Smoking in a car that is carrying children could be banned within days after the Lords threw its weight behind a controversial plan to outlaw the practice.
Peers last night unexpectedly backed the Labour move, which would give ministers the power to make it a criminal offence in England, punishable by a fine or points on a motorist’s licence.
The Government had argued this would be very difficult to enforce, and might risk infringing on civil liberties. They favour an awareness campaign to highlight the dangers of smoking around children.
But Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, Labour health spokesman, persuaded colleagues it was a matter of child protection and crucial for the future.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, a former president of the Royal Society of Medicine, said: ‘A child in the back seat is effectively imprisoned in the vehicle for their own safety. Whatever adults do they have no control over.’
She said surveys showed that a third of children had wanted someone to stop smoking in a car but were afraid to ask.
The Lords voted by 222 to 197 for the amendment to the Children and Families Bill, which will now go to the Commons. Downing Street said last night that the idea is likely to be put to a free vote of MPs, possibly as soon as February 10.
Luciana Berger, Labour’s public health spokesman, said: ‘The Government should accept tonight’s defeat sends a clear message – we need action.’
Lord Hunt added: ‘Around one child in five reports being regularly exposed to second-hand smoke in cars.’
In 2011, David Cameron said of this issue that as a believer in civil liberties he was ‘nervous about going into what people do inside a vehicle’. But a spokesman said yesterday he would listen to the arguments.
Campaigners say the toxic fumes when someone smokes in a car are 11 times more concentrated than in an open space. A Department of Health survey found 300,000 children every year visit GPs with problems linked to second-hand smoke.
Health Minister Earl Howe, speaking for the Government in the Lords, had offered a campaign against smoking in homes and cars, rather than the ‘blunt instrument’ of legislation, which would be hard to police. He said: ‘If we cannot credibly enforce the law, the law itself lacks credibility.’
Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: ‘If enacted, a ban would help protect nearly half a million children who are exposed to toxic second-hand smoke in a car every week.’
The plan does not ban smoking in cars, but gives Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt the option to make it an offence to ‘fail to prevent smoking in the vehicle when a child or children are present’.
In total, 28 Lib Dems rebelled against the Government, including two ministers.
Several peers expressed fears about the nanny state, saying smoking could next be banned in homes.
But Lord Hunt insisted it followed the same principle as the 2007 ban on smoking in vehicles used for work, such as taxis.
He said: ‘There are more important principles than that [civil liberties], one of which is the need for child protection.
‘Almost two-thirds of smokers take up smoking regularly before they are 18. We must take action to prevent young people taking up smoking.’
Former surgeon and Tory peer Lord Ribeiro opposed the bill, saying it would be better for ‘the public . . . to be educated about the harm that second-hand smoke can do to young children’s lungs’.
Ministers have already legislated to put cigarettes behind shop counters from April 2015. If enacted, the new ban could be introduced at the same time.
Smoking in cars with children is banned in Australia, Canada, five US states, and across South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. A YouGov poll two years ago found 78 per cent of people want a ban.