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Heads you win, heads you lose? - BikeBiz

Heads you win, heads you lose?

Today, in theory, Eric Martlew's helmet compulsion bill could get an airing in Parliament. So, exactly where do government ministers stand on forcing folks to don polystyrene prophylactics? BikeBiz.com meets a junior minister for transport (pro-compulsion)and the influential chairman of the Labour party (ultra pro-compulsion), whose views on the supposed dangers of cycling have sent shock waves through Westminster and beyond. "I would rather a child not cycle than cycle and be unsafe," wrote Ian McCartney, minister without portfolio and a confidente of the Prime Minister.
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In April, Martlew's private member's bill was thrown out thanks to a bit of procederal jiggery pokery by Eric Forth MP but, in theory, it could be discussed again today.

However, as it's at the back of a long queue of other private members' bills it's highly unlikely to see the light of day.

That won't stop Eric Martlew, the MP for Carlisle, from kicking up a fuss outside parliament.

Junior transport minister Tony McNulty recently said in parliament that he wished Martlew well in his campaign to increase helmet wearing by young cyclists.

"I know it will not stop on 18th June. I fear that, for better or worse, the debate on compulsion will continue. I suspect that is right and proper. We agree absolutely with his fundamental position: wearing helmets makes cycling safer."

Yesterday, at the York launch of Bike It, the industry-funded 'schools and skills' project, BikeBiz.com asked McNulty for his personal views on helmet compulsion:

"I lean towards the Australian model. There, helmet use was encouraged with a long lead in time before compulsion," said McNulty.

That's the carrot, here's the stick:

"Helmet compulsion has to be the threat if helmet use does not rise [after the years of encouragement]."

Stressing this was a personal view and in no way government policy, McNulty said:

"Officially, we don't yet see a need for [compulsion]."

Alistair Darling, McNulty's boss, has taken the official line a little further. In an email to a constituent, he wrote:

"The Government is concerned that, at a time when we are seeking to encourage people to take up cycling for health, environmental and other reasons, such compulsion could have the paradoxical result of discouraging it."

Darling's view will cause few parliamentary ripples but the same could not be said for Ian McCartney's views on cycling. McCartney is the chairman of the Labour party and the minister without portfolio. Whilst he has a roving brief, he stepped on many toes with a tightly-circulated letter.

On March 16th he wrote to the Leader of the House of Commons, and copied his letter to the Prime Minister and a few key ministers.

Could it have been this letter which caused PM Tony Blair to divert from a prepared answer when Eric Martlew raised the topic of cycle helmet compulsion during Prime Minister's Question Time on 31st March? See the link below, 'Who nobbled Blair?'

McCartney reveals in his letter that transport minister David Jamieson wrote to the Leader of the House of Commons on 10th March, asking for "agreement to oppose" Martlew's bill.

McCartney was opposed to this "handling strategy."

He asked Jamieson to "outline the measures that DfT will implement to ensure the safety of young cyclists."

In a phrase that caused consternation in a number of government departments, McCartney said:

"I would rather a child not cycle than cycle and be unsafe."

And, flying in the face of all the available statistics, McCartney claimed "Children who cycle without helmets do so at risk of serious injury or death."

The existence of this letter has not been revealed publically until now.

BikeBiz.com met with Ian McCartney and pressed him on the letter's inflammatory contents.

Shocked the letter had been leaked, he quickly recovered and said he stood by everything he had written. The Prime Minister was "his own man," and it was not his letter which had diverted Tony Blair from the answer prepared for him by the DfT.

He denied the letter had angered ministers at the Department for Transport and other departments such as health and the DCMS, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Confirming that Eric Martlew was a "personal friend", McCartney also wanted to stress that the letter should be seen in the context of a lifetime battling for children's safety.

"Long before I came into Parliament I campaigned on children's safety issues. This is a topic very close to my heart."

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