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Motor Vehicles (Air Pollution)

Volume 139: debated on Tuesday 1 November 1988

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2.21 am

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 4637/88 and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Department of Transport on 8th July on air pollution by the gases from the engines of motor vehicles; and supports the agreement reached at the 28th and 29th June Environment Council in Luxembourg.
We are considering a proposal from the Commission that deals with future standards for gaseous emissions from cars with engines of less than 1·4 litres.

When the "Luxembourg package", which later became directive 88/76, was negotiated in 1985, the Community put off one of its toughest decisions. It set only interim first stage standards for small cars, which form about half the European car market. The proposal now before us seeks to set definitive stage II standards for these vehicles. The word "definitive" is used imprecisely. The 88/76 directive is the fifth amending directive to the original one that set emission limits back in 1970. This latest draft directive now has an additional article committing the European Council to consider in 1991 another tightening of standards for all sizes of car.

It is proposed that the stage II small cars type approval limit value for carbon monoxide should be 30 g per test and the combined total of hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen 8 g per test. The limits are the same as those to be applied for medium-sized cars, between 1·4 and 2 litres, and nearly as strict as the United States equivalent limits set for cars over 2 litres.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. As he is probably aware, many thousands of motorists in Great Britain drive classic or vintage motor vehicles which are incapable of being modified to meet the requirements. I have read the documents and I am satisfied that those vehicles would not be placed at risk. Will he confirm and place on record that the matters to which he is referring relate only to new motor vehicles?

Yes. My hon. Friend previously asked a question which I was delighted to answer, because there is some confusion in the minds of some people involved in vintage, veteran and old cars generally. The rule is that the new standards will apply to cars which are manufactured after the set date. Therefore, I confirm what my hon. Friend has just said. He has done the House and the country a service by raising that point. I hope that people will no longer write to my hon. Friend in his role as secretary of the House of Commons Motoring Club, or to me as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, asking us to reconfirm what we have already confirmed in the House.

The dates of application—1 October 1992 for new type approvals and 1 October 1993 for all new registrations —are two years later than those set for the application of the small car stage I standards imposed by directive 88/76. That reiterates and remakes the point my hon. Friend has already made.

The proposal is for a permissive directive under article 100A of the Single European Act. It has two purposes. It prevents any member state from setting unique national standards. At the same time, substantial progress is made towards greater protection for the environment. The permissive nature of the proposal gives each member state the opportunity to set less stringent standards, or to delay the dates of implementation if it so desires. The United Kingdom Government intend to apply the new standards in full on the proposed dates and have negotiated on that assumption.

Surprisingly quick progress has been made in negotiations in Council and political agreement by qualified majority has been achieved, subject to several reserves, including a parliamentary one from the United Kingdom and an ad referendum one from France.

Earlier this year, we did not think that such quick progress was possible. That was made plain by the explanatory memorandum and the Scrutiny Committee report. Initial reactions to the Commission's proposal were mixed, to say the least. The United Kingdom shared a view held by all the major Community car producers except Germany, that the proposal was too strict. Others did not think that it went far enough. A minority voiced support for the proposal. The key figure is the combined limit for hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen. In directive 83/351/EEC, which sets the limits we currently apply, the standard is 19 g per test for small cars. The standard in directive 88/76/EEC, for small cars, stage I is 15 g per test. Some member states hoped to see a stage II limit of 12 g per test, while others preferred 5 g per test. The Commission's proposal, as it often does, almost splits the difference at 8 g per test.

These different limits would lead to different technical solutions. I think this is perhaps the most important part of the debate. At 12 g per test, most small cars could avoid the use of catalytic converters. Lean burn engine technology on its own would still be an attractive option. Several manufacturers have already developed models that can nearly meet this standard. It is not achieved easily. Although small cars could continue to use carburettors, they almost certainly would need sophisticated electronic ignition systems to achieve an acceptable balance between emissions, fuel economy and driveability.

Such systems are not cheap. I believe that it would be right to assume that their fitment would become commonplace in the 1990s. The reliability and long-term stability they offer would still be strong selling points, even if emission standards were not already pushing the technology in that direction. The Government initially saw the attractions of a 12 g per test standard—it represents a 37 per cent. reduction over the current standard at little real additional cost to the consumer.

The Commission's proposal of a combined standard of 8 g per test for hydrocarbons and oxide of nitrogen would impose the need to fit catalysts on almost all small car models. The need to fit controls of mixture strength, with electronic management of fuel injection, would be avoided. Systems could be kept simple, and lean burn engines would continue to be an option. When assessing the costs of a continued limit value of 8 g per test, the Government have used the 12 g standard as a new baseline.

We believe that the technology to achieve the 12 g standard will be available anyway. Our estimate of additional cost when the 8 g standard is fully implemented is about £250 million a year, or 3·5 per cent. of small car motoring costs. This fits in with the Commission's estimate of 4·5 per cent. increase in costs when compared with the current 19 g per test baseline. About £30 million of these additional costs can be accounted for in increased fuel consumption. As modern engine technology becomes more sophisticated and efficient, such fuel consumption penalties can be expected to fall.

A combined standard of 5 g per test is another matter altogether. It is universally accepted that such a standard would be fully equivalent to current United States standards, and that the only proven technology to achieve it is the fully controlled, three-way catalyst with electronic engine management which holds the air-fuel ratio at a fixed level. The standard rules out entirely the possibility of the fuel economy benefits of lean burn. The Commission has estimated that small car costs would rise by 13 to 15 per cent. relative to the current standards. That is an enormous amount to the cost of motoring where the market is the most price sensitive.

There is no question about our needing to improve emission standards so that total emissions from motor vehicles can be contained and then reduced, in spite of increases in vehicle activity.

Detailed computer modelling of the effects of vehicle emissions on air quality has been carried out for the Department of the Environment by the Harwell laboratory. The standards the Government are already committed to apply—the medium and large cars standards and the stage I standard for small cars—are predicted by the model to achieve substantial reductions in nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon emissions. As a result, peak ozone levels are expected to fall too. This is thought to be particularly important for sensitive vegetation.

How far the Government seriously expect levels of pollution to decline is a fundamental point of the debate. Would the hon. Gentleman like to comment specifically on what estimates the Government base their claim that ozone levels will fall if this compromise is adopted?

The facts of the physical chemistry are not in dispute. It is expected that the 8 g per test standard compared to the 12 g will mean that the level of ozone harmful to the vegetation will be reduced by 6 per cent. more, the level of hydrocarbons by 7 per cent. and the peak ozone levels by an extra 2 per cent. Obviously, people can have their views on whether the limit can be reduced further. At 5 g per test, there would be a significant impact on the fuel economy of cars. That becomes important with small vehicles and even more important when we realise that half the cars sold in Europe are small cars. We need to look also at the costs to consumers. There is just as much cost benefit in ecology and the environment as in other respects.

My hon. Friend is obviously aware that, no matter what system of engine management and combined catalyst one has, exhaust gases of some kind will come out the back of the vehicle. Usually, that will result in an increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Did the Commission bear in mind the concern, which has escalated as recently as the last few months, about the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the fact that this legislation will accelerate that process by the time European cars are converted to lean-burn catalyst devices? Does my hon. Friend agree that this will exacerbate a problem which is causing growing concern to everyone?

The Commission wants the Council of Ministers to be able to reach agreement. Britain has helped to lead the way towards general acceptance of the Commission's compromise between 12 g per test, which was put forward by Britain some months ago as the preferred level, and 5 g per test, to which some countries wanted the whole Community to move.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) rightly says that one of the consequences of catalytic conversion is increased carbon dioxide. Increased fuel consumption is also associated with the 5 g per test. There seem to be significant costs above the potentially justifiable costs arising from the 8 g per test standard. Renewed concern for the atmosphere and for the greenhouse effect, led in Europe by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, demonstrate that we need to be practical as well as idealistic.

My hon. Friend referred to the academic research carried out, particularly at Harwell, on behalf of his Department. Is my hon. Friend aware also of the great volume of academic research being carried out into the very localised conditions caused by pollution from car exhausts? Where that is exacerbated by temperature inversions, much building damage occurs. I hope that my hon. Friend will bear in mind the consequences of pollution, not just in the very broad sense but in terms of local traffic management.

Anyone who works in this place will be aware of the effect on the buildings around here when traffic comes to a standstill around Parliament square. Hon. Members will he aware that the fumes pumped out do not just affect the buildings but may even affect the quality of some of our judgments as we do our work at 2.33 in the morning, or is it late evening? I do not know how one is supposed to refer to it.

The Minister said that some countries advocated 5 g per test, as opposed to 8 g per test, which the British Government support. If the Minister thinks that 5 g is not a good idea, why did some countries believe that it was a reasonable and attainable proposition? What case did they make for it?

I do not want to get into deep water. These countries have coalition Governments. I make no secret of the fact that if we had a significant number of Green Members, that would show that our major parties had failed. Green issues should not be left to one party; they should be with us all. In countries with proportional representation minority groups may have more power, and may show it by demanding that their Governments commit themselves to programmes that are not cost-beneficial. It is far better to examine the science involved in going to 5 rather than 8 or 12 g per test. That is my answer to the hon. Gentleman's question; perhaps Opposition Members will advance others.

A stage II standard of 12 g per test would reduce nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon emissions further, with a small decrease in ozone levels. At 8 g per test there is a jump in air quality impact. Hydrogen emissions would be controlled more than twice as effectively as by a 12 g standard, and ozone levels would be lower.

A 5 g standard would effectively mandate full three-way catalysts on all small cars. Compared with an 8 g standard it would reduce nitrogen oxide emissions but would have no significant effect on hydrocarbons or ozone.

A stage II standard of 8 g would lead to significant further improvements, and, for ozone, is probably close to the optimum that can be achieved by controls on small car emissions.

In consultations with the motor manufacturers the Government have been left in no doubt that their preferred outcome for the present negotiations would have been a standard of about 12 g per test. They have also recognised that European agreement at that level has become impossible, with many member states either supporting the Commission's proposal or wishing to go further.

Uncertainty in such a key area as vehicle emissions can be very damaging to industry. The detailed development of new engine specifications is one of the major tasks in preparing a new car for the market. When emission standards remain unresolved, manufacturers have no choice but to plan for several outcomes, since they must have models that they can legally offer for sale by the time the standard comes into force. That is wasteful of resources and should be avoided whenever possible. On balance, the advice that we have had from industry was that an early agreement at 8 g per test was preferable to continuing delay in agreement. It would allow the lean burn engine technology being developed by the United Kingdom manufacturers of small cars to show its worth, although oxidation catalysts would be needed as extra emission control equipment.

In the lead-up to last June's Environment Councils these considerations were leading the United Kingdom to reconsider its position in negotiations. We were aware that if we were to move, others might follow us. We were also detecting a willingness on the part of the Germans, who had the influential duties of the Presidency, to seek some sort of compromise.

It was in this climate that the United Kingdom decided, shortly before the first June Council, to be sufficiently flexible in its negotiating to be able to support the Commission's proposal if, by so doing, a qualified majority could then be assembled.

Member states that had stood with the United Kingdom in the 12 g camp quickly followed the United Kingdom lead to support the Commission's proposal. One other member state joined us from the 5 g camp. Others who wanted the 5 g per test limit wished to add conditions before they could agree to a compromise. The key conditions were, first, to commit the Council to a firm third stage for application some time in the 1990s at the limit of 5 g per test. Second, member states should be free to offer tax incentives to purchasers of cars that met the 5 g limit before the mandatory application date. Third, it was said that the revision of the test cycle to include high-speed driving sequences should be prejudged so that the Council agreed now on limits for the new cycle for medium cars in a way that forced the use of three-way catalyst technology for that category.

These three conditions were unacceptable to the United Kingdom and to several other member states. After some difficult negotiations, a qualified majority was able to support the Commission's proposal, with the addition of an article committing the Council to review vehicle emission standards in 1991. Whilst taking note of some member states' desire for 5 g per test for a third stage, there is no commitment to such a limit. Those participating in the agreement—

One of the countries that wants to pursue the 5 g test is Denmark. The Danes may seek to go it alone in some sort of Nordic agreement. What would be the British Government's response to that?

That is a matter for the Commission, which should take them to court. The same would apply to any country that tried to impose a standard beyond that agreed in the directive. It is a permissive directive that allows countries to come up to standards set in the directive, but not to go beyond. If I have that wrong—[Interruption.] I had hoped that by giving way there would not be too many speeches, but obviously I am provoking comment so I shall continue with my speech and then answer points raised in the debate.

Those participating in the agreement have also undertaken not to extend the use of tax incentives, which undermine the harmonisation of the market by creating the unique specifications of car models for sectors of the Community market in advance of dates set out in the directive.

On the test cycle, the Commission has reaffirmed its intention to make a proposal within the next year. The agreement is still not assured since the French believe that some improvement on the conditions surrounding it should be made. They have sustained their reserve, and we can expect further negotiation on details at the November Council.

We now have the makings of an agreement that still leaves many issues on vehicle emissions to be decided by the Council. We look forward to further proposals from the Commission on the high-speed cycle, evaporative emissions, durability testing and further tightening of limits on gaseous emissions from commercial vehicles and the introduction of particulate limits for large dieselengined vehicles, which are now a dominant source of black smoke in urban areas.

I say to all those concerned about the environment that there are opportunities for people to contribute. About 49 of the 50 people in every 80 who could use unleaded fuel do not do so. Most people have cars that can use unleaded fuel. Most people with those cars could save 4p to 6p a gallon. The numbers of petrol stations that have unleaded fuel are growing dramatically. Sales of two-star are falling and I expect most petrol stations to switch to supplying unleaded fuel. I ask everyone, whether in business or individually, to find out as soon as possible whether his or her car can use unleaded fuel so that we can get the lead out of the atmosphere.

To return to the emissions in the directive, we have made significant progress at a faster rate than we had hoped. The agreement will be good for the environment and will give the motor industry the opportunity to show us the real benefits of advanced fuel emission technologies such as lean burn. It is now up to it. I commend the agreement to the House.

2.42 am

The Minister's comments tonight do not allow us to give even one cheer for the Prime Minister's conversion to a greener Britain and a greener Europe. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister believes that we can have bolt-on environmentalism—almost like a bolt-on catalytic converter—that can be assembled and make no difference to any other aspect of policy.

The agreement is a compromise that is fairly typical of many things that are happening within the European Community. It is a compromise at almost the worst possible level because it advances the argument hardly a jot and the cause of a cleaner and better environment scarcely at all. It is rather ironic that the translation of the letter from the Vice-President of the Commission, Lord Cockfield, should make the point that the Luxembourg agreement was premised with the view that the basic principles of future emission requirements of the European Community should be adapted by categories of motor vehicles so that the effect on the European environment would be equivalent to that produced by USA standards, taking into account different patterns of use for each category.

It is ironic that the Minister prays in aid the idea that there should be some approximation to USA standards when, in reality, under existing regulations—we are moving on from those—a car in the United Kingdom, on an annual basis, produces about eight times more hydro carbons, carbon monoxides and nitrogen oxides. Even under the new proposals, the smaller vehicles of less than 2 litres will produce about twice the pollution of an equivalent vehicle on the USA.

Is the hon. Gentleman basing his remarks on United States standards or United States car emissions? I understand that about half the cars in the United States which start off in theory meeting the regulations do not meet them shortly afterwards. That may be a question, as I said in my earlier remarks, of whether Britain is right to try to agree to measures which we will make happen, rather than do what others do, and pass laws but do not get people to live up to them.

Perhaps the Minister would care to say how many prosecutions there have been in Britain in recent years for emissions that transgressed existing laws. Most vehicles on the roads of Britain are in breach of existing regulations which prohibit emissions dangerous to health or which cause damage to property. Any vehicle on our roads that is pumping out carbon monoxide or nitrogen oxides of different kinds or hydrocarbons is already in breach of our regulations.

Even if the Minister says that that is a technical point—I concede that it is—he will be aware that one can walk outside this building at any time of the day or night and find lorries belching out exhaust emissions which fall foul of the Minister's pragmatic levels reached by negotiation. So as we in Britain do not control emissions either, it is disingenuous of the Minister to refer to the state of affairs in America, when the United States can point to a real improvement through emission control—an improvement which Britain cannot claim.

I speak of the irony of the Minister praying in aid the example of the situation in the United States and the approximation of this European compromise to it—ironic because the European compromise is massively worse than the United States position—because this debate is taking place on the day when Lord Caithness has been signing the United Kingdom's acquiescence to a freeze on nitrogen oxide emissions which will have the effect that by 1994 —not by 1992 or 1993, as applies in this directive—those emissions from all sources will be cut back to the levels of December last year.

That may seem a great achievement, but there is a problem for Opposition Members, who regard the Prime Minister's conversion to environmental issues as being totally bogus, when we consider the situation in other EC countries. France, which has a generally had record in these matters, and Italy, which, in defence of the small car industry, has been as recalcitrant in the past as has Britain have agreed to support the more aggressive and more acceptable 30 per cent. reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions by 1994. The British Government, on the other hand, have said that they do not want to know about that level. So it is ironic for the Minister to claim that the British Government have credibility in this sphere when the rest of Western Europe is out of step with the Prime Minister's newfound environmental credentials.

The hon. Gentleman makes much play with the commitment of certain other countries. The Soviet Union is a signatory to the 30 per cent. declaration. Should one therefore attach any credibility to that? Is it not better to approach this issue in the way the British Government have— to mean what they say and get down to the objective level instead of going along with political ploys, as do many Governments in Europe and elsewhere?

The credibility of the British Government is not high in this area. They have resisted any move towards more acceptable controls of pollution. The compromise now before the House, as I shall demonstrate, is unsatisfactory because it will not achieve the improvement in the environment that the Government claim that it will. It is ironic that the directive should come before the House today, given that last night—the night when the Minister discussed penalty points with me—it was recorded that at the York road junior school not far from here the World Health Organisation's recommended maximum of 10 mg per cu. m of carbon monoxide was exceeded. In the area of the Houses of Parliament the level of carbon monoxide was 11·3 mg per cu. m.

Most of the carbon monoxide in a city such as London comes from emissions from motor vehicles. In the period from 7 o'clock last night until this morning, at Bedford junior school near Heathrow airport, the World Health Organisation's recommended maximum for emissions was exceeded when 10·7 mg per cu. m were found. In the area of the York road junior school last night the World Health Organisation's recommended maximum nitrogen oxide level of 400 mg per cu. m was also exceeded. This morning, during the peak period of travel for commuters in London, the level reached 482 mg, which is way over the figure that the WHO finds acceptable.

I hope that the Minister accepts that the consequences for the health of those travelling through the area at that time may he serious. I hope that he will accept that it is ridiculous for the Government to lay claim to any credibility, given that we experience the physical impact of the problem on a day-to-day basis. I now remember what the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) said.

It is ridiculous to talk in terms of global or national limits. The problem exists in local areas, and particularly in London because of high traffic density.

I do not say that such levels of pollution are in any way acceptable; of course they are not. However, it must be remembered that over the past few days, and last night, weather conditions were especially conducive to a build-up of pollution. We have had fog, temperature inversion and all the rest of it. Such conditions are exceptional in London. There is usually a wind so that exhaust fumes can dissipate. I hope that the House is not concluding from the hon. Gentleman's remarks that such pollution is an everyday occurrence with which we have to live, with the consequent danger to us all.

The hon. Gentleman seems to misunderstand what a maximum recommended limit means. It means just that. It is extremely dangerous for those in the vicinity when that limit is exceeded. There is some merit in the hon. Gentleman's argument that so far such events have been relatively infrequent, but in London the limits have already been exceeded twice in the past week.

The hon. Gentleman may want to talk about unusual weather conditions, but they are not so odd. It was predicted that the limits would be exceeded in November and December this year because the amount of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide being pumped into the atmosphere in London has increased year by year as a result of the increase in the volume of traffic on the roads of London. The Minister knows that some of the increase in the volume of traffic is due to the relative affluence of commuters in London but that much of it is also due to the Government's refusal to invest in public transport.

The Minister must accept that important point. He made some play of trying to justify lean burn engines in terms of national fuel consumption. He knows that there are far more efficient ways of reducing the national consumption of fuel—among them better and slower traffic systems and getting people out of motor cars and on to a more efficient public transport system.

May I abbreviate parts of this debate? Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the number of people commuting by car into London in the past six or seven years has fallen from 190,000 to 160,000, that the number of people using the underground each day has risen by 60 per cent. since it was taken back from the GLC, that the decline has been reversed in the number of people using the buses and that investment in the public transport system has been running higher than the investment in national roads? Almost everything that the hon. Gentleman has said is wrong. Why do we not come back to emissions and concentrate, perhaps, on the 5 g. and 8 g. standard? Perhaps he will accept that putting three-way catalysts on to small vehicles, with the fuel injection control equipment, is likely to worsen the fuel economy by 10 per cent., which will not only lead to extra carbon dioxide, but to increased fuel and fumes.

The last point is not true, because the difficulty of especially the lean burn technology is that it offers very little in the reduction of nitrogen oxides, and that is the most fundamental criticism of that technology. It is an untested technology and cannot even guarantee to deliver what the Minister claims. It certainly will not reduce at high speeds the amount of nitrogen oxides that are pumped into the atmosphere. As nitrogen oxide is the most important of the three pollutants from vehicle emissions—because of its impact on acid rain and the creation of ozone in connection with hydrocarbons—the Minister cannot wriggle out of the problem simply by referring to fuel efficiency or cost.

The Minister waxes eloquent about the Government's success in transport, but the reason why tubes in London are overcrowded owes nothing at all to Government investment, but a lot to the Government's incompetence in the management of traffic systems in London. Because of the way that traffic operates in London, there is more pollution in the atmosphere now than there has been in previous years. That is a statistical fact which cannot be altered by any argument put forward by the Minister. I will let him think about that while his hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) speaks.

Does the hon. Gentleman concede that the clean air Acts were passed by a Conservative Administration, and that much of the argument that he is constructing in attacking the Government on this point is absurd?

The hon. Gentleman picked on someone from the wrong city to talk to about clean air Acts, because pressure for clean air Acts came from northern cities and from the Labour councils. Labour councils were putting pressure on a Conservative Government that operated down here, but it was their pressure that led to those Acts. The hon. Gentleman should know that Manchester, which has been Labour-controlled for far longer than the hon. Gentleman has lived in a northern city, took the lead in clean air matters.

The specific question must be where we go from here, because the present EC compromise will not begin significantly to reduce the amount of environmental pollution caused by vehicle emissions. When we study the Warren spring calculations of the impact of nitrogen oxides by the end of the century, we see that, if the present Luxembourg compromise is brought into effect, the reduction will be 12 to 32 per cent. If three-way catalytic converters are introduced, the reduction will be 60 to 70 per cent. We are told by environmental scientists that that is the sort of level that will be necessary if we do not simply maintain our present position, but we begin to undo the damage of the impact of acid rain. The Minister must deal with that because skirting around and saying that we can achieve stability is not satisfactory. Stability is not a position of credibility if we are to take seriously the Minister's cost balance of trading off cost and improvement. We will not improve if this order is to be the full stop for Western Europe.

The Minister must recognise that if the directive comes into force in the early 1990s, its full impact will not be felt until well into the next century. Even in 1992 or 1993 any attempts would mean that we delay the inevitable need to take any practical action until 2010 or even after that. We are playing with a 20-year time scale that we do not have.

There is no sense in allowing permissive legislation of this kind —

I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman one small question. What is the Labour party's policy on exhaust emission and has it been discussed with the car manufacturers and the trade unions? Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what he would do?

I think that I have made quite clear what I would do, but I shall spell it out to the hon. Gentleman in case I was not clear. We would press for the introduction of three-way catalytic converters on all new motor vehicles because that is the only way that we can begin to tackle the problem of vehicle emissions.

Conservative Members will obviously want to pray in aid all sorts of bogus statistics, but the most important statistic is that a third of the world's vehicles are now fitted with a technology which was developed in Britain but rejected by British Governments on the most ridiculous grounds. That third of the world includes the United States, Japan and Australia. The technology is already there and will, inevitably, have to be imported into this country at a later stage. I hope that that makes what I am saying clear to the hon. Gentleman.

The point that I was making before I gave way to the hon. Gentleman was that this permissive legislation does not offer a realistic prospect of improvement because permissive legislation is designed to prevent countries such as Denmark from introducing a more acceptable standard.

I readily accept the argument that one country's solutions are not totally adequate because pollution knows no boundaries. The Minister has made it clear that the British Government's view is that the Commission should take action against Denmark to prevent Denmark from trying to improve its own environment. That is an act of the utmost folly. Rather than trying to prevent the Danes from moving in that direction, perhaps the British Government should take seriously what the Danes are saying and move in that direction.

If we are to take seriously the problems caused by vehicle emissions, we will not achieve our aim by this shoddy compromise. If we are to begin to reverse the damage that has already been caused, we must be prepared to embrace a more radical technology. The Government are clearly not prepared to accept that and in being unprepared to take that step they are making it clear that the Prime Minister's recent claims of an interest in the environment are as bogus as most people in this country thought that they were.

3.2 am

Some of the interventions that we have heard from the Government's Benches have convinced some of us that one speech does not change a party. The Government will have to come up with something rather more forceful than they have yet produced if they are to convince the wider public that the conversion to green issues will bear fruit in any radical changes in policy, rather than in attempts to justify policies that will be pursued anyway. One of my party's supporters has commented that it is apparent that the Prime Minister has developed green edges but that only time will tell whether that turns out to be mould.

We are debating some fairly mouldy proposals because, as the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) said, the Government are supporting a compromise permissive resolution of the European Commission which simply freezes the agreed emissions for 1994 at last year's level. If we are supposed to accept that as a radical new departure and a great new "greening" of the European environment, I for one am less than convinced of it.

The Minister acknowledged that other countries want to go further. He had the grace also to acknowledge that this compromise goes further than Britain had originally wanted. It is now being accepted on the basis that any agreement is better than no agreement, especially if it is an agreement that does not cause us too much trouble, does not cost us too much and is not very inconvenient—it is only permissive.

The European Parliament's environment committee was pushing for 5 g and 20 g limits which are still substantially higher than the limits accepted for many years in the United States. The Minister argued that it was all very well for the United States to set those limits, but they were not necessarily enforced and did not necessarily produce significant achievements. The United States monitoring system has suggested that, at least since the more radical proposals than we are debating were introduced 18 years ago, the quantities of the relevant gases in the United States atmosphere have reduced by one third in one case and 6 per cent. in others. Those are measurable reductions, but no one is suggesting that they are closely connected with the measures.

The standards adopted in the United States have been taken up by Canada, Japan and Australia and are being taken up as objectives by other European countries. As this motion proves, Europe is collectively lagging behind the rest of the world. Britain was conspicuously absent from the declaration in Sofia. That was only a declaration of pious intent, but the fact that we are not prepared to make such a declaration suggests that we are a long way from achieving radical changes.

The harm done by these gases is no longer in dispute. In debates on environmental pollution, the Government have sometimes argued that there was no proof that particular emissions cause problems and that, until there was proof, they were not prepared to take any action. The situation should be reversed. It does not require a great deal of scientific research to know that exhaust fumes are noxious and that maximum control over those emissions, to ensure minimum pollution, is desirable.

How do we achieve a sensible balance? For a number of years, the Government, backed by the motor manufacturers, have argued that that they do not want to become involved in catalytic converters. They want to develop the lean-burn engine as British technology, again ignoring the fact that the catalytic converter was British technology. However, the people of Europe do not have time to wait. That is not to suggest that this development should not continue or that the lean burn engine does not have a contribution to make, but it is not ready to go into commercial production. One wonders why a company such as Ford appears to be so resistant to the idea of catalytic converters here, when it has accepted them in its home base because the legislation decreed that. How did Jaguar manage to cope with a successful export drive to the United States, meeting United States standards?

That is exactly the point. Legislation and pressure to raise standards force the pace of technology and develop the ability to meet those standards at a cost-effective level. The cost of introducing such changes is often lower than forecast.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has read the document that we are debating today. He talked about Jaguar, but we have already dealt with that kind of car which will be fitted with three-way catalysts. We have dealt with cars of 1·6 litres to 2 litres and tonight we are talking about cars of 1·4 litres and below— a type of car which is not freely available in the United States where the system of three-way catalytic converters is more suited to the large V8 car or our export Jaguars, BMWs and Mercedes. However, with the smaller cars, such as the Metro and the Mini, there are problems in fitting these installations. The hon. Gentleman should address those problems and note that Ford already has a lean-burn engine in production.

It is true also that Ford has said that if it were required to introduce catalytic converters, it could and would do so. I do not dispute the specific terms of reference of the document and supplementary explanatory memorandum that we are discussing, but it should be said that on previous occasions manufacturers have resisted changes of this sort. They have not wished to make them, but when put under pressure they have been able to respond in a cost-effective and technically acceptable way. Pressure in the area with which we are concerned would produce similar results. Many who are pressing for change know that that is the position. As long as pressure is not produced because Europe cannot agree to proceed to sufficiently restrictive standards, the technology will not be developed and the necessary cost reductions will not be achieved.

The Minister referred to the gradual phasing out of two-star petrol and the gradual growth of availability of lead-free petrol. Perhaps we should look to the West German example and ban two-star petrol. The Minister's ministerial colleague and wife, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, has said that that would be undesirable because users should have choice. The Minister has said that the problem is that we have lead-free petrol and that motorists are not using it. The Government should be considering how they will hasten the process.

The Select Committee on Trade and Industry, of which I am a member, has recently investigated petrol retailing. It found that the introduction of lead-free petrol with wide availability is proceeding at a relatively slow pace. It will be about two years before there will be sufficient distribution to unleaded petrol outlets to make consumers feel confident, especially if they live in an area such as my constituency, which is a large rural patch, that unleaded petrol is freely available.

It is probably better that I make an intervention in the hon. Gentleman's speech and not wait to deal with the matter when I reply to the debate. A motorist will know that his car does not have a catalyst because he will be aware that he can put ordinary two-star or four-star petrol into the fuel tank. Anyone whose car can use unleaded fuel without adjustment, or after having been adjusted, and who finds that unleaded fuel is not available will be able to use ordinary two-star or four-star petrol. He will find that it will have no noticeably different effect on the engine.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will help my colleagues in the Department of the Environment and myself, as well as CLEAR and Friends of the Earth, to deal with the appalling ignorance, as well as apathy, which is preventing motorists from having their cars converted so that they are able to use unleaded fuel and then using it. If a car can use unleaded fuel, it can also use leaded.

I accept that that is a useful contribution to place on the record. In a sense it reaffirms my argument that the message is not getting through. There is a lack of knowledge, understanding and action. It seems that potential users are not responding. Indeed, the oil companies are not responding.

The Minister has said that if someone has had his car converted so that it is able to use unleaded petrol, his natural wish will be to buy unleaded petrol for economic and other sound reasons. I accept that what the Minister has said is true, but I think that he will accept that users will be looking for outlets with unleaded fuel. The sooner that they are available throughout the country, the sooner we shall be able to speed up conversion and use. There is no doubt that it is accepted that the lead emissions in car exhaust fumes are inflicting considerable damage to both the environment and human beings.

Surely we need to deal with the inertia factor in the use of unleaded petrol. Surely it would be sensible to persuade or if, necessary, to legislate for car manufacturers to produce cars that will use unleaded petrol so that users do not have to go to the trouble or expense of having them converted to enable them to use leaded petrol. Would not that be a major step forward?

I am sure that it would. I am sure that we have established a useful understanding across the Floor of the House. I am saying that we can deal with the problem through legislation, the raising of standards within areas of known technology and the forcing of the pace of technological and social change. The proposal from the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) is perfectly sensible and reasonable. The Government may have to take the suggestion on board and it may require legislation which I hope will be forthcoming if it is needed.

I do not think that anyone can now fail to be aware of the serious concerns about the consequences of acid rain and lead pollution on the physical environment in Europe. It is interesting to note that when the West Germans saw the trees in the Black Forest suffering and dying they thought initially that the cause was British power stations. Subsequent findings caused the West Germans some embarrassment over their initial hypothesis. Incidentally, I have friends in the Black Forest area and I witnessed the damage to the trees, which were a pitiful sight. The West Germans put a lot of pressure on us. In case I am misunderstood, I must state that I believe that British power stations contributed to the problem in West Germany.

It was interesting that the West German research showed that their biggest single problem came from pollution from car exhausts. Once that was brought home to them, they acted more speedily as they have a high proportion of high-powered cars to which catalytic converters could easily be fitted.

This has been a very lacklustre debate about a proposal over which no one can get very excited. It is a pretty lame, rough old compromise and it does not really force the pace on the issue anything like far enough or fast enough. I am worried that the directive may well be taken as the marker for all that we have to do over the next five years. If that is the case, it is a very inadequate marker. We should be forcing the pace. If the British Government want to take up those green issues, they should accept that they should take a lead. To pretend that a loose compromise which is further, sharper and more radical than what they originally wanted is some kind of radical initiative that arose from the Government's forward thinking is simply not credible.

We will still be operating at standards of half the United States level. The proposals are only the beginning of the debate. The European Parliament environment committee will want to force the pace. The fact that others like France are being disruptive should not allow us to use the disruption as an excuse to settle for a compromise that takes us nowhere. The Government must accept that they should look ahead and recognise that the commitment to the lean-burn engine will not solve the problem, but will make only a contribution to it. We must think in terms of the standard objective of reducing emissions by 30 per cent. plus over the next five years. I hope that the Minister will come back to the House well within the five-year period with radical proposals from the Government on how a 30 per cent. reduction can be achieved. The present proposal makes no contribution to that.

3.18 am

I must first declare an interest as I am adviser to Johnson Matthey plc. I am also a member of the Select Committee which recommended that the House debate this matter. We have had an interesting if somewhat low-key debate. Perhaps that is explained by the late hour.

I welcome the Government's realism in the way in which they have moved on the proposal within the confines of the political constraints in the Community. At least we are taking a step forward in the right direction. We should not approach the subject in a spirit of hesitancy. We should understand that, without making party political points, there is growing recognition of the need to protect our environment. Pressures for further improvement will grow. Therefore, the spirit of the House in approaching the matter should be to support and encourage the Government to press on as fast as they possibly can.

It is understandable that, being responsible, the Government must recognise that the British car manufacturing industry must adjust to such changes, but I hope that it will equally be recognised that some car manufacturers are already prepared to go faster on this issue, even if they are not all prepared to move at the same time, and so there are signs that the industry is coming round.

My hon. Friend the Minister said that there is a desire for certainty, which the Government have recognised and which he dealt with in his opening speech. The Government are also concerned for the consumer, but I wonder whether added costs that might come from pressing on not only with this proposal but going further eventually would be too severe a deterrent. If people are to become more aware of the need for the protection of the environment, they might be prepared to pay an additional sum in order to ensure that they were making their contribution.

I do not want to be controversial, but we spent the earlier part of today discussing why charges should be imposed for dental check-ups and eye tests and it was suggested that people would pay those charges because they would be in their interests. It could be said that they might not be completely put off by having to pay a bit more. But if the Government did think that they would be, they have a weapon that might help to alleviate the problem.

I am not clear that we are obliged by Community law to impose a car tax. If the Government want to help in adjusting to the change, it would be possible to tinker with the car tax without at the same time causing a boost to consumer demand if the price of more environmentally friendly cars were to increase because of the adjustments made to them.

My hon. Friend made an impassioned plea for greater use of lead-free petrol. This is national lead-free petrol week. I endorse that because it is the obvious preliminary to some of the other changes that will have to take place if car engines are to become cleaner. I urge my hon. Friend and his colleagues to persuade my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he next considers these matters, that he should go much further in what he has already done because the gap between lead-free petrol and leaded petrol in countries such as Germany is much greater than it is here.

When it is possible, by shopping around, to see a spread of between 12p or 14p a gallon on leaded four-star petrol, the difference that we have instituted so far. which I welcome, will not be a positive attractive incentive to people to change over. That could be achieved at no cost to the Excheqer if adjustments were made by increasing the duty on leaded petrol and reducing it still further on unleaded petrol. There must be an equation at some point where that could be done at nil cost to the Exchequer. But there would not be a great cost to the Exchequer, nor would it add to the consumer demand which is causing the Chancellor concern at present, if there were a substantial reduction in the duty on unleaded petrol so that there would be a clear incentive for people, other than that of good sense and care for the environment, to switch over to it.

That would be an important boost to the campaign which my hon. Friend and his colleagues are trying to press at the moment. The Government would make their enthusiasm on this subject clear beyond all doubt in a means that they have at their disposal which is not conditional on the support of any other Government in the Community.

3.22 am

The Opposition's curmudgeonly attitude quite took my breath away, so much so that I was almost bereft of speech until I reflected that their attitude could lead only to the conclusion that they would join us in supporting the construction of further nuclear power stations as the only environmentally acceptable way of power generation to meet the growing needs of our economy and country.

The way that the Opposition appear blithely to ignore the 25 million driving licence holders and the owners of more than 20 million cars in Britain is staggering. Their mathematics seem to be at fault. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister, to whose work I pay tribute, could confirm that the shift that he is announcing represents a reduction of more than 30 per cent. on the figures obtaining in the first stage programme, from which we are now moving more rapidly than originally envisaged. How we can be chided for achieving more rapidly a reduction in excess of 30 per cent in the face of a difficult political situation in the Community strikes me as odd.

Pace my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst), the Opposition's devotion to the cause of the catalyst also strikes me as odd, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) briefly remarked, because the experience of looking after catalysts leads us to suppose that we have a long way to go, not only in terms of education, but perhaps, I fear, of regulation, on the efficient continuing maintenance and use of catalysts, particularly as related to small cars. They are of course already fitted to larger vehicles.

We should like to know what the European Parliament has said about this matter because the documents before the House state that a decision is still awaited. That was in July, so I wonder whether there is any news of what was decided.

We are retrospectively debating these issues because decisions are being taken on the continent by majority vote. By the time those matters reach us, they have already been settled. That is why the Opposition's strictures are even more absurd. To chide the Minister for having moved his colleagues is a very curious way to proceed. I support my hon. Friend the Minister, if only because of the certainty that is being offered to our manufacturers—and the need for such certainty could not be more clearly illustrated than by the recently announced engine facility, with more than £350 million being invested by the Ford motor company. I wish my hon. Friend the Minister every success in his efforts.

3.26 am

I am grateful to my hon. Friends. It is worth noting that, as this debate concludes in the early morning, there are present 12 Government Members, but that the Liberal, the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), has no supporters, and nor has the Labour Member, the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd). Yet we are supposed to believe that the environmentalists are not on the Government Benches.

The Royal Society speech of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was a reflection of the Conservatives' interest in the environment. We do not deny that other parties also have an interest—we just wish that they would manifest it more often and in greater numbers. Looking around this Chamber, it is evident that we not only outnumber the other parties—that might be expected—but also that we outnumber them by a factor of seven or eight to one. We also outdo them in our understanding of the subject.

Will the Minister educate the House on one important point? If he wants serious discussion of this issue, why was this debate arranged to begin at 20 past two in the morning, thus preventing any serious discussions? Also, will the Minister respond to the question put by his hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller): why are we discussing this matter now—after the event, rather than before?

I explained the reasons at the beginning of this debate and I am happy to do so again now. However, I want to deal with the 30 per cent. point raised by the hon. Member for Gordon. The 20th report of the Select Committee on European Legislation of 30 March states:

"The application of Directive 88/76/EEC in combination with a 12 grammes/test standard for small cars would give a 53 per cent. (HC+NOx) average limit reduction for all cars, when compared with the current 83/351/EEC Directive limits."
That provides some encouragement.

In this Parliament, we should try dropping some of the adversarial politics that may be necessary in other debates. This is a take-note motion on a Community proposal that is almost a British-led compromise. We have brought other countries together in arriving at the 8 g test standard and that deserves some recognition—even from the hon. Members for Stretford and for Gordon. I believe that the whole House welcomes the movement towards an 8 g standard and Britain's leadership in persuading other Community members to arrive at that acceptable compromise.

It is rather curious that last night when the Minister was being savaged by his own side the only person who spoke in his support was me, from the Opposition. For him to argue that in no circumstances is there agreement across the Chamber is ridiculous. I must say, however, that there is no all-party welcome for this agreement: it is rubbish, and we have made that clear.

Now we have the Socialists in Britain saying that the agreement is rubbish. I thought that when Jacques Delors came to speak to the Socialists they turned around and began to accept that Community agreement would be good not only for our common European environment but for our common European car and engine manufacturing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove has said. Because we are becoming increasingly efficient in this country, we have more to gain in terms of both manufacturing and being able to trade across Europe without unnecessary barriers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) put a very fair argument. He mentioned his interest in Johnson Matthey, which the House acknowledges; but he also talked about a sensible approach. I think that it makes sense to go for the oxidation catalyst on small cars, with the 8 g per test limit, and developing lean burn. I said in my opening remarks that we could not expect the lean burn technology automatically to work, and that it was up to those developing it to prove that it would meet the standards. We are perfectly aware that if it does not, a different approach will be necessary.

Let me return for a moment to the subject of unleaded fuel. My hon. Friend talked about the need for an increased differential, but I feel that the existing differential can work. Unleaded fuel is being supplied by some major firms—such as Tesco, which is never knowingly undersold.

Even the cheapest petrol station in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley), the Jet petrol station on the way to Godalming, sells unleaded fuel. I think we shall see more and more competition involving not only the major fuel companies but the smaller ones as well.

I am delighted to announce that I have made arrangements for a sign to go up as soon as possible on every motorway where there is a motorway service area selling unleaded fuel saying that it is for sale there. I think that that will help to get the information across.

According to a newspaper report, when the director of Friends of the Earth was asked whether he had a car, he said no. When asked if his wife had a car, he said yes. When asked it he used it, he said occasionally. When asked if it used unleaded fuel, he honestly said that it would soon. That is the problem. If our "greens" in Friends of the Earth need a bit of reminding from a newspaper journalist, think how many of the rest of us need to have our cars adjusted. I am delighted to learn that manufacturers such as Ford and Vauxhall have arranged for the conversion to be done virtually free, or free in most cases. I would ask all other manufacturers to find out whether their cars can use unleaded fuel and to put a sticker—preferably green— on the dashboard and fuel cap to make sure that people buy unleaded fuel, because it saves money and the environment.

It has been suggested—I am grateful for the help of my hon. Friends in this regard—that if we want emissions reduced, we must go for a greater element of nuclear fuel. It is a straight fact that that is one of the ways of reducing the greenhouse effect. Otherwise, people are opting for conventional pollution. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment made that point in some excellent replies to questions put to him on Sunday by Jonathan Dimbleby. We should also try to make the Opposition realise that they can approve of something that is being agreed in Europe. That is what this take-note motion is about. The hon. Member for Stretford and I will continue to have debates while I have my job and he has his position, but he might try to discover from the leader of his party whether that party is in favour of more road spending or against it. It is rather odd to read many reports saying that we are spending too much on roads and others saying that we are spending too little. The Leader of the Opposition seems to be saying that we are spending too little. I do not want that question answered now, but it would be useful to learn the party's view in the future.

The hon. Member for Gordon says that we are trying to put forward a freeze at last year's level for 1994. The position is exactly the opposite. The 12 g per test limit would bring about dramatic reductions in emissions and pollution. Moving to 8 g per test will go even further. The reports of the Select Committee on European Legislation suggest that we may have been going too far already. I consider that the 8 g per test is easily defensible, and I should like a bit more help from the Opposition in avoiding the tag that Britain is the dirty person of Europe. Because we make agreements that we stick to. we are ahead of many other countries.

I give the hon. Member for Stretford this challenge. Perhaps he should take a bit of water out of the Rhine and a bit of water out of the Thames and decide which he wants to drink.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 4637/88 and the Supplementary Explanatory memorandum submitted by the Department of Transport on 8th July on air pollution by the gases from the engines of motor vehicles; and supports the agreement reached at the 28th and 29th June Environment Council in Luxembourg.