|Sir George supports child cycle helmet law
23 Apr 2004
Below is the text of the speech Sir George made in the Home of Commons, supporting the second reading of Eric Martlew's Private Members Bill, making it compulsory for child cyclists to wear helmets. The Bill failed to make progress, following a procedural vote, and is now unlikely to become law.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle (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.
Mr. Leigh: I do not oppose the Bill on fundamentalist libertarian grounds; I oppose it because it will result in a dramatic fall in cycle use.
Sir George Young: 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.
David Cairns: 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.
Sir George Young: 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.
Shona McIsaac: 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.
Sir George Young: 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"
"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, 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."—[Official Report, 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."—[Official Report, 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.