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From reading The Highway Code, one would think that it is already compulsory to wear a safety helmet when cycling. It states that

Yet, that is not the law. It is, however, mandatory for children to wear safety helmets when playing cricket or riding a horse. Why should they not do so when riding a bike, the dangers of which are far greater?

My proposed Bill has received support from both sides of the House, and I thank my fellow sponsors. When it was originally drafted, I proposed that the upper age limit for the mandatory wearing of a cycle helmet should be 17 years. However, having listened to representations from the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, the CTC—the cyclists’ touring club—and other interested groups, I shall propose an amendment in Committee to reduce the maximum age for the compulsory wearing of a cycle helmet to 14.

The issue was first brought to my attention as part of my “Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden” campaign. In addition, my excellent and informative local weekly newspaper, the Herald & Post, has been actively campaigning for a change in the law. Lawrence John, the senior reporter at the paper who has led the campaign, started a petition to make it compulsory for children to wear cycling helmets when riding their bikes.

After researching the issue extensively, I felt that I needed to do all that I could as a Member of Parliament to seek legislation further to protect child cyclists. The Bill is designed to save lives and reduce injuries, including very serious head injuries, and to save the NHS millions of pounds of costs in treating and rehabilitating injured child cyclists.

In 2006, child cyclist deaths rose by 55 per cent. In 2005, there were 20 deaths. Last year, there were 31 deaths, or nearly three a month. In response to a parliamentary question that I asked of the Department of Health, the Minister stated that, in a three-year period from 2003, 17,786 children aged 14 and under were admitted to NHS hospitals in England because of injuries incurred while cycling. This is not a minor matter. That figure does not include the many thousands who attend accident and emergency, are patched up and then sent home, nor does it include those who are admitted to hospitals in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. In the past three years, more than 1,600 children were killed or very seriously injured when riding their bikes. The Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust estimates that 85 per cent. of head injuries to child cyclists would be reduced or eliminated entirely if a helmet was worn. A cycle helmet absorbs 12 mph of energy and reduces the energy impact by that amount in all crashes.

One argument that I have come across against compulsion is that if a juggernaut crashes into a child
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at 70 mph, a cycle helmet will not prevent injury. Of course it will not, but that is not what I am saying. I am saying not that children wearing a cycle helmet will emerge from a crash scratch-free but that the impact of the crash will be reduced by 12 mph of energy, thus lessening injury and saving lives. That could be the difference between a child having a serious head injury that will require 24-hour care for the rest of his life and a child suffering a minor concussion. For a child with a serious head injury needing long-term rehabilitation, the cost has been estimated at £250,000 for the first year alone. Children who have suffered severe head injuries require a lifetime of long-term help at the cost of millions of pounds. That, of course, ignores the pain and suffering of the victim and their family. Their quality of life, and that of their family, suffers greatly as a result of such an injury.

My Bill would not make it mandatory for those over the age of 14 to wear safety helmets when cycling. Older children and adults can make up their own minds about the risks involved. However, a child’s skull depth is less that half that of an adult and only reaches full depth in his late teens. Therefore, a child’s head has less natural protection than that of an adult. Children are also less experienced cyclists than adults and are more likely to have an accident when riding on the public highway.

Throughout my campaign, I have had meetings with the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, the CTC, RoadPeace and the Minister of State for Transport. I was very encouraged by the meeting I had with the Minister in June and welcome the Government’s independent investigation. I am, however, concerned about its time scale, which could be up to two years. I believe that we need legislation now to help to prevent further serious injury and death to children when riding their bikes.

Last November, I presented to Parliament the petition organised by the Herald and Post. I should like to praise the Herald and Post for all its work in raising awareness in this field.

I have been presented with some arguments against my Bill and I would like to take this opportunity to explain why I think those arguments are not enough to prevent legislation from going through.

One argument against the Bill—often made with great force—is that it is yet more legislation intended to turn our country into a nanny state. Well, speaking as a right-wing son of Thatcher and a member of Cornerstone, I am not known for supporting an enlargement of the nanny state in any way, shape or form. This measure is not intended to dictate to adults how they should live their lives. It is designed for children who, at the age of 14 and under, are not able to take the decision for themselves. When they reach 15, they will have the choice of whether to wear a cycle helmet. I reiterate that I have no intention of bringing in this Bill for adults or anyone over the age of 14.

Another argument against the Bill is that it will put children off cycling. I can safely say that my six-year-old son, Thomas, has no problems with wearing a cycle helmet when riding his bike—and what a good job he is doing at it! [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I see no reason why the Bill would persuade other children to give up cycling or not to take it up in the first place.

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Many countries across the globe have introduced legislation to make it compulsory for children to wear cycle helmets. In Canada, a study of the level of cycling following such legislation showed that there had been no reduction. Likewise, cycling rates are among the highest in the world in Australia, where similar legislation was introduced 16 years ago. I believe that if people oppose this Bill, they are actually saying that children should not wear cycle helmets. It is either right or not right for children to wear safety helmets when riding—and if it is right, we should make it compulsory.

The Bill is about plain common sense. It is about protecting our children. It is about saving millions of pounds for the NHS. It is about reducing injury to children and saving their lives. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Peter Bone, Mr. Graham Allen, John Bercow, Mr. Geoffrey Cox, Andrew George, Mr. Philip Hollobone, Mr. Mark Lancaster, Mr. Eric Martlew, Andrew Miller and Sir George Young.

Bicycles (Children’s Safety Helmets)

Mr. Peter Bone accordingly presented a Bill to require persons of 17 years and under to wear a safety helmet when riding a bicycle; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 186].

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Defence Policy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Roy.]

3.43 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing condolences to the family and friends of Lance-Corporal Sarah Holmes of 29th Regiment Royal Logistics Corps, who died in support of operations in Iraq.

I welcome this debate on defence policy. I particularly welcome the opportunity to focus on the strategic direction for our armed forces, which is all too often overlooked in the understandable focus on day-to-day issues. The UK’s defence policy was laid out in the strategic defence review of 1998 and re-confirmed in our White Paper in 2003. The vision is

That vision defines the role of our armed forces in the world. It requires us to have forces capable of acting across the full spectrum of military activity, from conflict prevention to war fighting. It requires us to work effectively across Whitehall with other Departments—notably the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development—and with our allies and partners around the world. We could not deliver that vision without the men and women of our armed forces.

Last Friday, I was reminded of all those who have lost their lives in the service of this country since world war two. The dedication of those involved with the armed forces memorial in Staffordshire is an appropriate and timely reminder of the debt that this nation and others owe to the men and women of our forces.

As we debate our defence policy, it is important to remind ourselves of the challenges that we are likely to face in the future: international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, fragile states and intransigent regimes. Of course, other pressures will complicate our response to such challenges: climate change, energy security, pressure on natural resources and social, technological and geopolitical change.

The UK has a significant part to play in improving the international community’s preparedness for such challenges, not least through our armed forces. Our foreign and defence policies decide where, how and with whom we are likely to deploy our armed forces. The judgment made in the SDR in 1998 was that we were likely to deploy alongside allies and partners, and that has been validated by recent operations. That will continue to be the policy for the foreseeable future for any medium or large-scale military operation.

The House has questioned Defence Ministers regularly and appropriately in recent months about tour intervals and harmony guidelines, so it is worth my taking some time to explain that important part of our defence policy. We have planned on the basis that we should have armed forces capable of conducting one enduring medium-scale operation and one enduring small-scale operation at the same time, while retaining the capacity
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to conduct a third small-scale operation for a limited period—all while keeping within harmony guidelines, which, for the Army, are to have 24 months between six-month operational deployments. Having such a force structure also enables us to conduct a large-scale operation, such as that in Iraq in 2003, or a second medium-scale operation, such as that in Afghanistan, for limited periods, albeit with the consequence that those ideal tour intervals will not be achieved. That is the position that we have been in for the past few years.

I am pleased to say, however, that conditions in Northern Ireland mean that the Army no longer has to maintain forces dedicated to assisting the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Conditions on the ground in Bosnia have also allowed us to reduce our presence there and, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced to the House last week, we plan to reduce our forces in Iraq by the spring of 2008.

Those reduced commitments go some way towards allowing our servicemen and women the time at home that they need to recuperate and to see their families. The overriding lesson has been that our defence planning assumptions and our force structure have succeeded in generating the sort of capabilities that we need to deploy. But that is not the whole story, as many right hon. and hon. Members know. Emerging technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles, and the need to respond to a rapidly evolving threat, present commanders with new opportunities and new constraints. We need to match that with the necessary force structure—involving additional UAV units and battlefield helicopters, for example—but perhaps balanced by fewer anti-submarine warfare assets.

We keep our force structure under regular review, with an eye to what we need to protect our interests both nationally and in the multilateral context in which we are most likely to deploy. The outcome of the comprehensive spending review allows us to do just that. It provides 1.5 per cent. annual real-terms growth in the defence budget to 2010-11, thus cementing a decade of real growth. By 2011, the defence budget will be more than 10 per cent. higher in real terms than in 1997-98.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I hope that the Secretary of State will forgive me for conveying the sentiment of many in the armed forces that he seems to be putting a very brave face on the situation in his Department. Although it is true that defence spending may have risen by 10 per cent. in real terms since 1997, it is also true that the United States has increased its spending by 60 per cent., the Russian Federation by 148 per cent., India by 40 per cent., and China by 129 per cent. Why are we falling so far behind so many of our international comparators?

Des Browne: The first point that I make to the hon. Gentleman—and others in his party who constantly look for comparators to justify, in their terms, the allegation of cuts in UK defence spending, which they have thankfully moved away from—is that our real-terms growth in defence spending contrasts significantly with what happened during the last years of the Government whom he supported. They cut defence spending by £0.5 billion a year in real terms. The challenge for him and his Front-Bench spokesmen is not whether they can
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compare spending in the UK, in its particular circumstances, with spending in any other country that they might identify. I could identify many countries where the comparison goes the other way.

The challenge for his party is to match the level of spending to which we have committed in the spending review and to say whether it intends to spend more on defence—and, if so, to say what it would spend that money on and which public services it would cut in order to spend it. If the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench spokesmen are not prepared to engage in that debate, they cannot be allowed to seek solace in comparisons that they have drawn out of the air. The circumstances of the US, Russia, China or India are not our circumstances. I am talking about a continuum of which we should be proud: real increases and real investment in defence, which are reflected in how we are able to support and equip our troops in the operational theatre.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman can make a speech if he wants to. I am sure that other hon. Members will want to intervene on me.

Multilateralism has been a cornerstone of our defence and security policies for over 50 years. The United Nations stands at the pinnacle of the world’s efforts to create a coherent and effective multilateral approach. We fully support the role of the UN to resolve tensions and crises around the world. Currently, it is running an unparalleled number of peace support operations, with more than 100,000 military and police personnel from numerous nations deployed by the UN in operations around the world. During the past year, 110 nations have contributed troops to UN peace support operations.

There are currently about 300 UK military personnel deployed on 10 UN operations, including missions conducted in partnership with the African Union and the European Union. Such partnering between organisations is essential if we are to cope with the increasingly complex and demanding missions that we face.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I have just returned from Afghanistan, and I find myself blaming the United Nations for not co-ordinating efforts in that country. I appreciate that the Secretary of State shares my frustration, but does he not think it is now time to have an individual co-ordinator—an authoritative voice—to link the work of the UN, the European Union, the Department for International Development, the United States of America and, indeed, the international security assistance force? I believe that the window of opportunity is closing in that country, and a lot of the blame lies with the United Nations.

Des Browne: I know that the hon. Gentleman recently visited Afghanistan, and I am still examining the interesting list of issues that were raised with him when he met tribal leaders, and taking advice about it. I will respond to him, and I await the letter that he promised, which will raise other issues. I am grateful
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for the constructive way in which he has contributed to the debate relating to strategy and development after his visits to Afghanistan.

I am not surprised that, as a result of the hon. Gentleman’s visit, he has come to the same conclusion about Afghanistan that I came to some time ago. Several things need to evolve out of the present circumstances in Afghanistan if we are to make progress towards the success that the situation there can still be, despite the efforts of the Taliban and others to disrupt it. One of those things is that the international community involved in this operation throughout the country needs a single leadership. There is no question about that.

I have to say—I believe that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear this—that none of our international partners thinks otherwise. [Interruption.] He asks from a sedentary position, “What about the Foreign Office?” He should know that the Foreign Office, together with the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, has advocated for many months the policy that he mentioned. We have worked closely together to achieve the point that we have reached.

In summary, everybody is convinced of the merits of the argument. We will quickly move through the current phase of identifying the appropriate person and getting them in post. That is only the beginning. The challenge that follows is to ensure that that person can give focus and direction to all the organisations and others that operate from the international communiqué in such a way as to support and build, not undermine, the Afghan Government. That is the next stage of the challenge that the international community faces. I am pleased—and reinforced in my view—that the hon. Gentleman, who thinks long, hard and deeply about such issues, has reached the same conclusion. He should rest assured that most decision makers in the world share that view about Afghanistan. We now need to put it into practice, which might turn out to be a greater challenge than simply expressing it.

The United Nations, like all non-military organisations in Afghanistan, faces a challenge with which the hon. Gentleman is familiar. It must consider how one can sustain the duty of care to those whom it deploys into those operational theatres while recognising that there is some insecurity about them that one seldom encounters in other parts of the world where the United Nations operates. That balance is a challenge to the United Nations, but the part of my speech about that organisation was included at my insistence simply because there is a lack of knowledge in this country about the extent to which the United Nations carries out its role throughout the world and the scale of its operations in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.

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