Martlew on the march again

The MP for Carlisle said he would not let the helmet compulsion debate rest and he's been true to his word. Last week in Parliament, Martlew aired the issue with Tony McNulty, the under-secretary of State for Transport. Martlew attacked the DfT-based National Cycling Strategy Board for its stance on helmets and put the boot into the CTC again. McNulty also criticised the CTC and said he'd investigate the NCSB... And all this in the week that cycling was placed centre stage by the House of Commons health committee on obesity. Perhaps some obese MPs could take a cycle trip to helmet-free Holland, check out the lack of a head trauma epidemic and shed a few kilos of blubber in the process?
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Here's edited extracts from the debate, courtesy of Hansard.

Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): My private Member's Bill, the Protective Headgear for Young Cyclists Bill, received its Second Reading on 20 April, but, unfortunately, there was a technical problem—we did not have a quorum—so the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), did not get the opportunity to respond to my speech and those of other hon. Members. It would be inappropriate for this Minister to reply to a debate that has passed, especially as he was not the Minister in the Chamber at the time, but I intend to go over the Bill's salient points and give him the opportunity to reply to those. Children are always a vulnerable group, so I hope that the Government response will be fairly extensive.

Each year we kill the equivalent of a primary class of children and severely injure the equivalent of a small secondary school.

I do not claim that introducing cycle helmets will necessarily reduce the number of accidents, but I am convinced that the measure will reduce the severity of the injuries involved. Many accidents involve serious head injuries. Scientific research, both at home and abroad, has proved the case for cycle helmets in protecting the head and brain against the worst effects of injury.

The report "Bicycle helmets: review of effectiveness" was produced by the Department for Transport in November 2002. It is good and I recommend it to hon. Members. It states:

"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 apparent for all ages, though particularly for child populations".

If my Bill were successful—it is still tabled for discussion, although I suspect that it will not become law—it would provide a legal framework that was practical and proportionate.

My Bill would not make every child cyclist or their parents into potential criminals, as some of my more excitable opponents claim. Provision for an offence is an important enforcement mechanism when there is persistent flouting of the law, but in reality I envisage that a friendly word of caution or verbal instruction to wear a helmet would be enough to ensure that people complied with the law. Recent statistics show that in 2002 there were only 92 prosecutions of people riding on the pavement and 134 of people riding without lights. Some might say that there should be more prosecutions, but in many cases the law can be enforced without taking people to court.

The Department is concerned about compliance and it wants the rate of helmet wearing to increase to a critical mass before it is made compulsory. I understand the Department's motivation for holding that view, but does the Minister think that the goal will ever be reached? Surely, it should be the other way round. Rather than waiting for the practice of wearing helmets to change and then introducing an enforcement measure, could not the Government act now and introduce enforcement measures, so ensuring that the practice changes? If they do not, the Minister will continue to fall into the trap set by the opponents of helmets, such as the Touring Cycle Club [sic], which will do everything it can to avoid helmets being made mandatory. The CTC discourages people from wearing them because it realises that if the practice reaches a critical mass, the Government might legislate.

In 2002, when 18 per cent. of cyclists were wearing helmets, the Government said that they would monitor the wearing rate and review the option for compulsory wearing from time to time. In October 2003, they used the same words, although the rate had by then increased to 25 per cent. The Minister must tell us what rate the Government would find acceptable before deciding to legislate to make it compulsory.

I am concerned about the National Cycling Strategy, a quango set up by the Government and given credence because it operates out of Marsham street. It sent letters to hon. Members from the Department for Transport headquarters which gave a distorted view of my Bill, which worries me. Does the Minister believe that quangos should be involved in the politics of a private Member's Bill, especially if they do not tell the truth? Is it appropriate that this particular quango should be housed in the offices of the Department for Transport?


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty) :

The data show that, although the number of casualties is falling for child cyclists of all ages, we still have a problem with the number of young adolescent boys in particular getting hurt while cycling. We know from regular monitoring that boys are the most reluctant to wear helmets. Set against the general, rising trend, the wearing rate for boys went down from 16 per cent. in 1994 to 12 per cent. in 2002. A large proportion of those who choose not to wear helmets are young adolescents.


Mr. Martlew :The CTC campaigns against wearing cycle helmets. How can the Government be involved with that organisation when it works against one of their objectives?

Mr. McNulty : I agree with my hon. Friend; I, too, was very disappointed with the reaction of the CTC to {the DfT's helmet advertising] initiative. It mounted a campaign to undermine it and complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, which has since found in our favour. To an extent, I appreciate the CTC's concern to increase cycle levels, but that is an issue for the Government too, and we tailor publicity accordingly. If the reaction had been that young adolescents would be put off cycling, we would not have used the campaign. The CTC is a major cycling stakeholder and I hope that it will work with us more positively on safety in future, as it does on other cycling issues. Given the CTC's role as stakeholder, we could not simply refuse to work with it. However, I share my hon. Friend's concerns and acknowledge his complaints about its activities in the past.

I do not have the information to hand, but I will explore what my hon. Friend says about the National Cycling Strategy and its role in the run-up to 23 April and the promotion of his Bill. I will get back to him on that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on giving the issue of cycle helmet wearing such prominence through his Protective Headgear for Young Cyclists Bill, which, as he knows, was dealt with on 23 April and remains, not in pole position, but in the frame for further discussion on 18 June.

Our position on compulsion has been that we will—to quote yet again the words quoted by my hon. Friend—review the option from time to time. However, due to the current rates of helmet wearing among children, which are relatively low, we have a concern that compulsion would affect cycling levels and cause enforcement difficulties. That has been the Government's position. The Bill has caused us to reflect; we need to think about how compulsory helmet wearing might affect the wider initiatives to increase cycling and improve health.

The supporters of helmet wearing say that provided that helmets are introduced with care, compulsion need not affect cycling levels. As my hon. Friend will know, some of the international experiences are that, with a long lead-in of promoting awareness, education and other elements, compulsion has subsequently been introduced. Opponents point to evidence from overseas where compulsion has clearly affected cycle levels. As ever in this life, the reality is mixed and the overseas experience can be read either way. We worry, however, that with helmet wearing by youngsters so low at the moment, compulsion would put many of them off cycling. If that happened it would affect cycling levels. Increasing cycling has the positive benefit of improving health. It is key to our anti-obesity strategy, especially for children, and to the further development of sustainable transport.

We are continuing our campaigns to promote cycle helmets, ensuring that we do not do so in such a way that it presents cycling as dangerous or risky. The emphasis is on cyclists being sensible and other road-users taking care around them.

It is not simply about training, driver awareness and helmets, with or without compulsion. The whole package is designed to heighten cyclists' awareness and drivers' awareness of cyclists and the notion that cycling is good and should be encouraged, especially among young people. We want to promote cycling and the wearing of helmets. We will continue to reflect on the issue of compulsion and the level at which it should kick in. I hope that others, both inside and outside the Government, will do all they can to support us in promoting cycle helmets and improving the safety of child cyclists. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate.

We may need to reflect at every stage. One conclusion may be that things are going so slowly that we should move to compulsion. It may be at a far lower figure than we expected. If all those elements are successful, compulsion should be at the tail end, rather like the experience in New South Wales.

I wish my hon. Friend well in his campaign to increase helmet wearing by young cyclists. I know that it will not stop on 18 June. I fear that, for better or worse, the debate on compulsion will continue. I suspect that that is right and proper. We agree absolutely with his fundamental position: wearing helmets makes cycling safer. We should all, CTC included, endeavour to increase cycling wearing {sic} by young cyclists in the context of promoting cycling generally. It is an outcome that we all want to see.

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/.../40526h02.htm#40526h02_spnew0

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