§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wells.]9.34 am
§ Sir Graham Bright (Luton, South)
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate an issue that is close to my heart and one that is causing increasing concern in the country at large: the adverse effect of diesel particulate emissions on health and how we can reduce those levels. I shall stick closely to my notes as it is a fairly technical subject and I have a lot to say about it.
I have a vested interest in the matter: I am, and have been since my early twenties, a severe asthmatic. I am by no means alone in that: more than 3 million adults and 1 million children in Britain today are asthmatics. The proportion of young children with asthma in Britain has almost doubled in the past 20 years. Sadly, each year 40 children and 1,900 adults die as a result of asthma attacks, and more than 100,000 are admitted to hospital. As a chronic disease, it interferes with normal activities, with consequent effects on school, work and lifestyle. Almost all asthmatics require long-term medication—in fact, the total cost of asthma approaches £1 billion a year. Therefore, anything that contributes to that cost must be examined very seriously.
I accept that the evidence from the United Kingdom regarding the potential for air pollution to initiate or exacerbate asthma attacks is questionable—not least because there is no universally accepted definition of asthma for clinical purposes. The inconclusiveness of the current evidence, and thus the need for more research, was highlighted in the recent report issued by the Department of Health committee on the medical effects of air pollution. I recommend that hon. Members examine some of the reports that have been produced on that subject. That report looks specifically at the issue of asthma and of outdoor air pollution.
Many asthmatics perceive that air quality has an adverse effect on their condition. There is some evidence to suggest that air quality can exacerbate asthma even if there seems to be little evidence at present that it provokes the onset. However, the debate is important not only to asthmatics.
As another report from the Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants shows, there is increasing evidence that particulate air pollution has an adverse effect on the health of those who do not suffer from recognised respiratory conditions. Therefore, the debate is of great significance to the whole population, but of 630 special significance to those who live or work in our cities and large towns, where avoidable particulate levels are at their highest.
Particulate emissions from vehicles are of special concern, as, despite the introduction of new regulations, the Department of the Environment has forecast that their levels will continue to rise into the next decade. That is in marked contrast with the other well-known pollutants from vehicles, such as carbon monoxide and sulphur and nitrogen oxides, which reached their peak between 1990 and 1992 and are now forecast to reduce.
Particulate matter is a complex mixture of organic and inorganic substances. Particulates are known also as black smoke or PM10s—which are simply particles that are smaller than 10 microns in diameter. In general, the smaller the particle, the more likely it is to penetrate the body's defence mechanisms and pass through the delicate tissues to the lungs. Dust from roads and factories are typically larger than 2 microns, but fine particles—such as those present in vehicle emissions—are smaller than 2 microns.
Because of their size, the smaller particles tend to remain suspended in the air for longer than the larger particles, and therefore they are much more likely to be inhaled. The smaller particles, such as those from diesel exhausts, are thus considered to be the most likely to cause respiratory disease and are known to be carcinogenic—we must take on board that very serious point.
Airborne particulates can also interact with other pollutants: the interaction of sulphur dioxide and smoke is well documented. It is therefore included in air quality standards. It is also possible for particles to provide a surface on which pollutants can concentrate, and so have a greater adverse effect when inhaled. Airborne particles provide a surface on which other reactions take place—for example, they can contribute to the formulation of smog.
Some of us will remember the smogs of the 1950s. In 1952, 4,000 people died as a result of smog. Under the then Conservative Government, much pioneering research was undertaken into the effects of air pollution on health, particularly from the combustion of coal. As a result, the Clean Air Act 1956 was passed. For a long time afterwards, it was thought that the problem of urban air pollution had been solved.
Two main factors, however, have combined to make it necessary for us to think again. First, there is increasing evidence that exposure to relatively low levels of airborne particles can increase mortality and morbidity and lead to respiratory difficulties. Secondly, there has been a large increase in volumes of traffic in our urban areas, which has increased particulate air pollution from vehicle emissions.
There have been many studies on the effects on health, most of which have been carried out in the United States. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has shown a correlation between PM10 levels and the number of deaths in some American cities.
Other studies that have been undertaken in the United Kingdom, Greece, Switzerland and the Netherlands add to the evidence that particle levels commonly found in urban areas increase death rates and trigger asthma attacks.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
I have been listening with rapt attention to my hon. Friend, who is obviously an expert in these matters. In referring to people other than asthmatics, is there any evidence to suggest that hay fever is exacerbated by particulates in the air? My family suffers from hay fever, and my wife has a particularly loud sneeze which usually goes off right next to my ear. I would certainly be persuaded to follow my hon. Friend in terms of taking action if it would also help hay fever sufferers.
§ Sir Graham Bright
Hay fever is a respiratory disorder. It is obviously related to asthma. Most people believe that hay fever is caused by pollen and grass seeds in the atmosphere. It may also be triggered by other particulates that float about in the atmosphere that we breathe. I am not a medical man, but I believe that hay fever may well be triggered by particulates from exhaust emissions.
None of the studies proves that airborne particle levels are a cause of death, but the weight of medical evidence suggests that health risks occur even at relatively low particle levels. The corollary is that reducing particle levels could have beneficial effects on health. That contention is certainly supported by the Government's Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards.
The World Health Organisation recently revised its air quality guidelines for a series of pollutants, including PM10s. The existing guidelines were originally published in 1987, and were based on an assessment of scientific and medical evidence up to 1985. It is interesting to note that, having reviewed all the data available, the World Health Organisation is unable to recommend a threshold level of airborne particles below which no adverse effects can occur. I regard that as a most serious conclusion, as it shows that all airborne particles are dangerous. We must bear that in mind. It also relates to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce).
The largest single source of airborne particles in urban areas is road traffic, and within that category the largest component is that derived from diesel exhausts, particularly heavy goods vehicles and buses. Almost all heavy goods vehicles and buses run on diesel. There is also an increasing number of diesel cars. About a quarter of new cars sold have diesel engines.
The most visible result of soot from diesel engines is seen in the form of deposits on urban buildings, but it also permeates clothes and hair. It is estimated that an average bus in London—if there is such a thing—emits 1.5 tonnes of soot every year. As Britain has a total bus fleet of 75,000 buses, 112,500 tonnes of bus exhaust are spewed out every year.
§ Sir Graham Bright
That is just the tip of the iceberg. When we take into account the number of lorries and taxis, the total amount of soot emitted from diesel engines runs into millions of tonnes a year. In London alone, it costs some £30 million a year to clean up the soot from diesel emissions.
632 The high particulate emissions from diesel engines are perhaps their main drawback. The second report of the quality of urban air review group, published in 1992, states:the impact of diesel emissions on urban air quality is a serious one. Any increase in the proportion of diesel vehicles on our urban streets is to be viewed with considerable concern unless the problem of particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions are effectively addressed.
Although, nationally, only 24 per cent. of primary PM10 emissions—that is those released directly into the air—derive from vehicle exhausts—I recognise the point made by the RAC—there are also other causes. If we concentrate on urban levels, however, in 1990 in Greater London, it was estimated that about 86 per cent. by weight of primary PM10 emissions were derived from vehicle exhausts. Therefore, pollution is concentrated where there is traffic in urban areas, but also affects people who live next to major motorways. The Ml passes through my constituency, so air pollution is a cause of concern in the surrounding areas as well as in the town centre.
Other investigations, such as those undertaken by the House of Commons Transport Committee in 1993, provided evidence that much higher levels—up to 96 per cent.—of black smoke emissions derive from road transport in cities such as London, compared with 46 per cent. in the entire United Kingdom.
It is important to consider the subject in respect of local concentrations of particles and their cause, rather than simply looking at the overall figures. In most of our urban areas, PM10 levels are very high. In addition, the vast majority derive from diesel exhausts from medium and heavy goods vehicles and buses—up to 76 per cent. is cited in the Transport Committee report of 1993.
At this point, I hasten to add that there is no reason to be anti-road transport. As I represent Luton, where motor cars are manufactured, I do not want to be anti-road transport, and I am sure that few hon. Members are anti-bus, especially in urban areas. It is important, however, for us to find ways to reduce the problem of pollution caused by buses, so that the full environmental benefits of encouraging more travel by bus can be realised.
It is also reasonable to expect those who develop and operate road transport fleets increasingly to recognise their environmental responsibilities. It is right for the Government to conclude that, because of the high mileage they travel in urban areas, operators of lorries, taxis and buses have a special responsibility to ensure that their vehicle comply with the vehicle emission standards.
It is obvious that bus operators already recognise that: a recent spot check in London revealed that just 8 per cent. of buses were found to be over the current legal exhaust emission level. I congratulate them on that. There is also a lesson for other vehicle operators, as many lorries that pass this building belch out black fumes. Obviously the emissions from buses are much lower than those from other diesel-powered vehicles.
Successive Conservative Governments have an exemplary record in respect of legislation to improve air quality, and the present Government are no exception. I was pleased to be associated with the campaign that led to the Government's decision to insist on stricter controls on emissions from petrol-driven cars compared with those originally proposed by the European Community, which 633 required all new cars to be fitted with a catalytic converter. In fact, I raised that matter in an Adjournment debate.
As a result of that legislation, nearly 5 million cars on UK roads are fitted with catalytic converters. We also have a baseline threshold for known air pollutants, based on state-of-the-art medical and scientific knowledge. With the measures already introduced, the UK confidently expects to meet its existing international commitments for reductions in nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide.
Further technological advances, such as fast-action catalysts and super-efficient engines, will reduce emissions from petrol-driven cars even further, and much research into that aspect is being undertaken by the main car manufacturers—none more so than Vauxhall, which is located in my constituency.
The Government lead the field, and there can be no doubt of their commitment to ensuring improved air quality. The Government's sustainable air strategy identified urban air quality as one of the key changes to UK environmental policy. That strategy also made it clear that improving air quality depends above all on improvements in the transport sector, and an action plan of two transport-related measures was proposed.
The Government also responded positively to two reports published in November 1995 by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants and the Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards, by laying down strict air quality standards for PM1Os in the UK. The expert panel was established following the Government's commitment in the 1991 White Paper, "This Common Inheritance".
The Government have accepted as a benchmark for policy an average daily concentration of 50µg/m3, which I understand is the equivalent of inhaling not more than 1 mg in 24 hours—quite a calculation. Diesel engines, in common with petrol engine, also emit carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide. Carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, which cause the characteristic diesel smell, can be easily removed by an oxidation catalyst.
A much smaller percentage of diesel engines compared with petrol engines are currently fitted with catalysts, which perfectly illustrates a particular problem with diesel vehicles. It is not uncommon for diesel-powered vehicles, by contrast with petrol engines, to be kept in use for many years. That is particularly true of buses.
There are about 75,000 single-decker and double-decker buses in the UK seating 17 or more passengers. Of those vehicles, 57 per cent. are more than 10 years old, but 40 per cent. are more than 24 years old. The majority of buses in use today are extremely old vehicles that were built at a time when emission controls were not a high priority. A major trial in London launched in January by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport must be wholeheartedly welcomed. The trial will involve about 7,000 London buses running on reduced or low sulphur diesel, and some will be fitted with oxidation catalysts. That is good news, but it does not address the problem of particle emission from buses, taxis and lorries.
The progress made with legislation to reduce emissions from heavy goods vehicles in the form of European Union directives 1 and 2 is also welcome, and will be fully effective in respect of vehicles of more than 7.5 tonnes from October. It will bring the emission limits for new 634 diesel vehicles in line with the stringent standards that were introduced in the USA in 1994, and will set a limit on particulates for the first time.
However, I emphasise that the limit is still far too high, as evidence from health studies shows. We should aim at a much lower limit. The new limit will apply only to new vehicles, so, because of the long service to which many vehicles are subject, it will be many years before the limit becomes fully effective. For that reason, there is a strong case for the Government to act to encourage the retrofitting to all diesel vehicles of oxidation catalysts and devices to control particulates.
The unique challenge in controlling diesel emissions is that of removing particulates. The only effective way is filtration. Particulate filters, or traps, are known to be highly effective in reducing PM10 levels from diesel exhausts by as much as 90 per cent.—which makes them an effective piece of equipment. Several mechanisms have been developed, but the problem with any conventional filtration device is that it soon clogs and needs replacing, or the soot must be removed by high-temperature combustion. It is not reasonable to expect that to be done on a large scale, because of the practical difficulties and cost.
A much more interesting development in filtration technology is the so-called continuously regenerating trap, or CRT, which was developed in the UK by Johnson Matthey. The CRT works by an ingenious combination of catalyst and filter technology, to remove particulates as well as carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, which give the characteristic diesel smell. The device comprises two chambers, which can be engineered to provide sufficient sound deadening to replace the conventional silencer and be mounted in its place.
A conventional oxidation catalyst is located in the first chamber, which ensures among other things maximisation of the oxidation of nitrogen monoxide to nitrogen dioxide. The second chamber contains a second filter that traps the particulate matter, which is mostly soot or carbon. The carbon reacts with the nitrogen dioxide to form carbon dioxide and nitrogen—both of which are then emitted as gases. Not only does the filter continuously clean itself, so that it does not need separate cleaning or replacing, but the process reduces the amount of nitrogen oxide.
I had the pleasure of observing the effects of the CRT by comparison with a conventional exhaust system fitted by Johnson Matthey to a 16-year-old Bristol VTR bus, which already had 2.3 million miles on the clock. The results were amazing. When the bus was run, the conventional exhaust system produced black smoke and the smell normally associated with diesel engines. When the bus was switched to the CRT system, the smoke and smell immediately disappeared. If one places a white handkerchief, as I did, over the exhaust outlet, it stays white—so we know that the technology works.
The CRT can be fitted to any turbocharged diesel engine. It is estimated that about half the buses in use today are fitted with such engines. Unfortunately, as many of the old Routemasters used in London were fitted with normally aspirated engines, they are not suitable for retrofitting. It is thought that about 20 per cent. of London's current bus fleet could be fitted with CRTs immediately.
As a minimum, I should like CRTs fitted to every new heavy goods vehicle, bus and taxi—and eventually to diesel cars. Even vehicles that are not suitable for CRT 635 could benefit from an oxidation catalyst, which remove some particulates as well as most of the carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, which cause the diesel smell. That improvement would come as a relief to many people.
It is often suggested that retrofitting heavy goods vehicles with emission control devices would be prohibitively expensive. In fact, for a large lorry or bus, it would cost about £3,500, and considerably less for smaller vehicles. As a stab in dark, I assume that the cost for a smaller car or taxi would be £700 or £800. CRTs would be a reasonable and affordable suggestion for all urban-based heavy goods vehicles, taxis and buses, and they should be retrofitted.
There is no doubt that the balance of costs and benefits will make retrofitting even more attractive in the future. The more people that call for CRTs to be fitted, the cheaper they will become, just as happened with catalysts on motor cars. I suggest that the potential benefits for urban air quality would justify fiscal measures to encourage CRT use.
Several trials are being undertaken in which CRTs are fitted on commercial buses. In spring last year, Oxford City Buses started using 20 new Dennis buses fitted with CRTs. As many will be aware, Oxford is one of the cities that has pioneered the increased use of mass passenger transport to reduce car use, so the decision to trial CRT there is obviously especially important.
As an example of CRT being retrofitted to buses, Manchester North Western retrofitted CRT, in December last year, to two of its buses operating in Warrington. I am sure that the House will also be pleased to know that the Conservative-controlled Westminster city council wrote vehicle emission limits into its recently awarded contract for refuse collection. As a result, the company undertaking the contract is fitting CRTs to all its vehicles. We see dustcarts belching out fumes as they compact the trash, and it is nice to know that they will no longer blow out soot in Westminster.
What can be done here in Westminster could be done all over the country. I suggest that fiscal measures should be introduced to encourage that to happen. Those are some of the examples of the use of CRT fitted to heavy good vehicles to the benefit of the urban environment.
The only real barrier at present to CRT is that, in common with all catalytic systems, it needs very low sulphur diesel to work. I appreciate that new EC legislation will lead to lower sulphur fuels being introduced in October this year. I congratulate Shell on having already introduced them. That is good, and should be encouraged. Obviously, compliance with Euro 2 particulate emission limits will reduce sulphur particulates, but the EC limit is well above that in place in Sweden, where very low sulphur diesel—or so-called city diesel—which contains less than 50 parts per million sulphur, is now the norm.
City diesel is available in the United Kingdom, but, because it is not a requirement, the outlets are far too sparse for most practical purposes. The company Greenergy should be congratulated on its initiative in supplying very low sulphur diesel in the UK, as should Sainsbury's on its efforts to increase the use of Greenergy low sulphur diesel from several of its hypermarket fuel outlets.
636 I accept that it may be possible, with further research, to develop a particulate trap system that does not require such low sulphur fuel, and that should be encouraged. But it is galling to think that we could have benefited from the use of such devices now if low sulphur fuel was more freely available.
I have been talking about ways of reducing the particulate emission from existing diesel engines and thus obtaining an immediate improvement in urban air quality. It is also important, however, to consider other ways in which the problem of particulate emission can be tackled in the longer term.
Without doubt, some of the cleanest fuels that could be used in buses and other commercial vehicles are liquid petroleum gas, or LPG, and compressed natural gas, or CNG. LPG and CNG emit almost no particulate matter, and would be ideal fuels for use in commercial vehicles in towns and cities. Bus companies, in particular, should be encouraged to convert or replace their fleets with vehicles able to use LPG, and they should be provided with incentives to do so. That is especially important, because nil particulate matter comes out of the exhaust when LPG is used.
I await with interest the results, due some time this year, of the trials that have been set up under the Government research project on alternative fuels. Those include trials on the use of LPG, CNG, biodiesel, city diesel, electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles, such as electric-diesel and electric-petrol. Trials are being carried out all over the United Kingdom, many on commercial vehicles. In the long term, those trials could lead to vehicle developments that virtually eliminate urban particulate pollution. In the meantime, however, the problem of what to do with vehicles currently in use will remain.
As an asthmatic, I welcome the fact that the Government recognise the need to take action to reduce airborne particulate pollution, especially in urban areas, and that much legislation has been passed to ensure that. However, because of the seriousness of the problem and the nature of its cause, I do not believe that we can just sit back and wait for the effects of legislation to work through. There is increasing evidence that improving urban air quality represents one of the major future challenges to human health. We have the technology to take a quantum leap in improving urban air quality by reducing particulate emission from vehicles in use now.
I urge the Government to take whatever fiscal and legislative measures are necessary to ensure that. Differential taxing of low sulphur diesel would encourage the fitting of catalytic converters and continuous regenerating traps to all vehicles, just as it encouraged the use of unleaded petrol. Differential taxation also already exists for natural gas, and should be extended to LPG.
We could provide capital allowances to fleet owners to retrofit emission control devices to existing diesel vehicles, and we could reduce the road fund licence for heavy goods vehicles fitted with emission control devices. Tax incentives to encourage research into emission control technology and cleaner alternative fuels would increase the already substantial research programme. As I said a moment ago, there are arguments between fuel suppliers and the manufacturer about whether the existing CRTs can operate on low sulphur fuels, and more research is required. 637 The benefits of new technology and its ability massively to reduce the problem of urban particulate pollution could be realised now, if we had the will. I urge the Government to be consistent with their excellent record of taking steps to improve air quality, and to do whatever is necessary to ensure that those benefits are realised sooner rather than later. That is a plea from the heart from someone who suffers, with millions of others, from respiratory problems. We could do much to make our lives very much better.
§ 10.8 am
§ Ms Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton, South (Sir G. Bright) on securing the debate. I sympathise with him because of his asthmatic condition. I know from what many of my constituents have told me how distressing a condition it is. As we have heard from the hon. Gentleman, at times it can be life-threatening.
Particulate matter pervades all our environments. In towns and cities, it is most obvious when it is close at hand, in the form of the noxious black smoke that emanates from road vehicles. Many industrial processes, while cleaner today than perhaps ever before, still add to the burden of particulates. Less well known, and not referred to in the debate so far, are the hazards faced by those in rural areas, whose immediate environments may be idyllic. They may be overshadowed, however, by a giant mining or quarrying operation.
Road transport is the greatest single contributor to particulate emissions, but nearly three quarters of total particulate emissions are calculated to come from other sources, spanning both industrial and domestic sectors. As particulates come from so many sources, the starting point for tackling the problem must be to recognise that a holistic approach is required. Such an approach can never be successfully fostered, however, by a Government who are bent on deregulation, privatisation and the awarding of fat cat profits at the expense of public service.
Any meaningful approach to tackling air pollution must encompass the need for national transport and energy policies that are consistent with sustainable development. That is the challenge to which, sadly, the Government cannot rise. It is an issue to which I shall return.
For the moment, let us consider where consensus lies. Particulates have been produced by human economic activity for many centuries. What is new is our knowledge of the range and type, and, more specifically, of the health effects. As the hon. Member for Luton, South said, size appears to be the key to particulates and predictable adverse health effects.
Tiny particles known as PM1Os reach deep into the lung and can enter the bloodstream. Research undertaken by Dr. Joel Schwartz of the Harvard school of public health led to a strong statistical association between PM10 levels and daily death rates. He estimates that, in the United States, 60,000 to 70,000 early deaths a year are the result of average current concentrations of particulate air pollution, reducing life expectancy as a consequence by several years on average.
It is interesting to note that a new five-year study in London has recently found that more people die when ozone and particulate levels in air are high. The report confirms the results of earlier research, and suggests that 638 there is a need for the Government to curb the impact of traffic pollution on urban air quality. The current edition of The Ends Report notes that, in 1995,the London Air Quality Network reported that London's air quality was deteriorating despite the introduction of catalytic converters on new cars.Extrapolating the results of American research to the United Kingdom gives us 10,000 premature deaths per annum. I look to the Minister to tell us whether he agrees with or refutes that extrapolation.
The Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, reporting in September 1995 on the health effects of non-biological particles in outdoor air found that there was clear evidence of associations between levels of particles such as those found in the United Kingdom and indicators of damage to health. The committee reported that people with pre-existing respiratory and/or cardiac disorders would be expected to be most at risk of acute effects from exposure to particulates. It stated in its report that the effects range from changes in lung function, to increased symptoms, to days of restricted activity, to hospital admissions and to premature mortality. The committee added:it would be imprudent not to regard the link as causal.The hon. Member for Luton, South outlined clearly, at a human level, the consequences that are embodied in the report.
We need to look also to the Government's Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards, which reported two months after the committee's report. It is significant that it stated thatit was not yet possible to identify a threshold level for particles below which no ill effects occur.That is much in line with the World Health Organisation's report, from which the hon. Member for Luton, South has quoted.
The panel went on to recommend a new standard of 50 µg/m3 as a 24-hour running average. I note that the Minister is nodding. It is more significant that the panel recommended that the Government implement a strategy that would reduce progressively both the numbers of 24-hour exceedances of 50µg/m3 and annual concentrations of PM lOs in the UK. I understand that the Government have accepted the 50µg/m3 as a standard. I hope that the Minister will tell us what further consideration he has given to the factors that take us beyond acceptance of the recommendation as a working standard.
I suspect that the Minister, like myself, is more than aware of the exposure above the standard of 50µg/m3 that has occurred in our major cities on many occasions recently. In London, the level was exceeded 29 times. The latest figures that I have relate to 1993. In Belfast, it happened on 45 occasions. In the centre of Birmingham, it occurred on 24 occasions. The figures for Leeds and Bristol are 23 and 25 respectively. We might reflect on what that means in terms of human health.
Perhaps it was those figures that prompted the independent advisory quality of urban air review group to compile a recent report on particle pollution. I wonder what has happened to that report. I wonder whether the Minister will tell us. There are some who believe that the report has been suppressed. Will the Minister tell us what is in the report and what is recommended? Will he tell us also whether he intends to publish it?
639 Do the Government accept the 50µg/m3 standard and the need to put a strategy in place to enable us to improve on it? That is surely what the hon. Member for Luton, South has been urging. Will the Minister—
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison)
Will the hon. Lady give way?
§ Ms Ruddock
I have many questions for the Minister. The hon. Member for Luton, South has paid him several compliments and made some suggestions, but I have many specific questions. I hope that he will respond to them. We have time, and he has the opportunity to respond.
§ Ms Ruddock
I am grateful to the Minister for offering to answer now. As I have so many questions, however, he might find it more convenient to answer later.
Will the Minister tell us specifically when the 50µg standard will be adopted, and when he believes that it could be met? Furthermore, what is the Government's view of recent research that indicates that particles smaller than 10 microns are even more injurious to human health?
When will the national air quality strategy be published? A strategy is now long overdue. What are the reasons for the delay? Has there been delay because, as some suspect, other Departments are dragging their feet? How will the Department of the Environment be reconciling the UK strategy with the European framework directive on air quality management and assessment?
Where is the Government's guidance on air quality management for local authorities? I remember well the debates in Committee on what was the Environment Bill. At the last minute, the Government introduced many new proposals in response to the tremendous pressure from the Opposition and many pressure groups. As I have said, they introduced a set of new proposals. They were unable to answer many questions, to produce timetables or to give details. They were unable to produce targets and standards.
The Government promised, however—we legislated to this effect—that, under the Bill when enacted, local authorities must have regard to guidance on the management of air quality in undertaking their new air quality and air management functions. However, although 14 local authority areas have been chosen to pilot the air quality management scheme, no guidance has been published. When will it be published—or will those local authorities just be expected to get on with it? Many of them, of course, have already been doing just that under Labour administrations, taking initiatives long before the Government was embarrassed into making a commitment on air quality strategy.
It would also be helpful if the Minister would say when the pilot schemes are expected to come on stream, and whether a mechanism has been decided for the distribution of the funding of those schemes. He will undoubtedly be aware that local authority associations believe that the pilot scheme will require £15 million if it is to work effectively, but the Government have allocated 640 just £3 million, to be divided, apparently, among 80 local authorities. Will the Minister elaborate on that, because local authorities are very anxious about their ability to meet the new duties that the Government have imposed on them? When and how will that money be distributed?
I have no doubt that the Minister will be able to tell us some of the measures that the Government undertook in the previous Budget, to which the hon. Member for Luton, South referred—for example, duties on fuel, which are important because the use of fuel impacts on air quality—but, as always, the measures are piecemeal. They lack the essential strategic impact, and attempt to use simplistic market mechanisms as a panacea for all environmental problems.
Where is the advice and the support to local authorities on this issue? The hon. Member for Luton, South referred to the experiments, with which I am familiar, that local authorities have undertaken of their own volition, but where is the encouragement from the Government for local authorities to put their own houses in order? Where is the encouragement for them to run environmentally friendly municipal vehicles? Where is the encouragement for bus companies to run environmentally clean buses?
My local authority of Lewisham has undertaken to experiment with electric vehicles, which are ideal in city centres and the inner city, but my council, like every other council in the land with the exception of Westminster, is strapped for cash because of the Government's policies towards local government.
The vast majority of councils in Britain, which are controlled by the Labour party, are effectively defending the environment and looking for new solutions to critical problems, but they are stopped in their tracks repeatedly by a totally unsympathetic, ideologically hidebound Government who do not support such local authority initiatives. Is it not true—perhaps the Minister will specifically answer this question if indeed it is but an ugly rumour—that Treasury cuts are preventing London Transport Buses from investing in a package of pollution-control measures? I ask the Minister to give a clear yes or no on that issue. Why are the Government prevaricating on so many fronts?
Is the Minister aware that not only does the failure to act mean a continuing toll on human health, but it is a serious loss to British industry? The Government's decision to postpone the deadlines for the control of industrial emissions, for example, from the coating sector, have already had a severely detrimental effect on Britain's environmental technology and services industry.
The technology already exists for particulate emissions to be substantially reduced through PMIO filtration. Such measures would benefit our health and our environment, would boost our environmental industry and create much-needed jobs, but instead the Government prevaricate. No doubt they have bowed to lobbying pressure from the industry and put back the deadline, to the detriment of everyone else.
The hon. Member for Luton, South praised some of the efforts of sectors of the car industry in trying to solve their problems. We, too, applaud those efforts. Much can be done—much is being done. We very much support the technical fixes, such as the CRT—the continuous regeneration trap—filtration, the efforts of Johnson Matthey, and all the work that is being done in that direction, but, as the hon. Gentleman revealed, if we are 641 to have the benefit of these technical fixes, we will eventually need another technical fix, such as low-sulphur fuels.
We have many ancient buses on our streets today, which pollute our urban environments, as a direct consequence of Government policy. The hon. Gentleman challenged the Minister to respond on fiscal policies, and the Minister must do so. Yes, it can be a matter of fiscal incentives to get the technical fixes in place, but because of bus deregulation and privatisation there has been a tremendous lowering of standards, an increase in the age of the buses on the roads, and, indeed, a fall in their maintenance, which is critical if we are to deal with their emissions.
We accept that technical fixes have an important part to play. We are very much committed to the search for technical fixes, vehicle traps, the use of clean fuels and of cleaner fuels, but overall, no amount of technical fixing can solve the problem alone.
What is required was spelt out to the Government in the report on transport of the royal commission on the environment. The Government, for the first time in history, failed to respond to that report, which laid out a strategy for the whole nation. It explained why technical fixes alone are not enough, and why we must have an integrated and co-ordinated transport system and a national strategy aimed at encouraging and assisting people to use their cars less and to use clean, public transport more. The cleaning up of public transport and municipal vehicles to produce cleaner air for our citizens would reduce the costs to the NHS and the burden of human illness.
All that is laid out clearly for the Government, but they cannot rise to the challenge, because they do not accept national strategies or local government involvement. Today, when we launch the local government campaigns, we can expect the Government to reap the rewards of their total failure to act to clean up our environment and our air in the towns and cities of this country.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I congratulate my very good friend the hon. Member for Luton, South (Sir G. Bright) on securing this important debate on air pollution by particulate matter. He advanced a great deal of detail, as did the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock), who speaks for the Opposition. I am as concerned as the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend, but I regret the party political rhetoric that she introduced into the debate. My hon. Friend sought to tackle the problem constructively, giving the Government credit where credit was due, but being constructively critical—not party politically critical—where he believed that the Government could have done more.
Towards the end of her speech, the hon. Member for Deptford said that the overwhelming majority of local government was under socialist control. I am pleased to say that I come from one of the few parts of the United Kingdom where the Conservative party has overall control. I refer to Macclesfield borough council, whose leader is frequently praised by the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders for the policies that the council pursues. Only recently, it received plaudits for being one of the most environmentally friendly councils in the country.
Although I accept a number of the points made by the hon. Lady, I will not accept her claim that only Labour can reduce pollution. I am not sure, for instance, that, 642 when buses were in the public sector, the companies involved made the investment in new vehicles and technology to which she referred.
§ Ms Ruddock
It is a matter of record that the bus companies bought more new vehicles when they were publicly owned. Since privatisation, the rate of purchase and renewal has decreased, and as a consequence the aging vehicles are producing greater emissions. Moreover, maintenance has declined under the new regime of privatisation and deregulation.
§ Mr. Winterton
I am not sure where the hon. Lady finds her facts and statistics. In my view, the age of a vehicle is sometimes less important than the way in which it is maintained. Having used public transport exclusively in the early part of my working life, I can assure the hon. Lady that buses used not to be maintained to the standard that she suggested.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South represents a constituency in which motor vehicles, both domestic and commercial, are very important to the local economy. He has immense knowledge of the industry, and he has done the House a service by raising the subject. I support not only his views in general, but his suggestions as to how the Government can reduce air pollution. He said that he supported their modest fiscal measures relating to, for instance, diesel fuel and unleaded petrol, but felt that they should go further. I agree.
Some years ago, I formed the Manufacturing and Construction Industries Alliance. The last thing that I want is any Government measure that would further undermine or destroy our all too narrow manufacturing base. The Government owe it to the people, and to industry—which is the only source of non-inflationary sustainable economic growth—to help to reduce the pollution of our environment, and air pollution in particular.
I fervently believe that the Government, who have fiercely resisted a return to capital allowances, should consider that way of encouraging people to introduce new technology to reduce such pollution. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, along with my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to consider introducing fiscal measures—I use the phrase in its widest sense—and capital allowances. That would make possible technological advances which, certainly in the case of commercial and domestic motor vehicles, could make a major contribution to the reduction of air pollution by particulate matter.
Unfortunately, there is an anti-roads lobby. I believe that bypasses and properly assessed road projects can in themselves contribute to the reduction of pollution. Most pollution caused by vehicles occurs when they are idling in traffic jams and then moving forward a few yards. Congestion is a major problem, especially in urban areas. I regret the dramatic cut in road projects which would often enable traffic to flow more smoothly, thereby reducing air pollution.
As an asthmatic, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South is perhaps better qualified to speak about the subject than most of us—the hon. Member for Deptford paid tribute to him on those grounds—but he also has considerable knowledge of the subject. The House, and the Treasury in particular, should respect that knowledge. 643 I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond positively, constructively and sympathetically, but I ask him not to pull his punches behind the scenes. He should urge the Treasury to introduce both fiscal measures and capital allowances, along with other measures to reduce air pollution.
My hon. Friend has done the House and the country a service by speaking as he has today.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
I apologise for not being present at the beginning of the debate. I also apologise to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) as I heard only half her speech.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) pointed out, this subject is important to everyone—not just those who endure air pollution in Westminster, where I live during the week. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Deptford spoke in party-political terms, because air pollution involves everyone in an apolitical sense. Public attitudes and public policy must be changed. Let us not pretend that every person who sits in a motor car jamming up The Mall, Millbank and Parliament square is a Labour or Conservative supporter; all those people are individuals, who have chosen to drive their cars. We need to change their attitudes. I travelled here by bicycle this morning, and I trust that the hon. Member for Deptford used public transport. She does not seem to be nodding, but I am sure that she uses public transport much more than her car. After all, this place is very well served by public transport.
The hon. Lady made two points. I do not wish to dwell on party-political matters, but she raised them. One was about local government, and how efficient it could be. I see that the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice) is also present; she and I used to sit together on the back benches of Hammersmith and Fulham council. If I believed that that council used its funds efficiently when it was run by the Labour party, I might agree with more that the hon. Member for Deptford said, but in fact it was appallingly inefficient in those days. Money was spent on, for instance, a women's slide library and a women's bus, which—with a great fanfare—was bought for politically correct reasons and parked in the square. It travelled eight miles in a single year in order to be serviced.
§ Mr. Robathan
I am replying to what the hon. Lady said. She made a party-political speech.
The hon. Lady also suggested that private enterprise and the market had no place in public transport and public policy issues. She particularly mentioned privatisation, and her approach sits ill with new Labour policies. I also see the way in which private enterprise drives matters such as transport much better than the old, dead hand of bureaucracy. I want a good transport system in this country, and such a system is not well driven by Government hand-outs, which have never worked. One has only to consider British Rail, which we shall be discussing this evening. When I was born, there were 644 15 stations in my constituency. Every one was closed by a nationalised British Rail, and one was reopened under a Conservative Government. Does the hon. Lady want to say more? No.
§ Ms Ruddock
I in no way suggested that the private sector did not have a role to play. I paid tribute to parts of the private sector in the motor industry and others. I said that the policy of privatisation and deregulation has destroyed our public transport. That has happened in respect of buses. We have poorer and more expensive services and very much worse vehicles in general on our streets today than when the service was under public ownership. The same will happen with the railways, which are already in a dire state in the run-up to privatisation—and deliberately so, because of the Government's policies. The issue is party political because the Government—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. That was becoming a mini-speech rather than an intervention.
§ Mr. Robathan
I ask the hon. Lady to defend the record of British Rail. Many excellent people have worked hard, but can she defend its record in closing all those stations? Perhaps in Lewisham, too, the hon. Lady can identify one or two old lines, the course of an old railway on the map, along which once upon a time people travelled before nationalisation.
In my constituency there is a plan to build a new power station and it is causing great concern to many local people. I would say, as we sit under electric light, in an air-conditioned room, using electricity, that it is absolutely vital to air quality and health that we examine all such new bids to discover the impact of a new power station on a highly populated area. My hon. Friend the Minister has already mentioned the issue in response to a question that I asked him previously. It is absolutely essential that we do not, whether driven by the market or by other reasons, build power stations that will pollute not only my constituency but, worse, a highly populated area as the prevailing wind takes the air straight over the city of Leicester. It is important that such matters are considered in very great detail before they proceed.
§ Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)
My hon. Friend may like to know that the Isle of Wight is unique in having the only health authority in the United Kingdom which sponsors an asthma and allergy research department. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Sir G. Bright) for securing the debate and I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) that if he has any concerns about difficulties caused by pollution over Leicester he should send his constituents to the Isle of Wight to see the work being conducted there in trying to find a cure for this dreadful problem.
§ Mr. Robathan
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Asthma caused by emissions from power stations is of great concern. As we sit here in London near Battersea and Bankside power stations, which have been closed, and 645 the London Transport power station in Lots road, which has also been closed, we should consider whether centres of population are good places for emissions from power stations.
I am the president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Great Britain Ltd. I do not need to declare it as an interest since the post is entirely honorary. As the hon. Member for Deptford said, electric vehicles can play a part—but only a part—in reducing emissions in our inner cities. With the hon. Lady, I very much hope that the Government will consider further supporting research into the development of electric vehicles, which can play an important role.
Time is short and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister wants to get on. In considering emissions, we need to consider energy, and reducing its use, as has been mentioned. That includes the conservation of energy—an area in which the Government have taken great strides. It is a pity that we did not receive the Opposition's support in reducing energy use through fiscal means last year.
§ Ms Ruddock
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should remember that the Government have just cut the budget for home energy efficiency by a third.
§ Mr. Robathan
I thought that the hon. Lady might raise that. Who set up that home energy efficiency scheme? I seem to recall that it was the Conservative Government. The scheme has enabled some tremendous work to be done and it continues to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Sir G. Bright) specifically referred to diesel pollution. I am the chairman of the all-party cycling group. It is important that hon. Members should not only set an example—that is too easy and perhaps too trite to say—but, as is happening in the Department of Transport, should encourage the movement of public policy in the Departments for Education and Employment and for the Environment towards greater encouragement of cycling and walking. It is easy to mouth the words, but it needs to be written into planning policy guidance, and so on.
Reference has been made to private enterprise and we could briefly mention alternative energy sources. It is proposed that the ferric wheel planned for opposite this place—I am not entirely sure that I want to see it there—be powered by tidal power from the River Thames. Incidentally, it is a private enterprise proposal. The proposal is to be supported and applauded, but at the same time, through enabling measures, we should be encouraging the use of the River Thames as a transport highway.
I shall not dwell on public transport because, as the hon. Member for Deptford said, we all need to use it more. This place is so well served by buses it is extraordinary. One can get almost anywhere by bus, including late at night. I commend the London Transport bus map to the hon. Lady.
We need a change of culture and of public policy. We need to change the civil service attitude that the problem of transport congestion is solved by the building of a new road. That attitude has changed dramatically in my four years in the House, but we must go further. We must ask what is good for all the people of this country, not just for us as individuals who selfishly sit in our little boxes by day. Let us change the culture and let all parties and 646 the Government take a total view and move forward in reducing air pollution and emissions from vehicles and power stations.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison)
I welcome the opportunity to respond to this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Sir G. Bright) on initiating the debate which, as he so rightly said, concerns an important subject which affects many people, including many who suffer from asthma and other conditions. My hon. Friend is among those who suffer from asthma, and he was able to bring to the House his personal experience, which I am sure is reflected among many of his constituents and the constituents of other hon. Members. I also pay tribute to him for the very authoritative way in which he took the House through a fairly detailed and technical subject. I am sure that he did full justice to the science involved.
I think that it is right in such a debate that we recognise at the outset that we are dealing with a technical and scientific subject that requires detailed consideration, which is very well repaid by coming to the right strategic conclusions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South and my hon. Friends the Members for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) have said, the debate calls for a constructive response.
I hope that the House will not mind if I am not tempted down some of the wider avenues down which the House was taken earlier. I agreed in part with some of the comments of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock). It is important for the sake of all those affected by this important subject that we all try to take a constructive approach toward it. I agreed with some of her observations, but I am sure that she would not expect me to agree with all of them. I most firmly disagree, however, with her point about a holistic strategy. All the evidence of the Government's work over the past few years points towards formulating a holistic strategy on the basis of very careful scientific analysis. The hon. Lady referred to some of that analysis: the Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards, the strategic document "Air Quality: Meeting the Challenge", and the report of the Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants. We are trying to proceed on the basis of proper, informed scientific debate.
I shall briefly address some of the detailed points made by the hon. Member for Deptford, which require explanation, rather than some of her wider points.
The hon. Lady referred to the limit of 50 microns proposed by the Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards and to the health effects that were the basis for that proposal. It is important that the public understand that the panel proposed that standard on the assumption that although associations between particles and ill health are causative, particle pollution episodes are most likely to exert their effects on mortality by determining the time of death of those rendered susceptible by pre-existing illnesses. She will know that some of the sources of particles occur naturally; that is why it is so difficult to reach a conclusion about a safe standard. Even those which occur naturally—without any additional human-caused particles—would have some effect on health.
The hon. Member for Deptford asked when the standards will be adopted, and I refer her to the expert panel's report and the Government's response to it. I draw 647 her attention to the Government's response to the report of the Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, which answers many of her questions. She should be aware that the Government have accepted the expert panel's recommendation that annual average levels of PM10 should continue to be reduced progressively. If I have time, I will explain in detail the measures that we are putting in place to reduce those levels.
The Government have accepted the conclusion that the 50 micron level represents a level at which the large majority of individuals will be unaffected, and we have adopted that level as a relevant benchmark for policy. Importantly, we are committed to considering as quickly as possible whether such a level should be adopted as a target for policy in line with the air quality strategy review now being prepared under the Environment Act 1995. The air quality strategy, which will be available shortly, will be the basis for our holistic strategy.
§ Mr. Clappison
The hon. Member for Deptford knows that we are working towards a strategy based on the best scientific advice, and consideration must be given to that advice. She would expect no less.
The hon. Member for Deptford asked about smaller particles—an important subject. The Department of Health is looking at the evidence on the effects of particles smaller than PM10, and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South referred to the fact that smaller particles can remain suspended in the atmosphere for longer than larger particles. It is thought that, in some circumstances, smaller particles can have more profound effects once they have been inhaled. The Department of Health is looking at that matter.
I reject what the hon. Member for Deptford said about local authorities, because the Government are working constructively on the matter with local authorities of all political views. It was a bit rich for the hon. Lady to imply that the Government were failing to work with local authorities and then—in the next breath—to refer to the trials of the new duties taking place in 80 local authorities in 14 different areas up and down the country.
The hon. Member for Deptford asked for guidance to be issued, but it would be premature to give detailed guidance before the national air quality strategy setting out our detailed strategy is made available. That strategy will be available shortly.
§ Mr. Clappison
Local authorities are already undertaking the work, and a local authority liaison group is in operation. There is no question that the Government are working in partnership with local authorities.
I wish to refer to the important issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South in his constructive speech. He talked about the new technology available for diesel vehicles, and referred to the continuously regenerating trap. He dealt constructively with the costs and benefits of such a system, and pointed out that the 648 balance of costs and benefits is likely to change over time. The Government will keep the issues that he raised under careful review, because there is clearly potential for important progress to be made in reducing emissions through that technology, including that developed by Johnson Matthey.
I come now—in as much detail as I can manage—to our overall strategy to reduce particulate matter and to make a major contribution to improving health. The House heard that, last November, the Government welcomed the report of the Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, and the report of the Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards recommending an air quality standard for particles. The reports concluded that even at the much lower levels now found in the United Kingdom—I emphasise that the levels are falling—particulate matter worsens the condition of people with lung or heart complaints.
The reports give a clear indication that managing and improving the levels of particulates must be one of the top priorities for air quality. The Government have accepted the expert panel's recommendation as a relevant benchmark for policy and we are determined to continue to reduce average levels of fine particles. Our policies and tools for doing that will be set out in the national air quality strategy.
We must deal first with the medical facts—some of which I have mentioned—which have been carefully scrutinised by the committee on the medical effects. The committee's findings ranged across a number of conditions, including heart and lung complaints and other respiratory conditions, and the committee made some important remarks about causation.
The expert panel recommended that a standard of 50 microns should be adopted, and that this should be measured on a 24-hour running average. Measurements of fine particles such as PM10 are relatively recent, but we have been measuring black smoke for several years. From these measurements, we can estimate that average and peak urban levels of fine particles have fallen more than tenfold since the 1960s. Annual average levels of PM10 are now roughly half the expert panel's recommendation, but in our towns and cities—another important point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South—the 50-micron limit is exceeded roughly 10 per cent. of the time. The panel recommended that that figure and the annual average concentrations of PM10 should be progressively reduced.
Much of the particulate matter is from natural sources, but I wish to refer also to the measures to be taken to reduce those from human sources. Road transport causes 25 per cent. of all pollution, but the figure is much higher for particulates in urban areas. It is clear that action needs to focus on measures to reduce emissions from road transport to cut particulate levels.
We have not been waiting for the evidence to be firm before acting. Since 1992, the standards of all new on-road vehicles have been progressively tightened. The latest standards—introduced after a breathing space of only three years—were introduced in January this year, and reduce the particulate limit for new lorries and buses by 58 per cent. Further tighter standards will be brought in for diesel cars next year to reduce emissions relative to the 1993 standard by 43 per cent. Standards are being 649 agreed for light diesel vans for implementation in 1997 and 1998. These regulations reduce not only particle emissions, but other noxious emissions.
On the basis of these measures, we expect to see a fairly dramatic drop in emissions from transport over the next 10 years as older and dirtier vehicles are removed from the fleet. As I have said, these measures are especially important because of their significance during winter smog episodes. Emissions of sulphur dioxide and smoke from domestic households are controlled through the smoke control areas system, introduced in the Clean Air Act 1956. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 was also a landmark because it introduced integrated pollution control for 2,000 of the most polluting processes and subjected a large number of other processes to local authority air pollution control systems. That will make a further substantial contribution to reducing emissions of particles, as will bringing integrated pollution control to bear on large combustion plant for generating electricity.
Those measures will all contribute to reducing emissions, as will the encouragement that the Government have given through fiscal measures on road fuel duties. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield made a most important speech about that matter. Although I cannot speak with full authority on the subject, my hon. Friend will have drawn inferences from the changes which were made in last year's Budget.