear a helmet if they ride a horse. Many of those measures were introduced under a Conservative Government, so Conservative Members have embraced the principle of legitimate state intervention.

Turning to the specifics of this Bill, the child road cyclist is the most vulnerable of all road traffic users. He is vulnerable both because he is a cyclist and is therefore more exposed, and because he is a child and is less able to cope with traffic and to assess risk—he is at four times greater risk than adults. However, he is the only road user who has no mandatory protection whatsoever.

I do not plan to spend too much time on medical evidence, because the hon. Member for Carlisle set out the case very well. I agree with Ministers that helmets are effective, and that they significantly reduce the incidence and severity of head injuries—according to the Library, there were 28 such deaths in 2002. As the hon. Member for Carlisle told the House, a Seattle-based study found that helmet use reduced the risk of head injury by 85 per cent., and the Transport Research Laboratory has come up with a slightly lower figure. Those 28 deaths are a legitimate subject for the House to debate. If it is possible to reduce them, let us do so, unless there are overpowering arguments to the contrary.

Photo of Ms Shona McIsaac

Ms Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes, Labour)

The right hon. Gentleman mentions the 28 deaths, but he should also mention the people who are seriously injured, who are in permanent vegetative states or who will be disabled for the rest of their lives.

Photo of Sir George Young

Sir George Young (North West Hampshire, Conservative)

That point is wholly legitimate. I entirely accept that one should not only focus on the statistics for death.

As the hon. Member for Carlisle said, the Royal College of Nursing supports the Bill, and although the British Medical Association favours the wearing of helmets, it is neutral on the Bill "at present"—it is possibly aligned with the Government, who are waiting for the voluntary wearing of helmets to increase before they legislate. In fact, nearly everyone agrees that it is sensible to wear a helmet, and the arguments then move on to the downside of compulsion. I want to examine those arguments, because I do not find them convincing.

The literature that has been sent to us contains some simplistic arguments. Obesity is, of course, an issue, but it has many causes and many cures. To ascribe to the passage of this Bill into law the dire consequences of a fresh generation of obese children is absurd. Early-day motion 774 states:

"European countries with the most cycling activity have the lowest obesity levels."

We have all been taught to avoid making such simplistic judgments and using the naive logic that because two things have happened, one is the consequence of the other. There may be other factors that explain the variation apart from cycling.

One of the booklets produced by the CTC states:

"any measure that discourages cycling will have a profound effect on average life expectancy"

and "likelihood of ill-health".

That is a heroic overstatement. Without producing any evidence, the Cyclists Public Affairs Group asserts that the Bill would increase the number of deaths from obesity. For some children, if they do not bicycle, they will have to walk, which is another healthy activity, and children who bicycle may also take other forms of exercise.

There has been no visible decline in horse riding since Harry Greenway's Bill reached the statute book a few years ago. Thirty years ago, one could ride a motor cycle without wearing a crash helmet, and when that law was changed, we heard the same arguments that it would deter people from riding motor cycles. However, I have met no one who is deterred from riding a motor bike because they must wear a helmet, and the same will be the case in a few years' time if this Bill reaches the statute book. To rest the argument on obesity, as some opponents do, is to assume, first, a large drop in cycling and, secondly, that as a result there will be substantial obesity that would not otherwise have occurred. I cannot accept that the matter is as simple as that.

The CTC has also adduced the false sense of security argument—again, we heard that argument in the context of seat belts and motor cycle helmets—where it is claimed that when safety increases, one takes risks that one would not otherwise take. Speaking personally, wearing a helmet is part of a total risk reduction strategy, rather than a pretext for taking extra risks. By the way, that strategy includes avoiding those cylindrical security drums that emerge from the road as one comes into the Palace of Westminster, which have unhorsed me twice.

On enforcement, again, we heard that argument in the debates about seat belts and motor cycle helmets. Yes, not everyone belts up, but that is not a serious argument for repealing the law on the compulsory use of seat belts. We have recently legislated on the use of mobile phones while driving, which I support, and I saw a piece in the paper yesterday indicating that not everyone obeys that law, but that does not mean that it should be repealed. If the law on helmets were changed, the vast majority would obey it, and it would be easier to enforce than, for example, the law on rear seat belts, because it is immediately obvious if someone is wearing a helmet.

Carlie Annetts is one of my constituents, and she has written to every hon. Member. I commend her courage at a recent press conference and her campaign in favour of the Bill. Her son Troy was knocked off his bicycle about two years ago when he was not wearing a helmet, and sustained what seemed at the time to be a minor head injury, which sadly turned out to be fatal. He would almost certainly have been saved had he been wearing a helmet. His mother Carlie does not want other parents to go through what she has been through, and I commend her vigorous campaign in support of the Bill.

Recent parliamentary answers from the Minister indicate that the Government want people to wear helmets, but they do not want to legislate at the moment and will review the option from time to time. It is clear that the Government have no objection in principle, and if voluntary wearing were to continue to increase, they would probably legislate at some point—but not yet. Last year, the Minister said:

"At these levels making helmets compulsory would cause enforcement difficulties and without greater public acceptance could have an effect on levels of cycling."—[Hansard, 5 November 2003; Vol. 412, c. 639W.]

The previous Government, in which I played a modest role, said that it was

"more effective at the present stage for Government actively to promote the voluntary wearing of helmets."—[Hansard, 8 July 1996; Vol. 281, c. 71.]

However, that was nearly 10 years ago.

The Minister's argument is a little perverse. More lives would be saved if there were 100 per cent. wearing of helmets. When voluntary wearing reaches, say, 80 per cent., he is prepared to legislate, but in terms of saving lives, the benefit of legislating then will be less than if he legislated now, when wearing is, say, 25 per cent. So if there is no objection in principle, why not do it now and save the extra lives? The Government's view is not whether, but when. If there is case for it, we should do it now. Of course the Government are concerned about greater public acceptance, to use the Minister's words, but the only survey that I have seen, of some 9,000 adults, found that 80 per cent. favoured mandatory wearing. That is the sort of majority with which any Member of this House would feel comfortable.

I want to bring my remarks to a conclusion because other hon. Members want to speak. I hope that the Bill reaches the statute book. I believe that it has worthwhile benefits and that the case against it is not made. I understand the anxieties of the opponents of the Bill. Personally, I would be prepared to delay its implementation—that is left to the Secretary of State—for some time to give the Government an opportunity to narrow the gap of non-wearers and make wearing more acceptable. What the House should do now is make a clear statement of principle that this is a sensible safety measure, but we need a bit of time for people to adjust.

I commend the hon. Member for Carlisle for introducing the Bill; should there be a Division, I shall be with him in the Lobby 100 per cent.

10:42 am
Photo of Mr Peter Pike

Mr Peter Pike (Burnley, Labour)

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Martlew on his speech and on promoting the Bill. I am delighted to follow Sir George Young. I have always regarded him as a friend, although he is on the other side of the House. He is certainly well respected, and is one of the House's most famous cycling Members. I enjoyed his speech in favour of the Bill.

I have a confession to make. When my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle chose this subject, I supported it right from the start, but it was not my intention to be here on a Friday to take part in the debate. I think hon. Members will know that I have for many years campaigned for the House to make all Fridays non-sitting days and to take private Members' Bills on another day. That is not because I want a shorter working week, but because I believe that it is important that Members can work in the constituency on a Friday, as it is the only time available to us when factories, schools and other places are working. Some Members who live in the south-east may not fully understand that, but it is a problem. Today, many Members throughout the country are involved in back to school day. I had a full programme of visits to four schools, but with their co-operation I am having my back to school day on 21 May, so Burnley's will be a bit later than the others.

I changed my mind about attending the debate following a tragic incident in my constituency—the tragic death of James Hadfield, a young boy of 15, who was killed on his bike. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle said, it happened not on the road, but in Piccadilly park, a children's play area less than five minutes from where he lived—just round the corner, in fact. It is a small park with a skateboard area. He cycled into the park at some speed down the road on to the skateboard area, came off and, tragically, died. The incident received a lot of press coverage and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle spoke to the family.

I went round to see the family the following Sunday. I did so with some trepidation, because contacting a family in a tragic personal situation is not the type of thing I normally do, but I understood from my own experience the impact of the tragedy of that boy's death on the family and the wider family. In 1956 and 1957, I did my national service in the Royal Marines. I was home for the August bank holiday when my younger brother, who was 17, went out on his motorbike. It was not compulsory to wear helmets in those days, although he normally did so. He went out for five minutes to fill up with petrol, hit a bit of broken road surface, hit the kerb and was killed outright. I will always remember the tragedy of my brother dying at that age. He was a very successful apprentice working for the London Electricity Board. I remember the tragedy not only of his death, but of the impact on my family. It took my mother many, many years to get over it. In fact, I do not think that she ever fully got over it, because the last thing that she did before he went out on that Sunday morning was to tell him off. We had gone out for a short walk, and when we got home the tragedy had happened.

I therefore fully understand how the Hadfield family felt, and it was with some trepidation that I went round to see them. It was very clear that they fully support the Bill. I asked them how the press had treated them. These days, MPs tend to criticise the press and the press criticise MPs, and we are two of the professions of which the public have a poor opinion. However, the family said that the local press had treated them very fairly, sympathetically, compassionately and helpfully, and that its reports had been very clear and accurate. I want to quote from the report in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph on Monday 15 March. It says that the accident happened on a Saturday afternoon when the family was out buying a car. James's father says:

"Our son Dylan was with him when it happened, he was the one to run home and get Victoria to ring us."

Victoria was Jamie's sister. It continues:

"He added: 'James loved life. He loved football, especially Burnley, fishing, cars and his BMX bike. When he was on that bike he had no fear, he was just like me when I was a child . . . We are not sure if a helmet would have saved his life because the handlebars crushed his chest but we know he suffered head injuries so it could have saved him."

The family are being fair—they are not saying that it is 100 per cent. certain that a helmet could have saved his life, but that he would have had a better chance if he had been wearing one.

The article states:

"His parents today revealed that their son refused to wear a helmet because he claimed it wasn't fashionable. They are now urging other parents to ensure their children wear helmets."

That is the problem, of course. Young people, especially those aged 13, 14 and 15, have a habit of thinking, "My mates won't wear that helmet—why should I?" They go out without one because they do not want to be laughed at and experience peer pressure.

The article continues:

"Step mother, Melanie . . . who is married to James' father also James . . . said: 'No matter what we said to him about wearing the helmet he just wouldn't do it. He was a typical teenager and wouldn't be told anything. All the other children wear them—it was a matter of course to them but to James, wearing a baseball cap was all he would wear. If this tragedy persuades one more person to wear a helmet then his death won't have been in vain."

On the Tuesday, the Burnley Express reported:

"The parents of James, 15, yesterday revealed how he refused to wear a safety helmet because it wasn't fashionable."

It stressed that they support my hon. Friend's Bill and believe that if it helps to reduce the number of tragedies and serious injuries in future it is the right thing to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle and the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire attended the press launch of the Bill and campaign in the Jubilee Room a few weeks ago. Anyone who previously held a neutral view would have been persuaded by the medical evidence, not only about death but the injuries that a young person could sustain as a result of a serious accident. If the Bill saves some lives and prevents some serious injuries every year, it is worth supporting.

The Burnley Express stated:

"According to Lancashire County Council 26 people in the county were killed or seriously injured in cycle accidents and 127 injured between 1998 and 2002 . . . Bike Helmet Initiative Trust Executive Angie Lee said: 'If we are serious about protective clothing then the only effective way to do it is by law.'"

The article continued:

"Halford's who sell their own brand of helmets, Trax, and have a superstore based in . . . Burnley, said: 'We constantly work with the manufacturer to help make the helmets more fashionable, more colourful and more aerodynamic to escape the old skull-cap look. When we sell bikes we always encourage buyers to purchase a helmet and we cater for all pockets to make them accessible to everyone."

Jamie had several younger brothers. Although that young boy would not wear a helmet because of facing his mates, he always encouraged his younger brothers to wear theirs. Indeed, he would not let them go out on their bikes if they were not wearing helmets because he believed that it was important that they should have them. However, because he was at that slightly older age, he would not wear one. People could say that that was a silly mistake—it was—but if it had been the law to wear a helmet, James would have done so. His mates would also have worn helmets and they would all have gone out wearing them.

Yesterday, I received a fax, which I am sure that other hon. Members also received, to say that cycling supremo David Millar supports the Bill. He is an Olympic hopeful and he joins David Coulthard, who has done much to support wearing protective headgear. Of course, a bike is not David Coulthard's normal vehicle but he is a keen cyclist. He supports the Bill, as does Olympic cycling medallist Jason Queally. The fax states:

"Mr. Millar challenges the notion that the measure is unpopular with cyclists. He said, 'If cycle helmets did not work it would be a different matter, but they do as a great many cyclists like me appreciate. As you would expect, I am fully in favour of cycling but recognise you must undertake the activity for sport or for pleasure responsibly, particularly if it is someone else's life. I would not put my child on a bike without ensuring their safety. I am sure this is the first of many provisions to be introduced for children, who, let's face it, are vulnerable because they are novice cyclists and who in many cases are not aware of potential dangers.'"

I accept that many responsible parents will voluntarily try to persuade their children and teenagers to wear helmets but we know what teenagers are like—after all, we have all been teenagers. Enacting the Bill will provide protection and make wearing a helmet the norm. I do not accept that cycling will become less popular and that young people will be discouraged. Once the Bill is passed, there might be a few months of resistance, but once people have got used to it, they will accept it. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire was right to suggest a transitional period of a few months before implementing the Bill. His point was fair and reasonable.

Photo of Mr David Cairns

Mr David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde, Labour)

On peer pressure and what children will or will not do, does my hon. Friend agree that young people regard going to school as deeply uncool and unpopular and that if it were voluntary, many would not go? However, it is the law, so young people go to school. It is feeble to argue that we should not even try simply because something is considered uncool and there is peer pressure to resist it.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike

Mr Peter Pike (Burnley, Labour)

I agree. Many young people would not go to school if it were not the law. Once the law exists, people accept it. The breathalyser has been mentioned several times. When we introduced that and other drink laws, they were resisted. Nowadays most people accept them. When I first started to drive and I worked in a bank, we opened on Saturdays. We used to cash up at 12 o'clock and rush over to the pub where the senior staff had to buy all the junior staff as many drinks as possible before closing time, when they drove us home. I now wonder how on earth they drove. That was not challenged in the 1950s but we would regard it with horror nowadays because we understand that someone who has had a drink is a dangerous driver, just as we increasingly accept that speed is a killer and a cause of accidents. The same applies to seat belts. Who nowadays would say that we should abolish the law on seat belts? It is mostly accepted. In a small percentage of incidents perhaps a driver would be better off without a seat belt, but such instances are rare.

Photo of Mr Mark Lazarowicz

Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

Is that not the crux of the difference between seat belts and cycling helmets? Those who oppose the Bill suggest that its consequences of encouraging obesity and the negative public health effects far outweigh the benefits of the measure. Only a tiny number of lives would be saved by not wearing a safety belt. That is the difference between bicycle helmets and seat belts.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike

Mr Peter Pike (Burnley, Labour)

I have great respect for my hon. Friend but I do not accept his point. I do not believe that any evidence exists to show that fewer people will cycle and that the health effects that he fears will happen. If the Bill saves some young people, however small the number, from death or serious injury, we have a responsibility to support it. That is the overwhelming argument in favour of the measure. Earlier, I referred to the death of my brother in a motor cycle accident. It was argued that fewer people would drive motor bikes if helmets were made compulsory, but that did not happen. Nowadays, more and more people are driving motor bikes. The increase in motor bike use is incredible.

I accept that there is a balance to be struck, but I believe that it is in favour of passing the measure. I have examined the evidence of those who oppose it and those who have written to me to say that it will discourage bike riding. I have received three copies of the postcard published by the campaign to oppose the Bill. The postcard shows a photograph of a father with two kids on bikes, with the caption "Criminals?" splashed across it. People who organise such campaigns should be a little more sensible because the cards do not include space for an address, so I cannot reply to the three people who have written requesting my views. I take it that they are from Burnley, but I do not know.

The postcard states:

"Whatever your views on helmet-wearing it is clear that such a law would seriously threaten the efforts of Government and others to maximise the many health and other benefits of cycling. The available evidence shows that imposing helmet-wearing reduces cycle use, whilst the safety case for such a measure is far from clear. At a time of acute concern about Britain's obesity epidemic, the last thing we should be doing is legislating children and young teenagers into car-dependent sedentary lifestyles."

Although one agrees with the objective of encouraging cycling, I do not agree with the conclusion. The campaign has not changed my view.

Photo of Mr Russell Brown

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries, Labour)

My hon. Friend has been reading part of the postcard, but the card also says of the Bill:

"Its purpose is to ban under-16s from cycling unless they are wearing a helmet."

That is not what this legislation is about; it is about encouraging young people and ensuring that they make safety a priority. It is not about banning under-16s from cycling.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike

Mr Peter Pike (Burnley, Labour)

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is a question of how we read the card. It has been written in a way that is most damaging to the case made by the Bill.

We are debating a Bill that will protect young people, and I would hope that every young person would be encouraged to cycle as well as to participate in other healthy sports. I have no objection to that, and all of us who support the Bill want to see it happen. We do not want to see any reduction in the number of young people cycling. All we want is to see them cycling safely and getting to the end of their journey safely—whether it is for pleasure or for going to school or work—and not suffering serious injury or death that could have been prevented by their wearing a helmet. I shall certainly vote for the Bill, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle on introducing this most sensible measure.

11:01 am
Photo of Mr Edward Leigh

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

I very much enjoyed the speeches of Mr. Martlew, my right hon. Friend Sir George Young and Mr. Pike, but I shall be the first Member today to oppose the Bill. I am a father, and all my children have cycled. Like all fathers, I have tried to encourage them to wear helmets. As they get older, it gets increasingly difficult to make them wear helmets, to cycle or to take any exercise at all.

To take up the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, I do not take an extreme libertarian view on this matter. The House is entitled to legislate on matters of safety, but if it is wise, it will do so only when it is riding with public opinion. It was clearly doing that when it introduced the legislation on front seat belts, and I understand that 90 per cent. of people are sensible enough to know that it is wise to wear them. The battle to persuade people to wear rear seat belts in cars has been far more difficult. I always wear one, of course. I am certainly not going to announce publicly in the House of Commons that I break the law. I am told, however, that only about 50 per cent. of people use rear seat belts—the legislation on which was introduced by my hon. Friend Mr. Chope in 1991. That shows some of the problems involved in such legislation and it is one of the problems with this Bill. We need to ride with public opinion.

It worries me that there is a huge number of statistics going back and forth in this debate. It is dangerous to produce statistics, because someone can immediately intervene and produce a statistic to support the other side of the argument. We know, however, that the use of cycle helmets by children is very small, perhaps between 6 and 15 per cent. If any hon. Member wants to intervene and tell me that the figure is actually much higher, I will certainly give way, but I think that those figures are generally accepted.

Photo of Mr Eric Martlew

Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I would agree with the hon. Gentleman's figures. If the figure were 70 or 80 per cent., I would probably not be introducing this Bill. It is because the figure is so low that I am introducing it.

Photo of Mr Edward Leigh

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

That is a very honest intervention, and the hon. Gentleman has used it to make his point.

There would be a serious problem of enforcement in regard to these measures, and I think that that is a problem for the Government. I suspect that that is why they will not give the Bill an entirely fair wind. The hon. Gentleman said that the Prime Minister supported it, but the Prime Minister actually said:

"We will give serious consideration to it . . . if we can support it, I am sure that we will."—[Hansard, 31 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 1594.]

I do not know what that means; I do not know whether the Government support the Bill or not. If I were speaking from the Government Front Bench, I would be very understanding of the problems that we face.

The number of child deaths in these circumstances is small, although it is an appalling tragedy for the parents of every child who dies, and for their community. Even if only 20 children a year die, that is still 20 too many. However, the jury is out on whether we would save those lives by passing the Bill. My point is that there would be a serious problem of enforceability. When we introduce a law, we generally need to have the tide of public opinion with us.

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Ms Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman and I represent neighbouring Lincolnshire seats, and I hope that he will accept that we have some of the worst road traffic accident statistics in the entire UK. I have no doubt that he constantly reads in our local newspaper, the Grimsby Telegraph, about the number of young cyclists who are injured in our area. Will he tell me whether he is against the wearing of cycle helmets, or purely against the element of compulsion?

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Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

Of course I am not against wearing cycle helmets. Those of us who oppose the Bill must accept the argument that someone who wears one is probably less likely to sustain an injury than someone who does not. It would be absurd to say that wearing one made people more liable to injury. The problem with cycle helmets is that most of the 20 kids who die each year die from serious multiple injuries. They do not die from falling from their bicycle on to a hard, flat surface. In a moment, I shall adduce a learned opinion, which argues that, because of the standards applied to helmets, most of them will prevent injury only if the wearer falls from their bike on to a hard surface. They will not save someone who is hit by a car or who suffers multiple injuries.

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

The figure is actually 28 children a year, based on the last three years. Obviously, that is too many. On the hon. Gentleman's point about injuries, a high percentage of those youngsters die from head injuries. It is obvious that other parts of the body are less vulnerable than the brain. Also, the Bill prescribes what kind of helmet will have to be used, so the Government will be able to ensure that people wear very good ones.

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Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

I am glad to hear that, because it leads me precisely to my next point. I am sure that the Government will have an opinion on the issues of compliance in this regard. If we are to impose new standards on the cycle helmet industry, there will be costs and difficulties involved. I am sure that the hon. Member for Carlisle will have read the opinion of Brian Walker, who is one of the leading experts on the mechanics of helmets. His company, Head Protection Evaluation, is the principal UK test laboratory for helmets. He argues that

"with only one or two exceptions, the helmets tested"—

these are the helmets in general use now—

"were quite incapable of meeting the higher Snell B-90 standard"—

which pertained in the early 1990s—

"to which many of the models had been previously certified. Some helmets were even incapable of meeting the weak EN1078 standard. Some people argue that helmets are effective if 'properly worn'. How those words have haunted me through many years! Apart from some racing cyclists, I hardly ever see a cycle helmet worn properly . . . we have examined many cycle helmets that were manufactured in such a manner that correct adjustment was completely impossible."

Brian Walker goes on to quote a High Court case. This relates to the important point about whether those 28 children's lives could have been saved. If that number of lives could be saved by the Bill, I accept that I should probably have to withdraw my opposition to it. It is important not to take an absolutist point of view in these debates. Mr. Walker says that, in a recent High Court case,

"a respected materials specialist argued that a cyclist who was brain injured from what was essentially a fall from their cycle, without any real forward momentum, would not have had their injuries reduced or prevented by a cycle helmet. This event involved contact against a flat tarmac surface with an impact energy potential of no more than 75 joules (his estimate, with which I was in full agreement).

The court found in favour of his argument. So a High Court has decided that cycle helmets do not prevent injury even when falling from a cycle onto a flat surface, with little forward momentum. Cycle helmets will almost always perform much better against a flat surface than any other."

Brian Walker continues:

"Referring back to the Court case mentioned earlier, the very eminent QC under whose instruction I was privileged to work, tried repeatedly to persuade the equally eminent neurosurgeons acting for either side, and the technical expert, to state that one must be safer wearing a helmet than without. All three refused to do so, stating that they had seen severe brain damage and fatal injury both with and without cycle helmets being worn. In their view, the performance of cycle helmets is much too complex a subject for such a sweeping claim to be made."

That quotation from an expert in child safety and in helmet manufacture shows some of the difficulties with those arguments. I use it only to make an argument; the House need not necessarily accept it, but there are two sides to the question. There are difficulties over how effective helmets are and there is argument over whether the 28 lives a year would have been saved had the Bill become law two or three years ago.

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I am a little confused, because the hon. Gentleman said earlier that he accepts that cycle helmets help. Now he says that the evidence is that they do not. Perhaps he can clarify that.

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Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

To be honest, I do not wear a helmet when I ride a bicycle. I accept, however, that I would probably be safer if I did so. I am not an expert; I am just using my own common sense. As laymen, people presume that if they wear something on their head when they are riding a bicycle, they are safer. All I am saying is that, although that is a common-sense point of view, there are eminent neurosurgeons—eminent specialists in this field—who argue that it is not necessarily a given fact that those 28 lives would have been saved had the Bill become law.

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Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries, Labour)

This morning, we have concentrated on the loss of 28 lives a year, averaged over the past two or three years. But there is also the serious issue of severe head injuries. The Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust says that a child is twice as likely to fall off a bicycle—not necessarily be involved in an accident with another vehicle—and sustain an injury, which could be a head injury. In that respect, surely we should do something to lessen the impact of any injury that an individual, especially a child, may suffer.

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Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

It would be ridiculous if I argued from an absolutist's point of view that people should not try to persuade their children to wear a cycle helmet. If a young child falls off a bicycle on to a hard, flat surface, wearing a cycle helmet will undoubtedly help. Therefore, all of us in the House and parents want to encourage our children to wear a helmet. All I am saying is that there is low use of cycle helmets and no conclusive evidence that the 28 lives would have been saved if the Bill had become law.

To move on to the second aspect of my speech, it is possible that there will be a serious impact on cycle use if the Bill becomes law.

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, as I want to intervene on that point. Like him, I encourage my children to wear cycle helmets. My hon. Friend Mr. Brown referred to children who fall off a stationary bike with no impact from a vehicle. The distance fallen by such children could hardly be more than 2 ft or 3 ft. Falling down a few stairs could cause head injury, but no one suggests that because of that danger, pedestrians should wear helmets when they walk the streets.

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Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

That is a difficulty with the Bill. We have established that cycle helmets are certain to save people from serious injury only if they have a relatively low fall with an impact which an eminent expert described as involving

"no more than 75 joules".

How far should we go? Reference has been made to the nanny state. I hesitate to use that term because I believe that the state has a right to intervene in a matter in certain circumstances where there is general public consent. I do not think that there is such public consent over this matter at the moment.

We must refer to what has happened in other parts of the world. I intervened on the hon. Member for Carlisle over what happened in Australia. He said that cycle use had since recovered there, but in New Zealand there was also a large fall—20 per cent., I think—and there has been no recovery in cycle use. Apparently, when such laws were introduced in Sydney, the immediate effect was a dramatic drop of about 91 per cent. in secondary school children cycling to school.

The hon. Gentleman, I think, said that it is not cool to wear cycle helmets. That is a real difficulty that he has to face. If his Bill became law, there would be a genuine, immediate difficulty in persuading many secondary school children to wear helmets. Many simply would not ride to school. He must address that point, along with all the evidence from around the world—Nova Scotia, New Zealand, Australia—which all points to a dramatic fall in bicycle use.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire mentioned obesity. I have read the literature from those who oppose the Bill and I accept his point that perhaps it is a little extreme to suggest that if the Bill became law the obesity epidemic would suddenly become much worse. That overstates the case and, as usual, my right hon. Friend, in his moderate and sensible way, made that point very well. The fact of the matter is, however, that in 2001, 16 per cent. of six to 15-year-old children were obese. That is a real problem.

I am not suggesting that if we pass the Bill we will suddenly have an obesity epidemic, but do we want to discourage cycle use when everybody in the Chamber—we are a load of cycling enthusiasts—cycles?

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Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

A possible exception is my right hon. Friend, who would not be seen dead on a bicycle.

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

Earlier, the hon. Gentleman warned us about statistics, but he has gone on to quote them several times, although he has not mentioned British Columbia in Canada. May I point it out to him that cycle use in this country is dropping like a stone anyhow? We do not have that particular policy, but there has been a 30 per cent. drop in 20 years. That is set out in the document, "Bicycle Helmets: review of effectiveness", which I am sure the Minister is aware of. The number of people using bicycles is declining. I believe that parents would be happier if they felt that their children would be safer.

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Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

That is a fair point. Obviously, we each have our opinion. The hon. Gentleman is right: since 1991 in Great Britain, the fall in cycle use has been almost twice the increase in helmet use, so that fall has been dramatic without a dramatic increase in helmet use. I doubt whether the Bill would discourage that fall in cycle use.

The hon. Gentleman will not accept any of my statistics and I am sure he could introduce others to the debate, but surely, as a reasonable man, he accepts it as a reasonable supposition that there has been a dramatic fall in cycle use in this country. Relatively few children wear helmets; his Bill might aggravate the situation. There is already a problem with child health and a huge problem with encouraging children to take exercise, walk, play games and cycle. We have different medical and expert opinions on how many lives would be saved by the Bill. Given all those facts, is this the time to introduce the Bill? I do not believe that the Bill is timely. There is a lot more that the Government could do to encourage safety, to try to take the voluntary route and to persuade parents that it is advisable that their children wear cycle helmets.

A lot of fun has been had at the expense of cycle organisations—the men in lycra—and over whether it is possible to achieve any agreement among those people, who are just enthusiasts. We should beware any Bill that appears to be opposed by so many representative organisations in the cycling world. Does not that give us pause for thought, at least for a moment?

Cycling use has declined dramatically and virtually every cycling organisation is against. The hon. Member for Carlisle has already been asked in an intervention whether a single cycling organisation supports his Bill.

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

The organisation that supports the Bill is behind professional cyclists. Wearing a helmet is compulsory for them.

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Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

I heard the hon. Gentleman making that point, which, if he does not mind my saying so, I think is very weak. Professional cycling is a completely different world from what we are talking about. Those are sporting people who are at the edge of what is safe. They often ride in very difficult circumstances. Does not the fact that only one organisation supports the Bill give us pause for concern?

We are supposed to be encouraging people to cycle, and I do not think that this Bill will do so. I am sorry to say that ultimately, the Bill will result in more ill health in the long term, as there will be less healthy exercise, which will have an impact on the national health service. I do not think that this measure would have saved all those 28 lives, and the Bill should be opposed and resisted, or at least heavily amended.

11:20 am
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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Martlew on the way in which he presented his Bill, and on taking on a subject that any of us who have been involved in transport issues, especially cycling, knows will be liable to provoke strong emotion on either side of the argument. When I was fortunate to come high in the private Member's Bill ballot a couple of years ago, the subject that I chose, employee share schemes, did not seem to provoke the same enthusiasm or emotion on either side of the argument that understandably exists on an issue of this nature.

My constituency is a long way from London, so I, like my hon. Friend Mr. Pike, do not find it possible to attend regularly on Fridays for private Member's Bills. I therefore look at the agenda to work out which Bills I want to be in Westminster for. On this day, this Bill, and the subsequent Bill, which I am sure will also be worthy of detailed examination, attracted my attention, so I decided some time ago to make a specific effort to be here for Second Reading. At that stage, I generally supported the Bill's objectives; like most people who are interested in road safety, including those in the Chamber today, my gut reaction was that the Bill must be a sensible idea. However, as I have had information sent to me, and as I have tried to investigate the subject in more detail, I have swung from being generally supportive to being extremely sceptical—certainly about the breadth of its proposals. I am not saying that I would oppose the Bill in its entirety, but I would have to be convinced strongly that it would be right to take it forward. In those circumstances, I am sure that my hon. Friend wishes that I had not bothered coming here today, but having made arrangements to be here a long time ago, I want to contribute to the debate.

My earlier interventions may have given some indication of the reasons for my shift of position, and I want to explain the reasoning behind my growing doubts. My attention was first drawn to possible problems with the Bill by the postcard from the CTC to which my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley referred. Like him, I was somewhat amused that the letter inviting me to express my opinions did not give me an address to which I could respond. I was also struck by the way in which the postcard featured a picture of a happy family cycling in summer on a rural path, with, stamped across it, the word "criminals". I wondered whether that was really the content of the Bill.

On issues of this nature, I am aware that when people try to lobby MPs, they put their case in the strongest possible terms, and, like Sir George Young, I am aware that, in this field in particular, emotions and simplifications of the argument can be the order of the day. I was therefore dubious about whether the Bill would make this happy cycling family into criminals. I therefore studied the Bill, and it is true that it would make that family, apparently doing no harm to anyone by cycling along a rural off-road path, into criminals.

I looked at the Bill in a little more detail and considered an example that I gave in an earlier intervention from when I took one of my children to a local park, and she met one of her friends, who offered to let her ride her bicycle for a short period. That indicates the problem with the Bill's approach. We must move towards regarding cycling as being as natural a way of getting around the community as walking. We do not want it to require special protection. No one suggests that pedestrians should have to wear helmets when they cross the road, but pedestrians are much more likely to suffer head injury than cyclists.

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

Is my hon. Friend really saying that, in percentage terms, children are more likely to suffer injury as pedestrians than the 6 per cent. of children who cycle? I do not accept that.

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

I am saying that if we consider the overall figures, we see that children are more likely to be injured as pedestrians than as cyclists. When using statistics in this argument, we must be very careful, as I said earlier. My point was that we want to make cycling a natural activity. One of the reasons that I was happy on the occasion that I mentioned to let my child cycle without a helmet, although I encourage my older children to wear cycle helmets, was precisely that I wanted to encourage the younger child to learn to cycle. It seemed natural to allow my child to cycle in the park on that occasion. My hon. Friend says that, although in theory I would be a criminal for allowing her to do that, the law will be ignored, and nothing will be done to enforce it. That may be the case, but as a general principle we should avoid making laws that, in many circumstances, we do not want people to obey. The Bill provides for the banning of off-road cycling without a helmet by children under 16, which is an extreme measure that I would not find acceptable.

I accept that there will be some occasions when an injury or, in extreme cases, a fatality, of a child riding a bicycle off-road could have been prevented if a cycle helmet had been worn, but we must guard against seeking to legislate against all danger that could conceivably occur. There are many dangerous things in the world, including in playgrounds, but we do not legislate to make them all entirely impossible. I do not want to go into the statistics in great detail, but I suspect that the most dangerous thing in many playgrounds is play equipment. It has been made much safer in recent years, but injuries and fatalities of children still occur in playgrounds. We are not suggesting, however, that we should take away play equipment in its entirety to reduce injuries and deaths. We try to minimise the danger, but we must recognise that there must always be some level of risk in any human activity.

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Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow, Labour)

My hon. Friend is right that there must be some level of risk. Over the past 150 years, however, have we not legislated consistently in terms of harm avoidance, and in terms of prevention being better than cure? As for being arrested for allowing children on bikes, surely common sense would prevail, in the same way that parents are not arrested at present for doing various such things. It is unlikely in the extreme that that would change in this instance.

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

If it is unlikely in the extreme that this aspect of the law would be enforced, it is questionable whether there is much point in the law in the first place. If we do not think that the law should be put into effect, why put it on the statute book in the first place?

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

My hon. Friend's argument is lost on me. When he was talking about play areas, he said that we do not take away the play equipment but make the play safer. My Bill will not take away the bicycle but make the riding of the bicycle safer.

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

I was merely suggesting that there were various ways of incurring various types of injury. We are not talking about protecting people against all injuries; we are trying to establish whether the benefits of the Bill are proportionate to the downside. That downside—the health implications and the problem of obesity—distinguishes this from measures relating to the wearing of seat belts and motor cycle helmets.

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Mr Peter Pike (Burnley, Labour)

It is true that playground equipment, at least in Burnley, is much safer than it was when I was seven or eight, during the war. Steps have been taken to make it safer, and most positive councils have changed the playground surface to minimise injuries if children fall from the equipment. We have not stood still in that respect, so why should we do so in this instance?

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

Of course I am pleased that playgrounds have been made safer. Indeed, I was involved in such measures when I was in another area of politics. The Bill, however, would not just encourage higher safety standards; it would ban certain activities if a helmet was not worn. The logical corollary would be requiring children to wear helmets in playgrounds, because they still fall off even safe playground equipment.

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Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

I have led a busy life ski-ing, riding and engaging in a number of extreme sports. The only serious injury that I have incurred was sustained 18 months ago in a playground. I broke my leg badly in two places when I was walking down a ramp 2 ft high. It was a brand new playground featuring all the latest safety equipment described by Mr. Pike. I was in hospital for four days.

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Mr David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde, Labour)

What was the hon. Gentleman doing in a playground anyway?

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

That is a good question.

My point is that all sorts of human activity involve dangers. We must ask what response is proportionate, given that we cannot legislate against all the risks that may be posed to us or our children.

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Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries, Labour)

We cannot wrap children in cotton wool. Certain injuries are reparable. I remember seeing Mr. Leigh after he sustained his injury having severe difficulty in moving around the Palace. Broken bones are one thing, but head injuries are another. Serious head injuries are not easily repaired and may be fatal. We want to lessen the impact that an accident may have on a child.

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

Of course, and I should make it clear that I wear a helmet when riding a bicycle and encourage my children to do the same. I do not suggest for a moment that helmets should not be worn. It is a question of the possible negative consequences of a ban.

I said that I began to change my mind when I realised that the Bill would prevent children from cycling in parks without wearing helmets. My constituents then started to express their views. Obviously, Members must take account of how widely and how strongly constituents express an opinion, and I was surprised by the number of letters—not a vast number, but certainly a fair number—that opposed the Bill, in reasonable and measured tones. Members are not always able to represent their constituents' views in votes, but it does no harm to try to represent their views in the Chamber if there is no powerful argument against them.

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I am surprised that my hon. Friend, an experienced Member of Parliament, believes that those who shout loudest normally constitute the majority. A poll of 900 people showed that 80 per cent. of the public favoured my Bill. Did my hon. Friend talk to staff in accident and emergency departments, for instance?

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

I shall come to the views of the medical profession shortly.

It is true that those who shout loudest do not necessarily constitute the majority, but it is also true that the majority do not always produce the best arguments. That poll was taken among the general population. I am not sure what the result would have been if cyclists and those whose children cycle had been polled, but such a poll might have been more helpful.

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

I do not want to stop the Bill making progress, but I will give way.

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Ms Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes, Labour)

My hon. Friend says that it might have been more instructive to ask for the views of cyclists, as opposed to umbrella organisations. I discussed the matter with Mike Davis, editor of BIKEmagic, who put a discussion thread on the website and on that of RoadCyclingUK. That suggested that opinion on the Bill was fairly evenly split, but the "antis" were keen to stress that they were not opposed to the wearing of helmets, but were concerned about the compulsion issue. My hon. Friend seems to be saying that cycle helmets should never be worn.

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

If my hon. Friend thinks that I am saying that, she cannot have heard what I said earlier—three times, I believe. I support the wearing of helmets, and wear a helmet myself. The issue is what the consequences of a ban might be for public health and obesity rates.

Undoubtedly, if the Bill is passed some lives will be saved—although the number may be disputed—and many more injuries will be prevented. In debates such as this, Members tend to say that any measure that saves a single life must be supported, no matter what. That is a natural response, and of course if a life can be saved with no negative consequences we should take action to save even that one life, but actions designed with the best of motives—to reduce the number of injuries and save lives—often have unintended results elsewhere. It has been suggested, for instance, that safety measures designed to prevent a few deaths on the railways discourage rail traffic and hence lead to more deaths on the roads. This is a complex area, and we should take account of the knock-on effects of the best-intended measures.

That is particularly important in respect of this Bill, and it brings us to the crux of the argument. If it were just a question of lives being saved by the compulsory wearing of helmets, no matter how few, I would certainly strongly support such a measure, but what concerns me is the evidence that, if fewer children rode bicycles, it would increase obesity and have negative public health effects. That might not be a consequence of this measure but the evidence and other arguments strongly suggest that it could be.

I want to refer to some of the views that have been expressed, albeit not at too great length. The first powerful arguments are those advanced in the Transport Research Laboratory study. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle referred correctly to the conclusion of that extensive, excellent study which stated:

"There is now a considerable amount of scientific evidence that bicycle helmets have been found to be effective at reducing head, brain and upper facial injury in bicyclists."

That is a correct and important point to make. It is a powerful argument, it would appear, in favour of the compulsory wearing of helmets, as proposed in the Bill, but my hon. Friend did not go through the other points in the TRL report. I do not blame him for highlighting that point because it was relevant to his arguments, but the TRL identified four criteria against which any measures for compulsory helmet wearing legislation should be judged. The first is

"There must be a high level of scientific evidence that bicycle helmets are effective in reducing the rate of head injury to bicyclists."

The report effectively says that and we do not disagree. However, the second criterion is:

"The benefits to society and others of mandatory bicycle helmets must be convincingly demonstrated, mandatory bicycle helmets cannot be justified simply to protect individual adult bicyclists."

The TRL concludes that that criterion

"is less easy to demonstrate . . . bicycle helmet promotion and legislation needs to be seen as one part of a broader package of measures which enhances bicycling safety."

The third criterion probably does not point either way in this argument, so I will not waste the House's time by going over it, but the final criterion is relevant. In the view of the TRL

"There must be good evidence to suggest that compulsory helmet wearing would not make the public health benefits of increased levels of bicycling significantly harder to obtain."

The TRL concluded in relation to that criterion that

"there is some evidence that legislation may have resulted in decreased levels of bicycling . . . but there are confounding factors and no clear long-term trends. Attention needs to be paid to enhancing the bicycling environment generally rather than concentrating solely on the individual approach of wearing helmets."

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Mr Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has given way; he has been very patient with me. My notes are upstairs, but the first quote that he used goes on to say that bicycle helmets are effective for everyone, but especially for children. He did not quote that bit. This measure will apply only to children. I considered whether it should apply across the board. I decided, because of the points that he has made, not to go ahead, but I think that the case for protecting children is overwhelming.

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

My hon. Friend is correct. I did not set out the quote in full simply because I accepted his point on that criterion and did not want to delay the House unduly.

The TRL report is interesting. It certainly does not point conclusively to the Bill having the overall beneficial effects that my hon. Friend suggests it will.

My hon. Friend asked for the views of local hospitals. We have a report from the British Medical Association, the conclusions of which are very interesting. It says:

"Focusing on cycle helmets as the answer to reducing cycle accidents could detract resources from other more effective means of accident prevention. The promotion of cycle helmet wearing"—

which I understand the BMA supports, as I do—

"should, therefore, form only one part of a broader strategy to promote cycling as a healthy, physically active, mode of transport. It should be accompanied by other measures for reducing the number and severity of cycle accidents, such as reducing vehicle speeds and traffic volume in urban areas, and the provision of a safer environment for all cyclists, including riders of tandems and tricycles."

It seems that efforts could be more usefully focused on that than on measures that could have effects, it is strongly suggested, on public health in terms of encouraging obesity, particularly among the young generation of today, who, if they do not cycle as children, are less likely to cycle in later life.

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Mr David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde, Labour)

I apologise to my hon. Friend for missing the preamble to his speech. Much as I am enjoying hearing him reading out the House of Commons Library brief on the debate, the thrust of his argument appears to be that the Bill would lead to a substantial reduction in the number of people who are bicycling. In that case, why does he think that the Bill is supported by Halfords, the largest retailer of bicycles? It cannot just be because it also sells helmets. Helmets are far cheaper than bicycles. Surely, it will have made a business case. If it thought that the Bill would lead to an enormous tailing off in the number of people buying bikes, it would not support the Bill.

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

I think that we heard earlier that there are those within the industry who are against the Bill. There is a range of views on the matter. I am sure that Halfords has considered the matter carefully in reaching its opinion on the Bill.

As my hon. Friend rightly indicated, the question has to be seen in its overall context. I am extremely sceptical about the Bill. I have indicated that I could still be persuaded, certainly as far as cycling on the road is concerned, but the proposals on cycling off the road go much too far. What concerns me are the possible public health consequences.

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Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

I will in a second if my hon. Friend will allow me to make a bit more progress.

The issue that must influence our final decision is the balance between the lives to be saved as a result of the Bill, and its downside in terms of public health. I do not want to repeat statistics that, I accept, could be met with other statistics, but it is the case that we have an increasing obesity epidemic in this country. Obesity is becoming more of a serious problem among children in particular. When not just the more opinionated organisations within the cycling lobby but a wide range of reputable organisations—those that are somewhat removed from the high emotions on the subject—express severe concerns about the public health consequences of the Bill, that should make us think before going ahead with it in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle suggested.

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Mr Eric Joyce (Falkirk West, Labour)

Does my hon. Friend agree that common sense has its place, too? As I was cycling in this morning, I was navigating a busy junction near Brixton and I cycled past someone who had a helmet on—full marks for that—but who was also using a mobile phone. Does my hon. Friend think that common sense and education have their place in reducing injuries among cyclists on the roads?

Photo of Mr Mark Lazarowicz

Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

I am not entirely certain what my hon. Friend's point is in relation to my argument, but I am certainly to happy to agree with him. As I was cycling to the House of Commons yesterday and while stationary at a red traffic light, I was almost knocked off my bike by another cyclist who went past me at high speed and through the red light. Such behaviour by cyclists is as reprehensible as any breaking of the rules of the highway by other users of public highways.

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Mr Andrew Dismore (Hendon, Labour)

Perhaps my hon. Friend could tell us whether the cyclist who sped past him and through the red light was wearing a helmet. One of the important arguments is that helmets can sometimes provide a false sense of security.

Photo of Mr Mark Lazarowicz

Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

Although I was stationary, I was wearing a helmet, but the cyclist who went past me at high speed was not. I am afraid that is a point against my hon. Friend's argument. Because of the speed at which the other cyclist was travelling, I was not able to see whether it was my hon. Friend Mr. Joyce who went past me at high speed.

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Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries, Labour)

My hon. Friend suggested that he could be won over and said that he saw some sense in a Bill to deal with cycling on the public roads. However, I remind him that the research paper from the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust showed that 90 per cent. of injuries to child cyclists occur off-road.

Photo of Mr Mark Lazarowicz

Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

As I have indicated, I want to weigh all sides of the argument. If that research is accurate, it may well persuade me not to support the Bill at all. If the issue is off-road cycling, we must ask ourselves whether we should put into effect a measure that would make it illegal for parents to allow young children to cycle around their local public park. That is what the Bill would do. If that it is what we are really proposing, we may be approaching the issue in the wrong way. Perhaps it should be a question of encouraging the wearing of bicycle helmets rather than legislating if legislation has such effects.

Photo of Ms Meg Munn

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley, Labour/Co-operative)

I agree with much of what my hon. Friend has said. Is it not sensible that, in off-road conditions, parents or carers should decide whether the circumstances merit the wearing of helmets? In the case that he described involving his five-year-old daughter, wearing a helmet was probably not necessary.

Photo of Mr Mark Lazarowicz

Mr Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour/Co-operative)

Indeed. The problem is that I do not see how to include in legislation an option for parents to decide whether the wearing of a helmet is appropriate. It would be impossible to draft a Bill that would cover such eventualities.

It had not been my intention to speak at such length. I have never been in favour of talking out measures by making lengthy speeches, but I do not think that I can be criticised for that on this occasion, because my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle spoke for an hour and took many interventions. However, if we are trying to reduce injuries not just to child cyclists but to all cyclists, our emphasis should be on considering the whole range of conditions on the road. Although they do not make cycling dangerous, they make it more dangerous than it ought to be. They certainly give the impression to many non-cyclists that it is more dangerous than it actually is. Many measures could be brought into effect widely throughout the country to encourage safety for all road users, but particularly for cyclists. The Government have done a lot of good work, with all-party support in some cases, to promote road safety. The overall promotion of road safety is the most pressing need if we are to reduce injuries and deaths among all road users, and particularly children—whether they are cyclists, pedestrians or passengers in motor vehicles.

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Mr Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst, Conservative)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I beg to move, That the House sit in private.

Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 (motion to sit in private):—

The House divided: Ayes 0, Noes 25.

Division number 141

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It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Madam Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.