HC Deb 21 January 1983 vol 35 cc630-5

Order for Second Reading read.

2 pm

Sir Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the other Bills that we have considered today, the House has been treated to the courtesy of an explanatory memorandum. We are about to consider a highly scientific Bill that has no explanatory memorandum.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) does not wish to mislead the House but financial help with drafting is available for private Member's Bills for hon. Members who have drawn the first 12 places in the ballot. The hon. Member for Fife, Central has drawn No. 9. As there is extra assistance, it seems rather unfair to the House to present a highly scientific Bill that deals with the percentage of milligrammes of lead in petrol without providing hon. Members such as myself who take an interest in the matter, with the benefit of an explanatory memorandum.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)

There is no requirement for an hon. Member who promotes a Bill to provide an explanatory memorandum. It is frequently not provided; sometimes it is. For example, there was no explanatory memorandum to the Copyright (Amendment) Bill to which the House has just given a Second Reading.

2.2 pm

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Perhaps I may try to explain the origins of the Bill, after that silly interlude. I hope that it is given a Second Reading, if only because it has all-party support. Almost every party in the House—Conservative, Liberal, SNP and Labour—is represented by the sponsors of the Bill. Even more striking is the massive public support that exists for it.

My party is committed, when we form a Government after the next general election, to introduce a Bill that gets rid of lead in petrol. It is one of the most dangerous polluting forces in Britain. There is increasing public awareness of the way in which modern society is being polluted in all kinds of ways. There is evidence to suggest that we are being polluted to death in stages through our water reserves, whether they be rivers, lakes or oceans. Lead in petrol is no less important. That is why I am promoting the Bill.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir M. Kimball) based his trite complaint about the absence of an explanatory memorandum on the fact that financial help to produce private Members' Bills is offered to hon. Members. That help amounts to the magnificent sum of £200. That would hardly pay for the tea lady who is employed while one prepares a Bill. That is one of the absurdities of the House. We pretend that the aid is a revolutionary innovation. It may be that £200 is better than nothing, but it is worse than useless when it comes to producing a Bill of this kind.

The Minister may pick holes in the drafting of the Bill, but the public want a Bill of this type and they want it quickly. The damage that is being done, especially to our children, by lead in petrol is no longer tolerable. The oil companies and others use all types of excuses for not removing lead from petrol. They say that petrol would cost an extra 3p a gallon, or that unacceptable sums of money would have to be invested in refineries. Those arguments are irrelevant, as oil companies increase the price of petrol week by week. It ill-behoves them to say that the removal of lead from petrol will put 3p on the price of a gallon of petrol. Moreover, there is no objectivity in those figures. They lack credibility.

The advice that I have received shows that lead can be eliminated from petrol within the time scale that I have laid down in the Bill without any serious technical problems for the oil companies. The public are prepared to pay an additional few pence on a gallon of petrol if it will protect our children's health—and that is what is at stake. There is abundant and increasing evidence that the damage done to our children's health and mental stability is considerable.

I must point out that when I drafted the Bill I did not take that £200. We are repeatedly asked by the Government to curtail public expenditure, so I was a patriotic supporter—after all, I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee—and saved £200 by consulting people who have more knowledge of the subject than all the technical parliamentary advisers and draftsmen. I first consulted CALIP—the Campaign Against Lead in Petrol—and the Conservation Society because they had been at this game far longer than Mr Des Wilson and CLEAR—the Campaign for Lead Free Air. They have more knowledge of the subject, even though Mr Wilson is a professional publicist. I did not take too much notice of what Mr Wilson was doing, although the information that he provided was valuable.

The technical expertise of CALIP and the Conservation Society has been invaluable. I must say in deference to them that the penalty clause was my brainchild—it had nothing to do with them—and I make no apology for it. The figures could be increased or decreased, but it is evident that, should the oil companies challenge any Government decision on the matter or attempt to thwart the will of the House in wanting to get rid of the pollutant, the House must lay down in clear and firm language that punitive penalties would be imposed.

It is an easy matter for the Minister and his civil servants to tear to pieces a Bill provided by an ordinary Back-Bencher such as myself. I ask the Minister seriously to consider allowing the Bill a Second Reading so that it can move into Committee. Once there, the Government can produce their arguments at great length on whether the Bill should be allowed to proceed, even if it be in a considerably amended form. I hope that the Government accept that the principle of getting rid of lead in petrol should be supported by the House as a whole. We must not, as I suspect the Government will, hide behind the EC and the need for conformity in these matters. There is no conformity now. It is important to instil into our people the point that all Governments and parties regard the matter to be of such supreme urgency that it cannot be delayed much longer.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

The Department of Transport usually deals with these matters. I am having a great deal of correspondence with the Department, and its attitude causes me concern. The Minister, I think, represents a Department that may be sympathetic to the aims of the Bill. It is the Department of Transport that will put the mockers on the Bill.

Mr. Hamilton

The problem is that many Government Departments are involved. There are the Departments of Transport, Environment and, Health and Social Security, and the Scottish and Welsh Offices. If the Government have the will to remove lead from petrol it could be accomplished in two years.

It is easy to ask "Why pick on lead in petrol? There is lead in water pipes. All kinds of pollutants are in the atmosphere." It is correct to say that this has been a longstanding problem, not only with lead but other pollutants. Lead has been poisoning people for at least the past 2,000 years.

It is only recently that we have realised that lead is an avoidable pollutant in petrol. It is not difficult in practical terms to get rid of it. Cars are being manufactured in Britain today with engines that run on lead-free petrol. Those cars are being exported. There is no technical difficulty in that sense. The problem of lead in petrol did not come into focus until 1921 when it was discovered that one of its compounds would, when added to petrol, stop engines knocking. That led to the commercial introduction of lead in petrol in 1923. Corrosive lead scavenge machines followed soon after that. Motorists, including myself, who were blinded by their love for their cars, had no hesitation in drawing power from poison. That is what we are doing. Every motorist who goes on the roads is poisoning the atmosphere and adversely affecting the lives of his children.

Mr. Tim Brinton (Gravesend)

The hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) has stated this matter very carefully. It would be helpful to the House, in this highly scientific matter, if he would tell us how much lead we have in our bodies from petrol proportionate to other sources.

Mr. Hamilton

I cannot answer that. I am not technically equipped to deal with that question. This is the kind of diversionary argument that is used by those who may have commercial interests. Whatever the technical arguments may be and however much it is said that lead can be produced in the body by other means, that is no reason for saying that we should leave everything alone and not tackle the problem. We must tackle this problem and it can be solved and eliminated in two years. It can be done and it should be done. We should not seek to divert attention from this problem by directing attention to other parts of the same problem.

After the second world war the growth of motor car usage meant that more and more lead was polluting the atmosphere. By 1978 world lead production was valued at $2,400 million a year, giving it an economic importance subordinate only to aluminium and copper among non-ferrous metals. World emission of fine lead particles totals about 4 million tonnes a year. Every year 8,000 tonnes of these particles are emitted to the atmosphere in Britain. The amount of poisonous organo-lead in petrol has been progressively reduced since 1973.

All Governments have recognised that it was important to reduce the amount of lead in petrol in stages. It was first done voluntarily by the oil companies and then by Government order. I think that I am right in saying that Government orders have been introduced by successive Governments to control pollution by food, water, paint or cosmetics in addition to petrol. At present the number of milligrammes per litre of petrol that is permitted in Britain is 40. I am not aware of any plans for an immediate reduction of that proportion. The present West German level is 15 milligrammes per litre. That shows how far we have yet to go. Incidentally, all Ford motor cars built in West Germany can run on low-lead petrol. If that can be achieved in Germany, it can be achieved here.

This issue has been raised in the newspapers over many years and the record of successive Governments has not been as reputable or as frank and honest as it might have been. There has been a good deal of pressure on them from various interested outside bodies and there has been a good deal of vacillation for various reasons. Due credit should be given to the pressure groups outside or maintaining pressure on the Governments of the day. When commentators speak with cynicism about the role of Parliament we should pay ourselves a tribute occasionally by saying that we have regard to the legitimate pressures put on us by interested outside parties. Indeed, we should have regard to them. We become used to sorting out the various pressures, and I believe that the organisations that have made representations to hon. Members on this issue are some of the more respectable, responsible and knowledgeable organisations. We should have regard to what they are saying. I shall quote from a document that was produced by New Society on 15 April 1982, which referred to a debate that took place in the House some years ago. The document states: Meanwhile Whitehall, too, was waking up to the danger of lead in the environment. In December 1971, the chief medical officer of the DHSS wrote to all health officers drawing their attention to 'possible environmental hazards associated with lead.' The same year saw the oil companies enter into voluntary agreements to reduce the lead content of fuel by two steps, in 1973 and 1974. Poisonings from a lead smelter at Avonmouth grabbed the headlines in 1972. But far more important, because it pointed a finger at the hazard to health of ubiquitous road traffic, was the controversy surrounding the opening of Spaghetti junction on the M5 motorway in Birmingham. Robert Stephens, reader in organic chemistry at Birmingham University recalls: There was concern at the opening of the junction. I noticed it in the press and the response of officials did not satisfy me. He then goes on to talk about the research into the problem. The article continues: Stephens says the low level of public awareness of the poison in petrol at that time emerged from an opinion poll conducted by the Birmingham students. It is well known that at that junction the mass of traffic emitting lead from their exhausts is creating a great problem for the children there. I do not think that hon. Members doubt the danger created by the problem, particularly to our young children, although not exclusively so. Therefore, the Government should take the opportunity of declaring their intentions in this parliamentary Session. Action can be taken in this Session if the will is there. I shall give the Minister a few minutes to tell us what the Government's views are on the matter.

Clause 1 makes it an offence to manufacture, sell or use petrol containing lead after a specified period, which is laid down in the Bill. The penalties are fairly swingeing although not swingeing in terms of the capital owned by the oil companies. If the petrol companies produce, sell or manufacture petrol that contains lead they shall be fined up to £50,000 per day during the first week of infringement, £100,000 per day for the next whole calendar month and £250,000 per day for each day after the first five weeks. That is deliberately put in those terms to tell the oil companies that Parliament wills that they produce lead-free petrol. If they do not, they will be put out of business if necessary.

The expression used in clause 2(2) of "properly formulated petrol" is there on the advice of my outside advisers. It is defined as: petrol of an appropriate octane level and containing tricresyl phosphate for the protection of exhaust valve seats where necessary. That is to protect existing motorists in the transitional period and I understand that it will meet the problems.

Representations have been made to me by Octel, an organisation in Cheshire which produces the lead product. I understand the misgivings of the workers there, but I have told them that although I would be quite happy to see them they would be better advised to see the national executive committee of the Labour party because after the next election the Labour Government will introduce a Bill to get rid of lead in petrol.

Let me quote another extract from the article in New Society to show the menace of the product that is being produced. I quote: Derek Bryces-Smith, Professor of Organic Chemistry at Reading, remembers being alerted to the extraordinary toxicity of tetraethyl lead in 1954"— that is 27 or 28 years ago— 'I wanted some for an experiment, but I found I couldn't buy any by the usual means. So I got in touch with the makers, Associated Ethyl'"— that is now Octel, in Cheshire— 'Evidently my letter caused some embarrassment because they sent someone to inspect me and my laboratory. The man who came explained that a drop of the stuff on my hand would send me mad. If any was spilt on the floor, the boards would have to be destroyed. He further explained that if there was such an accident, the newspapers would be bound to take an interest and give bad publicity to the lead in petrol. They did let me have some tetraethyl lead, but it stuck in my mind that they had a pretty bad conscience about their industrial process. It was also clear that they were anxious to keep a low profile'. I put that on record because whether the House debates lead in petrol, the danger of excessive cigarette smoking or the danger of alcohol abuse, and whether the brewers, oil companies or cigarette manufacturers are involved, it is always said that too much money would be involved and that many people would be thrown out of work. Those are powerful arguments, but there are more powerful arguments on the other side. Day by day, and week by week the health and even the lives of children and adults are being jeopardised by such manufacturers.

The House must have the courage to say enough is enough. It must say, "We shall do our best to protect your jobs, but the health of our people is more important than that." In the few minutes remaining, I hope that the Minister will tell us exactly where the Government stand.

2.26 pm
Mr. Tim Brinton (Gravesend)

I wish to speak, because I must put some balance into the argument presented by the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton). Of course there is a problem and some controversy here. If lead in petrol is proved to emanate from exhausts in large degree, it may have a strong effect on people in this country, not least on children. Of course, every hon. Member is extremely worried about that.

However, in commending his Bill to the House, the hon. Gentleman failed to produce any evidence to show the amount of lead pollution in car exhaust fumes. He spoke about Octel. Octel claims that the proportion of lead in our bodies that results from the exhaust fumes of motor cars amounts to 8 per cent. of the total amount of lead produced in our bodies. Therefore, we are worrying about 8 per cent. From its research, it would seem—the hon. Gentleman has not contradicted it—that most of the lead pollution in our bodies comes from the earth and from the vegetables that we eat. If money is to be spent, it could be more usefully spent on trying to cut down the amount of lead in our bodies by researching into that area.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)

Where does the lead in the vegetables come from?

Mr. Brinton

It comes from the earth and is part of man's natural evolution. We all have lead in our bodies. I know that the hon. Member for Fife, Central is sincere, but he has raised a scare story that worries many of those who do not think about it. However, the amount of lead produced from exhausts of motor cars is small compared with other sources of lead.

The other fact that concerns me about this proposal is that we already know that the Government are carrying out a graded reduction of lead in petrol. They are reducing the maximum lead content from 0.4g per litre to 0.15g per litre—a 62 per cent. reduction—by the end of 1985, the date by which the hon. Member for Fife, Central wishes to see no lead in petrol. If we follow the hon. Gentleman's course, he will put many of his brother workers out of work because the British motor car industry would have to be extensively retooled. [HON. MEMBERS: "More jobs."] That may produce more jobs—

Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)

Is my hon. Friend—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 28 January.