A NORTH-EAST MP has expressed his delight that a ban on smoking in cars carrying children has moved a step closer after after peers defeated the Government on the issue by 222 votes to 197.

Government sources have tonight suggested that MPs will now get a free vote on the issue, giving it a real chance of becoming law.

The successful amendment to the Children and Families Bill backs the principle of the ban by giving the Health Secretary a power to bring in regulations that would make it an offence for a driver to fail to prevent smoking in the vehicle when a child or children are present.

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Stockton North MP Alex Cunningham has been at the forefront of the campaign for several years, and introduced his own private member's Bill.

Reacting to tonight's vote, he said: "I'm absolutely delighted that the Lords have voted to protect children first and foremost. It's a real milestone in the campaign to ban smoking in cars with children."

Mr Cunningham said it was now up to campaigners to gain support across all parties to ensure the clause ultimately becomes law.

He said: "I know the Government are not supporting the new clause, but there are lots of people across the chamber who have very different views to that.

"I'm hoping that on this occasion they can be persuaded that they must put children first, rather than party politics."

Lord Hunt, one of the peers who brought the amendment, said: "Around one child in five reports being regularly exposed to second-hand smoke in cars with catastrophic health consequences."

The British Lung Foundation has reported that about 185,000 children aged between 11 and 15 are exposed to potentially toxic concentrations of second-hand smoke in their family car every day or on most days.

Lord Hunt said that the need for child protection was the most important principle in the debate and added: "Unlike most adults, children lack the freedom to decide when and how to travel, they lack the authority most adults have to ask people not to smoke in their company.

"And in those circumstances I think it is right for Parliament to step in to protect children."

Opponents of a ban, including pro-smoking group Forest, dispute the health claims and say education, not legislation is the way forward.  They also argue that a ban would be impossible to enforce.

Health Minister Earl Howe said during the Lords debate that the Government is launch a new campaign on smoke-free houses and cars this year.

"We all want to eradicate smoking in cars carrying children," he said.

But he added: "I believe we should only consider resorting to using legislation if our work to promote positive changes in behaviour is shown not to have the required effect."