HC Deb 28 October 1996 vol 284 cc318-20
9. Mr. William O'Brien

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what recent research he has (a) commissioned and (b) evaluated on asthma and air pollution from road transport; and if he will make a statement. [584]

Mr. Bowis

The Government have commissioned and evaluated a range of research related to health and air pollution. The report of the expert advisory Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, "Asthma and Outdoor Air Pollution", was published in October 1995. Copies are in the Library of the House.

Mr. O'Brien

The Minister must be aware that air pollution exacerbates, and in many instances causes, asthma. Why, therefore, does he continue to pursue policies that result in one in seven of our children suffering from asthma and 2,000 people dying from asthma each year? In addition, traffic congestion costs business £19 billion a year and our cities and towns are becoming gridlocked. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in pressing for targets on pollution to be set throughout the country so that we can at least measure the problems that are causing so much pain and suffering and do something about them?

Mr. Bowis

We are setting targets to reduce pollution levels, and, in particular, emission levels. I should correct the hon. Gentleman on his first point. The report makes it very clear that there is no evidence that air pollution causes asthma. There is evidence that, to a small extent, asthma may be exacerbated by air pollution, but the causes are unknown and unproven.

The hon. Gentleman made a fair point about what we should be doing. As he knows, we envisage a package of proposals composed of tax proposals and powers for local councils. The package also includes Government proposals on vehicle emission levels, unleaded fuel and cleaner diesel fuel and discouraging car and lorry use by encouraging public transport, cycling and rail freight. Those measures will help. If we can meet emissions targets, the hon. Gentleman will see results in the nation's health and the public's quality of life.

Mr. Harry Greenway

What damage to health, if any—I presume that there is some—comes from diesel vehicles? Is my hon. Friend aware that many people switched to diesel vehicles because we thought that, by doing so, we were reducing air pollution, but that we have now been told that we are not?

Mr. Bowis

While petrol emits gases that affect the ozone level, diesel emits gases—particularly nitrogen oxide, which affects local air—and particulates. That is why it is so important that industry looks for cleaner diesel fuels, that vehicle operators use them and that we implement ever-higher emissions standards for lorries, taxis and buses. Those vehicles are checked frequently, regularly and randomly by the Vehicle Inspectorate.

Mr. Bradley

The Government must accept that the most effective way to reduce air pollution would be to reduce car usage and to invest in high-quality public transport. Therefore, why did the Government not allow Greater Manchester passenger transport executive and others identified in the National Audit Office report to bid for passenger rail services on a revenue-sharing option basis, which would have allowed extra resources to be invested in public transport and not caused taxpayers to be ripped off further by rail privatisations?

Mr. Bowis

One of the measures that I mentioned in answer to the question of the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) was our effort to reduce car use by promoting public transport. The Government have a proud record of investing in public transport in London and in our other major cities. We are also attempting to persuade people to leave their cars at home more often and to use bicycles and their feet. We have strategies to achieve all those measures to promote non-car use, and I hope that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) will support them—to achieve the ends that he claims to want.

Mr. Forman

In an earlier answer, my hon. Friend conceded that one of the causes of these problems are particulates from diesel engines. Will he assure the House that enforcement measures taken by local authorities and others are sufficiently stringent and based on roadside action? My impression from travelling round London is that that is often not the case, and that air pollution levels probably would not satisfy the standards set by the World Health Organisation.

Mr. Bowis

I note what my hon. Friend is saying and asking. The Government, scientists and technologists are hunting constantly for better methods of preventing diesel pollution—such as by the use of particulate traps, which are being developed. However, there is not yet sufficient evidence that traps are an effective method to achieve our aim.

I take on board my hon. Friend's point about ensuring that local authorities have not only the duty but the power to tackle pollution. We have already given powers to reduce volumes and types of traffic in some areas. We have imposed the duty to designate air-quality management areas in areas where that is appropriate, and we shall soon consult on the provision of new local powers to check vehicle emissions. Another matter to be addressed is vehicle idling.