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Diesel Emissions

Volume 794: debated on Wednesday 5 December 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to raise awareness among the general public of the health impacts of emissions from diesel vehicles.

My Lords, the Government raise awareness of the effects of air pollution, including from diesel vehicles, via the UK Air website and through supporting activities such as the annual clean air day. Furthermore, the Department for Transport’s Road to Zero strategy contains a range of policies aimed at reducing the use of diesel in transport and therefore the harms that flow from it.

My Lords, despite the work that the Minister has outlined, many people are still not aware of this problem. We are condemning young children to a lifetime of ill health because of this invisible threat, and they are particularly vulnerable to the effect of emissions during the school run. Will the Minister commit to having discussions with the Department for Transport to ensure that emission levels outside schools are tested frequently and that suitable warning signs are displayed when necessary, and will the Government introduce a ban on engine idling for vehicles waiting outside schools?

I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness that this is an issue of concern. It is a concern to all of us and it is certainly a concern to those of us with school-age children in urban areas, who experience the pollution every day. First, the UK has made progress on reducing pollutants, although clearly there is a long way to go, and in specific urban areas the problem is much worse than in others. Secondly, I point the noble Baroness to the clean air strategy, which will be published at the end of this year. It will contain a range of measures aimed at reducing pollution and, as a consequence, the public health damage that comes from it. I shall certainly feed in her comments about the importance of targeting these benefits on schools.

My Lords, earlier this year the World Health Organization Science Panel reclassified diesel exhaust as a carcinogen, underlining that many cases of lung cancer could be connected to the contaminant and that exhaust could become as important a public health hazard as passive smoking. The European Public Health Alliance has pointed to the urgent need to develop research into the possible impact on other health conditions such as diabetes and dementia. Can the Minister tell the House what action is being taken in response to the WHO declaration and what research funding and programmes are in place to address the growing concerns on this issue?

The noble Baroness is quite right: it is one of the biggest public health problems that we face. It is associated with around 30,000 deaths a year, and that gives us a sense of the scale of the problem. I mentioned the clean air strategy but two specific important pieces of research are also taking place. One is called the Exploration of Health and Lungs in the Environment, which is a London-based study looking at the links between pollution and children’s lung health. The Department of Health and Social Care has also commissioned a review of adverse birth outcomes and early-life effects associated with exposure to air pollution. Therefore, we take this problem seriously and are commissioning research to know not only the consequences but what to do about it.

My Lords, it is my understanding that much of the responsibility for delivering the clean air strategy will be delegated to local authorities. Can the Minister confirm that local authorities will be given both the necessary legal powers and the resources to deliver that strategy?

The noble Lord is quite right that local authorities will have a critical role. The clean air strategy is supported by the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England, but it is Defra’s responsibility. I am not able to say any more than that at the moment, but it is clearly a very important strategy being led by the Government, and we will make sure that we support local authorities to do their bit.

As the noble Lord said, local authorities are being supported by Public Health England in reducing their pollution levels. Can the Minister tell the House which local authorities are non-compliant and whether there are any sanctions for this, and what form the support from Public Health England takes?

We provide a range of support. In fact, my colleague, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Public Health and Primary Care, wrote to directors of public health in October to remind them of their responsibilities and to make sure that they focus on this issue. Just yesterday, our Deputy Chief Medical Officer held a round table with stakeholders and others in local government to think about how we can improve policy and communicate locally with people to make sure that they understand the consequences of things such as idling and other unnecessary uses of diesel.

My Lords, I welcome the news that there will be research in London. Will any assessment be made of the number of deaths and the damage to health in London due to Boris Johnson’s refusal to apply the congestion charge to west London?

The important issue is that, whoever holds the post, the Mayor of London has the power to take action. It is notable that that has not been reinstated by a Labour Mayor of London, so maybe there was something in that decision in the first place.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while electric cars are being developed, trees, plants, shrubs and especially hedges can make a very useful contribution to the absorption of harmful emissions, as well as having a therapeutic value for those who grow them and those who enjoy them? Can he tell us of any plans the Government may have to encourage the greening of our towns and cities?

The right reverend Prelate makes an excellent point, with which I completely concur. We are making good progress in increasing the number of ultra-low emission cars. There is a huge amount that we can do to green our cities. I know that this is a priority of both the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and Defra. They will have specific details, and I will write to him with an answer.

My Lords, harmful emissions are caused by traffic in queues, particularly in London, as a result of the new bicycle lanes, but also as a result of the inordinate number of roadworks, which are taking place in an unco-ordinated way. Can the Government find any research to prove these results, and can they do anything about the co-ordination of roadworks?

I shall take that point to my noble friend the Minister for Transport, and I am sure that she will have an excellent answer, as she does for all these questions. I am not sure that I agree with my noble friend on the point about bicycle lanes. They are well-used, and bicycling is very good for your health.