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Air Quality

Volume 508: debated on Thursday 25 March 2010

4. What recent assessment he has made of progress towards meeting European air quality standards; and if he will make a statement. (324049)

As a result of improvements over many years, EU limits for air quality are met across most of the UK. Limits for particulate matter are yet to be achieved on only a small number of roads in central London. For nitrogen dioxide, limits are exceeded on less than one third of major roads in urban areas across the UK. The Government are working with delivery partners to achieve the limits as soon as possible.

The Minister’s answer suggests that he has not read the report that was published this Monday by the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee, which states:

“Poor air quality reduces the life expectancy of everyone in the UK by an average of seven to eight months and up to 50,000 people a year may die prematurely because of it.”

The Committee, which has nine Labour members, concluded unanimously that

“air quality is not seen as a priority across government and the UK is failing to meet a range of domestic and European targets”.

Why have the Labour Government not got their act together after 13 years?

The hon. Gentleman does me a disservice by saying that I have not looked at the report. I gave evidence to the Committee and we are obviously very interested in the report’s conclusions and recommendations. We look forward to considering and responding to them in due course. An assessment based on 2008 data shows that air pollution is expected to reduce life expectancy by an average of six months and have an annual cost of £15 billion, compared with an average of seven to eight months and a cost of £20 billion based on 2005 data. This demonstrates that, even in that short period of time, we have made considerable progress. We are not in denial over this, however; it is a very important issue. We welcome the Committee’s report and we will be proceeding with the recommendations as soon as we can.

Will the Minister take his team to Bogotá in Colombia, a city of 7 million people, where, every Sunday, all vehicular traffic is banned and the city becomes a paradise for cyclists, walkers and joggers? Why cannot we shut down in London in that way for a day a week, or for an hour each morning to allow children to be taken to school and to allow me to bike or jog to Parliament without my lungs being clogged up by the filthy fumes of our city? Let us have an hour a day free of traffic in London—[Interruption.]

My right hon. Friend is obviously in good form this morning, as has been demonstrated by that question and by the sedentary comments that his suggestion has received. Since 1997, there have been significant reductions in road transport emissions—including of particulate matter 10 by 42 per cent., of oxides of nitrogen, NOx, by 48 per cent., and of sulphur dioxide, SO2, by 91 per cent.—in spite of traffic increasing by 13 per cent. The Mayor of London is due to publish the findings of a public consultation on a draft air quality strategy for London today, and we look forward to seeing what he recommends.

First, may I echo the Secretary of State’s tribute to Ashok Kumar? I worked with him on the issue of tuberculosis and its effects on developing countries, and I soon grew to appreciate his great decency and wisdom. Just as the Secretary of State will miss his supportive presence behind him, I will miss Ashok’s reproachful gaze from across the Floor of the House.

Britain is exceeding pollution limits, and we are still waiting for a plan to clean up our act. Just as the Government were slow to act on landfill targets, they have dragged their feet on air quality and we now risk infraction proceedings from Brussels on air quality and on waste. They have had more than a decade to make Britain cleaner and greener; why have DEFRA Ministers failed to deliver?

This Government have introduced many significant measures to reduce air pollution. Additional measures announced in the excellent Budget speech by right hon. Friend the Chancellor yesterday include a reduced pollution certificate for heavy goods vehicles that achieve early compliance with the Euro 6 emissions standards, and a halving of company car tax for ultra-low carbon vehicles. Both those measures will help to improve air quality and support UK green jobs. We are working hard to avoid the risk of infraction, which can lead to fines; we are hopeful that we will be able to avoid them.

The Government’s inability to produce a credible plan could result in infraction fines of up to £300 million. Their incompetence with the Rural Payments Agency has already resulted in fines of £75 million. Is it not a scandalous example of a waste of public money that they are raising taxes on the public to pay financial penalties to Brussels because of their failure to deliver?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ability to criticise the RPA during a question on air quality. That is very imaginative, but there is no relation between the two. I have just said that we hope to be able to avoid the risk of infraction leading to fines. For particulate matter, the risk is now very small. On nitrogen dioxide, meeting the limit values is more challenging, but we have additional time to prepare our case to the Commission; and, as I said in my original answer, the Mayor of London is responsible for improving air quality here, along with the London boroughs. Following a review of a public consultation, a draft air quality strategy for London is expected shortly. As I mentioned, we hope to see it today.