§ The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tom King)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about lead in the environment. The Royal Commission on environmental pollution has today published its report on this subject, and copies are available in the Vote Office.
In 1981 the Royal Commission decided that it would be timely to review the whole field of environmental pollution. It invited a wide range of organisations and individuals to give their views on the types of pollution which they perceived to pose the greatest threat to the environment and to comment on the Royal Commission's own provisional choice of topics for study. Environmental contamination by heavy metals was among those topics, and the response to the Royal Commission's invitation showed that the specific problem of lead was an issue of major and continuing concern to the public and the scientific community.
The Royal Commission therefore decided to complete and publish separately the results of its study of lead as soon as possible, and to report on the other matters later this year. The Government welcomed this decision, since we felt that the Royal Commission's independence and authority would be most valuable in clarifying the issues surrounding this complicated and difficult subject. I am most grateful to the chairman, Professor Southwood, and his colleagues in the Royal Commission for the prompt, thorough and comprehensive manner in which they have conducted their present study.
In its report, before discussing a range of particular problems and possible measures to deal with them, the Royal Commission reviewed the sources of lead in the environment, the pathways by which it enters living systems, and its effect on man and animals. It stresses that there is still uncertainty about the effects on individuals of the low levels of lead typical in the United Kingdom. It notes that features of lead poisoning occasionally occur at blood-lead levels of about 50 microgrammes per 100 millilitres of blood; and thatat present the average blood-lead concentration of the United Kingdom population is about one-quarter of that level.It continues:We are not aware of any other toxin which is so widely distributed in human and animal populations and which is also universally present at levels that exceed even one-tenth of that at which clinical signs and symptoms may occur.It concludes:It would be prudent to take steps to increase the safety margin for the population as a whole.The Royal Commission's report contains a number of recommendations covering all the sources of exposure to lead, including water, paint, food and drink. It commends the action already taken by the Government under the programme that I announced to the House two years ago. It now recommends further action in certain areas. For example, early completion of our programme for treating naturally acidic drinking water to reduce its lead solvency and extension of the grants we offer for lead plumbing replacement; a progressive reduction in the lead level of new household paint; more publicity about the hazards of old leaded paint and how to avoid them; and a tightening up on emissions from lead processing works. We shall bring forward an early response to those recommendations.
22 There is, however, one recommendation which the Royal Commission believes should be the subject of immediate action by tge Government and on which an early announcement is desirable. This relates to future policy on levels of lead in petrol. I announced two years ago that we would require the compulsory reduction of the maximum permitted level of petrol lead from 0.4 to 0.15 grammes per litre by the end of 1985. This action, applying to every vehicle, was the most effective way of achieving the largest possible reduction in the shortest possible time. The Royal Commission strongly endorses this decision; and it now recommends that it should be regarded as an intermediate stage in the phasing out of lead additives altogether, with the requirement that from an early date all new vehicles should be required to use 92 octane lead-free petrol. The Royal Commission estimates that the cost of this change would be small in relation to the likely gains in fuel efficiency over the next few years.
The Royal Commission believes that the motor manufacturing industry would have no insuperable difficulty in making the transition. But it recognises that the car industry which supplies our market is organised on a European basis; and Community directive 78i611 lays down 0.15 grammes per litre as the minimum lead content that member states may stipulate in their own legislation. The change which the Royal Commission proposes requires Community agreement, and it recommends that we initiate negotiations immediately with our European partners.
I can now tell the House that the Government accept the Royal Commission's recommendations on lead in petrol. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be writing to our opposite numbers in the Community immediately to set out the United Kingdom's position, with a view to opening formal negotiations as soon as possible. We shall also, of course, discuss with the United Kingdom oil and motor industries a timetable for the introduction of unleaded petrol.
Typical blood-lead levels in the United Kingdom are low and dropping. Substantial research efforts have so far shown no conclusive evidence that these typical levels have adverse effects on the health of children or adults. But it is, and has been throughout, the Government's policy to increase the safety margin wherever possible, and while lead in petrol is not the largest contributor to the average body burden, it is the largest that is controllable on a national basis.
Our acceptance of these recommendations of the Royal Commission, following the previous decision to reduce lead in petrol for all vehicles to 0.15 grammes per litre from 1985, represents the best possible route to achieve the earliest and most substantial reduction in petrol lead coupled with its eventual elimination.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)
Her Majesty's Opposition welcome the report and congratulate the Royal Commission on it. I thank the commission for sending me an advance copy of the report so that I had a little time to study it.
We welcome the report as a significant milestone in the campaign against lead in the environment. We accept its recommendations, including the valuable recommendations of home improvement and repair grants for the removal of lead from plumbing and the reduction of lead in paint.
23 We note with interest the Government's U-turn on the removal of lead from petrol—[Interruption.] Far from giving a blanket endorsement of the Government's decision two years ago to reduce the lead content from 0.40 grammes per litre to 0.15, the Royal Commission draws attention to the increased costs to the relevant industries of that policy as distinct from a decision to eliminate lead from petrol outright. In paragraph 7.85 it states thatcompanies are likely to take the view that the transitional stage is likely to be too long (or the prospect of European agreement on unleaded petrol too uncertain) to justify postponement or modification of the investment already planned.When, two years ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birminghan, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) recommended an immediate policy of removing lead from petrol, the Secretary of State said that our policy would result in a slower improvement in lead pollution. Will the right hon. Gentleman now say that the adoption by him of what we recommended two years ago will lead to a slower improvement?
The Secretary of State said:On the evidence available to me, it would be 25 years before we achieved the position that I have recommended." —[Official Report, 11 May 1981; Vol. 4, c. 485.]Will the Secretary of State say whether it will still take 25 years—or possibly 23 now—to adopt the policy that we recommended two years ago?
The Government's reaction even now is far too leisurely. If the Government have accepted this important report, it simply will not do to say that the action they will now take is that the Under-Secretary will write to his opposite numbers in the Community. The Secretary of State should himself initiate talks with the Community right away.
The Minister did not mention a date for implementation. What is his timetable? What date does he have in mind? The next Labour Government will implement this report. [Interruption.] Yes, we shall set a date for its implementation and enter into talks with the EC, because we accept fully the statement in paragraph 7.132 that it would be right for the United Kingdom to give a lead to the rest of Europe in phasing out the use of lead in petrol. Therefore, we shall inform the EC that that will be our policy and that whatever the state of the negotiations at the time we set for the elimination of lead from petrol, we shall implement it on that date. The Government have wasted two years. The next Labour Governmnent will make sure that no time is wasted on an issue that is vital to the nation's health.
§ Mr. King
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's basic welcome to the statement. I was intrigued by his comments about setting a date. I noticed in a rather strange document called "The New Hope for Britain" a statement about the elimination of lead, but carefully omitting any reference to a date by which a Labour Government would seek to achieve it.
Obviously we must enter into urgent discussions with our European colleagues on the matter, and I hope that the discussions can be brought to an early conclusion because it is important, not least for the motor industry, that this change is achieved on a Europe-wide basis. At this stage it is not possible to predict when it will be possible to 24 achieve that, but we shall certainly enter into the discussions in good faith and with a proper sense of urgency.
The right hon. Gentleman said he would have an opportunity to study the report. I draw his attention to the graph in chapter 7, from which he will understand that as a result of taking the course of making the announcement that I made two years ago, followed by my announcement today, after we have achieved a reduction for all vehicles to the lower lead level in 1985, we shall then seek at an early date to introduce compulsory lead-free petrol, 92 octane, for all new vehicles. That combination is the most effective way of reducing lead levels by the most substantial amount in the shortest time. Any hon. Member who wishes to challenge that will find that proposition endorsed by the Royal Commission in its report. Therefore, I make no apologies. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) said in responding to my previous statement that we would get the worst of both worlds. The Royal Commission has kindly confirmed that we will get the best of both worlds.
§ Mr. Kaufman
The right hon. Gentleman is deliberately distorting what the Royal Commission says — [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] and hon. Members will have an opportunity to judge that when they read the report, which he and I have had the opportunity to do but which few hon. Members have had the chance to do.
The right hon. Gentleman says that he will seek to eliminate lead from petrol. Will he now give a categoric assurance that, if he remains in office, he will eliminate lead from petrol regardless of the outcome of any discussions with the EC? If not, he is not giving any commitment, and that is why I repeat the commitment from these Benches that we shall do it, whatever the outcome of those negotiations.
§ Mr. King
It is enormously in the interests of Britain and its car industry that this change should be achieved —as his hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), who knows something about the industry, knows well—in partnership and harmonisation with other members of the Community. The most fatuous way in which to enter into negotiations with out partners in Europe, when we have the clear intention of seeking this change, would be to start off by saying that we do not mind even if they do not agree.
§ Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)
This is a further timely instalment in the Government's excellent policy for dealing with the problem of lead in the environment. Is my right hon. Friend aware that it would make no sense to proceed other than with the agreement of our Community partners? Will he therefore give that the highest and most urgent priority, because that is the correct policy by which to bring great health benefits to the children of this country?
§ Mr. King
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments, and I know that he will be interested to see in chapter 7.55 how the curve in the figures demonstrates the valuable and early benefits that will result from the reduction of lead to 0.15 by 1986 and the way in which that reinforces the Government's arguments about this change in course. That is the approach that we have taken, and I am proud that we are able to make this further announcement today.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
We warmly welcome the statement and the decision contained in it. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the motor industry needs to know whether he is aiming at two years or 20 years, that it needs an idea of the date for which he is aiming? Will he say how quickly he thinks the Community can reasonably reach such a decision? We believe that it should be quickly.
§ Mr. King
The evidence given to the Royal Commission by the industry indicated 1992. The Royal Commission felt that that was a pessimistic estimate of what was possible. Its assessment was that it should be 1990 at the latest. I hope to see it achieved at an earlier date and it is the intention of the Government, in consultation with our partners and colleagues in Europe, and with the industries in this country, to seek to achieve an earlier date.
§ Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)
Is the Minister aware that rather than wait one or two years, or more, fora change in the policy of the motorcar industry to the filtering of lead from petrol, filter manufacturers such as the Associated Octel Co. Ltd. and others, are manufacturing filters that provide for the atmosphere to be completely free of lead?
§ Mr. King
That matter is dealt with in the report. The Royal Commission challenges whether the filters remain effective over their life. As it is recognised that lead is a neurotoxin of considerable potency, it does not seem to make sense to introduce lead into the environment only to take it out again and then be left with the problem of the disposal of many highly polluted filters.
§ Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)
The Royal Commission's report and principal recommendations will be a source of great pleasure to my constituents, and still more will be the Secretary of State's ready acceptance of those recommendations. What improvements does he expect will arise for the environment in the inner cities as a result of adopting those recommendations?
§ Mr. King
I am pleased to say that in my earlier statement we made the most important announcement, which was a reduction from 0.4 to 0.15, which will reduce to about one third the emission of lead from all motor cars in the constituency of my hon. Friend, and all other constituencies, with effect from the end of 1985. That is the logical further development, which will then progressively further reduce the figure closer to zero.
§ Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)
Does the Minister agree that the case that has been argued by the organisation CLEAR has now been fully vindicated and that his statement, which will be welcomed by most right hon. and hon. Members, is in marked contrast to the rather feeble approach that was announced two years ago? Does he recognise that there will be demonstrable concern, which he has so far failed to indicate, over any veto that might be encouraged by any member of the EC in answer to the application that this Government are proposing to make to the EC and that that will be viewed with the greatest possible concern by millions of people in this country and particularly by those living in inner city areas, where pollution is most rife?
§ Mr. King
With respect, I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman begins to understand our approach to this matter. He does not seem to be aware that the announcement that I made two years ago, far from being 26 feeble, led to the biggest reduction of lead in petrol, which will start at the end of 1985. This further reduction will improve the position by reducing the amount to zero.
I shall not comment further on any possible obstruction in Europe. That is not the spirit in which we enter negotiations. I hope that we shall achieve a satisfactory outcome. Some hon. Members may have noticed the press report three days ago which said that the German motor industry was petitioning its. Government to go lead-free. I expect our proposals to receive a good response from other members of the European Community.
§ Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich, East)
Does the Secretary of State accept that the psychological impact of the acceptance of lead-free petrol is much greater than the reduction of the quantity of lead in petrol? On that ground alone his statement will be much welcomed, particularly by teachers and parents in inner cities who have been increasingly worried about the problem of lead in petrol. In his negotiations with our European partners, will he underline the fact that the requirement for lead-free petrol for new vehicles in the United States since the middle 1970s shows the need for the European car market to change as rapidly as possible?
§ Mr. King
There are good commercial reasons why many motor manufacturers, which are already manufacturing for the United States market and export, are required to manufacture cars that conform to these requirements. There have been misleading aspects in some of the campaigns that have been conducted, but the most valuable change will be the requirement for all motor cars to run on a much lower level of lead with effect from the end of 1985. The hon. Gentleman may take particular satisfaction, as I do, from the statement, but the requirement applies to new cars and will take some time to come in. It took 10 years following the introduction of unleaded petrol in the United States before the consumption of unleaded petrol had reached half the total consumption.
§ Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be welcomed warmly by my constituents, not least by the parents of St. James's school, Pokesdown, outside which the highest lead pollution in the atmosphere in the country has been established? They will be mightily relieved by his statement. My right hon. Friend suggested that he should negotiate with the European Community. Would it not be better to negotiate with the Council of Europe, so that some kind of European convention could be established for the 21 Western European states?
§ Mr. King
I join the right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) in the tribute that he paid to the Royal Commission. The report will have a profound effect in Europe. The Royal Commission is highly respected and the quality of its reports is outstanding. I expect the report to have a significant effect on the debate that will now take place. If we succeed, and Community car manufacturers have to produce cars that run on lead-free petrol, it will mean effectively that the car manufacturing world will go that way.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)
What inducement will the Minister provide for local authorities to remove lead paint from schools? This is a problem for many authorities, particularly those with a large number of Victorian 27 schools, many of which have been painted over many years with leaded paint. Secondly, will he give an assurance that the Government will be prepared to take action independently of the EC to get rid of lead from petrol entirely, as our experience is not happy when trying to obtain EC standards for dangerous materials? We have negotiated for four years to increase safety standards in the use of asbestos, which is arguably at least as dangerous as lead, and to this day we have reached no agreement on that.
§ Mr. King
Without commenting on the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question, he will recognise that we are dealing with major car manufacturers which are seeking to sell not just in their home markets but in other countries of the Community, and therefore a degree of conformity is likely to be rather easier to achieve. I endorse the perfectly proper importance that the hon. Gentleman attaches to lead paint and the problems of old lead paint. We have done what we can to help local authorities and we shall consider the report's recommendations to see what further action we can take.
§ Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)
Will the Secretary of State bear in mind that more crude oil will have to be run to maintain octane ratings? Is he aware of section 2 of the directive 78/611, which says that levels below 0.15 g per litre should not be established? As the Community has 10 members, it will take a considerable time to get some of the people who do not want to take lead out of petrol to remove it.
§ Mr. King
From my previous contacts with my hon. Friend, I know that he will be one of the hon. Members who will gain most from this report and will be most interested to read it. I believe he will find that some of the assumptions that were readily accepted previously, for example, the cost in crude oil terms, might be differently interpreted. He may find that the cost is rather less than might have been anticipated. We seek to change the directive that he quotes correctly. I have found, when negotiating in the Council of Environment Ministers, that other Environment Ministers are subject to the same concerns and interests as we are and will see the benefit of making the change, for many of the reasons that we feel are important.
§ Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)
Is not the Secretary of State being a little inconsistent in accepting the Royal Commission's conclusions? It recommends that the United Kingdom should give a lead to the rest of Europe, while the Minister is saying that we should act only in line with the rest of Europe. Which is it to be?
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)
Will repair grants be adjusted to cover the cost of Plumbosolvent pipe replacements on the reduction from 0.4 to 0.15? Will my right hon. Friend try to ensure that an improvement is made throughout the OECD countries, and not just in the EC, at the same time? As someone who for four years was chairman of the clean air council within his Department, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having overcome 28 the resistance of the oil and car industries, which I failed to do and which my successor on the Labour Benches utterly ignored.
§ Mr. King
I know the efforts that my hon. Friend made in this respect. One of the interesting things about the statement, and which hon. Members may notice from the report, is that attitudes have changed markedly even within the past two years. The view now is that there is not the same capital investment price to pay on extra refining capacity. The United States, Japan and Australia are already going this way. The Community is the one great trading entity that has yet to move in this direction. I think that this will establish the pattern effectively for the OECD. I believe that my announcement and the actions that we propose to take will give a lead to the Community in a way which I think the Community will be willing to follow.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West)
The Minister is right when he speaks about a 10-year transition period in the United States. During the 10 years that I was asssociated with the industry, the issue was always being debated. Will he reassure the House that he takes this matter seriously, that he will give a lead to Europe, that he will say that we will proceed on our own if we have to, and that he will try to better the dates that he mentioned?
§ Mr. King
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The House will be aware that he is familiar with the motor industry. Anyone who thinks that the industry has been sitting back utterly oblivious of the trends and developments taking place in other parts of the world is wrong. Many developments are taking place and many companies have anticipated possible moves in this direction. It has all tended to change the position from what it was a few years ago. I am optimistic that we can reach a sensible and early agreement with Europe.
§ Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Is he aware that many of us are gratified because it shows that the Government have kept an open mind on the serious issue of lead in petrol and that while they would have been justified to rest on the statement two years ago in the light of the Lawther report, they have sifted new evidence and come to the right conclusion now. The Royal Commission is to be congratulated. May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that I January 1988 might not be too soon for lead-free petrol?
§ Mr. King
That is obviously the point that my hon. Friend had in mind. I am grateful to him for his remarks. The Royal Commission has done us a great service by the quality of its report. The most satisfactory aspect is that after the loud shouts and cries by various lobbyists, it has balanced the arguments and produced a cogent and well-thought out analysis of the problem. I appreciate that few hon. Members have had the opportunity to read the report, but when they do they will find it most interesting and well-argued.
§ Mr. Willian Hamilton (Fife, Central)
Is the Secretary of State aware that there is overwhelming evidence that 29 with the present lead levels of petrol children's IQs are being seriously affected and that large numbers of people who realise that will be disappointed at the over-complacency of his statement? Does he agree that there are no technical reasons—there is much informed opinion to agree with this—why lead should not be removed from petrol within the next three years?
§ Mr. King
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as he has helped to emphasise the point I was making. His opening remarks were absolute rubbish. To say that there is conclusive evidence about the affect of lead on children's IQs is absolute rubbish. The most recent authoritative studies in that respect in some ways show the opposite. It is precisely because such exaggerated statements are often based on fairly small analyses and studies that the Royal Commission report, in taking a balanced and informed view, is so valuable. To refer to my statement as over-complacent is a travesty of the facts. We have come to the House quickly in response to the publication of the report and announced immediate acceptance of that recommendation. How the hon. Gentleman can describe that as complacent completely defeats me.
§ Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, on the basis of figures that have been given to me by the Department of Transport within the past month, I have learnt that the main beneficiaries of lead-free petrol will be the oil companies, which will sell £475 million worth more petrol for people to go the same number of miles as they do at the moment? Following the question that was asked by the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) about filters, is my right hon. Friend aware that the filter programme could be introduced five years earlier than the petrol programme and that filters take not only lead out of the atmosphere but many other nasty environmental pollutants as well? Will my right hon. Friend please look at the figures that I have had from the Department of Transport and at least conduct an open-minded examination of flters before finally making up his mind?
§ Mr. King
I invite my hon. Friend, as I invited the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs), to study the comments on filters in the Royal Commission's report. My hon. Friend said that it was possible to implement the filter programme five years earlier than the alternative approach. That is rather strange. The Royal Commission said that it would take seven years at the most. I have said that I hope we can do better than that. Therefore, it is unlikely that the filters could be available five years earlier. The Royal Commission examined filters seriously. As my hon. Friend will appreciate, the question of filters ties in with the problem of pollution of the environment. What one does with the polluted lead filters afterwards could add to the problems. However, I shall leave the Royal Commission to argue its case to my hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is no constraint at the refineries on the production of proper octane petrol that is lead free as from now? With regard to EC regulation 78/611, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it is now illegal to sell lead-free petrol in this country because of the minimum amounts that are laid down in that regulation? Would it not be proper for people to be given 30 the choice to have lead-free petrol if they wish and if their car engines can take it? Could that not be negotiated soon if necessary?
§ Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)
I welcome the report on behalf of all parents and teachers, particularly those who live near busy roads such as the A40 in my constituency. Is my right hon. Friend aware that in various parts of the world a voluntary start has been made towards having unleaded petrol, that petrol companies have been prepared to make it available at petrol stations, that some people have been prepared to buy cars that are suitably adapted and that companies are making them on a voluntary basis? Will he look into that and encourage that trend?
§ Mr. King
That would be possible now. However, it would be on a voluntary basis. A commercial judgment would have to be made by the oil companies on whether the market would justify it. It is possible, although I do not want to prejudge the discussions that we shall have. However, it would not be a uniform start. It is almost impossible to conceive that it would be. I think that there will be a progressive development.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I propose to call the three hon. Members who have been rising in their places but who have not yet been called.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
Is not the Secretary of State saying that the pace of the implementation of the policy that he has announced today could be determined by the pace of the slowest member of the Community? Therefore, would it not be true to say that if there is not reasonable progress after a certain time we shall consider other possibilities, including unilateral action?
§ Mr. Eric Deakins (Waltham Forest)
Will the Secretary of State confirm that in seeking unanimity he lays himself open to the prospect of a veto by one or more of the other Community members?
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
Do the Government intend to phase in duty concessions on the price of lead-free petrol? Does the Secretary of State intend to move on another front, which is the sale arid distribution of items such as figurines and toys made of lead, which can be sold if coated with non-toxic paint or other substances but which are injurious to children? Will he move quickly on that front?
§ Mr. King
I shall consider the latter point. The third recommendation in the report is that the Government should ensure that at no time does leaded petrol have a 31 price advantage over unleaded petrol. That has been so in the United States, and has caused some switching by people deliberately trying to get a lower price, and therefore using the wrong fuel. That recommendation will be considered during the discussions that take place.