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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Environmental Audit Committee, Health and Social Care Committee and Transport Committee

Volume 638: debated on Thursday 22 March 2018

Select Committee statement

We shall begin with the Select Committee statement. Neil Parish will speak on the publication of the joint report “Improving air quality” for up to 10 minutes, during which time no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call, in order, the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, the Chair and the Health and Social Care Committee and the Chair of the Transport Committee.

Other Members may then put questions to Neil Parish. I will call him to respond to each of those in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. The Select Committee Chairs will be given more time, but if they can formulate their statement in the form of a question, that would be helpful. I now call the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Neil Parish.

Thank you, Mr Stringer. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, I think for the first time. It is good that you had the benefit of being on the Joint Committee during the inquiry. I assure Members that I will not speak for 10 minutes, so as to allow more time for questions. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating this statement on our recent report, “Improving air quality”.

Before we begin, I am reminded that a year ago my Committee was taking evidence from the Minister when we were called to a Division. The unthinkable happened. We all stand here today because of the unflinching bravery of those on the frontline, in particular the courage of PC Keith Palmer. We carry on our work and we are all here today because we remember the great sacrifices that have been made to enable us to do so.

Clean air is a right and not a privilege. We launched a joint inquiry in October last year to examine the Government’s latest air quality strategy and whether it was adequate. I thank my fellow Select Committee Chairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) from the Health and Social Care Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) from the Transport Committee and the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) from the Environmental Audit Committee. I think we worked remarkably well together. I also thank the Committee staff for all their hard work in bringing it all together.

For too long, the United Kingdom has failed to meet legal air quality limits. That is simply not good enough. It was clear to us that Departments must work together to address this national health emergency. My fellow Chairs and I launched the joint inquiry to show that if we can work together, so can Government. We took evidence from expert witnesses, the Mayor of London, Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport, the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government. It was clear to us that the Departments are not doing enough to protect the public from toxic air.

Poor air quality costs the UK some £20 billion a year, and it is a huge public health risk to all our constituents. Because of the failure to collaborate and to come up with an effective strategy, the Government are letting us down. Car manufacturers have contributed towards poor air quality for too long, and the Government have allowed that to happen and let them—in my opinion—off the hook. From the USA to Germany, car manufacturers have contributed millions of pounds to cleaning up their air. Why have we not had that contribution in this country?

Councils struggling with air quality need more leadership from Government to ensure that they have the resources to tackle the problem effectively. The Government must work more closely with councils to roll out vital infrastructure, especially electric vehicle charging points and fast-charging points. That would also help small and medium-sized enterprises and others if they wanted to convert to electric and hybrid vehicles, so that they had the charging points as well as the drivers.

All that must be included in a new clean air Act, which would concentrate the resources we so desperately need to clean up our air quality. A refusal to act is simply passing the buck. Our children and grandchildren deserve better. The Government should implement our recommendations and give us all the right to breathe cleaner air. I look forward to the Ministers’ responses to our report.

I echo the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments about this being a very solemn day for this place, when we remember the five victims who so tragically and suddenly lost their lives. In particular, we hold in our hearts PC Keith Palmer, who stood his ground, not 50 yards from this room, to defend this place and to defend our Parliament. The debt of gratitude that we owe him and his family can never be repaid.

One of the interesting things that came out of the inquiry was the huge and developing evidence about the impact of air pollution on health and health inequalities. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a worrying piece of evidence that came out of the inquiry was research from the Royal College of Physicians showing that air pollution could reduce children’s birth weight and damage IQ, and that it was possibly an increasing factor in lung cancer for people who have never smoked?

I agree passionately that we need a new clean air Act. The Environmental Audit Committee has been looking at the accountability mechanisms. We need an environmental protection Act to set up an accountable body so that that mechanism is still in place if and when we leave the EU. The clock is ticking loudly on that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government need to speed up their activity in that area?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to adopt the World Health Organisation’s targets for all air pollutants, not just nitrogen dioxide, and to set out clear milestones for meeting them? It is all very well saying that it will happen in 10 or 15 years’ time, but if we do not have milestones, they will not be met.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government need to do much more on central Government procurement? They have said that 25% of Departments’ car fleets will be ultra low emission vehicles by 2022. We have just completed an audit of the Ministry of Justice. Of 1,500 vehicles, just two are ultra low emission. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has only two electric vehicles in its fleet. The Government need go much further and much faster, and to extend that target to outside agencies, including the NHS, because its carbon footprint is huge.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the cheapest and simplest method is to label vehicle emissions on new cars so that when a person goes into a car showroom, they know exactly what they are purchasing? That would mean that they could future-proof themselves against any action that might be taken by their local authority or by the Government, so they were not buying something that may lose its value in two or five years’ time.

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions and, again, for her co-operation in putting the Joint Committee together. She will not be surprised to know that I very much agree with her points.

On the clean air Act, that is something we need the Government to come forward with, because it would concentrate not only resource but political drive on cleaning up our air. On the World Health Organisation’s targets, we need to be more ambitious than the Government are at the moment. On an environmental protection agency, we need to know more from the Government about how that would come about, how it would take on the role that the European Commission has had, and who could take the Government to court to hold them to account.

The car fleet is an interesting one. I expect that the hon. Lady, like me, has often come through Speaker’s Court and seen interesting vehicles waiting for Secretaries of State. The vehicles are all quite large, and as far as I can see very few have anything hybrid about them, so perhaps the Government could lead by example. It will be interesting to see what they do. This is a serious point, because as we get our new fleet of vehicles across all Departments, we need a series of electric vehicles and hybrids. For some places, all-electric will work. If people have to go longer distances, hybrids are essential. We look forward to working with all the other Select Committees to ensure that we deliver cleaner air.

I, too, pay tribute—I am sure I do so on behalf of the whole House—to PC Keith Palmer and the other victims of the terrorist attack a year ago today. I thank all the security staff who are on duty today, enabling our democracy to carry on functioning.

Does my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) agree that the list of illnesses caused by poor air quality is shockingly worrying? It includes, but is not limited to, respiratory illness, heart attack, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, dementia, type 2 diabetes and obesity. It is quite a long list, and the public probably would not suspect that all those illnesses link back to poor air quality.

Does my hon. Friend also agree that car users, who are sometimes seen as the source of the problem, are actually very serious victims? One of the surprising things that we learnt from doing our report was that people who regularly travel in cars in cities are themselves among those worst affected by poor air quality. Parents driving children to school in cities need to understand what the health effects are on them and their children.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern at what is frankly the absence from the pitch of the healthcare sector in a lot of the debate? We need to see a lot more action from Public Health England and from GPs, informing the public about the risks and telling them what to do. If I go into my local surgery, I will see advice on how to reduce smoking, on how to drink less alcohol and on weight reduction, but despite looking very hard I will not find anything to tell me what I can do to avoid poor air quality and how to deal with that issue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the health sector and those responsible for public health put that information out in a way that is helpful and useful to the public, that will help to bring about an army of concerned citizens who will demand change, at both local and national level, to deal with the problem?

I thank my hon. Friend for so ably representing the Health and Social Care Committee in our Joint Committee. He raises interesting points about the number of illnesses attributed to poor air quality. Of course, we were suddenly told to drive diesel vehicles because we needed to reduce carbon, ignoring the nitric oxide and the particulates. That is now hugely affecting our health. He talked about what is happening outside our schools and inside our cars—we are being affected by particulates even as we drive along.

My hon. Friend made a particular point about schools, and I think that this issue applies not just in the inner cities but everywhere. I say to parents, “When you come to pick up your children, please don’t leave your cars ticking over outside, with all the levels of pollution that causes.” That is really important across the whole country, not just in the hotspots of very poor air quality.

On the point about Public Health England, we do need much better and much more information about how poor air quality affects our health. That would also raise public awareness of what we are doing as we drive, how we drive and what we drive. It would bring those issues home to people as they make their choices in future.

During the inquiry, my hon. Friend was keen to ensure that our air quality monitoring systems, both in local government and the national systems, work together so that we can collate the figures, to ensure that we get better air quality, and really drill down to find the worst affected areas. Overall, we can all do more to reduce the amount of pollution we create. I thank him for his question.

I will try to keep my remarks short, to enable other hon. Members to ask questions. I associate myself with the comments paying tribute to and remembering PC Keith Palmer and those other members of the public who were killed or injured one year ago today.

The Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was absolutely right to highlight the need for joined-up action, across Departments and in a shared responsibility with local authorities, as we set about tackling pollution. It is absolutely essential that the Government show leadership and ensure that all their policies, including taxation and spending policies, are working in concert, not at cross-purposes.

Moreover, does the hon. Gentleman agree that if action to accelerate the take-up of less polluting vehicles, whether cars, vans, trucks or buses, is accompanied by measures that change behaviour and enable and encourage more people to walk, cycle and use public transport, there is a real opportunity not only to tackle air quality, but to meet the Government’s other objectives, including cutting carbon emissions, reducing urban congestion and raising physical activity levels?

I thank the hon. Lady for a great question and for her co-operation and work through the Joint Committee. She is absolutely right about reinforcing the fact that the issue is cross-departmental, because DEFRA is in the dock every time there is a court case, yet much of the solution is in transport and local government as we go about our daily lives. I went to Waterloo the other day to see the electric buses there. If we can get more electric buses across the whole country, that will really help.

With regard to the types of vehicle that we will use and their availability—the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) also raised this—we have to be absolutely certain that we know what vehicles we are buying and that they are properly labelled. Hydrogen vehicles might also be a solution in some places. We have to look at all these things and improve public transport across the piece. We also need to consider the way we run our lives. When we go shopping, for example, ideally we should go to the shops on the bus or on our bicycle, or sometimes shop online, and then all of it would be delivered by vans that were either hybrid or electric, not diesel. There are lots of things we can do not only across Government, but in the way we run our lives. I thank the Chair of the Transport Committee for her contributions.

Thank you, Mr Stringer, for allowing me to raise one point. This is a very strong report. In particular, it calls for a new clean air Act. I ask the Government to acknowledge that the report, with its strong recommendations, is based on a consensus between four Select Committees. I hope that they will take heed. Will my hon. Friend, who has made a brilliant introduction, join me in celebrating the appearance this very morning of a 100% electric, fully British-made black cab right here in New Palace Yard, of the sort that we will see flooding our streets in the years to come?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He reinforces the need for all of us to work together across Departments. The black cab out there that is 100% electric and 100% British is a very good thing. As I said, we can all welcome that, whichever side of the Chamber we sit on, because we need more of these taxis and we need more of them to be made here.

Order. We are running out of time; there are two minutes left, if I am to stick strictly to the 20-minute limit. I ask hon. Members to be brief.

I will be brief, Mr Stringer. May I add electric bicycles to the list of electric vehicles? They offer a huge opportunity to make a quick transformation.

I associate myself with the earlier remarks. May I ask the Chair of the Select Committee why he has not yet looked at the impact of the waste industry on air quality? It is an important industry and needs to be factored in.

We did not look at it directly in the joint report, but we have looked at it in previous Select Committee inquiries. I assure the shadow Minister that we will look at it in future, because it is all part of reducing our emissions.

My concern, as a representative of a midlands constituency bounded by motorways, is motorway pollution. It is certainly a problem for people living in Hinckley.

Again, motorway pollution is very much down to the vehicles that we drive. As we get cleaner petrol and hybrid cars, and even cleaner diesel cars—although we need to move away from those—that will help to reduce our overall pollution. It is absolutely essential that vehicles on motorways become cleaner.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there was an extremely high level of cross-party consensus on the report, and that we actually deliberated very carefully? It was extraordinary how few party political differences there were over its recommendations.

The hon. Gentleman is a very good member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. Yes, it is right that we have worked together, and it is right that all political parties now work together to produce cleaner air, because that is a right and not a privilege. Having two Chairs from either side of the political divide also helped; I think we all worked very well together. I again thank everybody for that.