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MOTs: Increased Particulate Matter Testing

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 24 January 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered increased particulate matter testing during MOTs.

I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Air pollution is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time. As we speak, in this place and beyond, people are being poisoned by filthy, unsafe air. Indeed, today the Mayor of London issued a high air pollution alert across the capital.

A diesel particulate filter, or DPF, captures and stores dangerous emissions. It can be found at the back of a diesel exhaust system and can reduce emissions from a vehicle by around 80%. In some instances, a faulty DPF is responsible for the same amount of pollution as a three-lane, 360-mile traffic jam. That is the distance between my constituency of Huddersfield and Land’s End in Cornwall. That truly terrifying fact must spur us on to identify and remove dangerous faulty filters. I emphasise that just one faulty filter in one car can spread that amount of poison.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has been quite insistent and persistent in highlighting this issue. He said that a faulty DPF on a single vehicle can cause the same amount of pollution as a 360-mile traffic jam. Does he agree that while we are putting fresh restrictions on business and manufacturing, there is a simple and effective way of cutting emissions? If so, will he put forward his ideas?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and he is absolutely right; I will address his point during my remarks.

Increased particulate matter testing during the MOT would ensure that we identified faulty DPFs that are not picked in the current testing regime. I am pleased to see, from the Government’s open consultation on the MOT, which was published last week, that the Government want to adopt particulate number testing.

As chair of the Westminster Commission for Road Air Quality, I have been campaigning on this issue for a long time, and it looks as though we are making some progress at last. If the Government are looking for a legislative vehicle, my Motor Vehicle Tests (Diesel Particulate Filters) Bill is due for Second Reading on 24 March. I am very happy to share it, and all credit for it, with the Minister.

Before I speak more about changes that we can make to the MOT, it is worth dwelling on the life-changing harmful effects of air pollution, which my Bill would help to mitigate. It is estimated that up to 36,000 people die prematurely each year from the effects of air pollution in our country. The total cost to the NHS and social care will be £1.5 billion by 2025 and £5.1 billion by 2035.

The hon. Gentleman is making a really important point. He will know that today would have been the birthday of Ella Kissi-Debrah, the child who tragically died aged nine, and who was the first person in this country to have air pollution as the cause of death on her death certificate. He will also know that I am trying to pass a Bill on clean air. Does he agree that the Government’s targets for PM2.5 are utterly unambitious, and that they ought to adopt the target that the World Health Organisation put forward in 2021 of 5 mg per cubic metre?

I was in a statutory instrument Committee with the hon. Lady only yesterday. I can assure her that we have the same intention for the Government, and I totally agree that the Government’s ambition—and the ambition of all of us—has to be raised.

The total cost to the NHS and social care of this plague of dirty, filthy air will be extreme. The cost of inaction is fatal to people up and down our country and the services that they rely on. Reducing particulate matter in the atmosphere must be a public health priority. Particulate matter is made up of tiny, invisible solids and liquids that can permeate our bodies. It has a harmful impact on human health, and mainly comes from vehicles, plant equipment and industry.

Mr Hollobone, you are too young to remember the 1950s and the smog. People took action about smog because they could see it and smell it. It was everywhere, and it was disgusting. This is even more poisonous, but it is invisible. That is why the issue is so important.

Two of the key measures are PM2.5 and PM10—in other words, bits of matter that are smaller than 2.5 or 10 micrometres in diameter. I am sorry that this is a bit technical, but the danger of such small matter is that it can enter our bloodstream, which causes irreversible damage to our respiratory system and our other organs. That was the case for those 36,000 individuals in the UK this year—and every year—whose premature deaths are attributed to air pollution. It has also been known to contribute to asthma and a variety of breathing difficulties.

Many of us have the privilege of hearing astoundingly good visiting speakers in this place. Sir Stephen Holgate addressed a group of us who care about air pollution. I remember sitting up when he said that not only do these dreadful things happen to pregnant women, children and the elderly, but these impurities in the air accelerate the ageing process. That galvanised me into keen interest. Air pollution has life-changing consequences for everyone, from children to the elderly. The Australian Government have found that elderly adults are more likely to be affected by unclean air. It can cause strokes, heart disease and lung disease.

Air pollution harms people in every community in the country, including us, right here on the parliamentary estate. Since June, I have been recording air pollution in Parliament with a handheld air quality monitor and a large state-of-the-art device in my office on the fifth floor of Portcullis House. Air pollution on the parliamentary estate is consistently above the World Health Organisation’s recommended limit. The average level of PM2.5 on the estate was 5.3 micrograms per cubic centimetre. That is above the World Health Organisation’s recommended limit of 5.

More worryingly, there were significant spikes; the highest ever reading came in at 8.65 micrograms per cubic centimetre and, during the summer heat, there was a 14-day period when average daily levels of PM2.5 remained at 5.3 or above. That is remarkable. In my office, nitrogen dioxide levels were, on average, four times above the WHO guidelines. In the entire monitoring period, nitrogen dioxide was never at a safe level. [Interruption.] Excuse me for two seconds, Mr Hollobone. I have a very dry mouth due to a medical condition, so your patience is much appreciated.

Much of the blame for air pollution on the estate and across the country lies with vehicles and the pollution that they pump out, often because of faulty diesel particulate filters. However, there are chinks of daylight and good news, as the country moves slowly in the right direction. In 2014 and 2018, MOT tests became marginally more rigorous to ensure the proper working of these filters. However, we still have progress to make on this issue. The debate is topical, as the Department for Transport released its consultation last week. I am glad the Government have recognised the need for further progress in emissions testing, and that they understand that particulate number testing is the right thing to do. Governments across Europe have successfully implemented these tests: the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium have all adopted the higher standards.

The Dutch are making great progress, using a very sensitive particulate technology, set at 250,000 particles per cubic centimetre, which is much tougher. We have 10 times as many vehicles with problems with particulates than in the Netherlands. Considering that the UK has more than 10 times more diesel vehicles on the road than the Dutch, it is plain to see that we would make significant progress if we followed our European partners.

Lastly, I ask the Minister to share any data his Department has prepared on the cost of introducing the testing. We know that there will be an expense, and that testing centres and garages will have to bear it. However, the equipment is now not that expensive and it is getting cheaper. We also know that there will be an individual cost to cover a more rigorous MOT. We believe in that investment, whether it comes from the Government with direct support or grants, or from the vast vehicle manufacturers across Europe that could contribute.

The studies I have seen demonstrate that fit-for-purpose monitoring is available and affordable. Additionally, making the test stricter will result in more failed vehicles, which will be a problem. However, in that transition we will see real change. We will take old and more polluting vehicles off the roads for good, and replace them with electric, and even hydrogen, vehicles, which will be much healthier for all of us. As we wait for the next steps of the MOT consultation, I urge the Minister to follow through on his Department’s ambitions.

Particulate matter testing in the MOT would make an enormous difference in the fight to reduce air pollution. In our new year reception for the Westminster commission, it was an honour to hear from Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) just mentioned, whose daughter Ella was the first person in the UK to have air pollution registered as their cause of death. Today would have been Ella’s 19th birthday, and I am honoured that we have had the opportunity to remember her.

As a father and grandfather, I find it impossible not to be moved by Ella’s story—a young child whose life was taken far too early. Sadly, Ella is not the only one; there are many more children like her who are currently at risk from the toxic fumes engulfing our urban centres. It is for people like Ella that the Government must follow through on their proposal to tackle the filthy air that is so poisonous and harmful. I spoke last week in Harrogate with a professor of chemistry from York University, who said that if we want to know where people are breathing in the worst, most poisonous air, we must look at the poorest areas of our country.

Air pollution is an invisible, insidious, silent killer, and we have a unique opportunity now to make a small change that would make a great difference. I say to the Minister and other colleagues, let us take this step together and move closer to achieving a goal, which we could share across the House: that our children, grandchildren, friends, family and loved ones are united in their desire for the inalienable right to breathe clean air.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing a debate on such an important topic, which affects not only the owners of diesel vehicles but all of us affected by air pollutants from vehicles. He has been a staunch advocate of action to tackle these problems in his role as chairman of the Westminster Commission for Road Air Quality. We know each other well from his work on road safety. It is great to see him again pressing an important cause, which I know he cares deeply about, especially on what would have been Ella’s 19th birthday.

The hon. Member has eloquently explained the reasons that action is needed, especially to deal with the harmful substances called particulates, which have been linked to a number of serious health problems. Diesel engines have historically had higher emissions of nitrous oxides and particulate matter. In urban areas with large amounts of slow-moving traffic, that can result in an increased risk of harm for residents, including of respiratory illness. He was right to point out that it is often the most densely populated and poorest areas that suffer the most.

In the long term, we are committed to moving from vehicles based on internal combustion engines to zero-emission vehicles. The sale of new petrol and diesel cars will end by 2030. However, that does not mean that petrol and diesel cars will be off our roads immediately. In fact, they will still be on our roads for a considerable period, so we need to tackle pollution from such vehicles.

Considerable progress has been made. Since 2013, all new diesel vehicles have had to meet limits on the number of particulates emitted from their exhausts. That has resulted in diesel particulate filters, or DPFs, being fitted as standard. The effectiveness of DPFs is shown by their impact on emissions. As the hon. Member mentioned, removing a diesel particulate filter from a vehicle’s exhaust can increase harmful pollutants by up to 1,000 times. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) echoed that point.

Since 2014, MOT tests have included a check that diesel filters are in place and functioning. However, the Government recognise that the MOT test is not effective in measuring particulate emissions and in checking that DPFs are in place. The smoke opacity test, which is part of the MOT test, measures only the density of smoke and not the level of particulates. It is often difficult to check visually whether a DPF is in place because of its positioning within a vehicle’s exhaust system. We have made it clear in our current MOT consultation that we are committed to implementing more effective testing of particulate emissions from diesel vehicles in order to identify and deal with those that have excessive emissions.

There has been substantial progress in developing particulate number testing. As the hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned, some European countries have already introduced it, and some are doing it to much more effective standards than ourselves. In the UK, the Driving and Vehicle Standards Agency has been trialling the use of particulate number testing machines, mainly on heavy goods vehicles but on some light goods vehicles as well. Those pilots have provided us with a better understanding of how changes could be implemented to introduce PN testing and to ensure that particulate filters are present and working.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield raised the important issue of cost. With the potential cost of these changes falling on our network of 23,500 MOT garages, many of which are small local businesses, we want to ensure the measures are effective and proportionate, and will help to tackle the issue. The typical cost of a particulate number testing device is currently between £3,500 and £6,100. However, after discussion with equipment manufacturers, we believe the cost may well drop substantially as demand increases off the back of any Government decision to implement the device in an MOT test.

Does the Minister agree that the auto industry has some responsibility here? It would be wonderful if big companies such as Volkswagen, which must have a guilty conscience in some ways about this issue, could put some resources in to ease the transition.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We would certainly welcome any private sector investment, particularly from large businesses, to help ease the cost for some of our garages, which are often either small or owner-run businesses in constituencies up and down the country.

We hope that a big increase in demand would see that supply increase and costs decrease. At current prices, introducing PN testing would cost approximately £100 million to the sector but, as I said, if it was rolled out nationally we could see that figure substantially reduce. I agree with the hon. Member for Huddersfield that it would be great to see some innovation from some large car manufacturers in this space.

I missed mentioning the name of that fine chemist from the University of York: Professor Al Lewis. I did not mention his name, but he is the one who has been measuring the levels of pollution so scientifically and said, “If you want to know where it is most polluted, it is where the poorest people live.”

It is always wise that we parliamentarians realise that we stand on the shoulders of our researchers—or, in my case, my civil servants—and those who do so much externally to provide us with the background for these debates and the policies we push for. It is great to hear the hon. Gentleman paying tribute to those who work in research.

We are seeking views on particulate number testing in the consultation on MOT reforms, which we published last week. I hope the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and others will take part and feed into that interesting and important consultation. The case for introducing PN testing is clear; we now need the evidence to understand how and when we should make this change, and its impact.

We all have the same aim in reducing harmful emissions from road vehicles, including from diesel-powered cars. As the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, this is an invisible poison that we need to tackle. We are taking the matter seriously, and we encourage all those with an interest to respond to the consultation and help to provide the evidence we need to make further progress in reducing diesel emissions in the near future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.