§ Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham)
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment, although I dare say that he could think of more joyful starts to his new job than addressing a cold and empty Chamber at 6 o'clock in the morning.
Twice in the past three weeks the Department of the Environment issued poor quality air alerts as photochemical smogs descended on many parts of Britain. The most recent case was Tuesday 12 July. Before that, peaks occurred over the weekend of 2 and 3 July. In London —the worst-hit area—ozone levels reached 95 parts per billion. According to the Department's health panel, they should average no more than 50 parts per billion.
That weekend, according to Today, hospitals reported a 20-fold or 30-fold increase in admissions of patients with breathing difficulties. Some hospitals in London and the south-east were so overloaded that they were running out of medicines to treat asthma sufferers.
It is ironical that those two poor air quality alerts coincided precisely with the inquiry into transport-related air pollution in London by the Transport Select Committee, of which I am a member. They were not without precedent. The most notorious air pollution incident in recent times was the photochemical smog in London on Friday 13 December 1993. Professor Ross Anderson of St. George's hospital conducted an investigation into the incident for the Department of Health. He said:The death rate in London during that week was 10 per cent. higher than expected—equivalent to about 160 extra deaths.There is now good medical evidence to suggest that increases in air pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and particulates—known as PM10s—are associated with the worsening of the symptoms and the number of attacks experienced by individuals with asthma and other respiratory disorders. And asthma is on the increase. Indeed, it is the only treatable chronic condition in the western world that is increasing in frequency and severity. The Government's figures published in April of this year show that levels of asthma have more than doubled in every region of England since 1979. Some 3 million British citizens now suffer from asthma. Some 2,000 people die from asthmatic attacks every year—with 80 per cent. of those deaths thought to be preventable. In total, there are some 100,000 hospital admissions for asthma each year. It is now the greatest single cause of hospital admissions, after heart disease and strokes.
The national asthma campaign has drawn our attention to the anomalous position whereby this major and treatable source of ill health in our society was not included in the Government's "Health of the Nation" strategy, published in 1992. Paradoxically, however, the Welsh Office has set targets for the reduction of asthma in the Principality. I very much hope that, as a matter of urgency, the Government will draw on the Welsh model and include in their "Health of the Nation" strategy targets for the reduction of asthma deaths and hospitalisations as well as for the management of asthma in schools and the community.
Such a development would certainly be more than welcome in the London area, for in the South West Thames regional health authority area, which covers part of London, the incidence of asthma rose by 164 per cent. 513 between 1979 and 1991. I am bound to say that those striking statistics are borne out in my own direct experience of case work in my south London constituency of Streatham. Indeed, so impressed was I by the number of parents referring to their children's asthma condition that I carried out a survey of the incidence of asthma among pupils at local primary and secondary schools in Streatham earlier this year. Sixteen of the 22 schools responding reported an increase in asthma over the past five years. In some cases, head teachers referred to dramatic increases over that period.
I am, of course, fully aware that the medical evidence, such as it is, points to the source of asthma in allergic reactions to such materials as pollen and household dust. Nevertheless, I am bound to say that I consider it more than a coincidence that when Friends of the Earth carried out a seven-city survey of nitrogen dioxide levels in the UK in 1992 it found that the worst residential site was in Streatham—with a mean level of 58.5 parts per billion. The European Union's upper safety limit is 40 parts per billion.
That monitoring exercise was carried out in the very heart of Streatham, at St. Leonard's junction, on the A23 London to Brighton road, one of London's busiest and most congested thoroughfares. The simple fact is that road vehicles are the main contributor to air pollution in urban areas; and they are overwhelmingly the source of air pollution in London. In London, road vehicles have been estimated to contribute 75 per cent. of nitrogen dioxides —which also play a major role in ozone formation—some 95 per cent. of black smoke and virtually 100 per cent. of carbon monoxide.
In other words, if we are to improve air quality, to improve the condition of those with respiratory illnesses and, in practice, save lives, our overwhelming target must be the motor vehicle and the internal combustion engine. It is on the premise that the internal combustion engine can be cleaned up that the Government's response to the problem of air quality in London primarily depends.
Since the end of 1992 all new petrol-engine cars have been fitted with catalytic converters, although that still applies to only about 5 per cent. of cars on Britain's roads. Other European legislation, actual and anticipated, will have a marked impact on medium-term emissions of toxics from motor vehicles. Even on the most optimistic estimates, however, the impact of those measures will not be fully felt for another 10 to 15 years—not until the year 2010—and even those measures, which are intended to produce cleaner engines and fuels, throw up their own difficulties, contradictions and disadvantages.
Let us take catalytic converters, for example, and the problem of cold-start emissions. Catalytic converters do not function properly until they are warmed up, and they do not warm up until they have travelled 10 miles. Until that point, they produce more pollutants than traditional engines. Three quarters of car journeys in London measure just over six miles.
When conducting its air pollution inquiry, the Transport Select Committee received deeply alarming evidence on the possible effects of the high aromatics content of unleaded petrol. Unleaded and, to an even greater degree, super-unleaded petrol have been promoted as "green" fuels; yet, especially when used in non-catalysts, aromatics in petrol lead to emissions of carcinogenic materials that may be causing an increased incidence of cancers such as leukaemia. In the United States and Germany, steps are 514 already being taken to limit levels of benzene and aromatics way below British standards, although those countries use catalysts far more than the UK.
Only two years ago, the Chancellor of the Exchequer cut the price of diesel relative to leaded petrol and gave fleet car owners a tax incentive to run diesel cars. Diesel cars were deemed to be the "green" cars: more fuel-efficient, and a force against global warming. Now, however, new evidence of the link between particulates —PM10s—and mortality and morbidity have led the Government to decide that a precautionary approach, to use the technical expression, is needed.
A recent Department of the Environment report suggested that diesel vehicles account for some 30 per cent. of PM10 emissions from all sources. There is, to say the least, a question mark over the diesel engine. Let me add this, however: the London bus may be diesel-fuelled, but, while its seating capacity gives it an efficiency of at least 300 passenger miles per gallon of fuel compared with 20 for the private car, there is no doubt that the environmental advantage continues to lie with the London bus.
I have not cited those examples to mock, or to argue that the search for a cleaner, more efficient engine is a worthless endeavour; on the contrary, I have cited them to demonstrate that there is no guarantee for Londoners of a seamless progression to better air quality by the year 2010. The same development may remove but also create pollutants; there are no guarantees.
In any event, no one has seriously argued that it was ever possible to create an entirely clean, green internal combustion engine. That would be a contradiction in terms. But any improvements that may result from the introduction of catalytic converters will be progressively offset if individual car usage continues to grow on the scale predicted by the Government.
Six years ago, the Department of Transport's national road traffic forecast predicted that the total number of car miles was likely to increase by between 83 and 142 per cent. by the year 2025. The growth may be less in London than elsewhere, but the road system in many parts of London has already been effectively saturated for many years. Even a proportion of that projected growth would simply seize up the city. It would certainly overwhelm the Government's current pet scheme for traffic movement in London—the so-called red routes.
Traffic growth will mean continuing pollution and its inevitable consequence—slower traffic—will mean more pollution. That is an unattractive and dangerous prospect for Londoners. The conclusion is obvious: we need to stabilise and to reduce the number of cars on our roads. An essential condition for achieving that, however it is done —and the Government have already told us that they are giving serious consideration to congestion pricing—is a public transport system with proper investment. Obviously, that is not what Londoners are getting from the Government now.
Three years ago the Monopolies and Mergers Commission estimated that London Transport's annual investment requirement in order to provide an acceptably modern network stood at £750 million. This year, the capital grant to London Transport's core business stands at half that figure—£346 million. It will rise over the next two years to just over £500 million. That is well below the funding London Transport believes to be essential for what it calls a "bedrock" investment to maintain the system in 515 its present far from satisfactory state. A total of £600 million a year is required on the underground alone to achieve that purpose.
In other words, the Government are responding to the challenge of a growth in the number of cars and more pollution with a deteriorating public transport system in London. The time has come for firm hard choices and Labour has made them. The excellent report, published this week, by the party's policy commission on the environment, entitled "In Trust for Tomorrow", makes clear our commitment to cuts in the monstrously inflated roads programme in order to fund priority investment in public transport infrastructure and within the existing transport budget. I welcome that commitment, as will Londoners.
A multitude of useful measures may be taken to reduce transport-related air pollution in London, ranging from improved vehicle standards to better traffic management, and many are set out in Labour's report and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) will refer to them in his speech. The Gordian knot which demands to be cut is that of car dependency. It must be done by an attractive, efficient and safe public transport system. The Labour party now offers a sensible and. realistic approach towards achieving that goal, and I am sure that Londoners will embrace it enthusiastically at the next general election.
§ Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich)
I welcome the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) because it is a matter in which I have taken a great interest both before my election and since. It was within a few days of the previous general election that I had cause to write to the then Secretary of State for the Environment—he is now at the Home Office—saying that in my constituency, levels of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide already exceeded the World Health Organisation levels for sensitive vegetation and that reports carried out at that time for the east Thames councils, of all political hues, pointed to excessive levels of hydrogen chloride and predicted that those levels would rise considerably if the planned commercial and other combustion processes were to proceed in the area.
At that time, I pointed out that figures produced by Greenwich council and the director of public health for Bexley pointed to alarming levels of respiratory illness in the area. Some of that may have been due to pollutants from contaminated industrial processes and land uses, but the evidence pointed clearly to airborne pollution from emissions from industrial process and from vehicular traffic.
At the same time, permission had been given for a combined heat and power waste incineration plant in nearby Lewisham, and approval had been given for the Barking power station. Also under consideration were a proposal to build in Belvedere probably the largest waste incinerator in western Europe and proposals by Thames Water to build two sewage sludge incinerators, one on the north and one on the south bank of the Thames. There was also a proposal to build an enlarged power station in the 516 constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) which, fortunately, was withdrawn because of a public outcry.
Cory Environmental's proposal for the large waste incinerator was initially turned down after a public inquiry, but a new application is expected. No new planning consents should be granted for incineration processes within the east Thames corridor without a comprehensive study of the potential cumulative effects of all the current and proposed combustion processes in the area.
At the time of the inquiry into the Belvedere proposal, Professor Charles Howard of the foetal infant pathology department at the university of Liverpool gave evidence on behalf of BETTER—the Belvedere, Erith and Thamesmead Tackling Environmental Ruin campaign. Of the pollutants that would be produced in such a process, he said:These chemicals cause, among other things, growth retardation in the womb, which can be shown to cause permanent damage to kidneys and reduce life expectancy.I believe that there needs to be a thorough examination of the damage that could be caused by an increase in the number of combustion processes in the south-east Thames area.
In east London, the annual average sulphur dioxide levels already approach or meet EC guide values, as has been shown by the South East Institute for Public Health. However, it is not just the individual pollutants that cause the problem, but the effect of the pollutants acting together, or the synergistic action of pollutants that make up the lethal cocktail to which my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham referred. There is clear evidence that ozone and higher nitrogen dioxide levels predispose individuals to a greater susceptibility to damage from other allergens such as pollen and fungal spores.
In an Adjournment debate last June, I had the opportunity to raise those matters. The then Under-Secretary of State for the Environment dismissed the problem of industrial processes and emissions by saying that they madea relatively small contribution, at most about 17 per cent. of existing nitrogen dioxide concentrations.He rejected the idea of a comprehensive study. I ask the Minister today to give serious consideration to that idea.
Agreement was reached on one point in our previous debate. The Minister agreed that vehicles accounted for the vast majority of annual average concentrations—about 70 per cent. in London. He said:The motor car is the chief cause of the relatively high levels in nitrogen oxides in east London".— [Official Report, 10 June 1993; Vol.226, c.535.]As my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham said, the problem is that the Government are not prepared to tackle the main cause of air pollution in London. The Minister talked of controlling emissions, but pollution from the growth in the use of motor vehicles will far outstrip any reductions in emissions caused by the introduction of lean burn engines, catalytic convertors or any other measures.
The Government remain wedded to the roads lobby. We have witnessed indecision, dithering and delay over the major public transport projects in London—the docklands light railway extension, the Jubilee line, crossrail and the upgrading of the Northern line—and a reluctance to back the London Docklands development corporation, British Rail, London Underground and Union Railways on the need for the Woolwich rail tunnel. However, the 517 Government have been prepared to press ahead with the environmentally damaging M11 link. They are also still wedded to the concept of the east London river crossing.
BBC's "First Sight" programme showed the incidence of asthma and other respiratory illnesses in my constituency and highlighted a school where 10 per cent. of the pupils are regularly on medication, of which a supply has to be kept at school. Yet the Government are still wedded to the east London river crossing, which will produce 1,000 metric tonnes of gaseous and particulate pollution per year, in an area in which nitrogen dioxide levels already exceed the EC limit value.
There may have been a temporary halt to the previous proposals for the east London river crossing, because of opposition to the destruction of Oxleas wood, and the threat from the European Commission. However, the Government have still not withdrawn the line order, although the line goes past eight schools, including a special school for children who suffer with asthma, cystic fibrosis and heart disease.
The Government seem to be as wedded to the motor car lobby as the American Government are to the gun lobby. Has their view shifted since the time when Nicholas Ridley was at the Department of the Environment, and said:If people want to commute into London, who am Ito say they shouldn't?For him that was a matter of consumer choice—yet, as my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham said, unless there is investment in public transport, there will be no real choice.
Nicholas Ridley at the Department of the Environment was succeeded by Cecil Parkinson, who said that people's aspirations to use a car should not be "artificially constrained". Will the Minister tell us whether that is still Government policy? We well remember the 1992 financial statement, in which London Transport's investment programme was cut by one third while the roads programme remained intact.
My hon. Friend has referred to the levels of pollution in London in recent times. We are accustomed to the alarming stories about pollution in Mexico, in Los Angeles or in Athens, but until recently there was a belief in this country that Britain had cracked the pollution problem. After all, we had pioneered clean air legislation, and the industrial grime and killer smog of the 1950s were no more.
However, as has been pointed out, today we face even more dangerous pollutants in the air that we breathe—pollutants that we often cannot see, but which can cause a variety of symptoms, including hay fever, eczema and asthma, especially among children. They are also responsible for various forms of cancer. Surveys of hospital admissions, the incidence of asthma reported to GPs and the number of prescriptions for asthma and asthma-related diseases all show significant and worrying upward trends. That evidence has been further supported by the Office of Science and Technology in its excellent report "Breathing in our Cities".
There is no doubt that oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, ozone and particulate matter are all relevant to respiratory disease. In addition, there is the problem of carbon monoxide, an asphyxiant, as well as the volatile organic compounds that combine with ultra-violet Eight to produce ozone, which is known to be a major irritant.
My hon. Friend has mentioned recent incidents in which there have been crisis levels of emergency admissions to hospital. One weekend, Whipps Cross hospital in London was so inundated that it ran out of anti-asthma medicines. 518 At King's College hospital, in Norwood, the casualty department was stuffed so full of asthma sufferers that all the nebulisers were in use at one time. So serious was the problem that one hospital alerted the national poisons unit and inquired whether there had been an escape of poisonous gas.
I am sorry that the minutes of the Select Committee on Transport concerning transport-related atmospheric pollution are not yet available, but I hope that the Government will study them seriously. In particular, I draw their attention to the evidence given to the Select Committee by Dr. Barry Gray, the consultant in the department of respiratory diseases at King's college hospital.
Can anyone now dispute that oxides of nitrogen exacerbate asthma? The concentrations of nitrogen dioxide in London last year increased by 17 per cent. Yes, there are international agreements to cut emissions, but the levels have been rising since the 1980s. Emissions from road transport rose by 72 per cent. in the 1980s. The Department of Health advisory group on medical aspects of air pollution published its report in 1993. The Government said that there was little cause for concern, but the report gives no grounds for complacency. Having reviewed all the evidence from epidemiological studies, it concludes:many studies have found associations with NOx-linked pollution and health effects, at levels well below WHO guideline levels … the epidemiological evidence does not exclude. an association between the types of pollution of which NOx forms part, and various respiratory health effects".In my area, the latest figures available in the report by the director of public health show that asthma represented 10 per cent. of the admissions of children to hospital and that a further 7 per cent. were due to infections of the upper respiratory tract. Between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s, in my area of south-east London, hospital admissions of children for asthma rose by a staggering 207 per cent. Nationally, asthma costs the national health service between £700 million and £800 million a year. With costs to the Department of Social Security and other added costs, we are talking about a cost to the country of well over £1 billion.
Regrettably, London is at the head of the league table in the incidence of asthma. The London air quality network warned last month that London air was the worst for 40 years. I rang the Government's hotline today to find out the current situation. I discovered that the nearest monitoring station to my constituency, in Bexley, showed that in terms of sulphur dioxide levels, yesterday the air quality was poor. The forecast for London today is poor for nitrogen oxides, for sulphur dioxide, for benzene and for ozone.
It was suggested that the air quality for the rest of the country was good. However, I point out to those who will leave London tomorrow to return to their constituencies that there is some doubt about what the term "good" means. Under the present classification, the "good" category allows up to 100 parts per billion of ozone, whereas the World Health Organisation recommends a maximum one-hour guideline of 76 to 100 parts per billion. The National Society for Clean Air and Environmental Protection has said:to describe ozone levels approaching 100 parts per billion as good surely requires the use of rose-tinted spectacles.In response to criticism from Friends of the Earth, the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell), who was then Under-Secretary of State for Health, said:WHO has set guidelines which are intended to be levels above which action should be taken to reduce pollution. They are not 519 indications of a health risk as they incorporate safety margins.The World Health Organisation itself says something quite different. It says:Since the air quality guideline value incorporates little or no margin of protection, widespread acute effects of the respiratory tract may be caused. The frequent and repetitive nature of ozone exposure might contribute to the development of irreversible decline of lung function as well as to structural lung damage.We know that the WHO guidelines are frequently exceeded in London. Does the Minister stand by the remarks by the former Health Minister or will he now tell the truth, which would indeed be a breath of fresh air in the Chamber?
The Government put their faith in voluntary action. They turn their face against regulation and controls in their free-enterprise, deregulated culture. They seem still to be wedded to Ridley's belief in the right of the individual to have the freedom to pollute.
My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham referred to buses and to diesel emissions. Why have the Government rejected the host of proposals in the report by the Royal Commission on environmental pollution of 1991? Why have they rejected all the proposals that showed ways in which the emission of pollutants from heavy-duty diesel-engined vehicles could be reduced? There were positive recommendations in the report—recommenda-tions which would involve grants and tax incentives, and use the vehicle excise duty. The Government rejected those recommendations on the basis thatmore generous treatment for buses … would amount to a special subsidy".They also rejected tax incentives or the principle of taxing the polluter because that would becounter to the Government's policy of maintaining neutrality and low overall rates of tax".They have shown that they are unwilling to take the necessary action to tackle the appalling levels of pollution and the risk to health in the capital city. It would appear that they have taken action only when they have been forced to do so by European legislation and European directives. I wonder whether the time may not be coming soon when the Government may be asking for a opt-out from those responsibilities as well.
The Department of the Environment expert panel on air standards and the Department's consultative paper on improving air quality both talk of guidelines. Those guidelines will be little more than a wish-list or pious hope unless they are given statutory backing.
The Government, after much pressure, have improved the air quality monitoring network in London, but little or nothing has been done on prevention. The impact of air pollution on the health of Londoners is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham said, extremely serious and requires urgent action now. The high rates of children with asthma and the unacceptable data associated with particulate emissions are of particular concern. As I have said, the health guidelines are regularly exceeded in London for a number of common pollutants, mainly from road transport. Unless mandatory air quality standards are set, with a target date for compliance, the proposed standards will fail to impact on transport and planning policies.
London remains vulnerable to future severe pollution episodes, but the Government have no plans to issue smog alerts backed by powers to restrain traffic, as has been done 520 in other countries. The Department of the Environment survey in 1992 found that 19 million people live in areas in breach of the EC directive's annual mean guide value for nitrogen dioxide; eight of the 10 sites with the highest levels were in London. That somewhat contradicts the Minister's assurance given to the House last year that air quality in London is:good or very good 97 per cent. of the time".—[Official Report, 10 June 1993; Vol. 226, c. 530.]It is time that the Department of the Environment, if it is worthy of its name, tackled the real issues and confronted the Department of Transport.
As my hon. Friend said, the Department of Transport traffic management policy in London is to try to accommodate the maximum number of vehicles on the roads—maximising the efficiency of the road network. The Department judges the red routes in London a success. Red routes in London have led to an increase in traffic of 10 per cent.—10 per cent. more vehicles. Is the number of vehicles on the road an effective measure of efficiency, or should we be examining the number of people or the amount of goods? In a recent debate, an Environment Minister shouted across the Chamber that buses pollute, too. As my hon. Friend said, buses do pollute, too, but a bus takes up three times the space of a car but carries 80 people, whereas a car on average carries 1.3 people in the capital city. A vehicle-centred approach to efficiency will cause more congestion and pollution, not less. I support my hon. Friend's call for a major shift in expenditure in transport policy from road to public transport.
I shall conclude by examining briefly what the Government regard as safe in London. For whom is it safe? Certainly, there is evidence to show that levels of pollutants of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which may have little or no effect on a healthy adult, have a different effect on someone who is predisposed to asthma or other respiratory illness. There is also evidence to show that the effects can be much greater on young children than on adults. Children take in more air pollution in proportion to the size of their lungs and the toxins processed by a child's smaller organs accrue higher concentrations. Children also tend to be shorter than adults, so, on the pavement, they are closer to the source of pollution and inhale higher levels of it.
The dangers of other pollutants can be different in certain circumstances. I have already spoken about the high levels of products of chlorine in the atmosphere in the east Thames corridor. The director of public health for the Bexley health authority has prepared a report in which she says:Chlorine has not been incorporated into the evolutionary chemistry of man, or for that matter into any animal. It is a broad system poison with a wide range of biological activity, and is toxic to all animals.It is also cumulative in body fat stores.She then quoted Dr. Howard, of the department of foetal and infant pathology, at the Royal Liverpool Children's hospital, who has said:chlorine compounds can be transferred via the placenta to the developing foetus and through breastmilk to the newborn child at 100 to 200 times the body concentration of the mother.There is clear evidence that the whole range of air-borne pollutants in London can be transmitted to the foetus in far greater concentrations than they are ingested by the adult.
One other pollutant represents a serious, growing problem in London, carbon monoxide, most of which comes from vehicle exhausts. In London, there are 521 occasions when the levels of carbon monoxide have reached double the World Health Organisation's guideli-nes. The Government's have predicted that, nationally, transport carbon emissions will rise from 38 million tons in 1990 to 62 million tons by 2010.
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include drowsiness, impaired brain functioning, slow reflexes and impaired perception and thinking. One can only assume that the Government are suffering from such poisoning, given their inaction in dealing with that menace in the capital city.
§ Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) on his success in the ballot and on his good sense in his choice of subject.
This is a timely debate, in the sense of the concern recently expressed about air quality, even though those of us who have had rather less sleep than normal would not necessarily regard this as the most timely moment in the course of the parliamentary day to be debating the subject.
We have had an able presentation from my hon. Friends the Members for Streatham and for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) of the key issues of air quality and the clear links between that and transport-induced emissions. which are a source of ever greater concern to those of us who live in and represent London constituencies.
The subject was highlighted graphically by the latest edition of The Independent on Sunday, with a front page leading article, entitled, "The day Britain choked". It reported:Britain has experienced the greatest asthma epidemic ever recorded during this summer's heatwave … At the height of the epidemic, some London hospitals ran out of medication for asthmatics.My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich drew attention to that fact. The same point was stressed in the article, which continued:Startled doctors at one hospital at first thought there had been an escape of poison gas, as at Bhopal in India, 10 years ago.'We suspect that this is the biggest documented outbreak anywhere in the world,' said Dr. Virginia Murray, of the National Poisons Unit at Guy's and St.Thomas's Hospitals.That is pretty stark reading. The article reflects the seriousness of the problem.
We are all familiar with the background. We know that in the past poor air quality—especially smog—was a real problem in London. Mercifully, the problem has reduced dramatically in the past 50 years, as a result, essentially, of the clean air legislation and reductions in emissions from both industrial and domestic users. The traditional London pea souper is now, thankfully, a memory from the past.
In the past few years, an entirely new atmospheric threat has emerged. Industrially based pollution has continued to decline and the domestic use of coal fires has reduced dramatically, so easing pollution from that source, but pollution attributable to motor vehicles has been rising inexorably involving the emission of a range of different pollutants.
I need to go no further than the Government's report on the United Kingdom environment to highlight the trend. The report, which was published less than a couple of years ago, refers specifically to black smoke emissions, which have declined by 20 per cent. since 1980 because of the halving of emissions from domestic sources, but it highlights the fact that over the same period emissions 522 from road transport of black smoke have doubled. Both my hon. Friends the Members for Streatham and for Woolwich have dealt specifically with black smoke emissions and hydrocarbon emissions, which are a specific cause of concern.
The Government's report on our environment highlighted the extent of the increase in average UK concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, which increased by 35 per cent. from 1986 to 1991. That was mainly because of the increased emissions from traffic. The report stresses the extent to which carbon monoxide emissions have also increased since 1980 by over 30 per cent. It is a chilling fact that 90 per cent. of emissions of carbon monoxide are derived from road vehicles.
These are all disturbing trends. They are associated with the remarkable increase in the incidence of asthma that is affecting a wide range of the population, but especially children in London and throughout the country. We have heard extremely worrying evidence of the extent of asthma incidents in Streatham. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham conducted a survey in the area and found some shattering evidence of the extent of the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich rightly referred to the widespread and much reported problems of asthma in south-east London, problems with which I am familiar.
We know about the wide range of polluting emissions. We know, for example, about the incidence of black smoke, hydrocarbons, particulates, benzine—it is carcinogetic—NOx, low-level ozone and carbon monoxide. We know also of the extent of emissions of carbon dioxide —the greenhouse gas—for which we have targets which were agreed at the Rio conference two years ago. It will be extremely difficult for the Government to meet those targets if radical steps are not taken to secure substantial reductions in emissions, especially from motor vehicles.
Faced with all these serious grounds for concern, the Government's response has been extremely negligent. My hon. Friends have referred to the traditional Tory love affair with the motor car. We have heard references to the late Lord Ridley's wish for people to be free to drive their cars to wherever they might wish to go. He took a rather different view, however, if people proposed to drive their motor cars into the countryside where he lived privately. That was when his not-in-my-backyard instincts were aroused. He saw no problems, however, if anyone wanted to bring a motor car into London, whatever the impact on the environment.
We know also of Baroness Thatcher's preference for the use of the motor car rather than public transport, her hatred of public transport and her wish to be able to travel in her own car wherever and whenever she wanted. The fact that that privilege would inevitably result in a disadvantage to other people never crossed Baroness Thatcher's mind due to her highly selfish approach towards policy making.
The Government's current presumptions in seeking ever-increasing road capacity to cope with increased demand for car usage sadly perpetuates the trends set in place during the 1980s by Baroness Thatcher and the late Lord Ridley. The problem with the Government's approach is that the demand is insatiable. Their own figures show the extent of the projected increase in motor car usage. Even the low forecast of the increase in car usage over the next two decades from 1994 to 2014 gives a projected rise of 37 per cent. across Great Britain and 29 per cent. in London; the high forecast gives a possible 523 increase of 59 per cent. across the whole of Great Britain and 48 per cent. in London. One has to think for only a brief moment about the current state of London's traffic to realise that the prospect of an increase of between 29 and 48 per cent. in motor vehicle traffic in London is unsustainable. It would have catastrophic implications in terms of congestion, the amenity of Londoners and the increase in toxic emissions.
The idea that we should base public policy on a wish to satisfy that level of demand for increased vehicle usage in an area that is already hopelessly over-congested is the policy of the madhouse. The very process of building new roads contributes to the increase in congestion, as many road schemes have shown. When the M25 was originally conceived, it was envisaged as a relief road which would take traffic out of London and ease congestion in London. Now that we have the M25, we have ever-greater congestion in London and the M25 is so hopelessly congested that the argument is now being advanced that it must be extended in various places to a 14-lane super-highway. If that argument is accepted, it will lead us down an utterly disastrous route to increased road capacity, attracting yet more vehicles and increasing congestion, pollution and, in turn, the demand for more road space. It is a monster whose appetite is insatiable and, if it is indulged, it will continue to demand more and more.
The time has come to call a halt and say that a new policy approach is necessary. We cannot continue to sacrifice the countryside and the interests of ordinary people who rightly wish to enjoy fresh air and escape from the urban environment to attractive rural areas surrounding big cities. We cannot destroy those prospects by creating the massive devastation and damage that we have unfortunately witnessed at Twyford down in the past couple of years as the Government have driven through that road scheme against justified opposition from all those concerned about the environment—[Interruption.] The despoliation of our landscape may not concern the Minister, who is intervening from a sedentary position, but for Opposition Members the despoliation of Twyford down will be remembered as one of the most disgraceful actions of a Government whose whole transport policy has failed and is rightly rejected.
§ The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins)
The Labour party would have done the same.
§ Mr. Raynsford
In the past week, the Labour party has published a new environmental policy which has been well received by an extremely wide range of bodies concerned with the environment and the country's future. That policy document, "In Trust for Tomorrow", a concept which a Government who are in hock to the past cannot appreciate, sets out clearly how we shall change present policy. [Interruption.] The Minister, from a sedentary position, wants a price tag. I will tell him. He will be disappointed, because the price tag is a neutral price tag, as we are calling a halt to the wasteful expenditure on unnecessary road schemes, which has become the hallmark of the present Government. We shall call a halt to the squandering of millions, if not billions, of pounds on building roads that damage our countryside, which attract more vehicles into 524 areas where there is already excessive congestion, and which do nothing to attack the fundamental problem of inadequate investment in public transport.
We shall achieve a significant shift in the allocation of resources away from unnecessary road schemes such as the M25 widening. I wonder whether the Minister would like to comment on the response of his hon. Friends from constituencies around the M25. He may not be a Transport Minister, but he is a Minister who has responsibilities, and has hon. Friends who represent constituencies around the route proposed for the widening of the M25. I wonder whether he has consulted them on their views about those proposals.
§ Mr. Raynsford
I have to advise the Minister that there is little enthusiasm for the massive road-building schemes of his Government among his hon. Friends who represent the areas that will be affected. That should give him pause for thought as to just how unpopular and inappropriate the Government's transport policies are.
A new approach is required—an approach that will achieve a shift in spending away from roads and in favour of public transport. A halt is needed to unnecessary, wasteful road-building projects such as the M25 extension, and instead there should be an emphasis on investing in much-needed public transport infrastructure.
London requires the modernisation of its rail network. We need modern, comfortable, reliable, attractive train services to ensure that people use them rather than bringing their motor cars into central London. We need new lines such as crossrail to provide links across the city where they do not exist at the moment. We need new links such as the Woolwich metro, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich rightly referred, to ensure that there are good public transport alternatives to avoid the need for road-building schemes such as the East London river crossing, which would have a dire environmental impact on a part of south-east London already suffering from excessive atmospheric pollution.
We need improved investment in the London underground. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham rightly highlighted the Government's failure to honour their pledge, made at the most recent general election, to invest £3.5 billion in improving the London underground to a decently modern metro standard. Instead, we have £1 billion less investment than was promised, and London Underground Ltd. literally has to look to every opportunity that it can to achieve basic modernisation work. For example, the Northern line rolling stock should have been replaced a long time ago, but London Underground is still waiting for news as to how the tendering process proceeds for the replacement of that stock.
We also know the delay that has occurred over the Jubilee line. My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich rightly alluded to that. We have the strange saga of the docklands light railway extension, which cannot proceed because there is uncertainty about its funding. The most absurd proposal is emerging that stations should be dropped out of the scheme to reduce the cost, to make it possible to attract private finance.
One only has to pause for thought to realise the stupidity of a line of policy that suggests that much-needed stations, especially one at Cutty Sark in my constituency, which would attract a large number of tourists to one of the most 525 attractive tourist sites in London, should be deleted because it is not possible to raise sufficient private finance to fund that station in the short term. It is the worst possible example of short-termism, of failure to consider London's overall needs, and failure to provide the proper transport network that we require.
That is no way to plan a transport system, but it is typical of the approach that has been adopted by the Government. We have to reverse that and ensure that there is increased investment in public transport, financed by a transfer of resources from the road-building programme.
We also need to improve London's bus service. London's buses are critical to large numbers of people, particularly when undertaking short to medium length journeys and in areas where there is no adequate train or underground service. Large parts of south London are entirely without the underground system. Buses must be given an advantage to enable them to carry passengers at reasonable speed. Such an advantage means bus lanes which, in turn, will help to reduce the excess capacity available on roads that simply allows more private cars to use them. A policy that includes an extension of bus lanes, better priority for buses and restrictions on the volume of car traffic that can come into certain areas of London must be right.
By considering the experiment that has been conducted by the City of London in the past year, we can learn some interesting lessons. The City corporation introduced, as an anti-terrorism measure, wide-ranging restrictions on people's ability to bring private cars into the square mile. The results have been startling and startlingly successful. There has been a dramatic reduction in the problems of congestion and in pollution levels in the City, and there has been a shift in usage from private cars to public transport. Those results are all benefits and virtually everyone who has considered the experiment recognises that it has resulted in a significant improvement. It gives us clear evidence of the need to pursue similar radical and positive approaches to tackle our acute transport problems.
As well as pursuing measures to support and encourage public transport and to restrict unnecessary private vehicle movements into congested city areas, we also need effective monitoring of air quality. We need national air quality targets, local authorities with powers to be able to implement and monitor those targets and, where necessary, to specify higher targets to be achieved within their areas, particularly where there are very serious problems. Local authorities must also have the discretion to decide how they can ensure, within their local transport plans, that the standards and targets will be met.
We need a range of traffic-calming measures. We need alternatives that encourage modern, light train and supertram systems. The Croydon initiative is very much to be welcomed in that context, as are park-and-ride schemes. We also need far more effective warning when severe episodes of air pollution are expected. It is very much the responsibility of the Government to take the lead in giving such a warning. I hope that they will work with local authorities to ensure a system under which people are advised when it will present a risk, both to them and to other people, to take cars into congested areas.
We also need to place greater emphasis on technological responses and the extension of catalytic converters. As well as encouraging more retro-fitting, we need to encourage the whole industry to explore alternatives that will achieve greater fuel efficiency and, in 526 the long term, to explore alternatives to the internal combustion engine. There is a range of policy options, which are covered in detail in Labour's new environmental policy. Those options point to a positive and hopeful way forward to a new approach to tackle the acute pollution problems that we face.
People all over London are rightly concerned about the problem, which calls out for an urgent and imaginative response. We in the Labour party have put forward that response. I hope that the Government will listen and will reverse their policy in response to London's needs.
§ The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) on initiating this debate. I must correct him on one small point—I am not new to my job, I have been doing it since January. Neither am I a Transport Minister, although clearly the subject impacts on that Department, too.
As the parent of a daughter who is a quite severe asthmatic, I am only too well aware of the pressures on, and the problems caused for, youngsters—a matter which Labour Members raised. Therefore, I hope that they will accept that we have just as much, if not more, interest in such matters as anyone else. When the Government published the United Kingdom sustainable development strategy earlier this year, we identified improving air quality in our cities and towns as one of the most significant challenges for sustainable development. We are determined to meet that challenge.
That is why we followed the strategy almost immediately with our discussion document "Improving Air Quality", in which we put forward radical options for making the air that we breathe cleaner and healthier. We asked for full discussion, for constructive comment, for alternative views and for practical experiments to test ways of improving air quality. Some 130 organisations replied, from local government, business and the voluntary sector. They support our strategy. They have made positive suggestions and they have also expressed a willingness to work with us. We are now considering all the responses in depth and we will announce our proposals, including our plans for the first air quality experiments, later this year. I urge those hon. Members who have not read "Improving Air Quality"—especially those who suggest that nothing is happening—to read it now and, perhaps, to think again.
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
The Minister spoke of the urgency of the Government's approach to the issue. Why has not the Department of Health published the report on an incident in December 1991 in which, it is claimed, 200 extra deaths occurred in London? Is not it a matter of shame for the Government that there have been two similar incidents in the past month, which may well have killed large numbers of people, yet no report has yet been published on the incident some three years ago?
§ Mr. Atkins
I cannot comment on that matter, as I am not a Health Minister. However, I undertake to ensure that the hon. Gentleman's concern is registered with Health Ministers, who will doubtless pursue the matter with him in due course. I regret that I cannot give him a direct answer.
While none of us for a second underestimates the concern that people have for the quality of air that we have 527 experienced during the last couple of weekends, I would not want hon. Members to run away with idea that the matter is nearly as serious as we are sometimes led to believe. It is not killer smog; we are talking about incidences of poor air quality on certain occasions. They should not be overestimated in the tabloid terms that some people use. I am not suggesting that Opposition Members are guilty of that, but the media sometimes are.
When we publish our proposals this autumn, we will be building on the strong base of what we have already done. I remind the House that it was the Conservative party in government that brought in the Clean Air Act 1952, which was one of the most revolutionary Acts of its type. We know only too well the importance of that and what should be done to improve on it.
As the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) said, we do not want to go back to the 1950s. We all know that acrid, choking, sulphur smog is no longer part of London life. Important as they still are, I shall not dwell on the measures that have halved sulphur emissions since 1970 and cut peak levels in London tenfold. We know that, as our life styles have changed, pollution has changed, especially in towns and cities where traffic is now the major source of many important pollutants. We have risen to those challenges and acted to deal with them.
Recent claims, which have been added to in the debate, that the public were given no information about ozone levels until the EC ozone directive came into force early this year are simply patently wrong. We launched our information service—which is second to none in the world —in October 1990, to provide reports and forecasts on a number of pollutants to the media and the public. We do that every day, not just when EC information levels or limits are approached. We do it through a free telephone line and also on Ceefax and Teletext, where the information is updated every hour, on the hour.
We spend some £4 million per year on air quality monitoring and we plan to expand those networks, doubling the number of sites in our enhanced urban network by 1997. We have consulted on integrating local monitoring with our own so that we all work to common standards. All the data from my Department's networks are published and are freely available. The national emissions inventory is updated annually and we are sponsoring the development of more detailed emissions inventories that will enable us to assess the best detailed improvement strategies for particular areas. London was the first city to be tackled.
Taken overall, the air in even our most congested towns and cities is cleaner than it was. Levels of lead in central London have fallen by more than six times since 1980 and emissions are set to reduce during the next few years because of the action that the Government have already taken. Already, 3 million vehicles—15 per cent., not 5 per cent., of the vehicle fleet—have catalysts. Nitrogen dioxide emissions are already falling and even greater gains will follow when new EC standards for petrol and diesel vehicles come into effect in 1996.
We have already begun pressing our European partners on improvements that we wish to see for the year 2000, such as on-board diagnostics that will tell drivers and testers whether emissions equipment is working properly. We are considering alternatives to the internal combustion 528 engine. The Departments of the Environment, of Transport and of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will spend substantial sums during the next two years on research into cleaner alternative technologies.
§ Mr. Raynsford
The Minister has referred to the extent to which, in his view, emissions are falling. Can the Minister tell the House how the Government are doing as against their own targets in respect of NOx and CO2missions?
§ Mr. Atkins
Not at all. We have to keep ourselves awake at this time of the morning.
I chair the greener motoring forum which brings together central and local government, business and environmental groups in order to help our vital transport systems in a way that will reduce their impact on the environment. Naturally, we do not concentrate solely on technology. For example, we are looking at economic instruments, increases in fuel taxes and potential for congestion charging.
Together with the Department of Transport, we have issued guidance to local authorities on how the land use planning system can help to manage the impact of transport on the environment. Local authorities have been asked to put forward complete packages for transport funding and to give higher priority to facilities for walking, cycling and public transport, in which we are investing substantial sums.
Finally, we have certainly not forgotten other sources of pollution. London and all areas where domestic emissions are still important are covered by smoke control orders. In 1990, we introduced innovative new systems for Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution and local authorities to deal with industrial air pollution. The rest of the EC is only now looking to catch up with our integrated pollution control system, which is unique and a world beater. The integrated pollution prevention and control directive, which is still being discussed in Council, takes our IPC system as its model.
However, as hon. Gentlemen said—I do not disagree —more remains to be done. When I launched the document entitled "Improving Air Quality" I pointed clearly to three areas where the Government see a need for further work —air quality standards, short-term measures to reduce pollution from vehicles already on the road and local air quality management strategies for problem areas.
We set up the expert panel on air quality standards in 1991 to make recommendations based on the best currently available scientific evidence of likely risks and benefits. This year, EPAQS—we have an affection for acronyms in the Department of the Environment—has published its first report on benzene and ozone and it will publish further reports later this year, which doubtless will cover the particular points that the hon. Member for Greenwich raised. I will check.
§ Mr. Atkins
Good. We will check together.
The Departments of the Environment and of Health will do all that they can to support the work of EPAQS and to 529 provide further assessment on pollution levels, trends and costs that will enable the Government to reach early decisions.
To be fair, the jury is still out on what causes asthma in the first place. We know that air pollution can affect many people with asthma and other breathing difficulties. Much work is going on not only in Government health departments but outside in the medical profession, the motoring journals and other sectors, in an attempt to discover whether asthma is caused by, for example, motoring activity or dust mites. As I discovered much to my interest the other day, the biggest cause of asthma in California is barbecues. That problem may not have hit us yet, but if our weather goes on being as warm as it has been, it may yet do so.
§ Mr. Austin-Walker
Is the Minister satisfied that the Government are spending sufficient money on asthma research? I understand that it totals £1 million a year. In my own health authority area, which covers the boroughs of Bexley and Greenwich, the cost to the NHS of treating reversible bronchia-constriction is in the region of £2 million a year, excluding the costs of prophylaxis, prevention, peak-flow meters and antibiotics for secondary infections. Should not more money be spent on asthma research to reduce the excessive bill for treating asthma with drugs?
§ Mr. Atkins
The hon. Gentleman must forgive me, but I cannot possibly answer that question, which is for my colleagues in the Department of Health. However, I will ensure that they read the debate. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will take the matter up with them, or I will get them to write to him. I cannot comment on costs, but we are doing a lot of work, rightly so, on asthma research. I have a particular personal interest in one form or another. My daughter believes that when she goes to the garage for petrol, the volatile organic compounds that surround petrol delivery sometimes aggravate her asthma. It is probably fair to expect car emissions to have an effect.
When I was roads Minister, I was instrumental in introducing emissions measurement into the MOT test. Although, like all aspects of that test, that applies only at the moment of testing, we should give thought to whether more regular checks ought to be made. Some London local authorities, such as Westminster and Southwark, are doing a lot. "Improving Air Quality" identified poorly maintained vehicles and black smoke from diesels as issues to be addressed. In 1992–93, the Vehicle Inspectorate carried out 16,000 spot checks and issued 200 prohibition notices as part of its regular enforcement activity. I am sure that all hon. Members would like fewer vehicles on our streets emitting black smoke and other obvious pollution. The other day, I noticed when following London taxis and open-topped tourist buses—which tend to be older vehicles—that they contribute significantly in that respect.
I recently attended a demonstration of the Royal Automobile Club's technology testing of passing cars. It is not yet proven, but it is a step in the right direction.
§ Mr. Flynn
The Minister is complacent in many of the things that he says. Some countries already impose limits on PM10s—tiny, invisible soot particles of less than 10 microns that pass through our air passages and lodge in the lung. Those particles are coated with as many as 60 carcinogenic chemicals. One estimate is that they cause. 530 10,000 deaths a year. The lowest estimate is 3,000 extra deaths. The number is increasing because PM10s come from diesels, which we have encouraged. The worst thing that we ever did was to take lead out of petrol, because it has increased benzene in the atmosphere, which has created more carcinogens. It is unlikely that I will be called to speak in the debate, but the Minister must be told that those problems need urgent examination.
§ Mr. Atkins
The hon. Gentleman must have been asleep—like most people this time of the morning. I spoke all along about the work being done in those areas. I am fascinated to learn that the hon. Gentleman is now opposed to taking the lead out of petrol, which had the favour of many people across the parliamentary divide. Much work is being done on what is good and what is bad. The hon. Gentleman will know if he is a fair man—I am sure that he is, even if he is a Welshman—[HON MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I apologise, and I withdraw that remark. I am just trying to keep myself awake. In all seriousness, a lot of work is going on, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but it is not yet proven that diesel causes the problems.
§ Mr. Atkins
I am sorry, but it is not. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that diesel is not as good as everyone thought that it was. That is fair. Much effort has been put in by the motoring manufacturers in developing the cleaner car, although they would say that the public consider the environmental aspects of their vehicles as being at the bottom of their buying agendas. None the less, the points that the hon. Gentleman makes have some validity in that there is still much work to be done, and, is being done, not only by Government but by industry and the medical profession, in trying to determine what is a contributory cause to the sort of pollution that we are talking about today.
§ Mr. Atkins
No, I shall not give way again, as I have only limited time and want to finish my point. The hon. Gentleman should have intervened at an earlier point, like all the rest of us.
As I was about to say, before I was so rudely interrupted, it should be clear from "Improving Air Quality" that we do not rule out new measures, but I think that there is scope for harnessing public willingness to do better. After all, badly maintained vehicles, as well as affecting the air that we all breathe, probably use more fuel and therefore waste drivers' money.
Lastly and most radically, in improving air quality, we set out the case for integrated local air quality management. The Government's national policies will reduce pollution generally throughout the country, but where there is traffic congestion or industry, or where there are other special factors, there may be a danger that standards will not be met. What we have in mind, therefore, is a menu of supplementary measures for problem areas. Each would choose the mix that would address its particular combination of problems most cost effectively. We have not yet finally determined the contents of the menu. We decided on a full and open debate. Therefore, in improving air quality, we listed the sorts of measures that might be considered and asked for comment and further suggestions.
Among the points that we put up for discussion were suggestions that local planning and highway authorities 531 might be required to have specific regard to the impact of proposals on air quality; that traffic regulation orders could restrict vehicle access; and that there might be specially targeted measures to enforce controls on smoky vehicles in problem areas, more local information services and more detailed emission inventories, such as the one developed for London. Most of all, we need better integration of all the individual measures that can affect local air quality. Many of those are already in the hands of local authorities, and the hon. Member for Greenwich touched on that point in his concluding remarks. He believed that they should be, and will be, important players. It is obvious that, in an area such as London, one authority acting alone cannot solve all the problems. Local authorities will have to co-operate with each other, and they do so in London through the London air quality network. I hope that their co-operation will pay dividends.
Central Government, the new agency, business and the local community must also be drawn in, and we must leave room for innovation and adaptation. Testing how best to achieve proper co-ordination is therefore the key area for testing alternative approaches. As I said earlier, we will be announcing later this year the first experiments with local authorities that have said that they want to work with us. I hope that their positive response in London, together with that of other organisations, will be mirrored elsewhere.
I have looked with some interest at the Opposition's document: "Six Steps to Banish Smog" and have listened to what hon. Members have said tonight. I am only sorry that, four months after we initiated the debate, I saw nothing in that document, nor heard anything today, to suggest that what the Government have done requires any improvement from the Opposition.
§ 7.5 am
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
It has been very disappointing to hear the Minister read his prepared speech, because his attitude and demeanour do not match the crisis that London faces. We all have an interest in the matter because we have to breathe the air in London.
I mentioned lead earlier for a very good reason, because the campaign to remove lead from petrol won the support of all the environmental bodies. The result has been to increase the amount of aromatics—principally benzene —that get into the atmosphere. We know that benzene is powerfully carcinogenic. It causes cancer. It is in the air. One part per billion is already a problem, but it is in the atmosphere in much greater quantities. What do we do about that? We can improve the burn of the petrol to take out the benzene by adding extra oxygen, but if we do that we produce formaldehydes, which are also carcinogenic. We therefore have a very serious problem: none of the technical fixes appears to work.
The Minister suggested that 15 per cent. of cars had catalytic converters, and I believe that that is roughly correct. Tragically, however, 55 per cent. of the petrol that is bought is unleaded, and many people are buying super-unleaded petrol when they have no catalytic converters—with the result that their cars are not just more 532 polluting, but 40 times more polluting than they would be if they were using the traditional leaded petrols. Catalytic converters do not work efficiently until the car has been driven for 10 km because they have to warm up, and 75 per cent. of all journeys in this city are shorter than that. Cars with catalytic converters are therefore doing more harm in those first 10 km than they would with no catalytic converters, using the old petrol.
Having heard a great deal of evidence, many of us are in despair about London's problem. That problem cannot be underestimated. I appeal to the Minister to bear in mind an incident that occurred in December 1991 in this city. Technicians reading the meters did not believe them. That happens with all disasters: as someone who has worked all his life in laboratories, I know that when a technician sees something very strange he does not believe it. In this instance, the instruments suddenly went off the scale, showing the highest levels of pollutants ever recorded. A report made for the Department of Health has still not been published, but we know from a summary that has been made available that there were at least 150 excess deaths.
The Minister has said that air pollution does not cause asthma. I believe that that has been established: there is no scientific link. Causal links are not established in many such cases. The Minister mentioned, however, that his daughter finds garages an irritant. That is because of the presence of benzene, which causes the pleasant smell when we put petrol into the car. Is benzene a powerful carcinogenic? We know that it comes out of exhausts as well. There are many things that we cannot prove, but we know for certain that asthmatics—whose numbers have grown in my county by 118 per cent. in the past 15 years —are greatly troubled by fumes from cars, and in atmospheres with high concentrations of particulates and poisons.
The position is getting worse, for the reasons that I have given. We do not know what we are doing. It is easy to say that we need research; we could continue to do research for the next 100 years, but we still might not find those causal links. It took us 30 years to find the link between cancer and smoking. We cannot wait that long in this case. Every day in this city an enormous, uncontrolled experiment is taking place. We are pumping a huge cocktail of chemicals into the atmosphere; we do not know what those chemicals do when they come together, but we know that mixing two toxic chemicals produces a mixture not just twice as toxic but possibly a hundred times as toxic. Given the great soup of chemicals in the air, a still day like that day in 1991, with barometric pressure placing a lid on the city and stopping the air from moving and sunshine baking the chemicals, will lead to a mass of complex chemical reactions producing a lethal mixture that we have to breathe.
It is certain that the ozone and particulates involved in London's pollution are a deadly mixture. We must not be complacent and congratulate ourselves on producing a number of reports or on being better than country A or country B; we must give urgent consideration to restricting the source of the pollution—cars. When the pollution reaches a certain level, we must say that cars cannot enter the city. Others countries are already taking such action. If we do not do so as well, hundreds—possibly thousands —of people will die unnecessarily in our capital city.