HL Deb 09 July 2002 vol 637 cc636-43

7.36 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 17th June be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, these regulations will help local authorities to improve air quality by reducing the number of illegally polluting vehicles on England's roads.

No new offences are created. What we propose are powers for local authorities to enforce what are already statutory offences. These powers have already been trialed successfully by seven local authorities. We are imposing no new burden on local authorities, as the powers will be optional—although we hope that many local authorities will be keen to adopt them.

The regulations provide two sets of powers. The first will enable local authorities with severe air quality problems—defined as air quality management areas—to carry out tests at the roadside of any car, bus or lorry to identify and penalise those who exceed prescribed emissions limits. It is a sad fact that many drivers pay little attention to their vehicle except when their MOT is due. The National Audit Office has estimated that up to 20 per cent of vehicles on Britain's roads are polluting illegally. We hope that knowing that they could receive a £60 penalty for failing a roadside test will encourage more drivers to take proper care of their vehicles.

The second set of powers will enable all local authorities in England to take action against drivers who leave their vehicle engines running unnecessarily when parked. The few drivers who refuse requests to switch off their engines may face a £20 penalty. There are many examples, but I am thinking in particular of coaches in busy town centres and cars outside schools or railway stations. I think we all know how unpleasant this can be, as well as unhealthy.

No one should be in any doubt as to how to avoid these penalties, as local authorities will be publicising them quite widely.

There are 25 regulations, which I can read out in detail—but there are indications that that would not be welcome. So, in conclusion, I have no hesitation in commending the regulations to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 17th June be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the purpose of the regulations. I declare an interest, as I am president of the Heavy Transport Association and am closely involved with many other trade associations.

I do not support the principle behind the regulations. I believe that they will not be effective and that they will be an unnecessary interference with motorists. I shall try to explain why.

The first problem is that, when vehicles are presented for an MOT test, they have to be specially prepared to make sure that the engine will not be damaged during the testing procedure. A particular weak point is the cambelt. Failure of this can cause serious damage to the engine. What precautions will be taken before the emissions test takes place, or is it entirely different from the test carried out at the MOT station? If so, will this test be effective?

The second problem is that the tests are unnecessary. Tests are already carried out during the MOT test. The Minister alluded to that. Is there a problem with the tests undertaken at the MOT station? These tests are carried out in a controlled environment. The testers have to be careful to make sure that the engine is at the right operating temperature. I have referred to maintenance problems. On average, vehicles cover only 12,000 miles per annum. They will not go out of tune in that distance. Of course, some vehicles, particularly those used for commercial travelling, cover very high mileages, but they are generally in fleets, they are generally new vehicles and they are generally well maintained.

A third problem that worries me is Regulation 12, which deals with the stopping of engines when vehicles are stationary. It refers to "a stationary idling offence". What offence is that? There is no cross-reference in the regulations. I was not aware that it was a specific offence. It is obviously undesirable to leave an engine idling for long periods. I often switch off my engine for that reason. However, it could be counter-productive to stop an engine, because certain types of engine can emit large amounts of pollution on start-up. Do Euro emissions standards cover emissions on start-up of an engine?

Surely the issue is a matter of judgment for the driver. Education of the driver will be far more useful. That links in with my other concerns about improving general driving standards. To switch off an engine is just good driving.

We are looking at penalising drivers for the technicality of not stopping an engine, but on the other hand inconsiderate and discourteous drivers will get away scot-free.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. My party supports the detail of the regulations and the principles that lie behind them. We particularly welcome the fact that they come about after the trials have taken place. That enables lessons to be learnt.

Local authorities in particular will welcome the offer of an extra £4 million in grant towards the cost of running the emissions testing. The trials have proved that it costs a good deal more to run the tests than is received in fixed penalty income. That could create a perverse incentive for local authorities. Those that were effective in running deterrent and educational campaigns would lose more money than those that were not. The provision is most welcome.

It is also important to address the fears, however unfounded, that some local authorities may use the tests as a revenue-raising mechanism rather than to achieve air quality targets. I have two questions for the noble Lord. First, can he confirm that, although local authorities will carry out the emissions testing, only the police have the power to pull vehicles over? In that case, is it possible for local authorities to use the grant to help towards the police costs of running these tests? If the police choose not to use their resources in that way, the entire strategy will begin to collapse. The tests are also very useful to the police, because vehicles that are the worst offenders on emissions often do not have an MOT or valid insurance and road tax.

Secondly, why do the emissions testing provisions relate just to designated air quality management areas, while the provisions on idling engines are universal?

Viscount Simon

My Lords, I am not sure why the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is against the regulations. I find them eminently acceptable, especially for commercial vehicles. The noble Earl has said that commercial vehicles have to be specially prepared for the MOT.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I said that all vehicles, particularly light cars, have to be specially prepared.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, I take the noble Earl's point. However, if they have to be specially prepared, that means by inference that before testing, and presumably at some time after testing, they do not comply with the regulations. The regulations will cover those whose emissions are no longer within the specified limits.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am sorry to test the patience of the House. By "specially prepared" I mean that it is necessary to make sure that the camshaft drive-belt has been changed within the period stipulated by the manufacturer. If the camshaft drive-belt breaks when the engine is being revved at high speed, it will cause catastrophic failure of the engine. I am not referring necessarily to trying to make sure that the engine is up to emissions standards. It is purely to make sure that the cambelt is in good condition to withstand the test procedure.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, I fully understand what the noble Earl is saying. However, the camshaft belt is a standard item that has to be changed when it is due to be changed, otherwise the consequences can be dire.

I support the regulations, but I have one question. A vehicle can idle anywhere. Supermarkets have come within the regulations concerning various matters. Will idling the engine while waiting for x number of minutes for someone in a supermarket to come out fall within the regulations?

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, I have one question, which is proactive rather than reactive. I admire the nature of the regulations. I was an inner-city Member of Parliament covering a local authority that was given responsibility for carrying out the pilot projects on this form of testing. My recollection is that at that time the local authority took the view that a considerable amount of the air pollution in the centre of London was caused by the fact that 20 per cent of taxis were maintained in cowboy garages on the perimeter of the inner city. I drive a diesel-powered car, but I very rarely drive it in London because I am conscious that it is a great deal less efficient there than it is outside. Is there any provision in these 25 regulations for moving against the cowboy garages, or is the responsibility entirely on the owners or drivers of the vehicles? Only the other evening I was discussing the economics of the taxi trade with the person who was driving me. Taxi drivers are always free with their advice on such matters. It was clear why, in tough times for taxi drivers, economies on maintenance may sometimes be pursued.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, the Minister knows that I admire his versatility—not a talent that I am often able to exercise in this Chamber. On these regulations I speak more from personal experience than from expertise.

The regulations give greater power to local authorities. I often take an hour or more to drive in the seven miles from Blackheath. My impression is that local authorities are largely responsible for the amount of pollution caused by the traffic congestion due to their own inefficiency. South London seems to be almost cut off. There has been an enormous hole in the A2 for weeks, diverting polluting juggernauts all over the south of London. The New Cross bridge has broken down. A traffic calming measure on the river road is causing vast congestion because of a local authority measure. I took 35 minutes to go 150 yards trying to get into the Blackwall Tunnel the other night. The other day the noble Lord was resisting claims about what was happening on the south side of Westminster Bridge. I hope that he might make representations on these matters, as he agreed to do in that case.

I have only two specific points. The first relates to Regulation 9, under which the authorised person is to carry out a roadside lest immediately, subject to paragraph (3), which may enable him to do so later. As many drivers may be trying to get to an important engagement, should they not also have the option, if they wish, of having the test performed within 24 hours, for example, rather than on the spur of the moment?

My other point is on Regulation 12 and the issue of fixed penalty notices for idling offences. The regulation provides that a driver may be stopped if there is reasonable cause to believe that he is stationary. According to paragraph (2), if the driver fails to comply, he is subject to a fine and so on. Regulation 14, however, refers to the power to demand from someone, his name and address … his date of birth", and so on. Surely that power should apply only in the case of Regulation 12(2) where the driver has refused to comply. A local authority official should not be able to ask the person stopped for all these details if that person readily agrees to the inspection.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend the Minister and the House will forgive me for speaking once more; I have one question. Buses no longer have conductors. Will buses waiting to load passengers and take fares be subject to these regulations?

7.52 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it has been a short debate but there is quite a lot to answer. I am grateful to everyone, except the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, for supporting the regulations. I shall try to deal with each point in turn.

The first point made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, was on the emission test and the possibility of damage to the cambelt. This will be an exhaust test, and clearly there will be a different exhaust test for diesel and for petrol engines. However, local authority staff will be trained to look out for damage to the cambelt. If there is any danger, the test can be deferred and administered at an MOT centre. I think that that also answers a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins.

The noble Earl's second point was that the tests are unnecessary because the MOT test is performed every 12 months. Unfortunately, an awful lot of vehicles become more polluting in the time between those 12-month inspections. It is of course a matter of common sense that, under the regulations, local authorities will be targeting polluting vehicles. They will not implement the regulations at random but look for vehicles that are visibly polluting or they suspect from the general condition are likely to be polluting. According to the National Audit Office, the evidence is that despite the MOT test and the addition of emission controls to the MOT test, up to 20 per cent of vehicles are polluting illegally. So there seriously is a problem, and the tests are certainly not unnecessary.

The noble Earl asked me for the statutory authority for the idling offence. It is Regulation 98 of the construction and use regulations. He also asked me about the Euroemissions standards. They are set standards to which we have signed up, and they define whether there should be an air quality management area. We shall stick to that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, asked me first about the suspicion that the regulations might be a revenue-raising device for local authorities. Alas, the pilot did not show that there was any capability of local authorities making money out of them. She is quite right that the power to stop a vehicle can only be with the police. The local authority will have to make arrangements with the police to stop the vehicle so that local authority staff can carry out the test. However, the grant made available to local authorities for this will include the possibility of payments to the police for that purpose.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, asked the same question about whether the worst-polluting vehicles do not have MOTs. I address this answer also to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. We estimate that more than 4 per cent of vehicles do not have road fund licences. We can presume that they do not have MOTs either. It is a fair guess that many of them will not have MOTs because they know that they would not pass them and that they are polluting. So her support for the regulations is clearly justified on those grounds.

Finally, the noble Baroness asked why the regulations apply only to air quality management areas. It is simply because that is where the worst air pollution occurs and where we are more likely to pick up bad polluters. We do not want this to appear as a new type of random checking on all motorists in all places at all times. About 60 local authorities have air quality management areas, some of which are very extensive. The whole of Islington, for example, is an AQMA. So the regulations are not that restrictive, but they are deliberately concentrating on and targeting—as I think we would now say—the worst areas.

My noble friend Lord Simon asked whether we could apply the regulations in supermarket parking lots. The answer is, no; they can be applied only on the public highway. I am sorry, but I cannot read my notes regarding his second question.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, it was about buses idling because of no conductors.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we would not stop buses with passengers in them anyway; I think that that would be counterproductive. However, if buses or coaches are idling outside bus garages or coach stations then we certainly would be stopping them. That is precisely the type of thing that we are looking to stop.

I was interested in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, on Westminster and his point about taxis being maintained in cowboy garages. That is not the subject of these regulations; it is a matter for the Vehicle Inspectorate. However, I shall see to it that his comments are drawn to the attention of the Vehicle Inspectorate.

I think that I have dealt with most of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in answers to other noble Lords. I think that it was he who made the point about Regulation 12 and details being taken from drivers who agreed to the test. We would not do that. We would take the details only of drivers who refused to switch off their vehicles and to whom we issued a fixed penalty notice. We would take only the details necessary for enforcement.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, if that is so then Regulation 14 should refer to Regulation 12(2) and not 12(1).

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord has not caught us out, and I doubt it, but I shall take that point away and look at it.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I agree with the Minister and with the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, that the problem of vehicles travelling without an MOT is a serious one. However, during our debates on the Transport Act 2000, I tabled an amendment suggesting that we should have an MOT disc alongside the tax disc. Unfortunately, that amendment did not find favour with your Lordships or even with the noble Baroness. Has the Minister reconsidered having an MOT disc on the windscreen to make it easier to detect vehicles travelling without an MOT?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, drivers cannot obtain a tax disc unless they have an MOT. That is the answer to that.

Earl Attlee

Yes, my Lords, but they can obtain a tax disc if they have only a couple of weeks remaining on an MOT certificate. They can then run for 50 weeks without an MOT.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I shall consider the matter and write to the noble Earl. I believe that I have answered all the questions that were asked.

On Question, Motion agreed to.