HC Deb 11 May 1981 vol 4 cc483-91
The Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services (Mr. Tom King)

With permission, I will make a statement on Government action on environmental pollution by lead.

The Government have now completed their review of policy, in the light of the report by the working party, under the chairmanship of Professor Lawther, set up by the then Secretary of State for Social Services. The Government accept the general conclusion of the report that current policy needs to be tightened in a number of respects, building on what has already been achieved.

The report makes clear the need to improve our knowledge of the effects of lead in our environment, and particularly of possible effects on children's intelligence. Some studies have been completed on this, and more are in hand. The Government have invited the Medical Reseach Council to commission a major study in this area.

The report emphasises the importance of a comprehensive approach towards tackling the problems of lead pollution. I have placed in the Vote Office a paper outlining the Government's response to the detailed recommendations in the report. In this statement I shall deal with the main points.

First, on the subject of paint, the real problem is not paint currently on sale to the public—most of which is virtually lead-free—but old paintwork in many houses and other buildings. This will be tackled by information and advice to local authorities, and by increased emphasis in health education programmes on ways to counter the hazards. There will be early discussion with the local authority associations on this and on other matters concerning local authorities.

Secondly, with regard to water, high levels of lead can occur in drinking water in some areas. The problem arises only in the minority of households that have both lead-solvent water and lead plumbing. Water authorities have been working to identify the problem areas and are taking steps to tackle the problem at source. This work is being pressed ahead as rapidly as possible. Meanwhile, water authorities, local authorities and area health authorities are being asked to co-operate to provide information and advice to people who may be affected.

In some cases, and particularly where drinking water comes from lead-lined tanks, the only answer is to alter the plumbing. The Government propose that such work should be eligible for home improvement grants. This will be considered in consultation with the local authority associations. My right hon. Friend will be taking corresponding action in Scotland, where there is a particularly severe problem in those areas where lead-lined tanks are common.

Thirdly, in relation to food, new regulations covering the maximum permitted levels of lead in food offered for sale came into force last year. The Food Additives and Contaminants Committee has already been asked to study the implications of the use of lead solder in cans in its study of metals in canned foods.

Finally, on emissions of lead to air, the Lawther report recommends an air quality standard for lead of 2 micrograms per cubic metre. The Government agree that this standard, which is also proposed in a draft European Communities directive, should be adopted.

On the control of industrial emissions, current powers are adequate to allow the proposed standard to be met. But, as the figures quoted by Lawther show, the standard cannot be met in some areas of heavy traffic. Petrol-lead emissions may also result in high levels of lead in dust, and may contribute to lead in food.

The Government have decided that the maximum permitted lead content of petrol should be reduced as far as is possible, without ruling out the continued use of car engines of present design—that is, from the present limit of 0.40 grams per litre to 0.15 grams per litre. This will reduce by about two-thirds lead emissions from cars some 10 years earlier than any other practicable method.

The aim will be to introduce the new limit not later than the end of 1985. The oil industry will need to install substantial new plant in order to produce the new low-lead petrol in sufficient quantities. We shall discuss the practical requirements with the industry. There will in time be some increase in the cost of producing petrol, but we believe that such extra costs are reasonable in relation to the environmental benefits of an early and substantial reduction in lead emissions.

Professor Lawther's report warned of the need to take further effective action to deal with lead pollution. The measures that I have announced today show the Government's acceptance of the importance of his report and our intention to take all necessary steps to reduce the hazards arising from lead in our environment.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)

We welcome the concern of the Government and the steps that have been announced, but is the Minister aware that the Opposition are extremely disappointed on the main issue of principle, namely, lead in petrol? We believe that this is the wrong decision, given the two options before the Government of either reducing the maximum to 0.15 grams per litre or going for lead-free petrol immediately. We believe that the latter decision should have been taken now. Is it not inevitable that the environmental and health considerations and the developing public opinion on the subject will combine to make that part of the Government's decision obsolete well before it is implemented? The Opposition will certainly go for lead-free petrol. We believe that it would have been better to give industry and the motorist the necessary time to adjust to that fundamental decision.

We welcome the Minister's announcements on food, water and paint, but as the Government have cut back resources for the water authorities, can the Minister assure us that the authorities will have the resources to meet the costs, which are likely to be substantial, especially in the older cities? Is it adequate to offer a 50 per cent. grant to people living in the centres of old cities such as Glasgow and those in Lancashire? Should not this cost be undertaken by the whole community? What will be Government's response if large numbers of those citizens say that they cannot afford to replace their lead pipes or tanks?

Why, too, has there been the political delay of 18 months before the Minister's announcement today? The Labour Government reduced the amount of lead in petrol on four occasions. We set up the Watlip inquiry that reported in July 1979, and the Lawther working party which reported in March 1980. It is clear from all the leaks over the past year that there has been a departmental dog-fight within the Government, in which the Treasury has routed the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health and Social Security. The House itself has not been consulted. Certainly, we shall wish to have a debate at an early opportunity.

On the question of health, I am sure that the Minister will agree, as he said in his statement, that the absorption of lead into the body by any means is an evil that we should not discount. Even since the Lawther committee reported, two of its members—Doctors Lansdown and Yule—have produced further significant information, which suggests that the decision to go for lead-free petrol ought to be taken now and that the major study that the Minister has announced can only be described as a further development of the policy of procrastination that seems to have been pursued over the past year or so.

Finally, does the Minister agree that the whole of industry would prefer the major decision to be taken now? We shall get the worst of both worlds by reducing the maximum to 0.15 grams per litre in 1985 and then having the further expense of going to a zero level later. The decision is not in the interests of the motor industry or the oil industry, and it is certainly not in the interests of future generations of young children. We must therefore register our grave disappointment with it.

Mr. King

I am well aware of the right hon. Gentleman's long interest in this subject. Having replied on behalf of the previous Government and been unable to announce much progress, I appreciate that he feels a certain frustration at having to respond to my statement.

It is a little unfair to accuse the Government of taking 18 months to respond to a report that was published only a year or so ago. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is the Lawther report to which I am responding.

At this stage it is not possible to indicate the costs that will fall on the water authorities. The first aim of the water authorities is either to change the sources of what is called plumbo-solvent or lead-solvent water or to treat the water. In every case, that need not necessarily be an expensive process. It is only if those two options fail that one is forced to consider the alternatives of changes in the plumbing to which I have referred and in respect of which costs could fall on the water authorities as well.

The right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment on press accounts about the Treasury's routing of the Department of the Environment. However, according to the accounts that I saw, the Treasury are pressing for no home improvement grant allowance and for a 0.35 grams level of lead in petrol. I do not comment on press stories, but what I have said today does not entirely bear out the statements contained in those stories, nor are they entirely in line with the collective decisions of the Government to pursue a sensible environmental policy to tackle lead pollution.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the Opposition would prefer to follow the lead-free route. I mentioned that I have placed in the Vote Office a copy of the documents, which show the detailed response to the Lawther report. There is a graph at the back of that document which, on the evidence available, shows the relative effect as to the time at which any improvement would be noticed. The Opposition's policy would result in a slower improvement in lead pollution. On the evidence available to me, it would be 25 years before we achieved the position that I have recommended should be implemented from 1985.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to allow questions on the statement to run until 4 o'clock. If questions and answers are brief I should be able to accommodate nearly every hon. Member who wishes to intervene.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Will the Minister give an assurance that corresponding measures on paint and water will be carried out simultaneously by Northern Ireland Ministers?

Mr. King

I have made the statement on behalf of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there will be general satisfaction at the prospect of a speedy drop of two-thirds in the level of lead in petrol over the next four years? Is it true, as has been suggested in the press, that there has been a deal or understanding with the oil industry, namely, that in exchange for a level of 0.15 grams there will be no declaration of intent to move to lead-free petrol?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that over the last 10 years, by a comprehensive programme that has attacked not only lead in petrol but other toxic gases emitted from motor cars, the United States has developed technologies that have enabled a barrel of crude oil to send a car for more miles? Will he therefore consider a comprehensive review, in the United Kingdom, of all the toxic elements generated by automobiles?

Mr. King

I m grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks. I saw the Sunday newspaper account about a deal and I am glad to have the opportunity to make it quite clear that it is totally untrue and that there is no such deal. My hon. Friend raised an important point when he referred to other emissions. In that connection, we are considering the monitoring arrangements for all other emissions as well.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

What figure presently applies in Germany which corresponds to the 0.15 figure that the right hon. Gentleman has announced for Britain? What is the relationship between the study referred to at the beginning of his statement and the investigations, now being carried out in Islington and elsewhere, that have been sponsored by the EEC?

Mr. King

The level in Germany is 0.15. At present, the level in other EEC countries varies between 0.4 arid 0.15. I shall be tabling a paper on the other study tomorrow.

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

Would it not have been preferable to move rather more swiftly to the introduction of totally lead-free petrol and then turn all the pressure open to Government and private industry to persuade motorists to move to its use, as that has been a successful approach in many other countries?

Mr. King

If my hon. Friend studies the chart contained in the document that I have placed in the Vote Office he will see that the earliest and most significant reduction in lead emission will be achieved by the move to a level of 0.15. On all the evidence available to the Government, first, the move to lead-free petrol would take longer to introduce and, secondly, the cumulative effect would take place much more slowly.

Mr. Kenneth Marks (Manchester, Gorton)

Does the Minister agree that a certain group of people and localities are most severely affected, namely, young children who get the exhaust smoke straight in their faces and are nearer the dust, and those localities that have the highest concentration of vehicles, lead water pipes and factories that use lead? Will he go further and pay grant for the changeover from lead water pipes, even if there is no general improvement in the home?

Mr. King

It is our intention that people should be eligible for this grant on its own rather than as part of a general improvement grant. The hon. Gentleman will find clarification of that point in the supporting literature that is available in the Vote Office.

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)

As motorists are particularly concerned about the high octane rating of the car, will my right hon. Friend ensure that lead-tolerant catalysts are developed and additional additives put in? Otherwise, the price of petrol could go up considerably prior to 1985.

Mr. King

With respect, that is a responsibility of the motor industry. I have set out the Government's views on a ceiling for the level of lead in petrol and I have set the date from which that will be effective. I have made it clear in my statement that there will be immediate discussions with the oil industry, and I hope that by agreement it will be possible to achieve that at an earlier date. It will then be necessary for the motor car industry to adjust itself to the new situation that I have announced.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I welcome the report, but is the Minister aware that as long ago as 1971 both BP and Shell said that they could produce petrol without lead? Why have the Government decided to dismiss that alternative? How many young children are likely to be affected during the next five years by the continued use of lead in petrol at its present level?

Mr. King

It is not merely a question of what the oil companies can do; it is also a question of what cars can use. If there were an immediate move to lead-free petrol as from tomorrow, the vast bulk of cars in Britain could not use it. The problem is to achieve the changeover. The advantage of my announcement is that, subject to capital investment by the oil industry for further refining capacity, it will be possible for petrol with the lower level of lead to be used in existing motor cars. It will therefore be possible to make a much quicker shift. That is why we have chosen this route.

If one went down the lead-free route one would have to allow a reasonable period of transition. It would be necessary to design and produce new motor cars, which used lead-free petrol, and to bring them into general use. Although the United States introduced lead-free petrol in 1974, still only half the motor cars there are able to use lead-free petrol.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Has my right hon. Friend looked into the possibility of accommodating lead-free petrol in existing engines by using petrol alcohol blends? Could we not exchange North Sea oil, which Brazil needs, for the alcohol fuel that is produced in Brazil, which we need? In that way, we could produce blended alcohol and oil-based fuels that could be used in existing engines without a tetra-ethyl lead element in it.

Mr. King

I hesitate to engage my hon. Friend in discussion on such technical matters. I think, Mr. Speaker, that you will agree that my hon. Friend has a rare ability to introduce a new angle to any subject under discussion in the House. I should like to consider the point that he has raised.

Mr. Neil Carmichael (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)

I congratulate the Minister on his statement, and particularly on his comments on domestic lead supplies, but is he aware that in the central belt of Scotland the water is very soft and that particular dangers therefore arise? Is he further aware that as many of the houses are old and carcassed in lead piping, special arrangements will have to be made to help the local authorities to provide the money for conversions? Has the right hon. Gentleman had talks with Scottish Ministers on that subject?

Mr. King

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and his colleagues have been very much involved in the discussions. All those concerned recognise that there is a widespread problem in Scotland. The size of the problem is about the same as that found in England, but in terms of Scotland's population the problem is much greater.

Mr. John Bruce-Gardyne (Knutsford)

As one who has cycled daily in central London for the past 20 years, may I ask my right hon. Friend to remind the House of what the Lawther committee said about lead emissions from petrol? Did it not say that it was unable to detect any significant health hazard as a result of such lead emissions? What is my right hon. Friend's best estimate of the total cost of his statement to public funds, and of the aggregate cost to consumers?

Mr. King

Although I understand that an impression may have been gained in some quarters that Professor Lawther felt that there was no need for action in that respect, that is not correct. He drew attention to the need to match the lead-in-air standard, and made it clear that the lead content of petrol was one of the factors that gave rise to excessive lead-in-air concentrations in Britain. That point should be made clear. My hon. Friend will be aware that further work has been done and several studies have emerged since the Lawther report, which reinforce the concern felt.

The total annual cost is estimated to be about £200 million. The cost to the consumer is likely to be incurred in 1985, or thereafter. For the motorist, it will amount to about £25 a year. I hesitate to give figures for additional costs on petrol prices so far ahead as 1985. At present, our best estimate is about 4p per gallon.

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

How long did Germany take to put the change into operation? Furthermore, how long did the change take in the United States of America? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Rushmore infants school, in my constituency, was found by the Inner London Education Authority to have 10 times the level of lead in dust recommended by the environmental authorities of the EEC and the United States of America? What comfort can be given to the parents of those children?

Mr. King

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I should need to check the exact length of time involved. The test is how quickly the oil industry can adapt its refining capacity to produce adequate supplies of fuel with the equivalent octane level but with a lower lead content. That will involve additional refining capacity. That is the yardstick that we used for setting the length of time. As I have sought to make clear in my statement and in the answers that I have given, I hope that we shall be able, in discussion, to improve on that date.

It is precisely as a result of our concern about the difficulties faced in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and several other inner city constituencies that we have acted in order to achieve the earliest possible reduction in lead levels. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will co-operate and will help to put across information about the other areas of hazard. There is a tendency to concentrate exclusively on lead in petrol. Professor Lawther drew particular attention to other significant problems, not least that of canned food.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

Although I warmly welcome the decision taken by my right hon. Friend and by the Government, will my right hon. Friend tell the House why it is so much more difficult to move from 0.15 to zero? That is not entirely clear to me.

Mr. King

It is a question of time lag, and of bringing into use cars that can use lead-free petrol. If one allows for the time lag that we believe will inevitably be involved, one must face the fact that time will be lost in reducing the amount of lead in the air and, therefore, in reducing lead pollution of the atmosphere. I hope that the graph in the Vote Office will make that point clear to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

As the Minister now apparently accepts the scientific evidence of the effect of such pollution on young children, will he not go beyond the figure of 0.15 and give a timetable for lead-free petrol? Is he aware of the report of the Environmental Health Officers Association, to the effect that many local authorities in England and Wales no longer give discretionary grants because of the Government's cuts in housing? Will he bear in mind that the new housing improvement grant that he mentioned may have no effect, because of overall Government cuts?

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman's latter point is a matter for individual local authorities. Some local authorities will mot need to make such grants available. I should not want the statement to be misunderstood. This is a serious statement, but it is not a cause for general alarm throughout the country. Hon. Members should be aware that there are areas and pockets of concern. In England, the water problem is confined to a limited part of the country. In Scotland, the problem is more prevalent. There is not a national traffic problem. As for the medical evidence, the pilot studies give cause for concern. The hon. Gentleman said that I apparently accepted the medical evidence. I mentioned the need for a wider study, and the Government have made a request to the Medical Research Council.

Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)

Why have my right hon. and hon. Friends rejected the use of exhaust filters, which have the triple advantage of practically eliminating lead emissions, avoiding the reconstruction of refineries, and providing many extra jobs?

Mr. King

I understand that such filters would not work with the low-level lead content that we have proposed. Our proposals are for the quickest way to reduce lead pollution in the atmosphere. The lead content in petrol is the most serious car pollutant.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

Given the crucial importance of lead-free petrol to the health of the nation, will the Minister come clean and tell us how long his Department has had the Lawther report?

Mr. King

The Government received the report in March 1980.

Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, but will he bear in mind that there is a balance between other emissions and lead? As some of my hon. Friends have said, if we put the control of other emissions to one side by controlling lead we may make future problems more serious.

Mr. King

I entirely understand why my hon Friend raised that point. I have already told the House why we have taken this decision on the seriousness of the problem and why we believe that we should take the earliest possible action on lead pollution.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)

Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the increasing evidence that any lead in petrol is dangerous to the health of children, in that it causes mental retardation and behavioural difficulties?

Further, will the Minister comment on the scientific suggestion that by lowering the level of lead in petrol smaller particles will be emitted from motor cars and that these will be more easily absorbed into the human body?

Finally, in his statement has the right hon. Gentleman been influenced by the EEC directive of 1978, which suggested a lower allowable limit of 0.15 per cent.?

Mr. King

It is precisely because we accept the hazards of lead pollution that we have sought to achieve a solution that gives the earliest possible reduction in lead levels.

I am not aware of the second matter raised by the hon. Gentleman, and I should like to look into it.

On the third point, although the EEC directive fixes the minimum level in the Community, there is nothing to prevent the use of a lower level in this country.

Mr. Denis Howell

Will the Minister now explain his 25-year reference? I have had an opportunity to look at the graph. Is it not clear that it is a little misleading? Is it not possible to have a reduction programme simultaneously with the announcement of a lead-free policy to follow it? Why have other countries been able to announce lead-free programmes without any reference to 25 years? Indeed, lead-free petrol is now available in many countries.

Secondly, the Minister said that the annual cost would be £200 million a year—£25 a year for the motorist and 4p a gallon on petrol. What would be the additional cost if we took the decision to have lead-free petrol?

The question of water authorities and local authorities is an important one, as the Minister said. Will he assure the House that the funds for an extensive programme of re-equipping water supply, where necessary, will be made available?

In view of the importance of this subject and the ground to be investigated and covered, we would hope to have an early debate on the whole matter.

Mr. King

The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the last point is a matter not for me but for my right hon. Friend the Leader of House. However, I should welcome that opportunity if it were possible.

I cannot explain across the Floor of the House how the right hon. Gentleman should read the graph. This is a cumulative matter. The right hon. Gentleman will find that the cumulative reduction—this point has been made by all people writing on the subject—will not be achieved by an equivalent amount in the lead-free system until the date that I have given.

The right hon. Gentleman asked how the costs of lead-free petrol would compare. As against the £200 million for the 0.15 per cent., the total cost would be £350 million and the average cost to the motorist would be £50, not £25.