HL Deb 12 May 1998 vol 589 cc1013-30

7.36 p.m.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the damage which could be caused to the engines of a great number of older vehicles, some of historic importance, as a result of the abolition of leaded petrol on 1st January 2000 and what steps they can take to alleviate the problem in the short and long term.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I suspect noble Lords may be rather puzzled as to the motives that lie behind this Question, because there is no doubt that the world at large has welcomed the intentions of governments to phase out lead in petrol as soon as practical, in view of the proven health hazards that exhaust fumes from leaded petrol are known to create. There is, unfortunately, a down side for millions of vehicle owners around the world. I would briefly like to explain the situation by a short history lesson.

In the early days of motoring, petrol was sold in two-gallon cans from chemists' shops and the many manufacturers produced their own fomulas. It was not until the 1920s that the first filling stations were set up. As car engines improved in the mid-1920s and were designed for higher compression, it was necessary to improve the quality of existing petrol as it produced poor combustion in such engines, which led to a condition known to drivers as engine knock.

So how did lead get into petrol? Seventy years ago, British motorists, having been beguiled by a teaser advertising campaign featuring a '20s flapper girl over the headline, "Ethyl is coming to give you a thrill", were first able to fill their cars with the new type of petrol—leaded. The search for a miracle ingredient had been instigated by Charles Kettering, the engineering genius of General Motors.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, will the noble Lord explain to the House what is a '20s flapper?

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu

My Lords, I will tell the noble Lord later. The search for a miracle ingredient had been instigated 15 years earlier by Charles Kettering, the engineering genius of General Motors and a research chemist named Midgley, after reputedly trying 33,000 different chemical compounds. The result was tetra-ethyl lead. It was first brought to Britain in 1928 under the trade name "Ethyl" by Pratts Petroleum, the ancestor of modern Esso. Ethyl also enabled the development of the new generation of aero engines which gave this country the Schneider Trophy victory and the Battle of Britain. For decades it was the essential diet of all good car engines.

However, the rise of the green movement has seen poor old Ethyl branded a scarlet woman for containing the dreaded poison—lead, albeit in minute quantities, forcing the gradual compulsory withdrawal of leaded petrol in favour of lead-free.

In the early days there was no knowledge that lead would cause any damage. It is only in the past 20 years or so that the realisation of the harmful effects of leaded petrol has led governments to resolve that it should be phased out as soon as possible. In fact, on 19th June last year the European Union Environment Council, of which, of course, Great Britain is a member, decided that leaded petrol should be banned as from 1st January 2000. From that date leaded petrol would only be made available to specialist interest groups such as classic car clubs—it must account for no more than 0.5 per cent. of total petrol sales—and petrol companies would not be allowed to sell such leaded fuel on their forecourts.

While the demand for leaded petrol is naturally declining as the number of vehicles that need it decreases, current calculations show that unless drivers change their fuel-buying habits, some 4 million motorists will still be using leaded petrol by the year 2000. Of those however, only 1.5 million would actually need the engine protection the lead in 4-star provides, as ignition adjustments and other alterations can be made to alleviate the situation.

For those 1.5 million cars, lead in petrol acts as a protective barrier between the exhaust valve and the valve seat into which it fits. Without lead or an alternative valve seat protector, "soft" valve seats can wear away, causing stalling, loss of power and, in some cases, the eventual breakdown of the car.

Naturally, as the news came out of the impending ban on lead in petrol, there was widespread concern—a concern which I am representing tonight. So this is a good moment to declare my well-known interest in historic vehicles, both as president of the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs which represents 293 clubs, with nearly 300,000 members and as chairman of the National Motor Museum.

So how many vehicles are owned by members attached to special interest groups? The Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs reckons that there are 300,000 collectors' vehicles out of a total of 789,000 at the moment registered by DVLA, all built before 1980. Many are still used as family cars, owned by people with modest resources who will be least able to afford the costs of modifications.

So what can be done about it? First of all, derogation can be sought in Brussels, but I am sure that most people understand, albeit reluctantly, that this country's green credentials would be very much damaged if Her Majesty's Government sought to go down that path, particularly as the phasing out of lead in petrol has been decided by the Council of Ministers. I am also aware of today's announcement from the Expert Panel of Air Quality Standards that it wants to reduce further the amount of lead in the atmosphere.

I have two questions to ask: first, in deciding not to apply for derogation, have Her Majesty's Government considered that one or two years' delay into the next century would give vehicle owners a little more time to test the additives and the lead replacement petrol which will be on the market? Secondly, could Her Majesty's Government inform the House which other members of the Community intend to apply for derogation? Rumours persist that most of southern Europe—France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece—are all unhappy with the year 2000 and intend to delay until 2005.

There will of course be new additives to join those which have been on the market for many years and are most likely to come from small suppliers. We just have to wait to see how good they are. While carrying out some research for tonight's debate I consulted the oil companies concerned and the future is not quite as bleak as many people fear. I can report that the chairman of Shell confirmed to me that Shell has been aware of the situation for some time and has been working on the development of an additive effectively to replace lead and that the formulation has been finalised following extensive laboratory testing. It will be available and sold in due course as lead replacement petrol, either to be pre-blended into unleaded petrol or distributed in concentrate form for self-dosage by the customer. I understand that initial market research indicated that customers would prefer to buy pre-blended fuel out of a pump.

It is claimed that the use of lead replacement petrols over the past five years in some parts of Europe has demonstrated that they provide adequate protection for vehicles with soft valve seats in normal everyday use, so it is fervently hoped that there will be an acceptable replacement for 4-star in the UK when the lead ban takes effect in the year 2000.

Naturally, car owners are somewhat suspicious and distrustful and are taking pounds of salt with the claims of success in finding a real replacement for lead. They will be convinced only when they can use and assess the lead replacement petrol and the additives over a period of time.

Oil companies have the technical ability to sell lead replacement petrol in the UK now, but market research shows that the time is not yet right to introduce it into the UK market since customers have insufficient understanding or knowledge of the issues surrounding the phasing out of lead in petrol. They believe that there must be a British standard for lead replacement petrol before it is sold widely in the UK. That would guard against unregulated "wonder additives" which could have undesired side-effects, guarantee a minimum level of valve seat protection and reassure customers that adequate engine protection is being provided when they buy lead replacement petrol.

However, it is some comfort to know that lead replacement petrols containing alternative additives in place of lead are currently being used in 12 countries in Europe, as well as some countries in central Europe and in other parts of the world; for example, New Zealand. Austria has the most market-place experience of using lead replacement petrol, with more than five years' continuous use. That has shown satisfactory results, with no substantiated reports of engine damage in vehicles in normal every-day use.

Since the average mileage and speed are relevant, one would expect many classic cars to be less susceptible to valve seat recession than some more modern vehicles as most classic cars on the road tend to have lower annual mileages, less high-speed motorway use and engines which operate at lower engine revs.

Although one hopes that lead replacement petrol gives protection under all normal driving conditions, it must be recognised that some older vehicles—for instance, historic racing and sports cars—are run under much more severe conditions. Fortunately, the draft EU fuel directive allows for up to 0.5 per cent. of total petrol sold in each member state to be leaded, as long as it is distributed through "special interests groups". There is no doubt that such vehicles run under sporting conditions will require the full protection offered by leaded fuel and will require that fuel at club race meetings and so forth. I should like an assurance that that 0.5 per cent. allowance of leaded fuel will, indeed, remain available and conveniently available for those who require it. The great problem is how it will be distributed and at what price.

Thus I specifically ask Her Majesty's Government to initiate urgent discussions with the major oil companies to try to resolve the distribution problem, bearing in mind that already aerodromes will have to stock leaded petrol and there are many motor racing tracks in the country which could have leaded petrol outlets especially available for historic vehicles attending race meetings. There is, of course, the question of private storage but that will naturally be bound by storage regulations.

I cannot stress too strongly that the motorists with older vehicles including classic cars are deeply concerned and desperate to be fully informed about the issues and plans surrounding lead phase-out, to ensure use of the correct grades and to avoid confusion about future changes. I understand that Shell is actively talking to motoring groups in that regard, but I see the need for a wider approach. I have no doubt that there is a role for the Government to play in publicising lead phase-out plans and thus giving confidence to motorists that oil companies will provide a replacement petrol, which will give the required protection.

Owners' concern and fear about the future is partly due to lack of information and partly due to ignorance. So it is very important that a comprehensive leaflet is introduced as soon as possible to be distributed to those concerned. I should like to see the Government place advertisements in newspapers, motoring journals and club newsletters to explain the situation. There must also be a much fuller information pack to go to garages and so forth; nor must we forget the problems of garden machinery, outboard motors and chainsaws.

To conclude, this question tonight is designed to give the Government an opportunity to inform all those interested of how they intend to deal with this situation in the years to come. What we urgently need now is more open government on this subject, a practice to which "New Labour" promised to subscribe. The noble Baroness can be assured that there are many thousands of somewhat distrustful and suspicious car owners in the country who fear that their cars will be made redundant through no fault of their own and who are urgently awaiting her reply.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, for bringing this subject to our attention tonight. It is a matter of serious concern. I congratulate him on giving us a unique history of the problem and the possible solutions to it. In fact, it was so good that I should perhaps suggest to my chairman of Sub-Committee B that the noble Lord should be invited to attend as a specialist adviser, because he has given us some unique information. I am certainly looking forward to the next instalment on Ethyl, the 1920s flapper, outside this Chamber later this evening.

I declare an interest in that I have two cars which are particularly affected by this situation, one built in 1931 and the other built in 1970. I am not sure whether they can run on unleaded fuel. That is the problem; there is uncertainty about it. The matter was brought to my attention when Sub-Committee B started to look at this problem, and I am looking forward to seeing its resolution.

I strongly support the elimination of lead from petrol. It has to happen, and it has to happen quickly for the sake of everyone's health, but I believe that the Government have a duty to tell us who is affected, how serious the problem is for motorists and what can be done to mitigate the effects of not having lead in petrol.

I received a very interesting briefing from the AA, which is one of the few briefings that seem to be around. It is not quite as good as that of the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, but it is not a bad start. I will not go through all the numbers again, but what it does mention is that there are 250,000 vehicles with soft valve seats which could be affected by prolonged hard driving. The noble Lord, Lord Montagu, mentioned racing, but the AA also mentions towing a caravan on the motorway. One would not want them to lose all their valves on a motorway.

Whether the solution is fitting hardened valve seat inserts or new cylinder heads is a matter for concern, but it is all going to cost money. I suggest that there are several choices open to the Government before they allow this decision to go ahead. The first is not a good one, and that is to keep leaded petrol. In some communication from my noble friend Lady Hayman it was suggested that this leaded petrol could only be sold through specialist interest groups and classic car clubs. In my limited experience, most of these clubs are run from people's front rooms, and the thought of handing out the two-gallon tins of petrol mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, in people's front rooms has safety problems which would surely rule it out. It should not even be suggested. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will say that I have it completely wrong—I hope she does—but I hope that was not a serious suggestion.

There is a second alternative, which is to ensure the provision of an alternative fuel, if it works. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, has said that the oil companies are working on it. If it is going to be introduced in less than two years should there not by now be standards? Should there not be agreements with the oil companies that this alternative is available? Should not the public be told that it will work and that their valves and their cylinder heads will work correctly?

There is a third suggestion, which is to provide some support for the capital cost of changing cars, possibly by reducing the age at which the vehicle excise duty is no longer paid. I do not pay VED on my two cars. It could be reduced from 25 years to, say, 15 or 10 years. It is an alternative way to mitigate the effect of spending £1,000 on a new cylinder head.

There are various different suggestions. I do not say that I approve of them all or support them, but it is very important that the motoring public, the millions of motorists who are concerned about this, are informed about what is going to happen in good time so that they can make their decisions about what should happen. Unless satisfactory replacement fuel which can be recommended with confidence is available, there will be confusion and alarm among motorists, and that would be very unsatisfactory. I look forward to hearing what my noble friend the Minister says in response.

7.53 p.m.

Lord Blyth

My Lords, I have an interest in this inasmuch as I have a classic car of 1963. It is a comparatively high performance V8 engine and I am worried about this. I do not use the car very much. Although I am a member of the Daimler and Lanchester Owners Club, I, along with many other people, am simply ignorant of what is going to happen to us.

I started my working life being an apprentice for the Daimler Motor Company shortly after the war. In the service department we had models coming in which had monobloc. In other words, the heads were not detachable so that one had the cylinder head and block combined. These were desperately difficult things to have anything to do with, and I would hate to think that people will put new valve seat inserts in them.

I am worried about my car, which is at the moment being rebuilt and will, I hope, grace your Lordships' car park before the Summer Recess starts. I do not use it terribly much, but I would like the Government to provide us with a guide to the change, exactly as has been suggested by noble Lords who have preceded me. There are a lot additives which one can buy which are totally valueless. That has been the case over the years. Having said that, another noble Lord may use the rest of my five minutes.

7.55 p.m.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, the noble Lord is to be congratulated on his brevity, which I shall try to follow. Our thanks are indeed due to my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, not least because this fits almost exactly into a short inquiry being conducted by Sub-Committee B of the European Communities Committee, to which the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has already alluded.

The directive which we are looking at in Sub-Committee B is known as the auto oil programme, and the papers deal with pollution and leaded petrol. I am paraphrasing. These matters have been the subject of considerable correspondence between the Minister and myself during February and March of this year. Unleaded petrol, or the manufacture of cars suitable for using unleaded petrol, has been mandatory since April 1991. However, in that correspondence the noble Baroness, on behalf of the Government, has said that lead replacement additives are "expected" to be available by 1st January 2000, and that the cost implications are "not expected to be substantial".

This was the area which really concerned the sub-committee, which I have the honour to chair. We have gleaned in the space of our short inquiry that 57 per cent. of the cars currently on the road within the European Union were built before April 1991. Interestingly, that is very close to the UK figure of 55 per cent. Of course, it is acknowledged that not all those cars are dependent upon leaded fuel. Indeed, probably the vast majority of them are not so dependent upon leaded fuel. Nevertheless, there will be a substantial number that are dependent on leaded fuel. The answer is either lead replacement additives and, I repeat, they are only "expected" to be available within the timescale, or conversion, which my noble friend Lord Montagu said cost £1,000; the information I have averages at about £600, but it is a significant sum of money.

My noble friend Lord Montagu also alluded to garden equipment, lawn mowers, outboard motors and such things. There is a whole host of machinery, if I may use that expression, which will be affected by this ban. Sadly, the statistics on the number of vehicles, ignoring garden equipment for the moment, which may well be affected on 1st January 2000 varies, as far as I am aware, between 300,000 and 3.5 million. I believe that my noble friend gave a slightly larger figure. Whatever it is, it is going to be substantial, and I cannot understand—indeed, the sub-committee cannot understand—how the Government can say that the cost implications are "not expected to be substantial". They will be very substantial to the owners of such cars.

In the most recent correspondence, and I do not believe that I am divulging any secrets in this respect, the noble Baroness, who is always extremely courteous—I do mean that and I made that point in our debate last week on drink driving regulations—referred in her letter to the fact that we had queried in a number of instances the points about the withdrawal of leaded petrol, and she says in the letter dated 19th March: I am considering the points raised by the Committee concerning the withdrawal of leaded petrol and will let you have a detailed reply as soon as possible". Perhaps during this debate we shall get that detailed reply. I do hope so.

Interestingly, we asked officials from the Minister's department whether they would be kind enough to give us a briefing on this subject before the debate this evening and, albeit very politely, that was declined. We will have the benefit of that briefing—it will be a benefit: I am not being facetious in that respect—in two days' time, on Thursday, two days after this Unstarred Question. Question-marks keeping coming into our mind.

The individuals in this country on whom the ban will bite are, I imagine—we do not have full evidence on this—principally from rural areas. There are some rather important votes for the Government in rural areas, and I say that standing firmly on these Benches. I urge the Minister most strongly, particularly following what my noble friend Lord Montagu said, to consider the derogation to 2005 if indeed the southern Europeans members of the European Union exercise their prerogative in that respect.

8 p.m.

Lord McNair

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, for asking this Unstarred Question and apologise to him and to the House for missing the first couple of minutes of his speech.

I have briefly to declare three interests in speaking in the debate. First, I have an interest in transport matters in general as parliamentary adviser to the Parkman Group, a civil engineering and transportation consultancy. Secondly, I am chairman of a company called Emission Control Systems International. It markets equipment which reduces pollution and increases mpg through promoting greater combustion of the fuel and also enables, I am assured, one to drive a car on unleaded fuel that is not designed to do so. My third interest is that I am the proud owner of a Morris Minor. Now, the Morris Minor is in a quite favoured position in this. As there are around 120,000 Morris Minors on the road and as they have what one might call a cult following, there is available an almost off-the-shelf, modified cylinder head. So this will not be too much of a problem unless people want to keep their Morris Minors in completely standard condition.

Various speakers in the debate have come up with figures. I shall add some more, which were provided to me by Charles Ware, who is the guru of the Morris Minor restoration fraternity. He has gone to the lengths of having parts made for his Morris Minors in a third world country using traditional labour-intensive means and, incidentally, paying people more than the going rate. He tells me that the AA has underestimated the problem. In round figures, in the UK alone, there are 24 million cars on the road. Unleaded facilities have been available for about eight years. If we say that 1.8 million cars a year have been sold in this period, the total number of cars using unleaded fuel comes to about 14.5 million. That means that approximately 9.5 million cars on the road cannot run on unleaded fuel. Many of those cars are otherwise perfectly sound and they would have tens of thousands of miles of useful life left in them. It is therefore essential that viable solutions, by way of additives or by way of equipment such as I have mentioned, are tested in time for their implementation and take-up before 1st January 2000. If that is not done, and if my figures are accurate, I can see considerable disruption to both the motoring industry and the motoring public.

There is a wider issue here which is highlighted by the noble Lord's Question. It concerns the way we produce vehicles and the way we view consumer durables, including cars. Mr. Ware, whom I mentioned earlier, has written an excellent book called Durable Motoring. Taking the Morris Minor as an example, he compares the overall cost of buying a renovated Morris Minor and keeping it in good condition for 25 years with the overall cost of buying a series of equivalent new cars over the same period. The Morris Minor, which lends itself by virtue of its design and construction to such a programme of planned maintenance, proves conclusively to be the more economical proposition. Of course, not everyone wants to drive a Morris Minor!

I mention this because most people who own cars are already caught on something of a treadmill. They have to overcome the financial inevitability of capital depreciation and the mechanical inevitability of the physical deterioration of their cars—the result of planned obsolescence which is built into the production process. If we impose a further burden requiring people to scrap their cars before the end of their usable life, it would be very unfair and quite unnecessary.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Montagu for initiating this debate. We all know the debt we owe him for what he has done for motoring. I declare an interest as an enthusiastic driver of classic and vintage cars. The magazines Classic and Sports Car and Classic Car, the car club magazines and the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs have all been doing their best to give publicity to this problem. We must try to get some answers from the Government tonight.

Why are the Government so anti-motoring, with a whacking great increase in the fuel tax and the registration fee for new cars? In particular, why are they so anti-vintage and classic motoring? Why have they stopped the rolling road fund exemption of 25 years? I understand from the press that the department is talking about the whole exemption system being scrapped as well. I find it inconceivable that the Government should go ahead and be so against what is, after all, a very attractive hobby carried out by many thousands of people who try to perpetuate the golden age of engineering in this country.

The problem before us tonight is one of lead petrol. My noble friends have given a clear indication of what the problem is. I hope the Minister will bear in mind that the cars we are talking about are, in the main, classic and vintage cars, although many cars made in the 1980s and even the 1990s will run into trouble. They are carefully driven, covering 1,000 or perhaps 2,000 miles a year, the engines are in top condition, there are minimum emissions and they are mostly used in the countryside environment where they do not add to the urban problem of pollution.

Is the Minister absolutely clear about fuel? Does four star red cause the amount of damage the Government say it does? After all, four star red accounts for a very small percentage of the overall amount of fuel used. Has she read—I suppose that everything in her Red Box is read these days—the report in the Sunday newspapers about the research of the United States Environment Protection Agency into diesel fuel which refers not only to the problem of global warming but to the possibility of cancer as well? Is she certain that her department appreciates the problems of global warming as between red and green petrol, bearing in mind the number of cars which use green or red? I believe that the department overestimates the damage that may be done by the relatively small number of classic and vintage cars which want to continue using leaded fuel.

What is to be done? My noble friends have indicated various possibilities. First, the derogation on red petrol could be extended, as the Minister is quite entitled to do within the European Union. Secondly, is she taking any steps to involve her department in scientific research into a possible additive? Is there to be more help on work on LRP, the lead replacement petrol? All this needs to be done urgently if she is not to remove the ban in the year 2000.

Over the years many additives have been produced. How many have proved to be beneficial in this case? I would like to believe that there was some active scientific research being carried out by the Minister's department to help the thousands of people, particularly those with cars built in the 1970s and 1980s, when we come to the inevitable problem.

Noble Lords on all sides of the House have raised the problem of the great expense of grinding out the valve seats and inserting new, hardened seats and guides. That is not always possible with large, four-cylinder engines because the cylinders are so close together and there is not room to bore out valve seats and insert new ones. As the noble Lord opposite said, if one has a fixed-head engine—quite a number of cars had them in the 1920s because of the difficulty of getting a tight seal with a gasket—it is very expensive and difficult to achieve.

From what noble Lords have said on all sides of the House, I hope the Minister realises that we have to find answers quickly, unless the Government are going to give a derogation, which is the obvious thing to do. We should be given two to three years more in order to help to resolve this problem. As a noble Lord said not long ago at a public meeting, the Minister has to stop the relentless pressure to make motoring with classic and historic cars impossible. I hope that she will do something about this.

8.10 p.m.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, it is a particular delight to follow the noble Lord, Lord Monro of Langholm, in this debate. He and I were constituency neighbours for three decades in the south of Scotland and we shared many harmless enthusiasms along with political differences. One of them was indeed the driving of classic cars. I agree entirely with everything that he said. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu for introducing this debate. I noticed that one Sunday paper said that I was going to be bracketed with him in this debate, to which someone unkindly said that they could think of a no more appropriate place than the House of Lords to be debating old crocks. I thought that that was not a very complimentary observation. He has, of course, a much larger collection of old crocks than I have. I have only two and I declare that interest.

One of the functions of Parliament is to stand up for minorities. There are two quite distinct minorities affected by the proposed withdrawal of leaded petrol in, let us face it, only 18 months' time. The first has already been mentioned by other noble Lords. They are the hard pressed people in rural areas such as the noble Lord, Lord Monro, and I have represented over the years. They live in areas with no public transport and no alternative. They are often on low wages and therefore drive to work in what are politely called "old bangers". I remember on one occasion having to tell a Minister of Transport that I had come across many constituents of mine who drove vehicles whose value was less than the vehicle excise duty charged each year. That is a particular minority who will be severely affected. I am not making it up. I remember one particular case in the Ettrick valley where the collapse of the family vehicle meant the dole queue. There was no question about it. The Government should be conscious of that particular minority.

If my noble friend Lord McNair is right as regards the figures, it will be interesting to have the Government's reaction. The AA claims that by the start of the year 2000 around 2 million vehicles will be using four star leaded fuel. My noble friend has said that the figure is much higher, but whatever it is there is a substantial minority interest in the matter.

The second minority has already been referred to and that is the owners and drivers of classic cars. Here the responsibility of the Government is to provide clearer information as to what is happening. I find that that is what people complain about most. They say to me, "You are a Member of Parliament and surely you know what is going on". I have to reply, "Frankly, I don't". I believe that we are all in that position.

Perhaps I may quote from an interesting article in the Jaguar Driver magazine. The author of the article about unleaded fuel writes, I wrote to one of the retailing chains who sell unleaded 4-star petrol seeking assurance that their product can he used in Jaguar engines which are designed for 4-star leaded fuel. The reply stated that they could not guarantee that this fuel was suitable for a particular model of car!". That is passing the buck. The answer is that the people who own these cars have no idea what petrol is safe in what particular cars and for what engines. As regards this whole issue one finds a certain washing of hands. The United Kingdom Petrol Industry Association, for example, in a letter to Sub-Committee B on Energy Industry and Transport, says as regards the reduction of emissions from passenger cars, This is primarily a question for the Motor Industry". So they are out of the picture. Then one turns to the memorandum to the European Communities Committee from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which states, With respect to the proposed banning of lead in petrol. we must point out that SMMT members have not built vehicles for the United Kingdom market which also have to use leaded petrol, for many years, over a decade in many cases. The issue of an unleaded petrol ban is, therefore, in some senses, academic". It is not in the least academic for those who are directly affected by it.

There is the question of future standards. We are told by the Automobile Association that, The British Standards Technical Committee are very close to a specification for an additised fuel". But the Institution of Mechanical Engineers points out that that has not yet been achieved and that there is considerable doubt about the effectiveness of these fuels. The AA has also said that, it would be in the interest of the consumer if there were an agreed method to test for valve seat recession in vulnerable engines". It also points out that if the market proves to be, too small to provide [continued leaded petrol] at the pump". after 2000, it is likely that motorists will be dosing fuel themselves using proprietary additive products.

As regards these, it is interesting to note in the memo from The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders that, 'after-market' fuel additives [are] notoriously prone to exaggerated claims, and little real evidence of satisfactory performance exists". So we have only 18 months to go in which to find more satisfactory evidence that these alternatives are effective.

Finally, in the same memo there is reference to the use of 95 octane unleaded petrol in lieu of the 97 octane leaded petrol, which will cause, deleterious effects [which] will be worsened by increased speed, possibly causing terminal damage in … extreme case[s]". My final plea to the Government is that we need more information. Whatever decisions they are making, the matter cannot be left to the petrol industry, the British Standards Institution or the motor industry. The buck stops at the Department of Transport and we really need to know what is happening.

8.16 p.m.

Lord Luke

My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow two such distinguished and erudite graduates from another place. We are all most grateful to my noble friend Lord Montagu for asking this Question. He made an excellent and most interesting speech. However, that was to be expected as there is no one better qualified to speak on the subject of vintage and veteran cars than he.

I also state a small interest. Many years ago I had one well known classic car, the Aston Martin Atom, which was a unique prototype. So I can confirm the strong feelings with which many people tend to regard their valued, and often valuable, old cars. I look forward very much to seeing the car of the noble Lord, Lord Blyth, in the car park. I have been trying to work out what sort it is, but no doubt he will tell me afterwards.

There is no real argument about the detrimental effect of lead in petrol, with the greatest respect to my noble friend Lord Monro. I believe that it has been proven that it is very unhealthy. It is also true that unleaded petrol is proven to be as satisfactory as leaded as long as it is used in a vehicle with the right engine specifications.

It seems to me that the Government have to deal with three separate but interlinked problems. One is very easy, and that is what happens to several million car users who could now, without great cost or inconvenience, switch from leaded to unleaded fuel in their cars. All that is required is some effective government publicity.

The second problem concerns an estimated 1–5 million cars in the year 2000 which will not run on anything but leaded fuel without the likelihood of serious damage to their cylinder heads. Clearly, the solution lies in an additive being found which will do the same job as lead. I understand that research has taken place and a product has even been on the market. It appears that the only delay in progressing to a solution is the fact that the British Standards Institute is going slow on its job of establishing precise standards for fuels containing lead substitutes. It appears that a legal Gordian knot needs to be cut quickly. I urge the Government either to do so or possibly to find some means other than the BSI whereby a standard can he reached for satisfactory additives.

The third problem is the one that prompted the Unstarred Question tabled by my noble friend Lord Montagu: historic cars. I am sure that the Government are aware of the strong and growing sport of racing some of these old cars. This has been going on for about 30 years. That is why some of the additives will not do because those cars are not able to withstand racing. Are the Government aware that already some people are having expensive engine rebuilds carried out to try to eliminate the soft valve seats, because there is considerable scepticism about the proposed 0.5 per cent. of leaded fuel being available only for classic cars after the year 2000? How does one define a classic car? Is it not possible that some of the 0.5 per cent. may be converted to old bangers? How will the fuel be distributed? Will it carry petroleum tax? If so, will it not be beyond the range of all except the rich? Is it not likely that a black market in this fuel will develop? Have the Government contacted the appropriate authorities in Austria and New Zealand, where I understand that leaded fuel has been off the market for some time and adequate substitutes have been tried, tested and proven?

The question of a possible derogation for Portugal, France and Greece has been mentioned. I do not know whether that would apply to Britain even if the Government wished to pursue the ploy of social hardship. But I do not believe that it would be a very long delay even if it was done. There must be some rapid and decisive action soon; otherwise, there will be a lot of confused and angry motorists. It is important to me and to a great number of others because some great old cars will be unable to be used except with inordinate cost and trouble. They are part of our heritage and a great many people care about them. The Government must prove that they care for that part of our heritage as much as they profess to care about other parts of our heritage.

8.22 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, for giving me the opportunity this evening to make clear the Government's position on this important issue, and one that we recognise is of great concern to many. That has been apparent from the contributions made to the debate. I am also grateful to the noble Lord for the recognition that the future is not as bleak as some people may fear. It may be that I should also declare an interest in that I am the only speaker in this debate who does not own a classic or historic car.

The noble Lord, Lord Steel, said that the buck stopped at the Department of Transport. Of course, it is now the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and that is where the buck properly stops because we must look at this issue in the round. One must acknowledge, as did the noble Lord, Lord Luke, and other noble Lords, the context in which one is considering this matter; namely, the detrimental effects of lead in the atmosphere which are well known and the reason behind the unanimous support of all member states for the banning of leaded petrol from the year 2000. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Monro, that I do not believe that that support should be characterised as a crusade against the motorist. That is absolutely not the case. This is a crusade in favour of air quality and children's health.

I also understand the concerns about US research into diesel. We have a substantial research programme into the effect of air pollutants, including investigation of the health effects of fine particulates. I do not believe that we are neglecting that area. Nor do I believe the Government are neglecting the cause with which the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, has been associated for so long; that is, to ensure that the rich heritage of vehicles that the country enjoys is protected. The reasoning behind the negotiation of a derogation for a small ongoing supply of leaded petrol was primarily to protect the needs of classic car racing. Perhaps I may return to the categories of cars that will be affected in a moment.

Since recognition in the 1960s and 1970s in medical circles of the particular risks of exposure to lead pollution, mainly from emissions from petrol-engined vehicles, lead in petrol has been progressively reduced. Sales of unleaded petrol have been encouraged and today account for three-quarters of the market. These policies resulted in a fall in lead in UK air of some 70 per cent. in that time. This is not something that has gone on only in this country. A number of countries are ahead of Great Britain in this area. Austria, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, the USA and New Zealand have already banned or reduced to extremely low levels sales of leaded petrol. We are not operating completely in the dark. There is experience from other countries. It has been made possible by the development of alternative additives to lead which have been introduced on a widespread basis without any major problems for owners of older vehicles. It was against this background that member states unanimously adopted a ban from 2000 which has been endorsed by the European Parliament.

The Government supported the ban in line with their policy of taking action wherever practicable to reduce exposure from all sources of lead and to ensure that the general decline in UK blood lead levels continues. In areas where there is a concentration of industrial and vehicle lead emissions the ban will make a significant contribution to meeting the kind of levels recommended in the report of the Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards which was published yesterday.

Tonight much has been made of the figures. For example, the noble Lord, Lord McNair, provided some details. It may assist if I give the Government's understanding of the problem and the action that they can take to deal with various aspects. The use of leaded petrol has been steadily declining and now accounts for about 23 per cent. of total petrol sales. We predict that by January 2000 this will have fallen to about 18 per cent. There will however still be a large, though declining, number of older vehicles that will be affected by the withdrawal of leaded petrol. Estimates suggest that the total number of cars using leaded petrol may be as high as 5–3 million on 1st January 2000. However, the same estimates suggest that as many as 3 million of these vehicles could use unleaded petrol either directly, with absolutely no change, or with very simple engine adjustments. Here, we are not talking about expensive engineering tasks but perhaps the changing of the timing of engines at a cost of between £15 and £50.

Of the remaining 2.3 million vehicles, leaded petrol currently performs the important function of providing lubricant protection from wear of soft valve seats in the engine. I am very nervous about lecturing noble Lords on these details. I suspect that the engineers far outnumber me. It also provides a higher octane, which many of these vehicles require. However, both of these functions can be fulfilled by practical and proven alternatives that we believe will be available. Octane needs can be met simply by owners switching to high octane fuels such as super unleaded petrol or the new lead replacement petrol. Alternatively, minor adjustments can be made to engines to compensate for the lower octane value of unleaded petrol. These are all practical and proven alternatives for vehicles that need a high octane fuel.

Alternatives also exist for those vehicles which will continue to require lubricant protection. In those countries where leaded petrol is already banned, the oil companies have provided alternatives either in the form of lead replacement petrol, containing suitable substitute additives, or by such additives being sold separately for motorists' use—and also for gardeners' use. What will deal with car engines will also deal with lawn mowers in particular.

The substitutes have, we understand, resulted in few, if any, reported problems arising from valve seat wear for vehicles operating under average, mixed day-to-day driving conditions. Where problems have occurred these have been associated with continuous high speed or high temperature operations such as may be found under high engine load conditions. Those have been referred to either in terms of where vehicles are used in a very aggressive fashion—not, as has been pointed out by noble Lords, the usual use of classic cars—or where they are towing heavy trailers or caravans for sustained periods. It is a question of avoiding prolonged use at high engine speeds or high engine loads, as these may result in very high engine temperatures. Motorists must take care to maintain the engines properly if we are to reduce the risk of valve seat recession. For most vehicles preventive measures by way of inserting hard valve seats—in those cases where we are talking about hard wear—should cost no more than £200 to £400, although I recognise that for more sophisticated and specialist vehicles the cost may be higher. It will depend largely upon the nature of the vehicle. The market experience—

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, is there any chance that the department might be able to give authoritative advice as to which engines require which treatment?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I hope that I can deal with the question of advice in a moment. The key—and the noble Lord himself referred to it, as other speakers did—is to have good information in this area. I want to put on the record some of the more technical aspects, but I think it is important that we then look at how we address the concerns of individuals.

The oil companies are well placed, we believe, to cater for that part of the UK market which will continue to require protection against valve seat wear. As to concerns about the availability of lead replacement petrol, supply will remain a matter for commercial decision but there is clearly going to be a strong demand for such a product. We are confident that the oil companies will respond as they have done in other countries. We understand that they are making plans to have lead replacement petrol introduced in the UK from about the middle of 1999. But we are in something of a chicken-and-egg situation. We will not get the lead replacement petrol being introduced until there is a firm date for the ban on leaded petrol. It is in the interests of certainty to get on with the task of meeting the needs of the cars and the car-owners for this sort of petrol.

The noble Lord, Lord Montagu, and others mentioned the need for a British standard for lead replacement petrol. I think that would help to reassure motorists. But I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Monro, that officials from my department have participated in the British Standards Technical Committee meetings in order to help progress development of the new standard. The work was virtually complete when the BSI announced earlier this year that it was to halt further progress pending the resolution of a legal dispute involving a member of the technical committee. There are problems from that delay for all those involved, especially in the short term, but we are confident that the problem will be resolved in good time for the standard to be finalised and for the fuel to be widely available for the year 2000.

Turning to the position of historic and classic vehicles, which is of particular concern, the alternatives of lead replacement petrol or bottled additives will of course be suitable for use by the vast majority of these vehicles, especially bearing in mind the type of use to which they are generally put. Where these vehicles are used for such activities as classic car racing, however—circumstances in which considerable load is demanded on the engine—it is recognised that substitutes for lead are unlikely to be sufficient to meet their needs. That is why under the terms of the directive the UK has negotiated a special provision to ensure that a supply of leaded petrol is available to cater for such needs. The allowance is indefinite. It is limited to 0.5 per cent. of total sales. We would have liked more but we did not win that argument. I have noted the concerns that the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, raised. I am sorry about the officials not coming before the meeting. That was not a conspiracy; it was a matter of timing. I hope that by what I have said tonight, and the detailed information that they will be able to give the committee, we can reassure people.

I do not have time to deal with matters in great detail. The point I should like to make, very clearly, is that the key here is good communication. It is absolutely essential—and I take the responsibility of the department here—to work with all those involved—the AA, the RAC, the historical and classic car clubs and the industry—to ensure that the information is available, is in a form which people can understand and is accessible to them. I would not in any way shirk from the department's role in that responsibility. We also have a responsibility to work with classic car organisations over the distribution mechanism for that 0–5 per cent. derogation to ensure that it is available for the classic car racing fraternity and to negotiate the way in which it can safely be distributed under the terms of the derogation.

I am aware of the time constraints. I hope that we will be able, in the evidence to Sub-Committee B, to reassure noble Lords further. But I say once again that the steps being taken by industry, government and other organisations and the experience in other countries lead us to believe that we can address the concerns expressed today and ensure the continued operation of older vehicles following the general withdrawal of leaded petrol in the year 2000.