HC Deb 25 July 1960 vol 627 cc1246-58

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Dudley Smith (Brentford and Chiswick)

Although the hour is somewhat late, I welcome the opportunity of raising the question of diesel fumes from motor vehicles, particularly lorries, if only because I have three of the busiest roads in London running through my constituency—the North Circular Road, the Great West Road, and the Cromwell Road extension—all of which are used extensively by heavy traffic.

In the time that I have been a Member of this House I have had many letters of complaint, and there is considerable public concern judging by the letters which appear in the Press from time to time. Besides the annoyance and the inconvenience of diesel fumes, there is a very real danger to road safety from them. Clouds of black, oily smoke pour from lorries, usually in the course of getting increased speed or extra power for hills.

Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have shown an interest in this subject. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) here, and if I am not too long I hope that he may catch your eye, Mr. Speaker. He has campaigned extensively on diesel fumes. I have studied some of the Parliamentary Answers over the past year on this subject; admittedly, not all of them come within the orbit of my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport. I am forced to the conclusion a certain amount of stonewalling has taken place on some of them, and I would like to give one or two examples.

In reply to a question by Mr. Ernest Davies, then the hon. Member for Enfield, East, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works said, on 21st July, in answering for the Minister of Science: …the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research…has made it perfectly clear that if the engines are properly maintained, as they should be, these excess fumes which we find so objectionable need not be produced: I am afraid that enforcement is not within the authority of my noble Friend. Pressed further by the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. P. Noel-Baker), he said: The regulations are clear. If it can be shown that vehicles are emitting fumes which are dangerous there are powers to deal with them, but that is a matter for those who enforce the regulation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st July, 1959; Vol. 609, c. 1047.] On 29th July, the Home Secretary told the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) that figures for prosecutions for offences of this type were not available, although, he added, there had been 64 prosecutions in the Metropolitan area in the past year for emitting smoke, but there was no record of the types of vehicle involved.

Last November, my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham suggested that to make the task of the courts simpler, the Construction and Use Regulations, which cover this matter, should be amended by adding a reference to "annoyance and inconvenience." The Minister of Transport said then that he would have that suggestion examined and that he was "going into the question carefully".

On 28th January this year, the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department said that the existing powers were regarded by the police as reasonably satisfactory and that careful consideration was being given to the suggestion for amending the appropriate regulations. On 17th March last he told me that there were 72 prosecutions in the Metropolitan district in 1959, under the regulations, but that no record was kept of the types of vehicle concerned. He added that the police were anxious to enforce the law. On 20th March my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport told me that he was sure that vehicle owners and drivers were, in general, aware of the regulations and the penalties for breaking them. He said that he would certainly consider what further action he could take to give increased publicity to this matter.

There have been many other Questions on this subject, but I submit that while the offences still continue on an increasing scale the prosecutions are comparatively rare, considering the number of daily incidents that the, public and hon. Members, as motorists, come across. The emission of these diesel fumes causes frustration and irritation to motorists, particularly those who drive for their livelihood. I am told that on any week day there are about 30,000 commercial travellers on the roads and, increasingly, they are having to cope with this problem.

They have sent in repeated protests to their professional organisation and they say that in winter they have to turn off the heaters in their cars when following some of these vehicles to prevent poisonous fumes being drawn into their cars. They say that they sometimes have to draw in to the side of the road after following such a vehicle, to get a much-needed breath of fresh air.

There is a safety aspect to this matter. Finding themselves enveloped in these fumes and smoke, many motorists are tempted to take a chance and pull out to overtake while "blind". On some of our roads, large lorries give little scope for that. It may be bad Highway Code practice, but it is human nature when one has been following a lorry emitting these fumes. I have seen dozens of examples of this as, I imagine, others also have, and I am quite sure that a number of accidents have resulted from it, although that cause is probably not shown in the statistics.

Like other hon. Members, I have had personal experience of following lorries discharging this smoke. Only a few weeks ago, I followed one for three-quarters of a mile in the Edgware district of North London. I sounded the horn of my car repeatedly, and eventually took my courage in both hands and got ahead. When I turned, I discovered that the lorry driver was laughing. It may be that he saw the red badge on the front of my ear—I do not know—but it was an annoying experience.

There are doubts as to the injuriousness of the fumes, and I believe that the Medical Research Council says that they do not necessarily contribute to lung cancer. I will not go further into that aspect tonight, although I cannot believe that the fumes do anybody any good. And I am quite certain that those who have had the experience of following a vehicle which is emitting these fumes have found afterwards that their cars are covered with black marks. Moreover, if the car is not cleaned fairly quickly, the stains corrode the bodywork.

The owners and drivers who service and maintain their vehicles properly suffer collectively from the bad name given to them by those who are too lax or too mean to do proper maintenance. An excellent example is set by London Transport. London Transport, as an authority, does not get much praise these days, but it deserves praise in this respect. It has its own servicing department, and all its vehicles are properly maintained. I have yet to see a London Transport bus letting out clouds of smoke. That applies to a large extent to London taxis, many of which are now diesel operated. The taxis, of course, are closely controlled by the Carriage Office of the Home Department, and can be stopped at any time and checked quite rigorously. As a result, very few of them emit diesel fumes.

I want to be constructive. I believe that the solution of the problem comes under four different headings. The first is the inescapable fact that correct and regular servicing can prevent the emission of black fumes. I am told that complete combustion must take place inside the engine if smoke is to be eliminated. All diesel vehicles, therefore, should be checked regularly.

Secondly, there is the adequate enforcement of the law. I appreciate that that is a matter for the police, but I suggest that the Ministry of Transport should take a more active interest in the matter, and that the Minister should seriously consider amending the Construction and Use Regulations to make them more effective. I do not think that they are very effective at present.

Thirdly, there should be more publicity on the need for proper servicing and also pointing out the dangers of committing an offence. As I have said, this has been mentioned by my right hon. Friend, in an Answer to a Parliamentary Question, but I have yet to hear of any publicity being embarked upon. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will mention this in his reply.

The fourth and, perhaps, most important point of all is that there should be more research into the problem. Several firms have produced filters and devices, and have contacted me since it was known that I had the good fortune to get this Adjournment debate. The Ministry should co-ordinate this re- search. There may be a simple and easily-applied remedy, and it might help if my right hon. Friend were to get these people together and go into the whole question. I have been given details of one device in particular, and although I do not intend to mention the names of products in this debate, I will readily pass on this information to my hon. Friend if he is interested.

I do not favour the idea that exhaust pipes should go upwards and that fumes should go out of the top, rather than from the back or the side. I know that this practice is adopted on the Continent. The oily soot spirals upwards; it may not go into the faces of drivers following behind, but it has eventually to come down and I do not think that such a solution copes properly with the problem.

I have known the Parliamentary Secretary to be most helpful in response to inquiries that I have raised with him in the past on transport matters, and I hope that tonight he will be helpful in his reply. He owes it to the thousands of motorists who already have enough problems in coping with overcrowded roads to announce a real drive to eliminate this nuisance.

I believe that there may be a ray of hope somewhere in the future, because this weekend I read that on Saturday, at St. Albans, 14 lorry drivers and their employers were summoned for allowing vehicles to make excessive smoke on the M.1. The drivers were each fined £2 and the employers £5. Afterwards, a Hertfordshire police traffic inspector said: This nuisance is particularly prevalent at the present time. It is especially dangerous on the motorway, where cars and lorries are travelling at a high speed. Many of us have known that for a long time. That is perhaps a ray of hope, and perhaps the drive to which I have referred has already started.

11.42 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. D. Smith) and congratulate him on bringing this important matter before the House even at this late hour.

There is not the slightest doubt that the trouble-makers in this respect are, by and large, lorries rather than buses, and I believe that many drivers cause this nuisance on purpose. They alter the fuel injection setting. They even have a piece of string in the driver's cab to alter the governor on the fuel injection setting to push more oil into the engine. They do this because more power is produced if they push more oil into the engine. I am told that if the governor is altered when going up Shap, the time taken to climb Shap may be reduced by 25 minutes. Also, I believe that owners of lorries are sometimes a party to this practice. They are interested in speed, and not in economy, and they may encourage their drivers to take part in this practice.

One of the remedies for the public is to report such cases to owners or to transport managers of firms. I did that the other day on M.1. I passed a lorry, and immediately I made a face at the driver he stopped emitting smoke. I reported the matter to the transport manager when I got to London and the manager was highly delighted and said, "That is just what we have been waiting for."

The police must be more active than they have been in the past. A constituent of mine reported 97 cases in my constituency or round about it to the local police, but the police were unable to take any action because, they said, "We must have the evidence of two police officers in each case before taking action." They must take more action, but to make it easier for the police to take action I urge on my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, once again, that we should alter the Construction and Use Regulations by adding the words "inconvenience and annoyance" to the words "damage and danger." I am sure that it would be possible to prosecute in these cases if those words were added. I cannot understand why it has taken the Government so long to make up their minds to make this small alteration to the Construction and Use Regulations.

I support my hon. Friend and hope that his initiative will mean that we shall have more action and some alteration in the law for the benefit of the public in due course.

11.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

On several occasions in recent years, the House has shown interest in that collection of problems which we classify under the heading of clean air, and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. D. Smith) has tonight, in this short debate, raised one aspect of the topic. I am grateful to him for doing so, because he has thereby given me an opportunity to explain to the House the nature of the problem, the legal position, and what is being done to attempt to overcome it.

I imagine that we have all suffered from time to time, either as drivers or as pedestrians, from the diesel engine vehicle, perhaps a lorry, a bus or even a taxi, which suddenly, and often without warning, emits a cloud of dark smoke. I will explain, first, what I understand to be the reason for this happening. I am told that the cause of dark smoke from diesel engines is incomplete combustion of the fuel. This almost always arises from the poor maintenance or adjustment of the engine or improper use being made, as my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) said, of an excess fuel device fitted to the engine. This device is intended to enable the engine to be started easily when cold.

As my hon. Friend explained, it is possible for a driver of such a vehicle to make use of this excess fuel device, which is controlled from the cab, to obtain extra fuel, for example, when climbing a hill. Similarly, if an engine itself is badly maintained, or wrongly adjusted, it may cause incomplete combustion of the fuel, and this leads to the emission of clouds of smoke.

Apart from the comparatively rare cases where the clouds of smoke are so dense that the view is obstructed, the great majority of complaints we receive relate to the objectionable colour and smell of the smoke. I must tell the House that the best scientific and medical advice available to us, based on long researches and investigations by the Medical Research Council, indicates that there is no immediate or long-term deleterious effect to be expected from such fumes. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Chiswick was not quite right in saying that these fumes are poisonous. They are unpleasant, but our advice is that they are not dangerous to health.

I come now to the legal position, to which both my hon. Friends referred. The question of emission of smoke and similar substances from vehicles is dealt with in two Regulations contained in the Motor Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations, 1955, which were amended in 1957. The first one is Regulation 21, which requires every motor vehicle to be so constructed that no avoidable smoke or visible vapour is emitted therefrom. The second is Regulation 79, which is in these words: No person shall use or permit to be used on a road any motor vehicle from which any smoke, visible vapour, grit, sparks, ashes, cinders or oily substance is emitted, if the emission thereof causes or is likely to cause damage to any property or injury to any person who is actually at the time or who reasonably may be expected on the road, or is likely to cause danger to any such person as aforesaid". Prior to 1957, Regulation 79 provided that the taking of any reasonable steps or the exercise of reasonable care was a defence against prosecution under the Regulation. The amendment made in 1957 removed the necessity for proving that reasonable care to prevent the emission of smoke had not been taken. This Regulation, in its present form, is now somewhat easier to enforce than the old one was.

As my hon. Friends will have understood from my reading of Regulation 79, there are three types of situation arising from the emission of smoke or fumes which create a breach of the Regulation. The first is where damage is caused to any property. The second is where injury is caused to any person. The third is where danger is caused to any person. We are advised that, as things stand now, these legal powers are adequate to cover all cases which we are likely to meet.

It is suggested sometimes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham did tonight, that we should include in the Regulation a reference to annoyance or inconvenience, or something of that kind. This is not the first time that my hon. Friend has made this suggestion. Lest he thinks that we are unduly lethargic in the Ministry of Transport, I mist tell him that we have gone a long was in discussing whether we could comply with his suggestion. We consulted the police, and they were by no means unanimous as to whether the addition of words like that would help enforcement.

The main difficulty seems to be the inadequate nature of the evidence on which a prosecution can be founded and not any shortcoming in the wording of the Regulation. Nevertheless, I assure my hon. Friend that we will certainly continue to keep the point in mind, and it may be that in due course we shall wish to amend the Regulation. We must, however, be given latitude in keeping our eye on this problem.

I come next to the general question of enforcement. It would be quite wrong to say, as some people have said, that very few prosecutions take place. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Chiswick quoted a Parliamentary Answer given by my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department some months ago, in which it was stated that, in 1959, 72 persons were prosecuted in the Metropolitan Police district for offences against this Regulation. What the Answer did not say was that in addition to those prosecutions, 101 people were given written warnings for offences against the Regulation. In addition, a large number of other people received oral warnings from police officers on the spot at the time the offence was committed.

We do not have comparable figures for the rest of the country outside London. Until the beginning of this year, statistics were not kept in such a way as to allow separate figures to be given for the number of convictions against Regulation 79. Offences against this Regulation and those against a number of other Regulations in the Construction and Use Regulations were grouped together; they were not separated out. From the beginning of this year, however, it will be possible for us to give separate figures for offences under this Regulation and under Regulation 21. namely, offences involving the emission of smoke from motor vehicles.

The difficulty in bringing prosecutions is that the assessment of what constitutes an offence is largely a matter of individual judgment. As my hon. Friend said, in many of these cases it is difficult to secure the sort of evidence that will fully satisfy a court. To aid enforcement, what we need is a simple and portable smoke-measuring instrument which will enable us to draw up a more exact Regulation and to make enforcement easier. We need some kind of mechanical Ringelmann chart which can be pointed at a vehicle when it is emitting smoke and which would give an immediate reading of the degree or volume of smoke that is coming out.

The Warren Spring laboratory of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research has had this matter under consideration for some time. It has devised a measuring instrument, but it is suitable only for use in the laboratory or in the workshop. It is an expensive instrument and is not adaptable for use on the road. So far, the laboratory has been unable to suggest any way in which a simple and portable instrument of the kind I have mentioned could be produced.

Apart from the question of police prosecutions, education of drivers and operators of fleets of vehicles in correct driving and maintenance goes on all the time. Our vehicle examiners are constantly bringing the matter to the attention of drivers and operators. We meet with a ready response from them, because a not unimportant effect of more efficient operation of vehicles is a considerable saving in fuel costs. Every time that one sees a diesel lorry, for example, belching out clouds of black smoke, one can be sure that the operator is losing money because the vehicle is not being efficiently run.

We also have under consideration the possibility of requiring the control of the excess fuel device, which I have mentioned, to be placed out of reach of the driver's seat so that he cannot use it while the vehicle is in motion to get the extra power which, perhaps, he wants to climb a hill. If we can put it in some other part of the vehicle, perhaps under the bonnet, the driver can use it when starting the vehicle from cold, but not while it is running. We have that under consideration.

The Warren Spring Laboratory, which I have just mentioned, is already doing a good deal of research into methods of reducing diesel smoke once it has been formed and emitted from the exhaust, but this again is an extremely difficult field of research. To date, it does not appear particularly promising. But in addition to this research being carried on by a Government Department, the Motor Industry Research Association has an atmospheric pollution panel composed of representatives from a very wide field of interested organisations, and M.I.R.A.'s atmospheric pollution panel has so far been principally concerned with the development of methods of measuring smoke from motor vehicles.

Further research is going on inside the industry itself on such diverse subjects as the influence of fuel from different sources, fuel additives, fuel injection equipment, design of engines, and the effect of efficient servicing and maintenance. The dominant idea behind all this section of research is to prevent the formation of pollutants rather than accepting them as something unavoidable which require removal by means of a purifier or filter device.

At the same time, research is going on in a number of foreign countries, particularly in the United States, where they have much the same problems as we have. With this research abroad Warren Spring Laboratory keeps in very close touch. The House may like to know that the Americans are meeting the same scientific problems, with apparently no greater success than we are, and that is, perhaps, a little comfort to us.

Frankly, I must tell the House that I am doubtful, and those who advise me are doubtful, whether any further or new line of research can be followed. The best hope of a solution of this problem of emission of smoke from diesel engines appears to be in continuing investigation along present lines. My hon. Friend mentioned a device which one hears about from time to time. We receive a very large number of devices; inventions and suggestions are made every year. Most of the people who put them forward make highly optimistic claims for them which, on investigation, we very seldom find to be justified, even in part. The fact is that up to date no satisfactory filter or burner has been devised. Nevertheless, in all these matters there is always a hope that something will be found fairly soon, and that a break through will take place.

I hope that what I have said tonight will make it clear to my hon. Friend and to the House as a whole that we are by no means complacent about this matter. It's a perplexing problem; it is a difficult problem. It involves not only research, but also exact legal definition of offences, the questions of enforcement, education, training, publicity, propaganda, and so on. Investigation and research are going on all the time. The legal powers to deal with offenders appear to us to be adequate at present. The police enforce the law wherever it is possible. We ourselves do all we can to educate drivers and owners of diesel engine vehicles in their proper maintenance.

I hope this debate will supplement and strengthen our attempts to bring home to drivers and owners that this anti-social practice—I think that we can justifiably call it that—is not only a wasteful practice, but is quite unnecessary. The de- bate, I think, adds very strongly to the idea my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham mentioned, that the members of the public who have to put up with this nuisance, and who follow a vehicle which is emitting clouds of black smoke, should personally take matters into their own hands, and report to the owners of the vehicle that they saw that vehicle with that registration number at a certain time at a certain place emitting clouds of black smoke.

I am quite sure that in this way owners and operators of vehicles will be able to keep a much closer watch on what goes on. It is in the interest of everyone in the country that this annoying and troublesome nuisance on our roads should be disposed of as quickly as possible. That is something that everyone in Britain can do something about.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve o'clock.