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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuantto Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),

EC Preliminary Draft Budget for 1999

Question agreed to.


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to delegated legislation.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Income Tax

Question agreed to.

13 Jul 1998 : Column 161



12.27 am

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I have the honour to present a petition co-ordinated by the National Federation of Badger Groups, representing 50,000 citizens of the United Kingdom. The petition reads:

The use of snares is vile, inhumane and indiscriminate, and the petition has my full support.

To lie upon the Table.

13 Jul 1998 : Column 162

Back Pain

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

12.29 am

Mrs. Eileen Gordon (Romford): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to discuss back pain, an issue that affects many people's lives.

I am lucky in that, to date, I have not suffered back pain. However, since becoming a Member of Parliament, I have gained empathy for people who do. I had not realised before my election that Members of Parliament are like nomads: they seem to spend a lot of time moving from place to place, carrying in bags what feels like everything they own. As I travel from my Westminster office, to my constituency office, to the House of Commons Library, loaded down with paperwork, I am conscious that my neck and shoulders ache at the end of the day. Indeed, shoulder and neck problems are among the commonest problems presented to the occupational health unit in the Palace of Westminster.

Why is it that receptions that we have to attend seem to entail standing around for a couple of hours when every bone in our body tells us that we want to sit down? Then there are late-night sittings, when I try to rest between votes in armchairs that are totally unsuitable. Such sittings may be part of democracy--although not for much longer, I hope--but they are not much good for the back, so, although I have been lucky so far to have avoided back pain, I am not sure that it will not catch up with me later. Therefore, I come to this debate not as an expert, but just as someone who would like to share a few ideas and observations.

When I was elected last year, one of the first events to which I was invited was a back pain awareness day organised by Peter Moore of the Havering branch of the National Back Pain Association. It was at that awareness day that I became aware of the scale of the problem, and of how many people are affected by back pain. The association issued "back facts", which show that there were some 117.56 million days of certified incapacity in 1995-96, 30,715 work-related back injuries, 33,000 work-related accidents and 500,000 work-related illnesses. The cost to industry is at least £5.1 billion, and to the national health service £480 million. The occupations with the highest incidence are, as hon. Members might expect, nursing, agriculture and construction.

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992, designed to protect adults in the workplace, assume that loads of up to 20 kg that are held against the body will not be carried more than 10 m without rest. I want to talk about a group of people who are not covered by any regulations: our children.

There has been a worrying increase in the incidence of back pain among young people. From studies, it looks as if many of the causes can be prevented. One such cause is the carrying of heavy school bags. When I was at school, which admittedly was a long time ago, children had their own desks where they could leave books and equipment. That is no longer the case in the vast majority of secondary schools. Children now seem to carry their whole lives around with them.

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I remember my two teenage children staggering out of the house with bags that I could not even lift, plus, in my daughter's case, a cello. I felt sorry for them, but now I know that they could have been doing real damage to their still growing, immature spines.

Some children carry around 13 per cent. of their body weight. In some cases, children carry 60 per cent. of their body weight--sometimes it is as much as 25 kg, or around three stone. The highest risk group are 11 to 12-year-olds carrying up to 25 per cent. of body weight. Forty-four per cent. of children carry those heavy weights for up to the 25 minutes that it takes them to walk to school, as well as carrying them around school.

Children carry not only heavy weights but uneven weights. They tend to carry their bags on one shoulder, rather than distributing the weight more evenly by using both straps on a rucksack-type bag. Fashion has a lot to do with that--although some schools do not permit bags to be placed on both shoulders, as swinging a rucksack on to one's back could be hazardous. However, it is an even greater health hazard to carry an unbalanced weight. Schools must be made to realise that fact and the importance of wearing bags properly.

Lockers in schools would help, as children would then at least not have to carry their bags around all day. However, only 40 per cent. of secondary schools have a locker available for each child in the school. I am proud to say that the school in which I serve as a governor--Marshall's park school, in Romford--provides a locker for each child, and, just as important, encourages students to use them. Schools that do not offer such a facility should seriously consider doing so.

Perhaps parent-teacher associations could take locker provision on as a project. However, I think that lockers may be one matter on which the Government should consider regulating. Locker provision for new schools could be incorporated at the planning stage, by ensuring that corridors are built sufficiently wide to accommodate lockers.

Young people think themselves immortal, and really do not think about what will happen in 20 or 30 years--and why should they? It is up to us as adults to build a framework that will prevent injury to our young people, either now or in the future. I believe that the Government should be considering regulations to protect our children that are similar to those protecting adults. Health and safety regulations, quite rightly, are very strict in trying to protect people at work. Our young people deserve no less than to have regulations determining maximum weights that should be carried. Some countries already do so.

The National Back Pain Association recommends that the ideal bag weight objective is 10 per cent. of body weight. The association is also conducting trials on a specially designed bag. The challenge will be to make such a bag desirable to young people. I hope that head teachers and education authorities will support such initiatives to lighten the load of our students.

Let us make no mistake about it: back pain can dominate and debilitate people, making their lives a misery. Chronic or severe pain can lead to severe depression and an inability to lead a normal life.

13 Jul 1998 : Column 164

Back pain treatments were mediaeval--in which people had to lie on a board for weeks on end and rely on pain killers. My husband had to undergo such treatment, after his back seized up as he was running for a train. Although his pain was obvious, he was given no real advice on how to deal with it, or on rehabilitation. Thank goodness the old treatments are now discredited. For most back pain similar to that which my husband suffered, two days in bed is considered better than seven days--or even weeks--in bed. Longer spells in bed will cause back muscles to stiffen and lose strength.

It is now recognised that self-care techniques, such as pacing--by performing tasks in a measured and controlled fashion, without overdoing or straining--stretching and relaxation, can greatly help with back problems.

There are very positive developments in treating back pain. One excellent example is the input pain management programme at St. Thomas's hospital. After careful assessment, sufferers are equipped with techniques that help them to live with their condition, build up stamina and improve mobility. Many people disabled with back pain have been able with the programme's help to return to work. One person who was helped by the scheme said:

I have mentioned St. Thomas's programme specifically not only because it was drawn to my attention but because I have read the excellent advice that it provides to its general practitioners. Moreover, it is only across the river from this place. I am sure that there are many other examples of pain management units, but I understand, however, that provision is patchy throughout the country. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look at any similar schemes around the country, and to spread best practice so that equality of treatment is available.

The British Medical Association in its "Home Healthcare Guide", issued to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the national health service, gives positive advice on back and neck pain, emphasising relaxation exercises and the need to exercise to strengthen stomach, neck and side muscles.

Awareness, support and information are important. The Havering branch of the National Back Pain Association has hundreds of members. For those who miss the meetings, a video is available. For those depressed by chronic pain, there is a listening ear service, and for those who want more information there is a library and a newsletter. It is even on the internet.

In the past, too many people with chronic pain felt isolated. Support groups take away that feeling. Nothing is worse than feeling that one is the only person with a particular problem. Again, I thank Peter Moore for his excellent work, and for staying here tonight and listening to the debate. He has been there himself and still suffers chronic back pain, but he has learnt to manage his pain, and he now works tirelessly to help others overcome their problems. Pain management, with rehabilitation and support, is the ideal combination for dealing with the problem.

As I said, back pain is costing people a great deal in pain and loss of quality of life. It is also costing the country billions of pounds in lost production and health care.

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There are ways in which back pain can be prevented, especially for young people, for whom serious problems that may not be evident for many years are starting now. I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the whole area of prevention, in partnership with the Department for Education and Employment. To help those suffering with back pain, my hon. Friend should encourage hospitals to set up pain management and rehabilitation units, and spread best practice.

We are not talking about a few people here. Some 60 per cent. of adults suffer back problems annually, and 30 per cent. of adults become chronic sufferers. National Back Pain Week begins on 5 October, so it is appropriate that we have managed to debate the matter before the summer recess. The National Back Pain Association will be holding many activities, and the specially designed school bags will be available. Hopefully, all right hon. and hon. Members will take part in local awareness activities during the week, especially with local secondary schools.

We all lead much more sedentary lives now. We tend to sit in front of the computer or television for long periods. Badly designed furniture increases the risk of back pain. That is true in schools, too. The need to keep up with technology leads to the ever-present demands to buy computers and software, but all too often children are sitting on badly designed chairs and working on unsuitable desks, not designed for computer work. Evolution has adapted us for many things, but it has not kept up with our soft lives--moving from soft beds to cars to desks and back again.

I have highlighted only a few issues tonight, but I should be glad to provide any further information I can to my hon. Friend, whom I thank for listening so intently to me at such a late hour. Back pain is a big issue, and one that I am sure the Government take seriously.

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