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Air Quality

Volume 773: debated on Monday 27 June 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they propose to take to improve air quality in Britain.

My Lords, cleaner air is a priority for this Government, and we are taking action at all levels. We are working with local government to implement a new programme of clean air zones, alongside £2 billion committed since 2011 towards cleaner transport and supporting local authority action. We have led EU action to introduce real-world driving emissions testing from 2017, and are working to agree ambitious and fair limits to reduce emissions further in future.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that some 50,000 people a year die because of diseases connected with air pollution. Does he agree that diesel engines bear particular responsibility for these deaths? Is it not time that we stopped subsidising indirectly the use of diesel cars and had some penal taxation to discourage such vehicles? Given that we are still members of the EU, could we not approach Brussels—the Commission and the Council of Ministers—to ask for some tougher measures to deal with air pollution on a Europe-wide basis?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right that the effects of pollution on the health of our children and families is something that we must concentrate on. As I said in my opening Answer, we are working with local government to implement a new programme of clean air zones in Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Nottingham and Derby.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned diesel vehicles. As he will no doubt be aware, under the clean air zones we are going to be discouraging older vehicles from entering those areas. He also mentioned bringing to the attention of Brussels the issue of the relationship between diesel and pollution. I am sure that they are aware of this matter but we will take that back.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the UK Government were willing signatories to the EU air pollution directive and that we will remain committed to its aims and objectives? In addressing issues such as acid rain and air quality, European environmental policy has had a great impact in creating a cleaner environment in the UK.

My noble friend is quite correct, but she will also be aware that the environment that we have in this great country of ours goes back many years before we joined the EU as well. In fact, the Clean Air Act was introduced in 1956.

My Lords, will the Minister ensure that the future so-called European deal will contain air quality regulations that are at least as good, if not better than, those that we currently have under the EU regulations? We cannot rely on the World Health Organization standards because they are not enforceable. Is he aware that diesel fumes are carcinogenic and that, under the regime of the last Mayor of London, London schoolchildren have been walking to school along main roads through carcinogenic air? Will he join me in calling upon the new mayor to do a great deal better?

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned the new Mayor of London. No doubt the House is aware that the mayor is responsible for air quality in London. We welcome the commitment of the new mayor to lead the improvement of air quality in the capital, building on plans already in place, but we also look forward to seeing his plans in more detail when publishing his consultation. The noble Baroness is quite right when she refers to, for example, children walking to school. It is right that we improve the environment so that they are not put under undue pressure from pollutants.

In 2008 I had the privilege of chairing a Select Committee on allergy. We reported that atmospheric pollution, particularly by diesel particulates, was increasing allergy-related diseases but also hindering the lung growth of small children, particularly babies and primary school children. It seems sad that we have begun to take that seriously only at this point. Will the Government undertake to work with primary schools in particular so that those schools know the level of atmospheric pollution that their children are subjected to on a daily basis, particularly when they are outside, and therefore at least can take some evasive action while the Government work to decrease the diesel particulate contamination of our air?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will be aware, local authorities are responsible for reviewing air quality in their area, including around schools, and assessing the levels of air pollutant concentrates against the objectives set in the air quality regulations. I will take careful note of what she said and I am sure that the department will be aware of it, but I should tell the House that air quality is improving. Between 2010 and 2014, emissions of nitrogen oxides fell by 17%.

Will my noble friend confirm that the EU regulations placed an emphasis on CO2 emissions, as opposed to nitrous oxide emissions, following lobbying by the German car industry in favour of the turbodiesel engines which it had invented, and that this is an example of how Brussels is subject to lobbying which is against the public interest of the wider community?

My Lords, my noble friend touches on an area also relating to Volkswagen and refit and recall of cars. In the United Kingdom, Volkswagen will be recalling cars and doing a refit at no cost. My noble friend mentioned a number of other points, but I shall have to write to him with further information.

My Lords, first, will the Minister join me in congratulating the new Mayor of London, because he has brought forward the previous mayor’s proposals on clean air? Secondly, the noble Lord will know that the World Health Organization has said that more than 40 towns and cities in the UK have air quality pollution which is unsafe for health. Can he explain why his Government are introducing clean air zones in only five cities? Is not this a further indication of their failure to take the public health scandal seriously?

My Lords, the noble Baroness first asked whether I will congratulate the new Mayor of London and of course I will. She also mentioned the five cities already coming under the clean air zone provisions. That does not mean that other cities cannot apply to have clean air zones themselves, and I am sure that we would be able to advise on such, but the point is that we want to start with those five large cities and see what improvement can happen there.