HC Deb 19 October 1994 vol 248 cc271-2
11. Mr. Simon Coombs

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his estimate of the current level of consumption of unleaded petrol in the United Kingdom; and if he will make a statement on the environmental effects of the reduced use of leaded petrol.

Mr. Gummer

Unleaded petrol currently accounts for over 58 per cent. of the market. Since the fuel was first introduced, emissions of lead from road vehicles have been cut by almost 50 per cent. and, at the same time, average airborne lead concentrations recorded in urban, rural and kerbside monitoring sites have fallen by approximately 74 per cent.

Mr. Coombs

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the great success of the Government's policy over the past nine years can be measured by the dramatic fall in airborne lead concentrations, which, as he just said, amounts to some 74 per cent? Does he also agree that, as a result of the transfer from leaded petrol to lead-free petrol, there has been an increase in other emissions, especially those such as benzene, which contain carcinogens? On that basis, does he agree that there is still a need to encourage conversion to catalytic converters in more than the existing 15 per cent. of the vehicle fleet in the country to reduce the threat of benzene, which has simply replaced the existing threat of leaded petrol?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the success of the policy and the way in which there is much less lead in the atmosphere. Perhaps he is overstating the matter to say that the problems with benzene are as great or parallel. In fact, there is not much evidence to show that unleaded petrol contributes much to an increase in the amount of benzene. However, he is also right to point to the need for catalytic converters and for the use of, particularly, hot catalytic converters, which work from the first starting of the motor.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth

The Minister will be aware that there is growing concern about benzene and that it is used largely in the sale of super unleaded, 98 octane petrol, where the replacement of the lead content, the octane rating, has been boosted by the addition of benzene. Surely that area, and the whole policy, need to be considered because of the grave health concerns.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman is right that we should always look at the concerns. I do not think that we should overdo it. The level permitted by the European Community directive is a maximum of 5 per cent. The typical UK content is lower; about 2 per cent. So, already, we are well below the limits which are placed on us. I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should keep a very close watch on this and we are doing so. If there is any cause for concern, and I believe that there are ways in which we could meet that concern, I will certainly act.

Mr. Sweeney

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the amount of not only lead emissions but other pollutants is falling and will he update the House on the controversy over whether unleaded petrol or diesel-powered cars are better for the environment?

Mr. Gummer

There is a great deal of improvement in many areas, but we must constantly look at ways in which we can do better. I am not in any sense complacent. The problem with diesel really depends on the nature of the journey. When diesel cars are used largely for longer journeys, there is a real environmental advantage. If they are used for stopping and starting in towns, the balance goes the other way. As is so often true about environmental decisions, they are not as clear cut as some would have us think. Our duty is to try to get the best answer and the best balance that is possible. I believe that the Government have a good record, not only in absolute terms, but in comparison with our continental colleagues.