Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am very pleased indeed to have the opportunity to help raise the profile of this issue, which is, in my view, a major child healthcare crisis. It is particularly dangerous because emissions are an unseen danger. I am grateful to all noble Lords participating in this debate. I want to stress that new facts are still emerging as scientists and the medical profession become more aware of the complexities of the physical impact of emissions. I also want to thank the numerous organisations working in this field which have taken the trouble to brief me; I will refer to some of them in my speech.
It is estimated that there are around 40,000 excess deaths every year as a result of air pollution. Many of these are older people, but some of them are children. The effects of air pollution on children’s physical development continue throughout their life, with a cost to the NHS estimated at £20 billion. Some of you may be aware of the sad case of little Ella Kissi-Debrah from south London who died following an asthma attack. The post-mortem revealed the shocking state of her lungs. Her mother is now working to get air pollution accepted as a cause of her death and was recently granted a new inquest.
Some 80% of the pollution we breathe in urban areas is caused by traffic. It comes in two forms: nitrogen dioxide and particulates. Nitrogen dioxide comes from diesel. In the early years of this century, the then Labour Government mistakenly encouraged the switch to diesel in order to reduce the CO2 emissions associated with petrol. We still live with this mistake, with many older diesel cars on our roads. Newer diesel vehicles are cleaner, but the Volkswagen diesel scandal undermined public confidence. All vehicles, even electric ones, produce particulates resulting from the wear and tear of tyres on the roads. Tyres are about 50% plastic, so that means we are breathing in minute particles that get into our lungs and bloodstream.
Children are particularly at risk, as explained by UNICEF in its sobering report The Toxic School Run. It explains that children breathe faster than adults, tend to take in more air relative to their body weight and spend more time outside. When they walk or are pushed in a buggy, they are at a lower level, near the exhaust fumes. One might imagine that the answer is to put them in the back of the car and take them to school, but emission dangers are 30% higher in the car.
The most urbanised and, therefore, most polluted areas are also those with larger populations of children. We tend to move to leafier suburbs as we get older. Inner urban areas are also in general the most economically deprived, so pollution pushes down further on other health inequalities. Emissions affect the development of children’s lungs and cause irreversible damage. They aggravate and can cause asthma, and 1.1 million children in the UK have that disease. It affects brain development and in later life causes not just lung disease but heart disease, cancer, strokes, and is even linked with dementia. From fetus to old age, it impacts on our health.
The scale of the problem is that 2,000 schools and nurseries are situated in areas with unsafe and illegal levels of air pollution. Some 4.5 million children are at risk across 80% of the UK. Britain has been in breach of EU emission limits for nine years and the Government have been taken to court three times.
With perfect timing, last night Channel 4 devoted its “Dispatches” programme to the impact of emissions on pupils at a south London primary school. That area breaches annual EU limits for exposure every month. Fifty children were tested before and after undertaking a series of simple measures to reduce pollution exposure. The first tests showed particles in their bodies at a very high level. Green screens were erected around the school, children walked to school instead of being driven, quieter routes were chosen, plastic nets were placed over windows and air filters installed in classrooms. It led to a dramatic fall in the level of pollution found in their bodies and the level of pollution in the playground fell by 53%.
The cost of these measures was £30,000—not a major financial outlay. That illustrates my point: the Government need to take some big strategic approaches and manufacturers need to take technological developments, but there is so much we can do at an individual level, both in local communities and, indeed, at school level, as well as at council level. Some of these measures even save money.
Looking at the big picture, I am very glad the Government have a clean air strategy, but it is rather unambitious. It hives off the lion’s share of responsibility to local authorities, whose funding has been hollowed out. Remember, too, that it is EU standards that the Government have failed to meet, so Brexit adds another layer of uncertainty. As we watch the auction of promises between the 10 candidates for leader of the Conservative Party, I regret that there has been very little talk of the environment. In future, the Government might be tempted to abandon EU standards.
We need to speed up the switch to electric or hydrogen vehicles. The Government’s target of 2040 is way too late. In fact it is meaningless, because the whole industry is moving faster than that; 2030 would be a more effective date. We need a new clean air Act—remember that the last was extremely successful. It should be based on WHO guidelines, with legally binding targets, including for particulates. Our legal limit in Britain for particulates is twice the WHO recommended level.
There is a range of other government actions that could be taken, such as vehicle excise duty reform to encourage us to buy lower-emission cars. I would love the Government to lead by example. Apparently, 2% of the vehicles in the Department for Transport’s fleet are electric. All branches of government should be doing much better than that, as Royal Mail intends to—it are doing a lot to electrify its fleet. We need stronger leadership from the Government to develop electric vehicle charging points, carefully targeted scrappage schemes for those on lower incomes and to help bus companies retrofit old buses. It is a debate for another day, but the Government need a proper bus strategy to encourage the public out of their cars and back on to buses, tackling both congestion and emissions, and linking in with train services.
Because pollution is a hidden danger, there is very little public understanding about it, so we need a strong public health campaign. We need people to understand where the dangers lie and what they can do to avoid them. Local authorities should be given additional powers—for example, to use the planning system to ensure that new developments include safe walking and cycling to school routes, and that new schools do not encourage car use rather than walking. I would recommend ring-fenced funding for active travel schemes, as part of a national strategy, delivered locally, to encourage the healthiest way of all to school.
The number of people fined in the last 10 years for idling their engines outside schools is in the tens—not the hundreds or the thousands. Local authorities need more flexible powers to discourage people from doing that. There are some very good examples of schools running local, children-based campaigns with the parents, to discourage them from doing that. New clean air zones need to be funded locally. Traffic exclusion zones around schools, regular air quality monitoring, installing roadside signs to test and to warn when air quality is poor—these are the sorts of simple measures in and around schools that do not cost a vast amount of money, but which are very effective.
I hope I have illustrated that it does not have to be like this. Surely in our rich and well-developed country, none of us could imagine knowingly allowing our children to risk illness and death by drinking polluted water. Well, neither should we allow children to be exposed to polluted air. We now know enough about the effects of emissions, how harmful they are and how to prevent them. Children should have a legal right to clean air.
My Lords, all of us will be very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for introducing this important debate. In my remarks today I will briefly look at three aspects: why the health risks to children from harmful vehicle emissions have to be taken seriously; what needs to be done to reduce those risks; and the extent to which certain measures to guarantee their effective delivery ought now to become legally binding within the United Kingdom.
All are endangered by air pollution and harmful vehicle emissions. These undermine good health and threaten lung and heart disease, strokes and cancer. Exposure probably leads to a loss of 15 minutes of life expectancy every day; and it is associated with 40,000 premature deaths each year in the United Kingdom. Public Health England considers that if the next 20 years can witness an efficient reduction in air pollution, this would prevent 50,000 cases of heart disease, 6,500 strokes, 9,000 cases of asthma and 4,000 lung cancers.
Children, of course, are particularly vulnerable. When walking about or in a pushchair, they are often at the level of vehicle exhausts, meaning that they breathe in higher concentrations of pollutants. The latter may cause irreversible damage to their lungs, including aggravating asthma and causing it in the first place.
Around one in three children in the United Kingdom now grows up in an area with unsafe amounts of air pollution. As a result, diminished lung function becomes much more probable in adulthood. Current research also reveals that 2,000 schools and nurseries are in such areas of dangerous levels of air pollution; and that a significant majority of parents are worried about the effect of this on their children’s health.
A number of remedies may be fairly obvious. Traffic exclusion zones should be positioned around schools, nurseries and playgrounds; journeys to and from them ought to be better encouraged through walking, cycling and public transport; and school systems must be more frequently provided in order to measure and monitor air pollution. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that such necessary and protective actions can quite easily be taken straight away? Can he, therefore, tell us by when they will have been efficiently adopted to benefit a majority of all the schools now under threat?
There is also the challenge to manufacture and deploy transport that is both economically viable and environmentally friendly. There may now be a strong case for moving from an overdependence on electricity towards different forms of gas instead. Commonly available is methane, which is combustible, does not produce solid particles in the exhaust and can be obtained from digesters built to dispose of biomass, waste food, grass cuttings and other organic waste. Left to disperse into the atmosphere, methane is bad for the climate, but when combusted the harm is reduced.
Regarding renewable natural energy, there is no scarcity in tropical zones, where many city dwellers are choking from the exhaust emissions of diesel vehicles. Uncomfortable temperatures of 40 to 50 degrees centigrade are common, due to the sun in daytime. An opportunity is available to use excess solar energy to compress air and store it in containers. As with compressing a spring, this air can be released to perform useful work.
A century ago, static steam engines were employed in France—in Nantes and some in Paris—to compress air, which drove the trams along the streets. The same technology can be revived in modern form, using the energy from the sun to compress the air, resulting in a transport system that uses free energy and is also pollution free.
These are only a few examples. Can my noble friend say what steps the Government are taking to inspire innovative business research through which, to a far greater extent, transport may become economically viable and environmentally friendly? Our exports would thereby improve, not least by enabling the United Kingdom to guide reduced harmful vehicle emissions abroad.
The environment Bill also gives us an opportunity to protect children and the most vulnerable by curbing the worst effects of air pollution. Just now it is unclear whether the Bill will include provisions for legally binding limits on air pollution. Can my noble friend, therefore, reassure us that the World Health Organization’s recommended limits for health-harmful concentrations of key air pollutants, indoors and outdoors, will be incorporated in UK law?
A new office for environmental protection has been proposed, yet so far it has been implied that many OEP roles will be appointed by government. Is my noble friend nevertheless able to let us know that this is not the case and that, instead, the OEP will be independent of government and will have robust enforcement powers to deter breaches of legal air pollution limits?
To date, the Government may appear insufficiently ambitious. Their target for ending sales of petrol and diesel is 2040 but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, has just observed, this could be attained much sooner—by 2030, for example. Equally, it might seem that the Government are insufficiently hands-on, and thus overdelegating to local government. An example is their recent response to the monitoring of air pollution. That should certainly start locally yet must form part of an overall and determined strategy to protect children and combat air pollution, comprising a variety of convincing and complementary initiatives led by the Government to the advantage of the United Kingdom and all other countries elsewhere.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of the board of trustees of the British Lung Foundation. I expect that, in replying to this debate, the Minister will refer to the clean air strategy, published earlier this year. I acknowledge that much of this is a considerable step forward over what went before. However, there now needs to be greater urgency in implementing the government strategy for reducing air pollution, particularly those parts which affect children. I would like to hear from the Minister the Government’s timetable for making progress on preventing further damage to our children. We cannot allow more premature deaths as a result of air pollution, whether through lung and heart disease, stroke or cancer. Progress must be rapid. The damage being done is horrendous: around one in three children in the UK is growing up in areas with unsafe levels of air pollution.
I reinforce what the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, has said. Toxic air disproportionately affects children from the moment they are conceived and through their early lives as their bodies grow and they go through periods of critical development. Air pollution exposure during pregnancy is linked to low birth weight and premature birth. Children also tend to spend more time outside, where concentrations of air pollution from traffic are generally higher. As the noble Earl just said, when small children are walking or in a pushchair, they are often at the height of vehicle exhausts, meaning that they breathe in higher concentrations of pollutants. Breathing polluted air can cause irreversible damage to children’s growing lungs. There is increasing evidence that air pollution not only aggravates asthma in children but causes it.
Air pollution worsens existing health inequalities. People living in the poorest areas are often the most exposed to pollution, thus reinforcing unequal health outcomes. It also contributes to health inequalities later in life. Children living in highly polluted areas are four times more likely to have reduced lung function in adulthood, leaving them with lifelong health challenges. Some 1.1 million children—one in 11—are receiving treatment for asthma. For these children, exposure to pollution increases their risk of an attack, which can be deadly.
The environment Bill is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to adopt the best standards to protect the public’s health by including legally binding targets for fine particulate matter in line with the limit recommended by the WHO. The current UK legal limit for PM2.5 is more than twice as high as that recommended by the WHO. Will the Government adopt the WHO’s limit into UK law, with a commitment to these standards to be met by 2030? This would guarantee a legislative framework based on the highest health standards and clear, legally binding targets to reduce pollution. Anything less than this would be a lost opportunity. We cannot wait until 2040 to implement this target. Many areas in the UK also experience illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide. Given that 37 out of 43 areas still have illegal levels of NO2, it is critical to make changes so that we can comply with the legal limit as soon as possible. Will the Minister explain how this compliance will be enforced?
I hope that the Minister will agree that the rapid implementation of clean air zones across the UK’s most polluted areas needs to take place as soon as possible. They should restrict the use of the dirtiest vehicles, including private cars. As I am sure he knows, Defra’s own research shows that the best and quickest way to reduce polluting vehicles on our roads, and thus protect children from their harmful emissions, is the implementation of class D charging clean air zones right across the UK. This must be accompanied by the provision of clean public transport—not just private cars—and active travel, to reduce vehicle use. Will the Government provide more support for the implementation of such zones and more funding for clean public transport and active travel than they have done so far?
Finally, I turn to schools. With over 2,000 schools in areas with toxic air, as the noble Earl has already said, it is clear that a national comprehensive plan to protect children as they travel to and while they are at school is urgently needed. It should include comprehensive air quality audits of schools, nurseries and playgrounds in known pollution hotspots, to identify those affected by harmful levels of air pollution. It should also involve the absolute banning of new schools, nurseries and playgrounds in pollution hotspots. We need to introduce traffic exclusion zones around existing schools to help reduce and limit children’s exposure and to promote walking, cycling and public transport for journeys to and from school.
I hope the Minister will agree to the national rollout of tailored interventions around schools. Without changes of the kind that I have been describing—and to which the two speakers before me have also alluded—I am afraid to say that we will go on damaging our children’s lives and in some places, regrettably, killing them.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, on securing this important debate.
It is estimated that poor air quality is the cause of up to 40,000 premature deaths in the UK every year, with air pollution reducing life expectancy in those affected by an average of 11 years. Nevertheless, there is scant awareness of the scale of the problem. Air is a vital source of life on our planet, but it is fast becoming the health crisis we failed to see. Air pollution is bad news for all of us, but is especially so for children because of the juvenility of their brains and respiratory systems. As we have heard, children have a higher breathing rate to body size ratio and spend more time outdoors, both of which put them at even greater risk from exposure to polluted air.
The link between air quality and physical health is well established, with air pollution associated with a range of conditions that include cardiovascular and respiratory disease. However, new research is now demonstrating a link between air pollution and mental health. It has been several decades since the higher rates of schizophrenia in the inner city, relative to the outskirts, were first documented. Research undertaken since then has found that urban upbringing is associated with a twofold risk of psychiatric disorder in adulthood. Most studies have focused on the social features that might contribute to this elevated risk, which leaves a key feature of the urban environment underresearched. I am talking, of course, about air pollution.
Air pollution is a major worldwide health issue in urban areas, with 91% of the world’s city-dwelling population exposed to particulate matter in concentrations that exceed the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines. Closer to home, the WHO database for 2018 revealed than 49 UK towns and cities are failing standards for fine particle air pollution. This is not just in the massive conurbations that we might expect to have a problem: the list includes Eastbourne, Chepstow and Eccles. A data audit in February by Friends of the Earth revealed that an astonishing 1,758 sites across England, Wales and Northern Ireland breached the annual air quality objective for nitrogen dioxide. Here in London, figures published in April revealed that 2 million people are living with dangerously high levels of pollution. This figure includes 400,000 children, with 400 schools in areas with over-the-limit levels of nitrogen dioxide.
We know that the most significant cause of poor-quality air in urban areas is pollutants released in combustion. To date, research has focused largely on the physical impact of early exposure to poor-quality air, but two recent studies from King’s College London —of which I declare my interest as an employee—demonstrate for the first time its impact on mental health. Both studies took advantage of two data sources: detailed geographical air pollution data, collected at sites across London, and the well-established E-risk longitudinal twin study. This nationally representative sample of twins born between 1994 and 1995 includes 2,232 children, who were assessed first at age five and then regularly up to age 18. In the studies, residential addresses as well two additional addresses at which they spent their time—that is, their schools—were linked with air quality data to estimate the children’s exposure to pollutants across the year. The findings are frightening.
The first paper revealed that exposure to air pollution at age 12 had a significant association with depression at age 18, with children living in the top 25% of the most polluted areas three to four times more susceptible than those living in the top 25% of the least polluted areas. The most likely cause, the researchers say, was pollutant particles small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier, causing inflammation in the brain, which is known to link to the development of depressive symptoms.
The second study provided what is believed to be the first evidence of a link between air pollution and psychotic experiences in adolescence. The connection between growing up in a city and an increased risk of psychosis has long been accepted, but most of the efforts to understand the link have concentrated on social factors such as neighbourhood deprivation or crime. In focusing on air pollution—a key element of the urban environment—researchers found that psychotic experiences were significantly more common among young people with the highest annual exposure to nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxide and fine particle air pollution. These pollutants are all subject to legally binding limits—limits that we know are not being met in towns and cities across the UK. The findings indicate that even if they were being met, young people’s longer-term mental health would still be at risk. Even at exposure levels lower than international guidelines recommend, nitrogen dioxide was found to be significantly associated with adolescent psychotic experiences.
Researchers from King’s College London believe that if the recent trend of inaction continues, it will take 193 years to reach legal compliance on air quality. We cannot allow that to be the case. The Government’s clean air strategy commits to progressively cut public exposure to particulate matter so that the number of people living in locations above the WHO guideline level is reduced by 50% by 2025. Does the Minister agree that, given the public health crisis we are hearing about today, this rate of progress is just not ambitious enough? It is estimated that, by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. Unless we take urgent action now to tackle emissions and improve air quality in the urban environment, generations of children into the future will be breathing air that will damage them for life.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baronesses, Lady Bull and Lady Blackstone. Of course I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, on initiating this debate on a crucial issue that is close to my heart. I will try not to repeat anything that they have said, because I agree with virtually every word. I just add one note of caution about electric vehicles. Although they are obviously part of the solution for the future, they still pollute. They pollute in their manufacture; if they are not charged with renewable energy, they pollute at the point of emission somewhere else; and they are still traffic and still kill people on the roads. It is worth bearing that in mind when we go wholeheartedly for a transformation of our vehicle fleet.
It has been said that protecting our children from toxic air created by vehicles and other sources is one of the biggest health challenges faced in the UK and across the world. The World Health Organization has listed air pollution as one of its top health threats, alongside HIV/AIDS and Ebola.
The Government’s clean air strategy in February made a number of pledges about public spending and new legislation, but we are yet to see any of it come to fruition. If we are to make the huge changes necessary to break our pollution addiction, we need to legislate fast and put public money behind it.
I am a bit of a cynic when it comes to government promises but, I must say, the Government have made a lot of positive pledges on the environment in the past few years. I am now rather nervous, almost frightened, about the prospect of the winner of the clown convention at the other end of this building ditching all this environmental policy in a short-sighted attempt to prove themselves pro-business or anti-red tape. There is an equally high risk of the Government simply losing sight of these environmental issues, deprioritising them while fighting off the errors of their implementation of Brexit, or lack thereof, and whatever other crises pop up along the way.
By my counting, at least five environmental Bills are necessary to complete government policy, all of which can influence and worsen air pollution. The Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill have both ground to a halt in the Commons, where they have sat for months, and show no signs of making progress any time soon. The draft environment Bill has been chopped in half because Tory MPs kicked up a fuss about animal sentience measures; technically, it is now two Bills. Then at least one Bill, but probably more, would be necessary to implement the long list of promises in the clean air strategy. These Bills are all large and complex; together, they could make up the lion’s share of government business in a one-year Parliament. Even with the reforming zeal of Michael Gove pushing these issues in Cabinet, a two-year Parliament was not enough for any of the Government’s environmental initiatives to become law. It seems obvious that the next Prime Minister will drop most of this in favour of their own legislative agenda.
What are the solutions? I suggest that the Government make use of the remaining parliamentary time before the Summer Recess to bring forward urgent legislation to save us from our toxic air. I am not sure whether the Government have got as far as drafting a Bill to implement the clean air strategy; if not, I have already introduced a Private Member’s Bill called the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill. It is thorough and comprehensive: it starts from the premise that clean air is a human right, sets a duty on the Secretary of State to maintain clean air and involves a range of public bodies, including Public Health England, the Environment Agency, the Committee on Climate Change and local authorities. Importantly, my Bill would create a citizens’ commission for clean air, with powers to initiate and intervene in legal proceedings to safeguard our right to clean air. I suggest this Bill not just to be provocative; I believe that it is good enough to be taken off the shelf and used by the Government. I am also not protective of it; if the Government’s lawyers and this House can improve it, I will be absolutely delighted. My plea to the Minister is for him to read my Bill and arrange time for it to become law; it is not as if we do not have time in this House.
Together, we have an opportunity to save thousands of people from premature deaths, and many more from asthma and the other health complications already listed. Public awareness on this issue is greater than ever. We must seize this opportunity to legislate before we fall back into the Brexit chaos after the Summer Recess, when we will be worrying about whether we will have enough food after Halloween.
I have a specific question for the Minister: will there be a full clean air programme for children? For example, what will the Government do to protect schools? Will they recommend road closures rather than putting the onus on schools to protect themselves? If our children continue to breathe this toxic air, we are allowing their health to be permanently damaged. The effect of our inaction will be decades of national ill health—another huge burden on the NHS.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, mentioned Ella Kissi-Debrah. A clean air Bill, enacted quickly, would be a fitting legacy in her memory.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, who has campaigned on these issues for so long on behalf of her party, which is so dedicated to protecting the environment. I join noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for calling this important and timely debate on such a grave matter for our children.
As I am sure other noble Lords are, I am grateful to UNICEF and the British Lung Foundation for providing helpful briefings for this debate. I call on the Minister to commit to setting legally binding targets to meet the World Health Organization’s recommended limited values for particulate matter 2.5 concentrations across the UK by 2030—a number of noble Lords have already called for this—and to take urgent action to address existing nitrogen dioxide targets. I also ask him to commit to a cross-governmental Healthy Air for Children Action Plan—the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, referred to this—and to a “little lungs” fund providing ring-fenced funding to protect children from toxic air, amounting to a minimum of £250 million in the first year, with annual replenishments until 2030 or until it becomes unnecessary.
There is growing public concern about this matter. I read the Times coverage of the case of the mother who sadly lost her child, we believe to toxic air. This girl suffered from asthma. She lived in an area of high congestion and her mother described how she would see her struggling to breathe whenever she stepped out of the door and how her condition worsened over time. It is very good news that the mother has been successful in calling for a second inquest. We owe her a great debt of gratitude for pursuing this matter and highlighting this serious concern for the welfare of our children.
I was consulting a friend who suffered from pneumonia when he was seven. His mother was a smoker and he was a premature baby, which made him more likely to experience these sorts of difficulties. He almost died and missed much school, suffering a series of respiratory illnesses. In his adolescence he suffered from further respiratory difficulties. Fortunately, he was from a fairly middle-class background and had great access to sporting activities and open spaces, so he was able to overcome his difficulties.
As a patron of Best Beginnings, which works on the perinatal health of mothers, I am very aware of the health inequalities in this country. Families from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and on low incomes are far more likely to have difficulties around the birth of their children and as their children grow up. As we have heard, high toxicity is likely to affect families living in the inner cities—who are likely to be from poorer, low-income families—so this can only exacerbate the severe problem of health inequalities in this country. Addressing this will help move that agenda forward.
This afternoon I was speaking to a senior clinician at a mental health service for adolescents in Brent. We need these valuable experts in the areas with the highest levels of need. She said she was moving to Inverness, which apparently has the cleanest air in the United Kingdom. This was not the only reason she was moving, but parents who care about the welfare of their children and who we really need to stay in areas of disadvantage are more likely to vote with their feet and move elsewhere unless we address these needs.
This is a growing public concern. We saw the coverage last night in Channel 4’s “Dispatches”, which demonstrated how helpful a little money can be in promoting the health of our children; there is also a campaign in the Times. This issue will become more and more important to the public, and I am sure the Minister will recognise that in what he says. I look forward to his response and am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for calling this most important and timely debate.
My Lords, as ever it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for initiating this debate. As a regular cyclist and a resident of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, I declare an interest as somebody directly affected by vehicle emissions from London’s increasingly anarchic and intractable traffic jams. I live very close to Putney High Street, which exceeds its NO2 annual limit at the end of the first week in January each year. For 51 out of the 52 weeks in every year, it exceeds the legal limit. That is a great beginning.
The sudden emergency closure of Hammersmith Bridge by the local council has created a spider’s web of traffic jams, as drivers trying to cross the Thames attempt unsuccessfully to outwit one another, switching vainly from one navigation app to another. There is a stand-off between TfL and the council as to which body should pay the £40 million for emergency repairs. Should it be the council, which owns the bridge and is responsible for its upkeep, or should it be TfL, whose buses are held to be largely responsible for the parlous state of the bridge? However this is ultimately settled, the problem is likely to recur again and again: the new generation of best-in-class, zero-emission, Chinese, electric double-decker buses each weighs 19 tonnes, compared to the 12.5 tonnes of today’s hybrid double-deckers in London, which have caused the damage.
How are the Government responding to the dangers in the air which we all breathe? If effectiveness could be measured by the volume and weight of government reports and initiatives and much-trumpeted money to get these off the ground, there appears to be a high level of activity. However, if one measures the effectiveness by what is happening to our children’s health and well-being, one is perhaps less impressed.
The Government’s Clean Air Strategy 2019 admitted that:
“Road transport is responsible for some 80% of NOx concentrations at the roadside”.
What will they do about this? They aim to achieve zero emissions from vehicles by 2040, but admit that they will delegate much of the responsibility for this because:
“We expect this transition to be industry and consumer led”.
Perhaps the Minister would like to explain this to grass-roots organisations of concerned parents, such as the London-based, rather wonderfully named, Mums for Lungs. It is fighting to establish “school street” zones around primary schools to reduce pollution and its effects on children’s respiratory systems, and to reduce traffic flows and stop engine idling, all of which militate against feeling comfortable about walking or cycling with one’s children to and from school, let alone the worry of what is entering their respiratory and neural systems in the playground and the classroom.
Many noble Lords have mentioned the Channel 4 documentary, and the Minister might wish to consult some of the younger members of his family to find it on the Channel 4 on-demand app, All 4. I also commend today’s Times newspaper to him; if he reads page 12, he will find two somewhat disturbing articles directly related to the quality of our air due to vehicle emissions.
Why on earth should it be left to organisations such as Mums for Lungs to approach drivers sitting in vehicles outside their children’s schools with engines idling, and to knock on the window and politely point out that what they are doing is illegal and wastes fuel and money; that vehicle pollution causes around 40,000 early deaths per year; and that air pollution is actually between nine and 12 times worse inside your car than outside it? Is this what Her Majesty’s Government call a consumer-led approach? I salute and admire those mothers who have stepped bravely into what appears to be a leadership and compliance vacuum and who are shaming the powers that be, which they feel strongly are not doing enough to protect their children, to take action. They have helped establish no fewer than 38 “school street” schemes in London, and similar approaches are under way in Solihull and Edinburgh.
This is not, and should never be, a party-political issue; one might expect that from a Cross-Bencher. It is a human rights and human health issue which affects a significant number of innocent and vulnerable children. Delivering his February 2018 judgment in the case of ClientEarth v the Secretary of State for Defra, Mr Justice Garnham did not mince his words. He said there has been,
“a continuing failure by the Government to meet its obligation to reduce air pollution. It is eight years since compliance with the 2008 directive should have been achieved and the 2017 air quality plan is the third unsuccessful attempt at delivering a plan. All the while the health of those living in towns and cities is at real risk”.
So the buck is conveniently and predictably passed between central government, different departments and agencies, and local authorities.
While this is going on—indeed, while we are speaking in this debate—a child experiencing an asthma attack is being admitted to hospital every 20 minutes. Mike Penrose of UNICEF, who worked with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health on a survey, concluded that the UK is home to more children suffering from respiratory conditions than anywhere else in Europe. That is not a comfortable verdict.
To stop the buck-passing and equivocation we need long-term, cross-party, cross-government, national, devolved and local concerted and co-ordinated action which prioritises the health and well-being of our most precious responsibility and future resource: our children and our grandchildren.
Lilian Greenwood, the Labour MP for Nottingham South and chair of the Commons Transport Committee, summed up the situation with painful clarity in a debate on 28 June last year. She said that,
“action is too fragmented, lacks clear leadership, and is not properly costed or resourced. There are no fiscal measures that support long-term behaviour change in a meaningful way”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/6/18; col. 1091.]
If I ruled the world, every day would not be the first day of spring, but it would be a world in which government Ministers, of whichever Government happened to be in office at that time, would approach such grave issues as the hugely harmful effect on children of vehicle emissions with an urgency which is devoid of party politics; demonstrates a continuum of concern, commitment and action across all areas of government; and transcends changes in Minister, changes in Government and idiotic sideshows such as our current impasse over Brexit—it is causing us much harm by acting as a brake on much-needed government focus and momentum—because billions of nanoparticles are being released into the lungs of our children by the stopping, starting and constant braking which are a feature of our signal failure to tackle vehicle emissions.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool. He said that this was a human rights issue that requires cross-party action locally and nationally, and I agree entirely with him. I remind the House of my registered interests.
I find the evidence, both before this debate in preparing for it and in the speeches made in it, to be compelling. My noble friend Lady Randerson referred to it as a major child health crisis, which is true. There are 1.1 million children with asthma, as we have heard, and one in three children is growing up with toxicity levels above legal limits.
While the UK has met the limits for most pollutants in European directives, it has failed to do so in roadside nitrogen dioxide emissions and, as we have heard, we have the rising risk to health of particulates. It is therefore right that action should be taken. It should not have been left to EU directives to force a faster pace of change. The UK received a final warning from the EU two years ago, when the UK Government admitted that only six of the UK’s 43 zones complied with the annual mean limit on nitrogen dioxide.
In January this year, the Government published their clean air strategy, which would invest £3.5 billion into cleaner vehicle technology, phase out new petrol and diesel cars from 2040 and support the creation of clean air zones at a local level in England. I support a new clean air Act to give a legal right to all citizens to breathe clean air. I noted what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, said about her Bill, and I hope we will all read it in the hope that it might achieve cross-party consensus.
I believe that a ban on all sales of new diesel and petrol vehicles is right, but I prefer it to be achieved by 2030, not 2040. If Ireland can do it in 2030 and Scotland in 2032, I do not understand why in the rest—England and Wales—it should be 2040. Will the Minister indicate why that year has been chosen? I support higher taxation on pre-2016 diesel vehicles and pre-2006 petrol vehicles, but I have concluded that delivering this requires more generous scrappage schemes for older vehicles, and I shall come back to that in a moment. Why have the Government ruled out, or seem to have ruled out, any plans for a better, more generous national scheme aimed at the most polluting vehicles?
Clean air zones have been mentioned by several speakers. Indeed, generally speaking, cities across the UK agree entirely with the objective of reducing air pollution, but cities that are considering clear air zones need to be clear that the action they propose to take will solve the problems that they have identified. They could well, but they need to do so. I shall give two problems. First, a clean air zone might simply shift the problem to other areas immediately outside the zone by encouraging day-long parking and consequent pollution just outside a zone in suburban streets near bus stops to a city centre. Secondly, there is a risk that more businesses could move out of a zone to keep their costs down and in so doing potentially put up journey lengths and increase pollution in the areas to which they move. There has to be a holistic solution to this problem. Simply declaring a number of stand-alone clean air zones may not solve the problem and may encourage other areas to need to be within a clean air zone.
It has been reported that Sheffield and Greater Manchester have proposed to exempt private cars from their plans for clean air zones. It is important to understand the reason. It relates to those on low incomes. Those who have older cars tend to be people who have lower incomes and, in many cases, need a car to get to and from work, often shift work, at different and often inconvenient times of day and night. People on low incomes who cannot afford to replace their vehicle should not be penalised by legislation. They should instead be helped more through more generous scrappage schemes. I am returning to the point I made earlier. We need to be clear that the people who are being penalised by the plans of local and national government are mostly poorer people who are less able to afford to change their vehicle.
We have discussed the specific issue of schools in some detail. The Government tell us that 21% of nursery and primary schools and 24% of secondary schools in Britain are in areas that breach World Health Organization guidelines. In part, that is the result of idling engines. We have head a great deal about that. My colleague Wera Hobhouse, MP for Bath, has tabled a Bill in the other place to give local authorities the power to issue fines to drivers of idling vehicles. I support that. I also support the concept of school streets in which traffic is banned during drop-off and pick-up. We have heard examples from earlier speakers about this: Solihull and Hackney, along with other places, have been running such schemes. This must be encouraged and I hope very much that the Government will permit councils to issue fixed penalty tickets and to keep the income from fines to reinvest in clean air projects.
Parents have a right to expect that every school shows on its website and noticeboards the level of pollution outside the school gate and in the playground. That does not happen at the moment but it ought to. People need more facts: they need to know the levels of pollution close to where they live. That means that councils need pollution monitors for all their neighbourhoods and all their streets where there are schools. With that understanding will come even stronger public support for the measures that we are all advocating.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for tabling this debate and for the persuasive way in which she and all noble Lords have made the case for urgent, practical action on this issue. I declare an interest through my involvement with the charity ClientEarth, which, as noble Lords will know, has successfully taken the Government to court on several occasions for their failure to act on harmful vehicle emissions.
As noble Lords have said, as well as a UK problem, polluted air is a global crisis affecting predominantly the poorest and most disadvantaged urban dwellers, who are powerless to stand up for their right to breathe clean air. That is why we support the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd, who has described air pollution as a violation of human rights and has criticised Governments across the world for their failure to act on the right to breathe clean air. That is why we also support noble Lords’ call for a legally binding commitment to meet the World Health Organization guideline levels for particulate matter pollution by 2030, with a binding commitment to ensure that no school, nursery, playground, care home or hospital should be in an area with pollution above WHO guidelines by 2022.
Just because air pollution is a global problem, it does not exempt the UK Government from showing true leadership. This requires a fresh approach to the problem which puts the rights of children and all citizens to breathe clean air ahead of the rights of car drivers. Time and again, when we have debated this issue in your Lordships’ House, there has been a reluctance from the Government to take a firm stand on the major causes of pollution. They have sought voluntary solutions and devolved the problem to individual local authorities. They have, in essence, put the interests of powerful lobby groups before the health of the nation. That is why the courts have ruled against them on so many occasions. We know, as we have heard in this debate, that there are solutions which the Government could take but are reluctant to do so.
Meanwhile, the evidence of the dramatic impact of harmful emissions on children’s health is compelling and growing. As we know and as we have heard today, an estimated 40,000 people a year in the UK die prematurely from the long-term health problems caused by toxic air. But that is only half the story. Each year in the UK, tens of thousands of children develop asthma as a result of traffic fumes, with the rate in Britain being the highest in Europe. Children’s lungs are particularly susceptible to damage from air pollution, causing lifelong health problems and occasionally death. Some studies even suggest that dirty air can affect their ability to learn. I believe that in the future we are likely to see more inquests formally recording air pollution as the cause of death.
It is not surprising that there is an increasing call from health professionals and parents for urgent action to protect children from these toxic fumes as the evidence mounts. It is a call that the Government cannot afford to ignore.
Thankfully, there are some good examples of local leadership on this issue around the country that illustrate what can be done if you have the political will to act decisively. I am pleased that my own local council, Labour-run Brighton & Hove, which has one of the best bus services outside London, has targeted the funding to roll out cleaner, less polluting bus fleets. It has already delivered a 25% reduction in roadside nitrogen dioxide in the busiest areas and is continuing to upgrade its vehicles to deliver ultra-low emissions.
Of course, the Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, on top of the low-emission bus fleet, is rolling out ultra-low emission zones for cars, imposing a £12.50 a day charge to drive in central London for all but the cleanest cars and vans. This move alone is expected to reduce road transport emissions by about 45%.
However, relying on these localised initiatives is not good enough. The Government’s latest clean air strategy relies on local authority actions, many of which have already been demonstrated to be in disarray—through lack of money or political will—and so far there has been no comeback on those that are blatantly ignoring their targets. At the same time there is the shocking news that Highways England has spent only £8 million of the £100 million of its air quality fund four years after it was unveiled. This fund should have been used for roadside barriers to block toxic fumes and more electric car charging points along the 4,500 miles of roads that it maintains.
Therefore, it is clear that we need a national government plan to protect the health of our children for the future. This should be based on new clean air laws that are themselves based on a framework for action that enshrines the right to breathe clean air in domestic law. It should include binding targets to reduce children’s exposure to air pollution. We support the widespread calls from noble Lords today and from many voluntary organisations for a national “clean air for children” programme that would audit schools, nurseries and playgrounds, bring in traffic exclusion zones around schools, provide a proactive alert system of pollution spikes for parents and teachers, and promote walking and cycling on routes to school.
More urgently, as my noble friend Lady Blackstone said, the Government should follow the evidence of their own technical report, which recognised that a national network of charging clean air zones is the most effective and quickest way to tackle existing illegal levels of pollution.
Finally, the Government need to switch their priorities from cars to people with a huge policy drive to deliver cleaner forms of transport. This will require some bold decisions that have been lacking in the past, but should include tackling the legacy of “dieselgate” and ensuring that all cars caught up in the scandal are retrofitted; making cleaner cars more affordable and reforming the vehicle tax system to incentivise clean-car ownership; a targeted diesel scrappage scheme; better consumer information to enable buyers to make choices based on real-world emissions data; and a ban on the sale of new internal combustion engine cars and other vehicles by 2030, rather than the much less ambitious proposal of 50% of new car sales to be ultra-low emission by that date.
The more we find out about the health implications of toxic air on our children’s health, the more of a scandal it becomes. If we carry on as we are, future generations will look back in despair that we took so little action on a public health emergency. There is still time to get this issue right, and I hope that the Minister will be able to persuade us this afternoon that the Government are up for the challenge.
My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for securing this debate. From all the contributions made today, it is clear that we all acknowledge that air pollution is the greatest environmental risk to human health. It is right that the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Bull, referred to this as a considerable world challenge, as well as a challenge in our own country. We all know that poor air quality affects our health and quality of life and, as has been said precisely today—by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, in particular, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, in her opening remarks—children are particularly vulnerable, be it their lungs or their development. I therefore hasten, in the time I have, to set out as much as I can about the strong and urgent action that we are taking.
I understand of course what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, meant. I hope everyone will see that that we simply cannot carry on as we have in the past. The Clean Air Strategy was published this year; indeed, the WHO welcomed it as an example for the rest of the world to follow. The strategy outlines a package of comprehensive measures taking decisive action to reduce emissions of harmful air pollutants from multiple sources. It is important for us to continue to drive down emissions from all sources to reduce overall background air pollution over our cities and towns. We have already taken action on specified generator controls and medium combustion plants, and we will put forward proposals on the most polluting domestic fuels.
The clean air strategy will be underpinned by new legislative proposals in the environment Bill to ensure stronger and more effective action. I say to my noble friend Lord Dundee that the office for environmental protection will be an independent statutory environmental body, which will hold the Government to account on environmental standards. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, my noble friend, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, that of course I will look at her Bill. The environment Bill is a second Session piece of legislation but a considerable one and I, or whoever else scrutinises it, look forward to doing so with your Lordships.
I would say in context that emissions of air pollutants have reduced substantially since 2010. Primary emissions of fine particulate matter and emissions of nitrogen oxides are indeed at their lowest levels since records began. This progress was achieved through regulation, investment by industry, cleaner processes and, indeed, a shift towards cleaner forms of energy. But it is clear not only from what your Lordships have said but from what the Government recognise that very much more has to be done. That is heard loud and clear. The most immediate challenge is tackling nitrogen dioxide concentrations around roads. We are taking determined action on vehicle emissions and testing. Indeed, we have been at the forefront of calls for action at EU level to introduce real driving emissions testing. The first stage of this new, more stringent regime came into force this year.
In 2017, we published the UK Plan for Tackling Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations, supported by a £3.5 billion investment in air quality and cleaner transport. I hope that I can persuade the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, about “no action”, and indeed gently chide the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch: I am sure she will understand that the “dash for diesel” has not helped with what we need to counter. I say that genuinely; we all seek to do the right thing but sometimes it turns out not to be the right path. We are exceeding our nitrogen dioxide targets but it is the only pollutant we are exceeding on; we need to concentrate on that, among other matters.
Noble Lords have spoken about local authorities. The Government are working closely with 61 English local councils and have placed legal duties on them, underpinned by almost £495 million of funding to tackle nitrogen dioxide hotspots. We have assessed plans to ensure they meet the strict criteria to improve exceedances in the shortest time possible. Where plans do not meet the criteria, they are rejected. I say again to many noble Lords—the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, Lady Blackstone and Lady Randerson —that local authorities are best placed to use their powers and local knowledge to take action when addressing localised pollution hotspots, including around schools. I understand that the recalibration of traffic lights, for instance, can change exceedances. I think we would all agree that it is commonsensical that there is great partnership with local authorities, and I would say that we are seeing results. Leeds and Birmingham will introduce clean air zones from next year, Nottingham is being supported to retrofit its bus fleet and Southampton docks are introducing freight consolidation and measures to encourage sustainable and indeed active travel.
We are committed to investing in and promoting active travel such as cycling and walking. Active travel can have huge benefits for health and well-being, road congestion, air quality and economic and local development. These of course are issues that the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, who is a cyclist, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and my noble friend Lord Dundee raised. The investment is almost £2 billion during this Parliament. That includes £50 million for Bikeability cycle training in England outside London. In 2018-19 around 400,000 children were trained.
Our 2025 target of 55% of primary schoolchildren walking to school is being delivered through the £3 million Walk to School programme, which started in 2015. In 2017-18, 205 primary schools participated, with 14,254 more pupils and their parents walking to school. Walking to school rates have increased across all schools by 30%. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Russell, that I do not need the iPlayer because I watched that documentary last night; the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, very sweetly suggested that I was already on my way home to watch it. I was very struck by the programme for a number of reasons, particularly how demonstrating behaviour changes and targeted action can deliver real change. My noble friend Lord Dundee and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, referred to parents. I was very struck by the positivity of parents; the gasp of horror when it was seen that driving your child to school in a car was the worst option; and the fact that the 25-minute walk to school, rather than a 10-minute drive, became a pleasure, although I know that in inclement weather that may not be so attractive.
As I have mentioned, the work that we have done and are doing to tackle nitrogen dioxide vehicle emissions is a top priority. On particulate matter, we have achieved a considerable reduction of exhaust emissions through tighter vehicle standards. On non-exhaust emissions, tyre and brake wear—I think reference was made to this last year—we issued a call for evidence to inform policy development and will take further action, informed by the Air Quality Expert Group. That will be published later this year.
As part of the £3.5 billion funding, there is an annual air quality grant. Colchester Borough Council and Hertsmere Borough Council are closely working with their schools on travel behaviour change programmes, while Islington will perform an indoor nitrogen dioxide study to test air quality. There are many more examples of local authorities working effectively with government funding.
We have plans to take further action on vehicle emissions. Our mission is to put the UK at the forefront of the design and manufacturing of zero-emissions vehicles. We also need to increase the number of electric cars on our roads. To achieve that, drivers must clearly have access to the right infrastructure, which is why the Chancellor announced a £400 million investment to make it a reality. The Government have also committed £274 million to the Faraday battery challenge to ensure that the UK is a world leader in battery technology, and have separately awarded over £300 million in grants via Innovate UK, something I know my noble friend Lord Dundee would be interested in.
By 2030 we want at least half of all new cars sold, and as many as 70%, to have ultra-low emissions. Our grant schemes and £400 million public/private charging infrastructure investment fund will see thousands more electric vehicle charge points installed. We have one of the largest networks in Europe, and in 2018 the UK was the second-largest market for ultra-low emission vehicles in the EU.
There is so much more I would like to say, but I want to emphasise that we recognise that awareness is vital for this and for taking firmer action. It is one of the reasons why I am pleased that the City of Westminster has an anti-idling policy. We need to make that much broader, and I am interested in the legislation. My understanding is that local authorities have many of these powers in any case. We are working with organisations such as Global Action Plan and the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change to improve the information and advice available to people, to ensure not only that they understand the impacts of poor air quality but can take their own action.
I strongly agree with the conclusions of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson. Achieving cleaner air, which is an objective we all share, requires a partnership. It is the responsibility of government, local government, businesses and individuals. We must improve air quality through collaboration, raising public awareness and taking concerted action, with public moneys and public support. It is an urgent matter. Whichever Prime Minister is in office, and whatever the colour of government, this issue is vital and we need to manage it and deal with it. We owe that to all our citizens, but as your Lordships have so clearly stated, this is a particular issue for the next generation and we must deal with it on their behalf.