Before we begin, I remind Members that they are now expected to wear face coverings. That is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when leaving and entering the room. It is a great pleasure to call Mr Barry Sheerman to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered COP26 and the impact of air pollution on public health and wellbeing.
Sir Gary, it is my pleasure, on this day of all days, to have secured this Westminster Hall debate: a day when the whole world’s attention is focused on COP26 in Glasgow, and there are signs—some mixed, but some good—of what is happening there. There has also been a petition, as you of course know, signed by more than 100,000 people, calling for an introduction of charges on carbon emissions to tackle the climate crisis and air pollution. Forgive me, Sir Gary, but I am currently suffering from a bad cold and a booster jab, so if my voice fails at any time, you will know the cause.
Air pollution kills 64,000 people in the UK every year, yet the Government provide annual fossil fuel subsidies of £10.5 billion, according to the European Commission. To meet UK climate targets, they must end this practice and introduce charges on producers of greenhouse gas emissions. Most Members of the House, and especially the Yorkshire Members, know of the Drax power station, which is currently producing energy from wood pellets, either produced in this country or imported from South America. For that purpose, it received a massive Government subsidy of £900 million last year.
I want to start at the beginning; I have always believed in borrowing from the United States declaration of independence, because I love the language. I used to be the head of a university’s American studies department —indeed, I taught the Deputy Speaker at one stage. I believe that there is an inalienable right for every person on this planet to be born, to live and to breathe fresh air. At the moment, that is not the case. How bad is it? Seven million people die prematurely across the world due to air pollution-related conditions, with 36,000 premature deaths in the UK alone, costing an estimated £12 billion.
Of course, with COP26, there is a risk of a great missed opportunity, as I believe there was last week in the Budget. If I were marking it as a university teacher, I would grudgingly give it a lower second. Why? Because I thought it was very technically competent, but it missed any true originality. That is the mark of a good essay: true originality. Originality is so important to everything that is produced. I could see the technical competence in last week’s Budget, but there was a lack of the imagination needed to say, “This is the time—with COP26 about to start in Glasgow, with all of us conscious that the planet is warming up and with the future of this fragile planet in danger—to tell the British people that we must act.”
In my experience as the longest-serving Member of Parliament on this side of the House—I was elected in 1979—the British public are intelligent and resilient, and have good common sense. We can persuade them that something terrible will happen if we do not act, and that we need extra money and taxation to so do. They are persuadable, as they have been persuadable before. They were persuadable after the ravages of the second world war. They picked themselves up and went through a period of higher taxation in order to get through. The economy grew, and so we grew out of many of our problems.
What was missing in the Budget was a Chancellor who said, “The situation is so precarious that I am introducing a number of taxes that will raise money to give us more practical ways to tackle global warming, here in our communities.” That is what was missing. That is what I want to speak about today.
Too much of the talk at the moment is global. Two or three of us here had the foresight to be the first people to invite young Greta Thunberg to come to the UK and talk to an all-party parliamentary group, and what a pleasure it was to hear her speak. However, many people think, “I cannot be Greta Thunberg; I cannot be an international statesperson; I am not the president of any country. I am just me, in my community.” We are failing to give people the ability to say, “I can help tackle this. I can roll up my sleeves and make a difference in my community,” even though it may not be something that is instantaneously registered on the global index.
Today, I want to talk about clean air, because all of us can do something about it in a practical way, and we can do it now. Let us review how bad things are. I have mentioned the cost in numbers of deaths, and I have mentioned that we need individual campaigns, yet we are still giving subsidies to companies that are polluting the atmosphere. Today, I am going to suggest some quick wins.
I want real engagement across every town and city throughout the country on a journey to sustainability based on the UN sustainable development goals. Colleagues might ask what I am doing about it as a Member of Parliament. Two years ago, we brought a group of business people to Huddersfield who joined with the university and local charities to form the Huddersfield sustainable town initiative.
My constituents really dislike it if I say we are an average British town, so I must say that we are a typical British town, which we are across almost every criterion. We are a microcosm of the United Kingdom: the percentage of people in manufacturing; the percentage of people in services; the level of education; the skills. We are a microcosm. My philosophy, which is shared by the members of the Huddersfield sustainable town initiative, is that if we can change Huddersfield into a sustainable town, there is no reason that every community in our country could not become a sustainable town. Why can we not spread from Huddersfield? We are already working with 37 towns. Why can we not have 500 towns and cities in this country work towards sustainability?
People say, “Why all that nonsense? Just get on with it. Why would you want the United Nations’ sustainable development goals?” Sir Gary, you know of my great interest in road safety. I have campaigned on it for many years: I organised for seatbelt legislation as a young MP, and in my only successful private Member’s Bill, I banned children from being carried without restraint in cars. I am now chair of the Global Network for Road Safety Legislators, a World Health Organisation committee, and because of that, I know that if we take a particular subject—even safety in a community—and put it in the context of the sustainable development goals, we transform the potential of what we are doing. The great thing about those goals is that they are rigorous. I have been involved in environmental campaigns all my life with other colleagues, and those campaigns have done really good work across many areas, but too many of them are discrete initiatives: recycling, reuse, cleaning up rivers and streams, and that sort of thing. If we have the rigour provided by the sustainable development goals, and we start off our whole sustainable development programme by consulting local people with a questionnaire asking which ones they want to prioritise, we take a real step towards engaging the local community. That is what we have done in my own community.
One of the things that we are targeting in Huddersfield is clean air. How do we stop filthy fumes from going into the air, in our case from an ancient energy from waste facility? I am not against energy from waste if it is high quality, but we have an old facility, and it does not create heat that is used to heat homes. That heat is not used in the correct way: much of it goes into the atmosphere, which is very damaging indeed, so we must first make sure that every sustainable town, city and community rigorously meets those sustainable development goals. The goals give communities that rigour: they will say, “We’ve got to this stage—yes!” but to get to the next stage and get the accreditation, they have to go one step further.
We all know that transport is critical to those sustainable development goals. Many believe that transport is responsible for 40% of the emissions we breathe in this country, polluting London and cities across the country with noxious emissions. Some great friends of mine who are Members of Parliament for Lewisham and are active there know as well as I do—because of the work we have done in the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution—about Ella Kissi-Debrah, who passed away. Her mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who I have met, had the insight and inspiration to get in touch with Sir Stephen Holgate, one of the leading professors and medical experts on clean air and its link to health and wellbeing, who works at the University of Southampton. He gave evidence at the inquest, and he got its verdict changed, because that little girl’s death was related to asthma but it was caused by the filthy pollution that she was breathing in, in a community that is just a stone’s throw from here.
All over London, we have schools; we have children; we have pregnant women; and we have elderly people. I particularly woke up during the first lecture that Sir Stephen gave to our APPG, when he said, “This is not just about NOx: it is the platelets on the NOx that cause the real damage to human health. Those platelets not only poison people and make them very ill indeed, but accelerate the aging process.” At my age, I sat up in my chair immediately thinking, “Yes!” However, that is only a lighter aside. The fact of the matter is that the air we are breathing in this country, in places where we might have thought we were guaranteed clean air, is not clean.
We have brought together a group of people in the Westminster Commission on Road Air Quality to try to do the research properly. We have an air health working party, a working party on air monitoring and a working party on education. Last week we heard from the experts on inside air, who said that where they have done audits inside schools—not just in the playground, not right by the polluting road that passes the primary school but in the classroom—the air is poisonous to breathe. If that is the case, it is time to take action, and take action we must. It also gives the opportunity for everyone to take action at the grassroots and to do it quicker rather than slower.
Yes, we all believe that we should move as fast as possible to electric vehicles, but all the research that I have been immersed in in my role suggests to me that the more we look at what is happening with electric cars, many of us believe that electric will be overtaken by hydrogen power. There is more and more evidence, in fact. Research is interesting because, with heavy goods vehicles carrying big loads, batteries are hard to use. In hilly areas, they do not have the ability to cope. Much of the research has been with HGVs, and the research that I have been privy to shows that already many HGVs are being produced to use hydrogen power. If that is true for big vehicles, it will come to small vehicles soon.
Of course, we must improve the vehicles on the road, but there are quicker things to do, too. We know that there are ways of adulterating—in the best way—the diesel that is put into commercial vehicles with vegetable extracts that make it much less polluting. Indeed, one of the people who has been educating me about that is William Tebbit, son of Norman Tebbit, who many of us remember very fondly. So this is not pie in the sky or wait a long time; this is stuff that we can do now, changing the fuel we are putting in heavy goods vehicles.
I am just coming to the end.
Another practical issue is, how many people realise that, at the moment, nothing in the MOT test tests how polluting someone’s vehicle is? There is nothing in the test about what comes out of the back end of a car. If the recommendations that have been brought forward could be acted on now, we could transform the quality of the vehicles on our roads. Someone gave me this information recently: if we take out the particulate emissions filter in a vehicle, or it does not work properly, that one vehicle produces the equivalent of a traffic jam between Westminster and Huddersfield. That is frightening, is it not?
We have many practical ways to change the air in our country and move towards a clean air environment. I believe that this is the secret to opening people to getting involved in the environment, to accepting—perhaps—higher taxes in order to stimulate that move, and all round, to moving towards more sustainable and greater health and wellbeing for our country. I recommend this big change in our country; let us do it now.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I commend the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for securing this particularly timely debate on air pollution and its effect on public health. It is good to see the Public Health Minister in her place—sorry, it is not the Public Health Minister. She cannot reply because she has a mask on. She will update me on her role later. Swiftly moving on…
There can be little more important than the air that we breathe. We come into this world, we take those first gulps of air, and throughout our lives, it is the fresh air that we breathe that can make the difference between feeling good and not feeling good. We look for fresh air every day of the week. We want to go out into the countryside. The hon. Member for Huddersfield is right that in our country we think it is a fundamental right to be able to breathe clean air. It is important that the Government are already making great progress in sending strong messages to us, as a society and country, that clean air really matters, whether it is the commitment to ending the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030, or the package of measures in the recent Environment Bill.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield touched on the cost of pollution to our country—the £20 billion a year it is estimated to cost the UK economy and the many thousands of deaths caused by air pollution. One issue I want to touch on specifically is asthma and chronic respiratory conditions, which are a significant concern in my constituency, as I am sure they are for others. I have two children who have asthma—
I absolutely agree that it is a fundamental right to breathe clean air. Stafford Borough Council has installed the first eco-post in the country to monitor air quality. Does my right hon. Friend agree, following COP26, with the journey to net zero, that it is important to invest in air monitoring in our constituencies?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and she brings me to the importance of practical initiatives that the hon. Member for Huddersfield touched on in his contribution. It is important that the Government are committing money and making laws and that the strategic framework is there, but unless the initiative is taken on the ground by local authorities and others, those good intentions will be for nothing.
I want to touch briefly on three initiatives in my constituency that bring that to life. Hampshire County Council, working with local schools on “My Journey” travel planning, helps children raise the awareness of their parents of the importance of travel planning, so as to reduce the number of cars on the roads. St Mark’s school in Hatch Warren has done a huge amount of work on that.
The “clear the air” Clean Air campaign, run by our local Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council, encourages people to stop idling engines outside schools, train stations or wherever it might be, and promotes awareness of how important that can be in reducing particulate pollution. Breathe Easy, a charity in my constituency that works with the British Lung Foundation, supports people with chronic lung conditions and has an important role to play. Last, but by no means least, is the work done by the county council to ensure that we help reduce road congestion by improving public transport provision.
Those are practical things that I hope the Minister might respond to, and I hope that the Government can support other local authorities, and indeed my local authority in Hampshire, to continue such important initiatives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for securing this important debate.
There can be no more important time to be holding this debate. The battle to tackle the scourge of air pollution is inextricably tied up in all the other challenges that make up the climate and ecological crisis that should be front and centre in public discussion over the next couple of weeks. If the Government truly acknowledged the scale of the problem that is faced, particularly in urban areas such as my constituency, they would commit to far more radical action.
I would like to ask the Minister in summing up to consider the following three points. First, introduce legally binding targets for the UK to abide by the World Health Organisation’s stricter clean air standards. The Government have to be as ambitious as possible. Without aiming to reach the gold standard as soon as feasible, they are simply letting the health of the public down.
Secondly, we need serious action to meet those standards, and that will require considerable Government finance. Traffic is the largest source of urban air pollution, and changes in the way we move around, particularly in cities, are vital. However, we cannot allow the cost of that to fall on ordinary people. The purchase of electric cars to replace polluting vehicles should be supported by the Government through grants and interest-free loans, and every citizen should be able to apply for those. It will be essential to continue investing heavily in public transport while keeping prices down, and to support the flourishing of active travel schemes since the covid pandemic, supporting the making of journeys by walking and cycling wherever possible.
Thirdly, the plans for a massive new incinerator in my constituency of Edmonton, which will emit 700,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, are simply outrageous. I refuse to believe that the project would be allowed to go ahead if the incinerator were to be in a leafier, more affluent suburb. I ask the Minister to urgently meet me and campaigners to push for the Government to pause and review the project.
It is a pleasure to speak before you today, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on this interesting and informative debate.
Clean air is essential for life, health, our environment and the economy. Air pollution has reduced significantly in the last decade, but there is still more to do. We have a clean air strategy, which details how the UK will go further and faster than the EU in reducing exposure to particulate matter pollution. It sets out a goal to halve the number of people living in locations with concentrations of particulate matter above the WHO guidelines. The Environment Bill will build on that strategy, setting two air quality targets by October 2022, a target to reduce the annual average level of fine particulate matter— or PM2.5—and a further target to improve air quality. This action to improve air quality is backed up by £3.8 billion.
However, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants advises that a focus on long-term average concentrations of PM2.5 is the most appropriate to deliver public health benefits. That brings me to a point that fits in somewhat with what the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) said. I alert Members to the number of incinerators that are currently being planned or in the process of being built. I believe there are 18usb along the M1 in one section alone. One such incinerator is in a leafier constituency than Edmonton —at Shepshed in my Loughborough constituency. It is near to Shepshed town centre, but it is also close to Loughborough University, my biggest employer and home to élite athletes from around the world, who obviously run about and do all sorts of things in the open air. Also 3,000 houses are expected to be built just across the roundabout from the incinerator. When I mention the incinerator with local and national organisations, they often say to me, “Yes, but the M1 creates quite a lot of pollutants already and therefore it is very difficult to monitor and understand the impact of that particular incinerator.” However, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, we are bringing in electric and hydrogen vehicles, which I would like to see myself, and we would like to reap the benefits of those vehicles in Loughborough to lessen the impact of PM2.5.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech and I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on bringing this debate. My hon. Friend makes a good point about incinerators. Would she agree that incinerators have often been built to deal with the undesirability of landfill, but that has created a perverse incentive in the system? If we are going to look at issues such air pollution and clean air, we need to do that in a holistic way with other decarbonisation targets and priorities. That is what has created this problem in her constituency, and in others.
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend could not have put it more precisely. That is the difficulty. Will the Minister consider the impact of the waste strategy at the same time as air quality? Air quality impacts on the future of our country and our constituents.
At the moment, the Prime Minister is still at COP. There will be a major discussion around air pollution and what can be done globally, but we need to ensure we are acting locally as well, so I want to raise the issue of air pollution in London overall, particularly in relation to Heathrow airport.
In the 1970s, when we agreed to the expansion of Heathrow airport through a fourth terminal, it was about jobs. At that point, we had our first inkling of what air pollution could do to the overall environment, as well as to individual health. Since then, we know so much more, which is why the inspector in the fifth terminal inquiry recommended that there should be no further expansion at Heathrow on environmental grounds. Yet the Government still have the potential for a third runway at Heathrow on their policy cards.
The latest information is that Heathrow and the area around it is the second major hotspot for nitrogen dioxide pollution in London. It breaches the legal limits, and has done for many years. To be frank, the roads around Heathrow are above the legal limits, including for PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide, and have been for at least the last decade. We now know much more about the impact of that on the health of people in the west London area, with links to respiratory and heart conditions, and, thanks to work in the United States, we know that this is linked to cancer as well. We cannot go to COP and argue with other countries about the need to tackle air pollution while we allow such polluting expansions as the third runway. It is a stark example of the impact on people’s health.
I have raised in this Chamber before the fact that children in my local schools have to hand their puffers into a special box and our teachers in Hillingdon have to be specially trained to deal with respiratory conditions in those children. If we are talking seriously about COP and the impact we are having on our environment, there has to be a time when we draw a line under Heathrow expansion. I believe that this is it.
We have never had a full health impact assessment of the third runway expansion. We have had some health impact analyses, all of which have said that there will be an increase in mortality and morbidity linked to respiratory and other conditions.
I agree with much of the sentiment of what the right hon. Gentleman says. He and I may disagree about some of the issues and merits or demerits of the recent Budget, but I am sure we will agree that the cut in air passenger duty for short haul flights was a slight disappointment. Does he agree with me that that is something that the Chancellor might want to reconsider?
I made that point in the debate on the Budget, and I do not want to be repetitious. The issue for me is that any tax relief or tax reduction that either promotes further emissions or supports those polluting our environment is clearly contrary to Government policy, as far as I can see. On that basis, I hope that, as a result of COP, in the next few weeks or perhaps months the Government will firmly come down as opposed to further Heathrow expansion.
Thank you, Sir Gary. It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship.
On COP, air quality and the impact on health and wellbeing, we have to drill down to the specifics. We can talk at a national, international or regional level, but it always comes down, in effect, to what is happening in local communities, with the cumulative effect in them. My local community, like those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and other hon. Friends, is no different.
My area has a huge dock in it. The Liverpool docks are based in my constituency, and we have thousands of lorries coming down the road, the A5036, all the time—daily, of a night, at weekends. They are great pollutants, as are local cars and local transport. The council has had five monitoring stations in the area, and a sixth up and running, and since covid those levels have been dramatically down. That should teach us a lesson, which is that we have to get vehicles, whether they be lorries or cars, off the road.
I am really disappointed, notwithstanding COP and notwithstanding covid, that National Highways—it used to be Highways England, which used to be the Highways Agency, and I think it changes its name so we can never keep up with what it is at and hold it to account—persists with this old-fashioned view, which must be 20 years out of date, that if there is a problem with a road, the solution is to build another one. That is exactly what it is proposing in my constituency. It is proposing to build a £250 million road through Rimrose valley. Rimrose Valley Friends has done a great job opposing it, but there will be a £250 million road through the only green part of my constituency. It is possible to walk from one end of the constituency to the other in about 35 or 40 minutes, and the same in the other direction, so it is incredibly tight. Within it there is this lung, Rimrose valley, and what does the Highways Agency or Highways England or whatever it is called nowadays—National Highways—do? It is going to put a road through it, and that is not acceptable.
I ask the Minister to go back and speak to her colleagues and get that process halted—put a stop to it—pending the lessons learned from covid and pending COP. Departments and agencies pushing on with the same old hackneyed solutions will not be a resolution for any of us. The local authority is trying to do what it can, but it can only do so much. We have money for an air quality grant, which is helping us to educate, and we are working collaboratively as much as the local authority can, but it is not much. We need national action, and we need the Department to get a grip of National Highways and to call a halt to this programme. It should discuss it with local people, discuss it with the port and discuss it with all interested parties, and just stop this madness continuing, because it is not acceptable.
I will make a final point, if I may. We have that going on, but we have the docks—a major, massive dock—and they are only going to expand because there will be more containers coming in through the north, as another alternative, because of covid. What I want to do is to work collaboratively with everybody to stop the road being built. Let us rethink the issue. Because we are in a port area, we have scrapyards, but for the third or fourth time in the last few years we have had massive fires that are adding to the problem. It is not just about cars and lorries, but about all the other associated things. Let us get a grip of this, let us do better enforcement and let us stop the cheating on emissions. Let us get to grips with this issue, stop that road going through and work with our communities to sort out the problem.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I also thank the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for securing the debate.
COP26, of course, is about our climate. Air pollution is a different, although not entirely unconnected, matter. COP is about cleaning up our act, and we certainly need to clean up our act when it comes to air quality. To that point, the hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned Drax, and I say to the Minister that Drax is anathema to anybody with a passing concern for air quality. It is an almost dystopian process, which scars the landscape of the United States on an industrial scale, poisons the people who live near the mills with particulates in the air to make the pellets, and ships them half way around the world to England to be burnt. It would be bad enough without a Government subsidy, but with one it is absurd. I would like to know if the Minister agrees with that analysis.
Air pollution is known to kill many thousands of people around the world every year, while rendering many others subject to chronic illness as a result of PM10 and increasingly—as our knowledge expands— PM2.5 and NOx. Air pollution has been likened to cancer, asthma, diabetes and dementia. Children subjected to air pollution are much more likely to die in their first two years, or to attend A&E with chest infections.
It is good to hear from Members about what is happening in their localities around these islands. Two studies in Scotland have shown that on days of illegal levels of pollution there are significant increases in hospital admissions with new-onset heart and lung disease and blood clots in the arteries of the legs, when compared with days when the air pollution is within legal limits. It is estimated that air pollution costs the United Kingdom £20 billion per annum in health and social care. We know that those who are already disadvantaged are disproportionately affected. Often living in city centres or beside main roads, they have less access to green spaces that can absorb the noxious pollutants. They are also less able to afford a car, thus suffering the ill-effects without contributing to them—it is a social injustice.
In 2014, Health Protection Scotland estimated that air pollution caused about 1,700 deaths every year in Scotland alone. The number of vehicles on UK roads between 2010 and 2019 increased from 34 million to almost 39 million. On this point, I must make a very important clarification; not all vehicles are made equally. I know from my experience as a local authority councillor that although traffic volumes are relevant in terms of congestion, concentrations of pollutants and airflows through the streetscape and built environment, new vehicles are exponentially cleaner than those produced more than 10 years ago. This is especially true of commercial vehicles such as buses. The Department for Transport should take a very serious look at being able to stop, test and seize vehicles. They can do it for vehicle excise duty, so why can they not do it for vehicles that are clearly belching out poisonous gas beyond the limits set at MOTs?
It is worth noting that outside our major cities, and certainly unlike in London where electric-hybrid buses and vehicles whirr by regularly, many bus services’ profitability is so marginal that old vehicles are kept in service that, in air quality terms, are absolutely filthy and a patent threat to public health. We need to be able to take a whole-system view, so that the failure demand that our NHS has to meet is offset by seizing the opportunity cost of investing in infrastructure and equipment.
To this end, the Scottish Government aim to reduce car use by 20% by 2030, taking it back to levels last seen in the 1990s. Moreover, sustainable public transport is essential for the ambition to reach net zero. That is why the Scottish Government will have phased out the majority of fossil fuel buses by 2023, and will invest £120 million in zero-emission buses. The UK Government could learn a lot from Scotland in our shared pursuits of net zero and viable green recovery plans. For example, the UK Government must stop cutting electric vehicle access schemes, such as England’s electric vehicle grants system. This has been further downgraded from £5,000 in 2011 to £4,500 in 2016; to £3,500 in 2018; to £3,000 in 2020; and now to £2,500 in 2021. This is the worst sort of swimming against the tide. Figures from electric vehicle charging website Zap-Map show that of the 21,000 public charging points in the UK, only 20% are free to use; that is 4,928 points, and 26% of these are in Scotland where around 60% are free to use. Electric vehicle drivers in Scotland benefit from almost 40 public charge points per 100,000, compared to fewer than 30 per 100,000 in England. Promoting and investing in active travel access is essential to drive down car usage. Scotland currently spends over £18 per head of population, compared with just £7 in England––more than 150% higher.
Lord Tebbit was mentioned earlier in the debate. To be very generous to the noble Lord, perhaps even to revise things, he did at one stage advise the nation to get on their bikes. I cannot remember exactly what he meant, but in public health terms he does at least have a contemporary point.
It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Sir Gary, in what has been a collegiate and consensual debate. While the world’s eyes are rightly looking to Glasgow, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for securing this important and timely debate. He has been a Member since 3 May 1979, which translates into 15,524 days, and he still has his finger on the pulse.
The House has heard me say before that air quality is one of the most important policy areas and issues facing all our constituents the nation over. The facts are there for us all to see. They all show just how damaging toxic air is to our communities and its disproportionate impact on the health and wellbeing of our people. Coronavirus has highlighted the inequalities and disproportionately impacted on those living in the areas with the worst air.
Air pollution is bad for everyone––we know that––but for the 12 million people in the UK who live with a lung condition such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, it poses a real and immediate threat to their health. A spike in air pollution can lead to symptoms getting worse, flare-ups and even hospitalisation. We know from the coroner who investigated the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah that it can lead to death, too. There is robust evidence of a clear link between high levels of air pollution and increased numbers of patients with breathing problems presenting at hospitals and GPs’ surgeries.
I was delighted earlier this year to co-host Labour’s clean air summit with the shadow Secretary of State. In the first summit of its kind to be hosted by a major party, we set out our demands for a clean air Act. Labour’s clean air Act, which we will deliver when we form a Government, will establish a legal right to breathe clean air by ensuring the law on air quality is at least as strict as the World Health Organisation guidelines, with tough new duties on Ministers to enforce them and grant new powers to local authorities to take urgent action on air quality. That stands in stark contrast to the Conservative party and would deliver improved air quality across England.
Conservative inaction has allowed catastrophic levels of air pollution to build up across the country, especially in the most deprived areas of our big cities. Indeed, this Government’s refusal to take even the smallest steps to tackle illegal levels of air pollution leaves local government on the frontline in the fight for better air quality.
It is not just me expressing concern at the inaction of this Government: it is felt by Members of the Minister’s party, too. I note the speeches of the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and indeed that of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) on the Environment Bill just two weeks ago. I just wish that they had resisted the pressure of the Whips and voted for Labour’s amendment to write the WHO guidelines into the Bill.
Last week, I met Rosamund, the mother of Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died in 2013. We spoke about the need for urgent action to clean our air and the fact that COP26 could set an example––a British-made example––to generations to come. In December 2020, the coroner ruled that Ella had died as a direct result of air pollution, as we have heard already today. The coroner said that he believed that air pollution made a material contribution to Ella’s death. Like so many, she was exposed to illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in excess of WHO guidelines. I would like the Minister to explain why the Government voted against Labour’s attempts to clean our air by writing the guidelines into the Environment Bill.
I pay tribute to the many parents, young people, experts, campaigners and elected representatives here today who are working to clean our air and save our lives. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield and others to deliver Labour’s clean air Act, and the Minister is of course very welcome to join us, because the future of the planet and the lives of our people depend on it.
Indeed I will, Sir Gary, and thank you very much for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I thank the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for raising this issue; as he said, this debate is timely and the issue is important to each and every one of us. Securing it while world leaders are coming together for the planet in Glasgow shows just what a consummate professional he is, dovetailing the debate such a timely way. I wish him well with his own health.
We are all concerned about the impact of air pollution on public health and we are hosting the COP26 summit at a turning point for both the planet and health. We have been making progress. However, over the course of the UK presidency of COP26, we need to see further progress on commitments to secure global net zero carbon emissions by the mid-century. It will be a challenge; we need to see countries coming forward with ambition. Success at the summit and beyond will rely on all countries rallying behind the common goal of rapidly reducing carbon emissions and protecting the planet. Although COP26 is arguably focusing on greenhouse gases and not air pollutants, we should seize the opportunity to reduce the emissions of other pollutants from the same sources, because, as everybody has said, there is a lot of crossover here.
Air pollution in the UK has reduced significantly over the last decade, but there is definitely more to do. For example, emissions of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, have fallen by 11% and nitrogen oxide emissions are at their lowest level since records began. None the less, air quality is still the top environmental risk to human health in the UK and there is absolutely no room for complacency.
We heard from many Members about the challenges to health that air pollution brings. There is lots to do and I agree that the use of new technology—whether that is the use of fats in lorries, or hydrogen technology, which the Government have been investing in even in the last week, through the hydrogen transport programme—means that we need to harness the best of British, to ensure we make the right progress.
That is why the UK is continuing to take urgent action to curb the impact of air pollution on citizens and communities through the Environment Bill and the clean air strategy. The action that we set out in the clean air strategy will reduce the cost of air pollution to society by £1.7 billion every year from 2020, rising to £5.3 billion every year from 2030.
My Department cannot achieve the transformation alone; there is no single, one-size-fits-all silver bullet that will solve the problem of air pollution. That is why the clean air strategy outlines a comprehensive programme of action across all parts of Government. We have heard about the health challenges, the transport challenges, challenges about where people live—local authority challenges—and the idling of cars, which local authorities obviously have a power over. Indeed, we have heard about the beneficial work being done in both Basingstoke and Stafford on these issues, to help to empower communities to have better air quality. However, this process is about us all working together, because transformational change can only be achieved through close collaboration with other parts of Government.
Furthermore, there is a vital role for broader leadership from the health and environmental sectors because much of what has been spoken about today also relates to how we recycle, how we use our waste and how we might reuse things. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) and my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) both mentioned that point, referring to the use of incinerators; if I have time, I hope to come on to incinerators.
This issue is about the business sector, service providers and local authorities helping to build acceptance for the bolder actions that must be taken to tackle the health impacts of air pollution as a major public health imperative. The hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) spoke about not having a particular road. However, during the covid crisis we actually had low-traffic neighbourhoods, but we found that traffic diverted to other parts of the town or area. There is not an ideal off-the-peg solution.
We also looked at the fact that, although nitrogen oxide levels diminished, as has been said, the reduction in PM 2.5 particulate matter did not change. It is actually much more complex than it is often presented to be.
The landmark Environment Bill will improve air quality by establishing a duty to set two new legally binding targets to reduce that fine particulate matter. We are developing two targets: a concentration target and a population exposure reduction target. That is what the clear air zones are about. Arguably, Huddersfield does not face the same air quality challenges that we might have in London, Manchester or Bath, or any city that is looking at putting in place a CAZ. That unique dual approach is strongly supported by our expert committees—the air quality expert group and the committee on the medical effects of air pollutants—and it will be an important part of our commitment to drive forward tangible and long-lasting improvements to the air breathe. We will consult on how to bring forward those groundbreaking targets next year.
As part of the information we take from experts, waste incineration companies must comply with strict emission limits under the environmental permitting regulations. They cannot operate without a permit. Emissions from energy from waste are monitored. We consult with Public Health England on every application, and its position on incineration is that a modern, well-run and regulated incinerator is not a significant risk to public health. We have to get rid of the challenge of rubbish.
The Environment Bill will completely revise the local air quality management framework to create a more strategic structure that will enable local authorities to take more effective action. It will also deliver significant improvements to public health by ensuring that local authorities have more effective powers to tackle emissions from domestic burning, which is a key source of harmful fine particulate pollution, as well as the idling that was mentioned.
No. I am really sorry, but I have only one minute left. The Bill introduces new powers to compel vehicle manufacturers to recall vehicles and non-road mobile machinery if they are found not to meet the environmental standards that they were approved to meet—I think that answers a question that was raised earlier. It will enable the Government to compel manufacturers to recall vehicles and non-road mobile machinery for failures in their emission control.
New legislation came into force across England earlier this year to reduce PM 2.5 pollution by phasing out the burning of small volumes of wet wood and the sale of all house coal. However, some residents still rely on coal fires, so we have to work our way through those challenges.
The Government allocated £880 million to tackle nitrogen dioxide exceedances under the 2017 air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide. This year, the first clean air zones were introduced in Bath and Birmingham, which deliver targeted action to improve air quality and health and to support economic growth.
We are working hard to provide citizens with the information they need to protect themselves. I also have a Breathe Easy group. Those groups do great work, but we have to make sure that we work with experts so that we can get really timely information to people such as, “If air pollution is low, carry on as usual. If it is high, and you have asthma, avoid vigorous activity”. To do that, we need to do the monitoring that we are now scaling up, so that we have a good alert system to help protect people. That system was revamped in 2019.
There is just about a minute left. There is plenty more that we are doing and that we will carry on doing. We have different biomass anaerobic digestion issues and, as my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said, we have to make sure that policies do not fall against each other.
In conclusion, taken together, this is a comprehensive package. However, we have to do more by seizing opportunities and addressing risks. We need to take action to tackle climate change and air pollution. We are committed to cleaning up our air and carrying on our work.
It has been a very good debate, as it always is with you in the Chair, Sir Gary. The fact of the matter is that we do not want too little, too late. We want it now. Children are being poisoned; 3 million children in our own country are being poisoned by fumes mainly coming from air pollution from roads. We have some short-term things. Yes, we need international and global leadership at COP26, but we need local empowerment and we need it now.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).