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Diesel Cars

Volume 621: debated on Thursday 23 February 2017

We are working with local authorities to drive the improvements in air quality that are so needed in our more polluted cities. My right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary will consult on a new air quality plan later this spring.

Diesel vehicles are part of the problem and we need urgent action on them, but is the Minister also aware of today’s Environmental Audit Committee report on how Heathrow will affect pollution and climate change? I have just come back from Beijing and saw the level of pollution there. Will the Minister bear it in mind that that is not where we want to go for towns and cities in this country?

It is important to appreciate, as I know the hon. Gentleman does, that this is not a matter of some high-flown theory about what might happen in many centuries’ time; it is about the wellbeing of people now in our cities and elsewhere. The direct relationship between air quality and health is well established. Pollutants are affecting the quality of life—more than that, they are affecting the health and wellbeing of our people. The issue is about the defence and promotion of the common good, which, as he and the whole House know, is always central to my heart.

I urge Ministers and the Government to do something about older diesel cars, either through taxation or a scrappage scheme. We can get electric vehicles in, but we also need to take diesels out, especially in our inner cities, with their hotspots of pollution. Unless we tackle that issue, we will not get the levels down.

Just this morning, I was with no fewer than 16 motor manufacturers looking at low-emission vehicles. It is vital that we promote electric cars. As you will know, Mr Speaker, this week we have published our Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, which deals with the electric car charging infrastructure, among many other things. One can deal with this by sanction and penalty or through encouragement, incentive and a change of mind. I prefer to look on the positive side of these things.

The penalty is going to be the millions of pounds of fines faced by our constituents because of the Government’s failure to act. When are we going to hear about some practical action from the Government to reduce the number of diesel vehicles? The Minister has not answered the question. Air pollution is the second biggest avoidable killer after smoking.

Let us be clear: we have made real progress to date. In 2016, the UK was the largest market for ultra-low emission vehicles in the EU and a global leader in this development.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, in the spirit of bipartisan generosity that characterises all he does in the House, will welcome the announcement in the autumn statement setting out a further £290 million of funding for ultra-low emission vehicles. He says that he wants action, but what more action does he want than the policy, the legislation and the resources—we are taking action. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is feeling grumpy because it is Thursday morning, but he really ought to welcome that.

I point out to the Minister that figures from the London Assembly Environment Committee from 2015 set out why it is wrong to try to demonise diesel cars and their drivers. Diesel cars account for just over 10% of all emissions in London: the same amount, nearly, as Transport for London’s buses; the same amount, nearly, as ageing trains; the same amount, nearly, as ground-based aviation services. The issue is not simply diesels.

As this short discussion on low-emission vehicles and emissions began, I thought, as you Mr Speaker, must have done, of Proust, who said, as you will remember:

“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”.

Using those eyes to see to the future is necessary if we are to be ambitious and have vision about where we can go with low-emission vehicles, particularly electric vehicles. We are making progress and we will continue to make more. The plan that I described, which we will draw up this spring, will set out exactly what that progress looks like.

On diesel vehicle manufacturers, the Minister knows of my particular interest in Volkswagen. Will he confirm from the Dispatch Box the extraordinary and contradictory evidence that the Select Committee on Transport received on Monday from Volkswagen’s managing director, Paul Willis, and that Mr Willis has not given the Minister’s Department everything it asked for?

The hon. Gentleman was at the sitting of that Committee, on which he serves, where he will have heard the extraordinary statements made by Mr Willis, which I described at the time as “little short of ridiculous.” I have met Mr Willis and Volkswagen on numerous occasions and asked them for four things: a quicker retrofit to the vehicles affected; compensation for customers who are affected; a warranty for those retrofits; and the money the taxpayer has had to spend as a result of what Volkswagen did to be repaid in full. None of those things has yet been done to my satisfaction, which is why I have written again to Mr Willis, setting out exactly our Government demands—not Government demands, but demands on behalf of the people.

The public are perplexed about where we are going with diesel cars. Will the Minister be sure to remember that many people bought a diesel car because they knew it would be cheaper to run, even though it was a more expensive car? They cannot afford to make the coming changes. Does the Minister recognise that?

It is certainly true that we need to make the transition to low-emission vehicles affordable. We are not in the business, as a Government who champion the cause of ordinary, hard-working people, of penalising people to the point at which they cannot go about their lives or access employment and other opportunities in a way in which the whole House would expect, so it is absolutely right that we take a measured view. Having said that, we have to make more progress, and being measured does not mean being complacent. As I set out earlier, we will make that progress, and we will change minds and behaviour through what we do.

Following the Transport Committee hearing earlier in the week, am I right in thinking that Volkswagen situation now denies any wrongdoing in the UK but still feels obliged to fix 472,000 vehicles, with another half a million remaining to be looked at? The company says it has provided the Government with all the information requested, but the Minister denies that, and it is refusing to publish the report it commissioned from its lawyers, Jones Day. The Minister told the House in November that there would be a “steely fist” in his “velvet glove” if Volkswagen did not meet its obligations, so will he tell the House what that steely fist will actually mean and what he will actually do when he meets VW again next month?

First, to establish the detail of what Volkswagen has and has not done, and what the Government have asked it to do, it might be best if I let the hon. Gentleman and the House have a copy of the letter I have just written to Mr Willis, which sets out how and where Volkswagen has not done what the Government have asked. Secondly, as I said a moment ago, I am determined to use every avenue to pursue the interests of the consumer. The Secretary of State and I will travel to Berlin to meet German counterparts to have discussions because much of the evidence lies there, where the tests were done. Yesterday I met the legal representatives of the consumers who are moving a private prosecution against Volkswagen. I will leave no avenue unexplored and no stone unturned. My steely fist is now a galvanised steely fist.