Skip to main content

Air Quality

Volume 705: debated on Tuesday 4 November 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they requested by 31 October a derogation from the European air quality directive for particulate matter in order to avoid legal action for potential breach of the limits in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

My Lords, the Government have made the European Commission aware that, subject to public consultation, the UK intends to submit an application for an exemption for those few parts of the UK where there have been breaches of limit values, including London, from the obligation to apply the limit value for particulate matter until June 2011, as provided for by the new ambient air quality directive. Public consultation is expected early in 2009.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, which I take to be no, the Government did not apply. I declare an interest as, when in London, I live in one of the most polluted areas of the UK and even of Europe. Is the Minister aware that particulate matter includes particles much smaller than the width of a human hair and that, when inhaled, they can enter the blood stream from the lungs and lead to strokes, heart attacks and other serious health problems, resulting in more than 1,000 premature deaths from this cause alone in London each year? I repeat the Question I asked the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on 9 October 2007, to which I received no reply: by what date do the Government expect to meet the European Union air quality limit values for particulate matter throughout London?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right to raise the issue of London and the health consequences of particulate material. She is right to say that some particles can be very small. Some progress has been made. Most of the country meets the target now and, on current projections, a few areas will meet it by 2011. We have a problem in London, but our aim in seeking to extend the time limit to 2011 is that, by working with the London government and its local authorities, we will meet the target by that date.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that particulates come mostly from old vehicles in the fleet and that one way of dealing with them is to scrap and crush vehicles on the road that are not insured or licensed, to offer a scrapping allowance to the owners of old vehicles for a short time and thereby get rid of the particulates and stimulate the motor industry, which sorely needs it?

My Lords, that is a very interesting suggestion, and I am sure that my colleagues on the Front Bench from the various departments concerned will take great notice of it. Clearly, actions can be taken. The noble Lord has suggested one. We have to look at whether we can have more low emission zones, particularly in London. I know that Transport for London is looking at bus emissions. Other actions can be taken. Clearly, the authorities need to work very hard, particularly in London, to ensure that they meet the target by 2011.

My Lords, following the Question from my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, is the Minister telling us that there was no deadline in October for applications? Have any other countries been found to be in breach of these regulations and, if so, what fines have been applied?

My Lords, I do not think it is time to talk about fines. This year, the European Union requested a letter setting out reasons why the UK and other countries had failed to meet the target. However, we had little notice of that request. We have already informed the European Commission of our action and we will consult in 2009. We will then write to the European Commission. My understanding is that most of the EU countries are in the same position as the UK on this.

My Lords, perhaps the Minister could clarify the position. I do not understand his reply to my noble friend’s question. My understanding is that the application for an extension had to be made by 31 October and, according to the Minister’s Answer, that was not done. A letter was sent simply explaining why we were not applying within the correct time. Is that so?

My Lords, that is correct because we had very little notice from the Commission that the letter would be required. It is not simply a matter of writing on two sides of A4. Alongside the application, a lot of detailed specification has to be undertaken; that is why we need more time. We also need a public consultation about measures that will have to be undertaken, particularly within London, and we need to take care over that. That is why we initially wrote to the European Commission. We will follow that up next year with a full and detailed dossier in the light of public consultation and our discussions with the various authorities in London.

My Lords, do these particulates present any particular problems for children’s health, and do they contribute to childhood asthma?

My Lords, the answer to that is yes and yes. Clearly, these particulate matters create significant health issues. That is why it is so important to meet these air quality targets. Children are as affected, which is why we are pleased that most of the country has met the targets. We are pleased that those parts of the country which have not done so are on track to meet them by 2011. It re-emphasises the importance of ensuring that London is sorted out so that by 2011 it meets those targets.