HL Deb 02 March 1954 vol 186 cc38-50

4.23 p.m.

LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will take the necessary steps to enforce the law relating to the emission of exhaust gases from diesel engines fitted to road vehicles, and so prevent the injurious effects upon the health of the people, and, in addition, make a contribution to road safety. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Question which stands in my name. The reason I ask it is that I hope to persuade Her Majesty's Government that a little corrective action now may prevent the necessity to take drastic action at some not too distant date. In any remarks which I have to make upon this subject I shall try to be as non-technical as I possibly can. The diesel engine has won universal acceptance in this country—and quite rightly so—and it is used in the propulsion of praotically 100 per cent. of the very heavy vehicles which your Lordships see upon the roads of this country at the present time. One of the outstanding events in the history of the British automobile engineering industry in the last four years has been the doubling of the number of diesel engines in this higher range. If the spread goes on—and it is bound to do so, because we shall soon see the diesel engine fitted to the private motor car—and at the same rate in the next four or five years as it has gone on in the last four or five, then I think that what can with reserve he called a great nuisance now will become a menace. Your Lordships when travelling about British roads must all have had the experience of meeting these heavy vehicles which are propelled by diesel engines and which spew out dense black, oily smoke; and really this is becoming a subject of public concern.

I shall be at great pains not to overstate the case or to exaggerate, but one cannot help but be impressed by the facts. I have a figure here for 1950—one of the latest years in respect of which statistics are available—which indicates that in a year over 16,500,000 man-hours were lost to industry through the incidence of bronchitis. In this connection, your Lordships will recall the fog on December 5 and 9, 1952, and I will, if I may, quote from a reprint of an article in the Medical World, written by the medical director of the Central Middlesex Hospital. The writer says: Within ten days 4,500 people died who would not have done so had it not been for this episode. The majority of those who died had suffered from previous bronchitis: they were publicly suffocated as the result of manmade pollution of London air. Tens of thousands of others suffered severe disability and their lives will be shortened by several years. Statistics relating to National Insurance show that in the urban areas of South East Lancashire there has been an increase in the incidence of bronchitis four times greater than in the rural areas of the country. But, of course, only experts are qualified to say that this is the direct result of air pollution.

Public attention has been directed recently to the alarming growth of lung cancer. I am not going to join in the discussion as to whether smoking is a good or a bad thing. I gave up smoking two years ago. I did not do so because I was frightened by any medical edict, but I did so in consequence of the action of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was far more effective so far as I was concerned. But I think the experts would say that the extent and the rapidity of the increase in lung cancer point to some new and potent factor in the environment in which a person lives. In all the researches which have taken place, special attention has been directed to three suspected environmental causes, one of which is atmospheric pollution, in particular from the exhaust fumes of the internal combustion petrol and diesel engines. I am not, for one moment, going to claim that this pollution of the atmosphere by the diesel engine is a direct contributory cause of lung cancer, but I do say that all the experts will agree with the noble Lord, Lord Webb-Johnson, who is an acknowledged authority on this subject, when, in putting his rather peculiarly phrased question to the noble Lord opposite earlier this afternoon, he mentioned the same thing. In so far as atmospheric pollution is a contributory factor in lung disease—whether cancer, bronchitis or anything else—and the emission of smoke from diesel engines is a contributory factor in atmospheric pollution, I rest my case on its injurious effects upon public health.

With regard to the other part of my Question, in which I suggest that the Government can make a contribution to road safety, I would say this. All your Lordships at some time or another have driven along the broad highways of this country and have seen the clouds of smoke which come from these vehicles. These clouds are sometimes so dense that they would not discredit a cruiser squadron steaming into battle. When one is driving up some of the long, tortuous hills which are to be found on the main roads of this country, one is sometimes compelled to follow at about 2 m.p.h. a 10-ton vehicle belching smoke—you can either be asphyxiated by keeping behind it or risk being a casualty by trying to pass it. I do not think it unreasonable to ask the Government whether they can take some corrective action, because the tragedy of the whole thing is that none of this smoke emission is necessary.

The diesel engine is one of the masterpieces of British automobile engineering. The manufacturers of these engines take meticulous care of their adjustment so that smoke emission shall be negligible. Admittedly, there has to be a very fine adjustment, but the injector valves are calibrated, to use the technical term, to such a fine degree that the maximum power is transmitted by the engine with the minimum use of fuel. The great commercial factor of the diesel engine is its economy, which is the result of this fine adjustment. Smoke emission is caused by one of three things or by a combination of the three—by bad upkeep, or by drivers tampering with the injector valves in the mistaken idea that the more oil they pump on to their cylinders, the greater the power which will be transmitted to the wheels. That idea is thoroughly wrong. All these engines have a choke for starting which can be operated by the driver, and that means that oil is injected into the engine far above the running limit. It is as if any of your Lordships who drive your own cars, in order to get more power on a hill or more speed on a level, were to pull out the choke and pump pure petrol on top of the cylinders. That is absolutely ridiculous. When the diesel engine valves leave the manufacturers they are carefully calibrated and sealed, but the seals are tampered with and employers do not see their way to take diciplinary action.

To prove that this smoke emission is totally unnecessary, we have only to look at the London buses. London Transport have 8,000 buses on the streets of London, every one with a diesel engine, and to see the slightest smoke coming out of one of these buses is the exception and not the rule. Why? Because the level of maintenance of London Transport—and not only of London Transport, but of the other large operators—is so high. They know that smoke emission is a public nuisance and they guard against it. Admittedly, diesel engines have to be adjusted regularly. It is not an expensive job, though the equipment is expensive; but there is no necessity for the operator of one diesel-engined vehicle to buy this equipment himself. I suppose that in the short space of street between Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus there could be anything between 100 and 130 London Transport buses at arty time. Imagine what would happen if every one of those buses was spewing out black smoke, as we see on the main roads on some occasions. All the people using the street at that time would be prostrated on the pavement.

In the Motor Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations, made under the Road Transport Act. Regulation 21 says: Every motor vehicle shall be so constructed that no avoidable smoke or visible vapour is emitted therefrom. Regulation 78 says: Every motor vehicle shall be maintained in such condition, and shall be so driven and used on a road, that there shall not be emitted therefrom any smoke, visible vapour, grit, sparks, ashes. cinders or oily substance, the emission of which could be prevented or avoided by the taking of any reasonable steps or the exercise of reasonable care, or the emission of which might cause damage to other persons or property or endanger the safety of any other users of the road in consequence of any harmful content therein. Finally, Regulation 101 says: If any person uses or causes or permits to be used on any road a motor vehicle or trailer in contravention of or fails to comply with any of the preceding Regulations … he shall for each offence be liable to a fine not exceeding twenty pounds.

Answering my question earlier this afternoon, the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, showed that while the number of this type of engine has rapidly increased, the deterrent factor of prosecutions has decreased from sixteen summonses in 1950, to nine in 1951, three in 1952 and nil in 1953. During these years the number of offending vehicles has multiplied by four. I think the noble Lord will agree that these figures include not only diesel engines but all vehicles on the road fitted with internal combustion engines. I hope the noble Lord will agree also that if the police would institute proceedings where there is flagrant abuse—which is all that some of the worst cases are—some good would be accomplished. The law is supposed to be a deterrent to wrong doing. Earlier on, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked me whether I wanted all the other laws enforced. I have said on many occasions that where the law cannot be enforced or is not enforced it is brought into disrepute, and if it falls into disrepute it is not a good law and should be repealed.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, who is usually so sympathetic in his replies, is not going to tell me that the police are overworked. Every time I raise a question of this kind, I am told that the police are overworked. One day we shall have to reverse the process and ask, not what the police are doing in cases where they do not take action, but what they are doing in cases where they do take action. Action on this matter rests not only with the noble Lord's Department I would appeal also to the industry to take action. Let us have more research into this matter. At a time such as this we cannot afford to allow British industry to get a bad name, either amongst the general public in this country or amongst buyers overseas. I speak as one who has been in the motor car industry all his life. I think that research should go on in the direction of making diesel engines foolproof and preventing their being tampered with by ignorant people, who are not serving the purposes they desire and are acting against the interest of the public.

Something has to be done about the pollution of the air people have to breathe. When research was made into smog. it was said that if the Battersea Power Station and all other causes of pollution by the emission of smoke into the atmosphere were stopped, we should still have a poisonous atmosphere through other channels of pollution. I think we should take notice of this problem. I hope f have said enough to convince the Government that they should take some action which 'would have a corrective influence now, to prevent the necessity for more drastic action when public opinion is really roused on this matter at some later time.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, that under certain conditions the emission of exhaust gases from diesel road engines may have injurious effects to health. The Interim Report by the Committee on Air Pollution states that a total of, I believe, 4 million tons of carbon monoxide is discharged into the atmosphere from diesel road vehicles. They go on to say, however, that this is harmful only when we have conditions of smog; they do not think it is really harmful at ordinary times. I would remind the noble Lord that diesel road vehicles are not by any means the only things which are causing pollution of the atmosphere: we have Battersea Power Station, and the new one a little further down the river, although I understand that certain experiments are being carried out in order to reduce the pollution of the atmosphere in this way.

I would repeat what was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, that the main reason for smoky exhausts in diesel road engines is that the injection nozzles either become worn out or get out of adjustment—or, what is perhaps more likely, they are merely dirty. I doubt very much whether there is interference with the fuel pumps by the drivers, as was suggested by the noble Lord. I would suggest that the products of combustion in a diesel engine are really automatic, and are not under the direct control of the driver at all, although it is possible, perhaps, when he is starting up, and so on, for the driver to pull his choke lever, which may produce momentarily a certain amount of smoke. From the point of view of other road users, of course, the result is the same. In extreme cases it is possible for actual liquid drops of fuel to come out of the exhaust pipe and fall on the road, and possibly on other vehicles. A partial remedy for this nuisance might be to have vertical exhaust pipes fitted, so that the gases may be carried well away from the vehicles. On the continent one frequently sees lorries fitted with this vertical exhaust.

With all due respect to the noble Lord, I suggest that this nuisance has been somewhat exaggerated in certain quarters, though I agree that, with the increasing use of diesel engines on the roads, it is desirable that the problem should be examined by all concerned. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has suggested that some of the lorry traffic looks like a squadron of cruisers going into battle. I would remind the noble Lord that we in the Navy pride ourselves on making smoke only when we want to. I can assure your Lordships that the motoring organisations are doing all they can to achieve improvement in the maintenance and use of diesel vehicles. When complaints are received—and so far they have been few in number—the matter is taken up with the owners of the vehicles, usually with good results. I suggest that the law relating to the emission of smoke from diesel vehicles is already adequate, and I have no reason to believe that it is not being employed reasonably.


May I interrupt the noble Lord? He says he believes that the law is being employed reasonably. Surely he heard the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, say that there was not a prosecution under that law in 1953.


If I may correct the noble Lord, I said in the Metropolitan Police District.


I took careful note of that reply. What I would say is that warnings have been used instead of prosecutions, and I cannot help feeling that warnings are much better. Obviously it is to the advantage of the owners of diesel road vehicles that they should receive warnings, and put their vehicles into good condition, otherwise they are losing money on them. From the point of view of the motoring organisations, we have had few complaints, and I cannot help feeling that in many ways this question has been rather exaggerated.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, when I saw this Question down on the Order Paper it struck me as being a singularly unhelpful one. I feel that it would have been much better had it been worded in such a way as to ask what steps the Government proposed to take to see that the law in relation to the emission of obnoxious fumes was enforced. I cannot see that it helps us to know how many prosecutions took place last year, or in any other year. I am afraid that I am going to disagree with both noble Lords who have just spoken. I do not believe that in London, or in other big cities, there is any appreciable amount of unavoidable obnoxious fumes from diesel engines. I disagree with my noble friend Lord Teynham when he says that drivers do not use, or rather abuse, their chokes. If you are driving in the country, as I do a great deal, you can follow a diesel engine vehicle for a long time, and it is apparently perfectly adjusted and everything running beautifully. Then you come to a bit of a hill, and suddenly you get a cloud of black smoke. I am not a diesel engineer, and I do not know the reason for it; but I am almost certain that it is not automatic. I very much doubt whether the actual content of carbon monoxide in that cloud of black smoke is much greater than that normally emitted by the engine. But it does mean that just at the moment when that vehicle—which has probably been going along at a fair pace on the level—is slowing down, and a following driver is about to get a chance to pass it in safety, he has a smoke screen put up in front of him and cannot pass. I believe that that is a much more dangerous thing than the carbon monoxide.

I am afraid there is a mistaken belief among lorry drivers that super-injection means extra power. I am sure that it would be a good thing if owners could bring it home to the drivers that this does not mean an increase in power, but merely an increase in running expenses. It is unnecessary. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has said, you can go through London and never see black smoke coming from a bus, although you occasionally come across one that smells a bit. If you take the trouble, as I have done once or twice, to report the number of that bus to the London Passenger Transport Board, you receive a grateful letter in reply assuring you that it will be put right. That, I believe, is the right thing. But, as was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, I feel that instructions should be given to the police that, when they see a lorry driver using his choke, or whatever the instrument is, improperly, they should stop the vehicle and warn the driver. Prosecution does no good, but a warning can do a great deal of good. Most of the police are well trained, and many of them can explain technically to the driver of the vehicle that he is both wasting his fuel and damaging his engine. By giving these warnings the police can do much more good than by prosecuting. I believe in keeping friendly with the police. Not long ago I saw a police car following a diesel engine which was putting up the most perfect smoke screen, one of which the Navy would have been proud. The police car eventually passed it but did not stop it.


I once tried the experiment which the noble Lord has just advocated. I stopped a diesel lorry driver one day and suggested how he could reduce his smoke. His language was even blacker than the smoke.

4.50 p.m.


My Lords, I had hoped that this Question would clear away a certain amount of fog, but having listened to the three noble Lords I am not sure that the fog has not become thicker than ever. Frankly, they did not seem to agree very much on any particular aspect of the problem. The noble Lord. Lord Lucas of Chilworth, based his case on the fact that diesel smoke was bad from two aspects—one, from the point of view of public health, and the other from the point of view of road safety. I do not think anybody could disagree with the noble Lord that if it were as bad as that—I do not think he suggested that it was terribly bad yet, but that it may become bad—it might became a serious public nuisance. But at the moment we are all. in a sense, talking in a vacuum about this matter, because I do not think anybody knows what the facts are.

Take the example of the amount of pollution in the atmosphere caused by diesel smoke. First of all, I think it would be agreed—at any rate, it seems to be the one thing upon which all three noble Lords were agreed, so I can take it that it is agreed—that, on the whole, in the towns, which is where most smoke pollution occurs, there is not a great deal of pollution from diesel smoke. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, said that the London buses were almost entirely free of it, and I can use that point to good effect in rebutting the argument of my noble friend Lord Teynham. The noble Lord's argument was that it cannot be helped. If it cannot be helped, why do the London buses have no smoke from their diesel engines?

The only thing I can find concerning this particular issue is about the amount of pollution by sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere in general. I am no chemist, but I understand that sulphur dioxide is the main ingredient emitted by diesel engines. Out of the 2 million tons of oil which they consume every year, diesel engines produce about 20,000 to 40,000 tons of sulphur dioxide, and that is only 20,000 to 40,000 tons out of a total of 5.3 million tons emitted into the atmosphere altogether. Those figures come from the Report of the Committee on Air Pollution. I do not think that gets us much further, but it shows proportionately that, of the amount of sulphur dioxide which is emitted, very little is produced by diesel engines. Therefore, on the question of public health, my own feeling is that, at the moment at any rate, diesel smoke does not create a great deal of pollution in the towns. In fact, I think all three noble Lords would agree with me that the main places where one finds diesel engines emitting clouds of smoke is on the main roads outside the towns. I am not saying that that might not create a great deal of nuisance in the future, but at the moment it does not.

The other ground upon which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, attacked this abuse was on the grounds of road safety. In that he was supported by my noble friend Lord Sandhurst. I myself have often driven for some distance behind a lorry, where the choice before one was suicide by one of two means—either by asphyxiation by remaining behind the lorry, or in a fatal accident by passing because one could not see where one was going. I accept that in certain circumstances diesel smoke can be a definite menace to road safety. Therefore, it is a matter, so far, of degree. I will freely admit to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, that there could be a great menace both to public health and road safety if this trouble were to become much more pronounced than it is at the present time.

The noble Lord, as usual, has a touching confidence in the police, and in my present position I always like to see that. He thinks that this matter can be put right quite easily by the police. He says—and indeed he is perfectly right—that two regulations govern this subject and he quoted them in extenso to your Lordships. I do not think I need to repeat them again, beyond saying that, first of all, they are not easy regulations to enforce, for this reason. Certainly as regards pollution, it is true that they are specific—that you must not unavoidably emit smoke which might endanger the safety of any other person or any other user of the road in consequence of the harmful content therein. That is all right so far as pollution is concerned. At the moment, however, I do not think pollution is our greatest danger, although the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, does. The greatest danger at the moment is to road safety, because I think we agree that at the present time there is not a great deal of pollution from diesel engines. On road safety, it seems to me that this regulation is not so simple, and I will just read the pertinent part to the noble Lord again. It says: Every motor vehicle shall be maintained in such condition, and shall be so driven and used on a road, that there shall not be emitted therefrom any smoke … the emission of which could be prevented or avoided by the taking of any reasonable steps or the exercise of reasonable care, or the emission of which might cause damage to other persons or property or endanger the safety of any other users of the road in consequence of any harmful content therein. The point is that that regulation is specific to the harmful content therein, and not to the fact that it obscures visibility. Therefore, I think that up to a point there is a weakness in the law, and I give the noble Lord the assurance that I will draw the attention of my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport to this regulation.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, said that the police should enforce the law. Here again, we come to an argument which we had a short time ago when I was also defending the police at this Box. Of course, I will agree with the noble Lord and with the other noble Lords that if we have a law it should be enforced. The question is. how to enforce it best. I think there is something in what the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, said: that sometimes a warning is better than a prosecution. I would not entirely judge the matter by the number of prosecutions. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, that there have not been a great many warnings. Whether that is because the problem is smaller than we thought or because there have not been as many prosecutions as there ought to be, I am not prepared to say. But it seems cleat that this is a matter where the law is being broken, and I am quite certain that the police are doing their best to enforce it.

Another reason why this particular law is not entirely easy to enforce is this. It is a matter of degree and circumstances. For example, the discharge of smoke due to tampering with the engine of a diesel lorry, which the noble Lord mentioned, is not unavoidable. I accept his view on that, but in some circumstances—for example, when a heavy lorry is being restarted on a hill—an abnormal discharge of smoke for a short time may be unavoidable. As I said before, emission of harmful smoke can be an offence, but the emission of smoke which obscures the vision of other road users is not an offence under the regulations as I understand them.

The other thing I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, is this. He says that the police ought to be ordered to do various things. I have said this before, and I say it again—the police cannot be ordered by the Home Secretary. They are, in any case, very busy; they have a great deal to do; and it is certainly not for the Home Secretary to give them orders. As the noble Lord knows, the police are controlled by the chief constables, and all the Home Secretary can do is to draw the attention of the chief constables to any particular matter which he thinks is deserving of their attention, and suggest, perhaps, that this particular matter is something which is becoming a menace and ought, therefore, to be dealt with. I can give the noble Lord this assurance: that my right honourable friend will draw the attention of the chief constables to this debate, which I think has been a very useful one, not because I believe there is at the moment a very great danger, but because I believe that there are very real potential dangers that may arise from this matter. No doubt that step, and our reconsideration of these regulations to see whether they fulfil the purpose for which they were originally framed, will perhaps do something to meet the point which the noble Lord has in mind, and will do something, in so far as anything can be done, to mitigate this abuse.


Will the noble Lord please accept my very grateful thanks and convey those thanks to his right honourable friend?