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Health: Diesel Engine Pollution

Volume 758: debated on Tuesday 6 January 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans the National Health Service has to reduce the number of premature deaths caused by the combined impact of nitrogen dioxide and fine particles emitted by diesel engines.

My Lords, the plan to reduce emissions and pollution is set out in the Sustainable, Resilient, Healthy People & Places strategy. This encourages walking and cycling, which have direct health benefits, and reduces emissions of air pollutants and carbon dioxide. Key to reducing the health impacts of air pollution is reducing emissions at source. We are investing billions of pounds in measures to reduce air pollution, including incentivising low-emission vehicles and sustainable transport.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, but is he aware—I am sure he is—that, according to Clean Air in London, 55,000 premature deaths a year nationally are attributable to NOx and fine particulates? Already, monitors in Oxford Street and other parts of London have shown that NOx hourly limit values have been breached for the whole of 2015, which is not bad in six days. Why then is Defra consulting on proposals to remove the obligation for local authorities to monitor such pollution? In the absence of that evidence, are the Government trying to avoid blame for denying those 55,000 people their 10 extra years of life, which they could achieve if the policies were implemented?

It is helpful that the noble Lord has asked that question. It gives me the opportunity to clarify that nothing in the consultation could lead to the closure of monitoring stations. It is essentially about streamlining and simplifying the reporting system to reduce unnecessary burdens and speed up delivery of air quality action plan measures to tackle pollutants such as NO2 and particulate materials. We are not proposing a reduction of monitoring by local authorities, but decisions on local air quality monitoring are for them, so ultimately it is up to them to decide what level of monitoring they wish to undertake.

Does my noble friend recall that until very recently people were encouraged to buy diesel cars because they produced less CO2 and had very attractive rates of vehicle excise duty? What does my noble friend say to those people now?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point, of course. The point is that the EU procedures for testing diesel engines did not deliver the health outcomes that were sought. That is why the Commission is looking at this again.

My Lords, the Minister says that the proposal to reduce the reporting requirements of local authorities will not lead to a reduction in the number of reporting stations. But he will have seen analysis that suggests that 600 of them will be closed down because there will be less of a requirement on local authorities to report the provisions. Why will the Government not look again at this?

My Lords, to go into a little more detail, the review is aiming, as I said, to reduce administrative burdens to free up local authorities’ time and resources so that they can focus on taking action to address air quality. The consultation was split into two parts. Part 1 proposes the removal of the requirement in regulations for local authorities to report on specific pollutants that have been well within limits for many years. Indeed, monitoring of these will be maintained at national level.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister has considered the use of the petrol and diesel engines which drive the refrigeration units that pervade our high streets, airports and other congested places. Those refrigeration units use fuel but it is not passed through any sort of cleaning-up device to get out the particulates and the NOx. I believe it is a very fruitful field for examination by the Government.

My Lords, as my noble friend will know, we have a number of very extensive programmes to reduce the emissions of pollutants from a variety of units, particularly transport. However, I will look into what he says and see if there is anything there that we can do.

My Lords, with 4.3 million adults and 1.1 million children suffering from the effects of asthma-related conditions, does the Minister agree that we need to look closely at the World Health Organization’s recent news that an increasing number of British cities are now breaching the safe air pollution levels? In particular, does he agree that we might encourage other cities to follow the example of London, which is now developing a low emission zone for both vehicles and industry, as a way of trying to mitigate some of the huge cost of around £1 billion a year of treating asthma conditions in this country?

I agree with the right reverend Prelate. He will be pleased to know that we are working with local authorities on the feasibility and design of low emission zones and we have provided guidance such as on which vehicles should be covered and what emissions standards they should meet. The right reverend Prelate might like to know that, in addition to London, Oxford, Norwich and Brighton have already introduced low emission zones and other cities are considering them.

My Lords, the Government are absolutely right to spend—in the Minister’s words—“billions” on seeking to reduce emissions. Will he therefore contact the Mayor of London to tell him how wrong-headed is his policy of reducing or removing the concessions on the congestion charge for very low emission vehicles, which will be brought into effect in December 2016? This is entirely the wrong approach, especially when so many people in the metropolis and elsewhere have bought low emission vehicles specifically to conform with the policy of this and previous Governments.

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord’s point. He will understand that matters such as this are for London and the mayor to decide, but I will of course do as he asks.

My Lords, is this issue connected with the quality of imported diesel and, if so, could the Minister say how much of that imported diesel comes from Russia?

I cannot, my Lords. I am not aware that it is specifically to do with the source country of the diesel, but I will look into it.