HC Deb 07 July 1998 vol 315 cc846-7
3. Mr. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough)

How many deaths each year he estimates are hastened by air pollution from road traffic. [47621]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

The Department of Health's Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants estimates that, each year, between 12,000 and 24,000 deaths are brought forward by short-term exposure to certain air pollutants from all sources, including traffic.

It is, at present, not possible to say by how much lives are shortened. It is also not possible to attribute a proportion of those effects to traffic alone.

Mr. Ennis

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Given the number of deaths attributed to air pollution and road traffic, does he agree that the Government should take serious action to address the problem? May I suggest that my right hon. Friend consider three courses of necessary action: first, clamping down on the worst polluting vehicles on our roads; secondly, reducing even further the exhaust emissions of new vehicles, and, thirdly, reducing road traffic congestion throughout Britain?

Mr. Meacher

We aim to address all those objectives. First, with regard to the worst polluters, we have instigated in seven local authority pilot areas the roadside testing of emissions and summary fines for owners of those vehicles with emissions above the prescribed level. Secondly, I am pleased to say that, almost in the last day of the British EU presidency, we managed to conclude negotiations on the auto oil dossier, which is an extremely complicated matter and will reduce vehicle emissions and improve fuel quality to such an extent that new cars will be 30 to 50 per cent. less polluting. My hon. Friend is right to stress the need to reduce the quantity of traffic on our roads, as against technological improvements, and that is precisely why we shall shortly issue our integrated transport strategy, which will do just that.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

Is the Minister aware that one in six children in my constituency suffers from asthma, and that, at Lullington Heath, the Government's ozone monitoring site, the maximum recommended level has been exceeded 719 times since 1 January 1997? Can he confirm that the White Paper will be radical and will concentrate on encouraging walking, cycling and transfer to rail; and that the lunches that the Prime Minister has had with the Automobile Association and others will not in any way weaken its radicalism?

Mr. Meacher

To take the serious point in what the hon. Gentleman said, we are concerned about the increasing incidence of childhood asthma. There has been something of an epidemic over the past decade or more. We need an integrated transport strategy, partly to reduce vehicle emissions; but reducing the number of vehicles on the road is precisely designed to deal with the asthma problem. Under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, local authorities have powers to direct traffic in their area to pedestrianised areas, shut off certain roads to prevent their being used by vehicles, and install traffic-calming measures. All those are being used by local authorities to protect those who are most vulnerable to air pollution.